Dissent important part of American life

Not a punch was thrown Wednesday at a protest at Winthrop University marking five years since the war started in Iraq. No cops in sight, except a parking enforcement guy on a golf cart. His only weapon was a summons book, maybe a pen that clicks loud enough to startle you.

Just people who don't like what their government is doing in Iraq gathering to give droning speeches and worse poetry/music/rap songs.


Or it used to be America. This country was built on public dissent. This city, too. Were the black Friendship Nine who spent a month in jail over segregation 47 years ago by sitting down at an all-white lunch counter, who helped spawn a national movement, not protesters vilified at every turn? They were arrested and mocked. The strong, proud black women who walked the sidewalks in high heels in their support, were each one of those protesters not found out to be lasting heroes for us all?

In America, we "lift every voice and sing." Even when the voice is out of tune, such as Wednesday.

Sure, this protest was mild. An older guy walked by me and cracked, "Boy, protests aren't what they used to be." College kids these days make videos for the Internet, one lady said. They blog and send e-mails. A generation ago, protesters smoked pot, chanted and grew long hair. National Guardsmen in the 1950s and 1960s were most often asked not to fight wars, like they are in Iraq and Afghanistan right now -- more than 175 of them from local units currently deployed -- but ordered to crack protester heads.

Then, a little older lady walked to the protest steps. She wore a poncho. First about six years ago before the war started, then five years ago this week on these very steps, she protested this war. War protests, America, would survive because of Mary Keenan.

Keenan is a 66-year-old retiree and granny, a devout Christian who volunteers with the Red Cross, AIDS patients, a soup kitchen and more. I asked Keenan why there hasn't been many war protests, and she said there have been. People like her, out of the public eye mostly, walking on Oakland Avenue last summer every Saturday.

"Washington four times, Fayetteville in North Carolina three times, Charlotte more times than I can count, more," Keenan said.

Keenan had the courage to say this Iraq war was wrong five years ago, and she has the courage now. She said in the early days, "it was easy to get discouraged." The war started with a patriotic boom of guns after so many good Americans died in terrorist attacks that had so many caught up in the politics of fear.

"The war was a lot more popular then than it is now," said Mary Keenan the smiling grandmother/protester.

A U.S. Marine and former U.S. Army soldier were near the protest. Both said they were not allowed to give interviews. The Army soldier shook his head sideways and clearly disliked what he saw. But he did not say "Stop!"

Because protests, even the ones you disagree with, are America.

John McCain, speaking to a throng in January in Lake Wylie before his S.C. Republican primary victory, saying to cheers it is right to stay in Iraq, was America and free speech and a pro-war rally. It is undeniable.

Barack Obama telling almost a thousand cheering people on this same Winthrop campus a week later before the January S.C. Democratic primary that he would end the war, that was a war protest. That too, undeniable.

That Obama rally featured a charismatic speaker. This lunch-hour protest Wednesday did not.

A former Air Force man named Ben Meola, 26, now a student, spent six months of 2003 in Iraq. He said after the protest he is for the war, never saw anything wrong with what the military is doing over there.

Yet, Meola agreed, this smart, nice young guy studying psychology, that what he fought for was before him Wednesday. "The right to do what they are doing," he said.

Protest. Dissent. Free speech. A beautiful, rarely used, powerful right.

A former U.S. Marine named Adam Hunt, 24, from Rock Hill and a Winthrop graduate, said the war was wrong. He and Meola spoke together after the protest. Meola wore a backpack. They could have been talking about math homework. Civil, nice, just two men who disagree.

And nearby, Mary Keenan. All willing to speak up, to fight in their way, for their America.