November 11, 2015

Home By Christmas! GIs Thwart War Plans In 1945

When the Second World War ended in mid-1945, the world was almost thrust into World War III. There was a section of the US ruling class and the military high command who weren't happy that the Soviet Union had played such a key role in defeating fascism and rolling up the Wehrmacht in Europe, that communists had led the underground resistance to German and Japanese occupation in country after country in Europe and Asia, and that around the world national liberation movements were vocally demanding independence and an end to colonial bondage. The ruling class and its military chiefs wanted to run the world, and they were ready to crush the pesky reds and foreigners who stood in the way.

They were stopped in their tracks.

It wasn't the Red Army of the Soviet Union that did it, or the fighters of the French maquis, or Mao Zedong's Eighth Route Army in China. It was US soldiers and sailors and other troops, who launched a mighty movement to be sent home. They had signed on to do a job, to stop the drive to fascist world domination by Hitler Germany and Italy and Japan, and they had helped do it.

The way they saw it, the job was done. But the brass was trying to keep the troops in Europe and Asia as an occupying army and a combat-ready invasion force. Unfortunately for them, many of the GIs were workers who had been involved in the giant wave of strikes that shook the US in the midst of the Great Depression in the late '30s. These disciplined collective struggles organized the mass production industries like auto, steel and rubber before the outbreak of war. The soldiers knew that back in the States, the winding down of the war had triggered a huge new strike wave which began in '44 and picked up steam in '45 to make up the ground lost during labor's no-strike pledge during the war.

The first to stand up were troops from the European Theater who had made it back to the US only to find that orders had been cut to send them to the West Coast where they were to take ship to Asia for occupation duty. On August 21, less than two weeks after VJ Day, 580 soldiers from the Army's 95th Division signed a protest telegram to the White House. The 97th Division hung banners from the trains taking them to California, proclaiming "We're Being Sold Down The River While Congress Vacations." On September 15, General Twaddle of the 95th, assembled his soldiers for orders on occupation duty. The Washington Post the next day reported "the boos from the soldiers were so prolonged and frequent that it took [General Twaddle] 40 minutes to deliver a 15 minute speech."

Families added their voices to the chorus. Congress was inundated with letters and telegrams, thousands every day, insisting that the troops come home and stay home. As fall turned to winter, some families sent baby booties to their congressmen, with a note which read "Be a good Santa Claus and release the fathers."

And the outcry rapidly spread to the troops overseas. Nelson Peery, a veteran revolutionary who was in a segregated Black unit in the Philippines in 1945, recalls (in his autobiographical Black Fire):

 "Perhaps it will never be known who coined the slogan 'Home by Christmas!' It was a perfect piece of agitation. This simple, understandable slogan was in the immediate interest of the troops and at the same time hit at the core of the generals' hopes of attacking the Soviet Union...

"It was painted on the latrines. It was scratched on the directional posts at the crossroads. It appeared as if by magic in the recreation rooms and the mess halls. Sometimes it was even painted on the screened-in officers' quarters."

When Christmas Day came, graffiti was no longer enough-4,000 soldiers marched in formation to the 21st Replacement Depot in Manila behind banners saying "We Want Ships!" Their panicked commander said, "You men forget you're not working for General Motors. You're in the army." On Guam, mass meetings called a hunger strike.

Halfway round the world, thousands of soldiers marched down the Champs Elysee in Paris on January 8 to rally in front of the US Embassy and shout "Get us home!" The next day in occupied Germany in Frankfurt am Main, speakers at a soldiers' demonstration telegraphed a message to Congress that said only "Are the brass-hats to be permitted to build empires?"

With Christmas past, things in the Philippines got hotter. A 156 man Soldier's Committee was elected in Manila to speak for 139,000 soldiers there, "all interested in going home." It issued leaflets which declared, "The State Department wants the army to back up its imperialism." The Soldier's Committee elected an eight man central committee which included Emil Mazey, a UAW local president who had played a leading role in the battle to unionize auto in the late '30s.

Declaring that "the continued stay of these millions of GIs in the armed forces can only serve the predatory interests of Wall Street," the soldiers' leadership asked the powerful United Auto Workers to present their demands of Congress. The UAW did, further fueling the "Bring Us Home" movement stateside.

With rebellion in the ranks turning political, discipline eroding and no sympathy on the home front, the ruling class and the military blinked. Orders to the Pacific were revoked and more vessels, everything up to ocean liners, were pressed into service to get the restive veterans home and demobilized. It was all the generals could do to keep enough troops to maintain the occupation of the conquered Axis powers.

