The 50th Anniversary of JFK's Death Could Be the Start of Something Good and Loud
Things have to fall into place a certain way. The right cards must be dealt. But the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in Dallas on November 22, 2013, could become a hallmark event in a long tradition of popular street actions stretching back to the nation's beginnings.
From Occupy Wall Street to the 1968 Chicago Police Riot, from the Cleveland Eviction Riots of 1933 all the way back to the Stamp Act Riots of 1765: This country was born and bred on the street and in defiance. And it could happen here.
I had a great chat last week with Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters, the international iconoclastic magazine credited with sparking Occupy Wall Street. He said he saw no reason why the JFK 50th here could not grow into an Occupy Dealey Plaza event to capture and galvanize world attention.
He talked about how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg unwittingly helped make Occupy a national movement by cracking down on it in New York. I suggested maybe Dallas is doing Bloomberg one better, by beginning to crack down on the JFK 50th a year and a half before the thing even happens.
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He agreed it could be a real window of opportunity: "The fact that the city of Dallas doesn't get it and again wants to snuff out rather than allow this wonderful freedom that the young people of America crave right now, maybe that will be a wake-up call," he said. "Maybe they are going to see a backlash that will surprise the hell out of them."
My writing on this issue over the last year or more has been pretty narrowly focused on the case of one man, author Robert Groden, a Kennedy conspiracy theory author now suing the city in federal court over repeated arrests for speaking and selling books in Dealey Plaza. Dallas has continued to harass Groden, even though his lawyer, Bradley Kizzia, was able to demonstrate in court that the law the city said Groden was violating did not exist and even though every judge who has dealt with the multiple tickets and arrests of Groden has declared them bogus.
In his federal lawsuit and in conversations with me, Groden asserts that the city has a sub rosa agenda. He says the city's real reason for going after him has been to suppress his version of the JFK story because it conflicts with official Dallas dogma. The Dallas version is that it happened a long time ago; the case is closed; people need to stop talking about it.
Maybe you could almost see their point, from a very narrow and fairly stupid point of view. It's stupid, because the ongoing conversation about the JFK assassination isn't about Dallas. Neither the assassination nor the place where it happened belongs to Dallas. Both are creatures of global history. The 50th is only about Dallas if Dallas stupidly tries to get in the way of it.
Which is just what City Hall is doing. The city has violated longstanding policy on permits for JFK commemoration events by crafting a new type of permit for the 50th that's clearly designed to stave off unauthorized observances. For decades, for example, the Coalition on Political Assassinations has conducted a respectful "moment of silence" on the famous "grassy knoll" in Dealey Plaza on key anniversaries.
So now the city has granted an exclusive permit to the official Sixth Floor Assassination Museum for the entire week of November 22, 2013. When COPA contacted city officials to ask for permission to do their own moment of silence, they were told that all the moments of silence for that week were already taken.
Sounds stupid? Oh, yeah! But when I spoke to Jill Beam, head of the city's office of special events, she confirmed it. I asked why people couldn't have two moments of silence at the same time, since they were both going to be silent anyway. I'm not trying to be funny.
She told me that the city's software program for booking events doesn't allow "double-booking."
I said, "So this is a software problem?"
She said yes.
OK, look. Here's what's going on. First of all, the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination here could be nothing. Half a century is a long time. Maybe by now most people alive in the world think JFK is a clothing brand.
But given the level of interest at the precursor anniversaries like the 30th and 40th, given the ongoing rate of publication and film-making on the topic and given the consistent popularity of Dealey Plaza as a draw for international tourism, it's more likely that Dealey Plaza on the 50th will be the focus of significant international attention, if only for that moment.
Somebody — it's not clear who yet — has the very un-bright idea that the way for Dallas to handle that moment is by being authoritarian, exclusionary and massively uptight. In other words, if Oliver Stone, director of the 1991 movie JFK, had sent down to central casting asking for a bunch of dull-eyed right-wing stiffs, they might have sent whoever the people are behind giving the Sixth Floor that permit.
Talk about playing to your stereotype.
On the other hand, it is precisely that stereotype that could spark a reaction here far greater than anything based merely on JFK conspiracy theories. What Dallas really risks is planting its glass jaw deliciously in the path of a crushing generational left hook based on free-speech issues.
Free speech will be important on the 50th for the same reason it has been so urgently important to the Occupy movement all along: because young people in particular already think the nation's leaders are liars. They see those liars trying to hide the ball, as in the Obama administration's recent decision to move the upcoming G8 World Economic Summit away from the potential reach of protesters in Chicago to the militarily protected confines of Camp David.
But worse, they see those leaders as leading them by the snout to a dismal future of despair.
"The real impulse behind the Occupy movement," Lasn said, "and I think the real impulse behind anything that may happen in Dallas next year, is that hundreds of millions of young people around the world look into a future that does not compute.
"They're looking at a lifetime that is going to be completely different from the way their parents lived, a life of ecological crisis and political crisis and financial crisis, of not being able to pay off their loans and never having a decent job, and in the meantime having to live in a world that's getting hotter and hotter and lousier and lousier.
"Young people of the world are waking up to the fact that if they don't stand up and start fighting for a different kind of future, they're not going to have a future."
I also spoke last week with Stephen Benavides, who was one of the early organizers of Occupy Dallas. You'll remember him: Dallas cops tossed him in jail for attacking an officer, but later a citizen video proved that the attack had gone the other way around.
Benavides told me that if events here transpire in just the right away — if Dallas continues to go hard-case on access to Dealey Plaza for the 50th — he could see something really jumping off.
"It depends on what the city does," Benavides said, "and it depends on what everybody's doing a year and a half from now. If they want to pose a free-speech challenge by trying to cordon off the area based on appearance or the political content of your speech or any of those kinds of things, then, hell yeah. Then there is a definite ability to organize and make that into a confrontation."
In fact, Benavides said that if that's how the cards are dealt a year and a half from now, "We would have a responsibility to challenge the state."
If Lasn is right and young people look ahead to see only a path to the howling void, then civil action to change the direction of that path is the one thing that will lift them up out of despair and paralysis. And the rest of us will have a commensurate responsibility to support them.
In that sense, Dealey Plaza is a golden opportunity, capable of providing precisely the kind of flashpoint needed for real change to occur.
"The leaders of America are running scared," Lasn said. "In Dallas they're running scared. On Wall Street they're running scared. It's almost like that wonderful tipping point that could happen, when the young people of America rise up and start pushing the country to a different path."
We saw it just beginning to rise in Occupy. It might be a little geocentric of us to think Dealey Plaza is going to be any sort of culmination, but Dealey Plaza could be one of many places and points where the movement for change picks up steam, gains courage, learns some footwork and how to throw that mean left hook.
I don't want to be clandestine about my own hand here. I am talking to people about setting up a steering committee to prepare for a people's action at Dealey Plaza on the 50th. I tell them the first thing I will do, once such a thing is up and running, is resign from it.
Speech is speech. Everybody must be welcome, from the Birthers to the Birchers. Lasn pointed out that the Tea Party, while coming at the problem from the other end of things, has concerns about the future that are just as deep and sincere as anything Occupy has on its mind. So I guess they have to be there, too, if they so desire.
The main thing is this. For one shining moment on November 22, 2013, Dealey Plaza has a chance to be center-stage in the history of the nation. That is something worth helping along.
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