It was the largest demonstration in New York City history. The cause also was large–nuclear arms control. Nearly a million people–young and elderly, students and union members, a mixture of ethnic and racial groups from many states and foreign countries–marched from the United Nations to the great lawn of Central Park to hear speakers and songsters.
In San Francisco, about 30,000 people rallied for freezing and then rolling back the weapons of world demolition in the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Smaller marches and meetings occurred elsewhere around the country. Clearly, these mass protests were the major domestic news event on June 12, 1982. Well-known political, civic and entertainment leaders participated. There were sounds, sights and motion–perfect for TV coverage.
So I looked up the television calendar in the Washington Post to see whether this long-announced event was being covered. Between noon and 6 p.m., NBC’s Channel 4 was offering Daffy/Speedy, Bullwinkle, Baseball Bunch, This Week in Baseball, the California Angels vs. Chicago White Sox game and the LPGA Golf Championships. Channel 5, WTTG, featured rerun movies and a one-hour program “Soul Train.” Channel 7, ABC, highlighted American Bandstand, sports legends, golf, bowling and Wide World of Sports. CBS’s Channel 9 weighed in with Saturday Magazine, Hawaii Five-O, golf, Sports Saturday.
Fortunately, Pacifica Radio covered the event live, and Cable TV did not ignore the historic march. Nor did Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who issued a statement early in the day saying that President Reagan’s policy will not be influenced by street demonstrations, only by voters at the election booth.
Although the networks devoted some time to the jumbo peace demonstrations that evening, they did not see fit to find even 30 minutes of time in their schedule for live reporting. This avoidance occurred notwithstanding an almost textbook TV appeal–a colorful exciting event all around. There are noexcuses other than an inflexible addiction to scheduled programming that brings in a predicted amount of the almighty lucre.
The American people have made history with marches and demonstrations–whether for labor, minority, farmer or peace rights. This rally in Central Park went beyond banners and speeches of protests and demands. History had taught the participants some lessons. They collected names and contributions. They passed out the T-Shirts, buttons and other paraphernalia of solidarity. Dick Gregory, when asked if he thought the Reaganites would listen, replied that what mattered was that the people around the country were hearing and listening and joining the movement.
Other speakers talked about pending legislation, about organizing “peace tests” for candidates to take before receiving approval in the fall elections. Emphasis was placed by Randall Rosberg, originator of the nuclear weapons freeze campaign, on voting power. “Remember in November,” she urged.
Over and over again, the linkage was made between wasteful, dangerous spending on nuclear arms and the loss of jobs, social services and public investment. Assuredly, this movement has more than a one-issue focus.
But does it have stamina? Or is it all what some Reagan officials believe it to be–just a fad, a wave of well-meaning emotion that will deflate in a few months? The swing from an involvement in public issues to resumed passivity has characterized many previous social movements.
Economist Albert 0. Hirschman became so interested in our society’s “oscillations between periods of intense preoccupation with public issues and of almost total concentration on individual improvement and private welfare goals” that he has just written a brilliant, little book on the subject called “Shifting Involvements” (Princeton University Press).
His insights are helpful in understanding how to avoid, or at least postpone, the onset of civic disappointment with the process of public action.
The arms control drive needs to structure its goals as rungs on a ladder in order to avoid the erosion that can come from unrealistic expectations. It should have tasks for different levels of commitment to avoid burnout and cater to varying human energy levels. There should be storefront centers around the country with full-time staff and many volunteers. An imaginative think tank, developing well-honed strategies, tactics, motivations and media programs, should get underway immediately.
In a phrase, a movement that wants to save the world from destruction must first forge a civic culture–and the sooner, the better.