The invasion of Iraq may not last long enough to produce a wave of rebellion in the military like the Vietnam War did, but even if it doesn't, there's a lot we can learn from the soldiers who organized the post-WWII Troops Home movement, back in the day.

Originally published in Freedom Road magazine #4.

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September 30, 2015

Remembering A Fighter Who Died Too Young

[I think I might have met Neal Gammill. Once. These moving memorial thoughts by my friend and comrade T. Shelton of Tennessee give some idea of how much I missed.]

photo credit: Whitney Wood

"Hey, you're with that Freedom Road group, right?"

Those were the first words Neal Gammill ever spoke to me. He had walked right up to me at an anti-war event, and as I would come to know in his true-to-form way asked the political question on his mind. Over the next 5 years we shared countless hours talking politics, and doing politics--from trade unions, to community campaigns, from police killings, to movement surveillance, to revolutionary feminism, to the centrality of racism and methods for organizing working class whites to destroy white supremacy. And internationalism. In fact, always internationalism.

More than anyone else I know Neal always centered his revolutionary internationalism and the struggle to destroy white-supremacist imperialism headed-up by the USA. His internationalism and anti-imperialist line was always with him and his beloved Éire (Ireland). These same lessons he shared time and again on the picket, at the rally, at the prayer meeting, at the public forum demanding self-determination and independence for occupied Palestine. A mid-southerner, the application of these politics to his own home was no different, always noting the imperialist root of US racism and seeing the struggle against white supremacy and for Black liberation as central fronts in our movement for real justice and freedom.

Neal could be counted on as a first responder to every threatened and undertaken act of US aggression, from Libya to Iran, from Egypt to Iraq, in Syria and Columbia. And Afghanistan. That was an imperial project he had seen firsthand, had participated in while in the Air Force and one, he would confide, he felt he had never been meant to make it out of alive. Like so many others, he did make it back from Afghanistan alive, but with those scars on the soul that the US military gives to vets.

Neal's politics grew on anti-authoritarian and anti-fa roots. Both as a working class white kid and in the military, he spent time in and around the white power movement. As is true for too many, the allure of whiteness and the ideas of Third Position politics were a quick mental exit ramp towards some taste of power. But even then Neal was always

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September 11, 2015

OFF+ON: Ramps It Up. Again.

Last night I hit the OFF+ON Campaign roll-out event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Well over fifteen hundred people showed up to a program headlining Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben.

The catastrophic scale and gradual (though escalating) pace of global warming and planetary climate change can make it, I think, perversely compelling for many of us to ignore. It’s too vast, too unstoppable, to contemplate on a daily basis, while even new weather patterns which affect us adversely, like scorching summers, get: well, it’s the weather, what can ya do?          

That’s why, though not a full-time climate activist myself, I’ve made a point of trying to keep up with and their analysis and work since I attended McKibben’s inaugural “Do The Math” show three years ago.

First the event itself. It amounted to a very effective and sophisticated pep rally, with a four-person crew, Klein, McKibben, the “Hip Hop Reverend” Lennox Yearwood and Cynthia Ong from the Borneo region of Malaysia, at center stage. They passed the mike back and forth amongst themselves for scripted stints of no more than a couple of minutes, with sharp visuals and a few brief video messages projected on large screens behind them. There were three brief cultural performances and some other speakers interspersed, notably a quartet of young folk from various countries who were held to the same two-minute, single-point messaging format. big May Boeve closed by sketching out some battle plans for the coming months.

The Message

Here’s the message as I received it. (Your mileage may vary. Watch it here if you are so inclined.)

Things are bad and getting worse. Though fossil fuel companies have reserves 5 times what can be extracted and burned without damaging the biosphere beyond repair, they are still spending hundreds of billions every year in exploring for more.
People’s resistance is growing globally and has won significant victories—the “done deal” Keystone XL Pipeline of a few years ago hasn’t been built, for instance.
We are in a race between global warming and resistance, we aren’t winning yet, and every day counts.
The main enemy is the giant fossil fuel companies (Shell, Exxon, India’s Adani Group, etc.), which must be “turned off” because the logic of their continued existence is to worsen the problem. The main tactic promoted here was divestment campaigns to drive down stock prices.
The rapid growth of renewable energy, especially solar, and the falling price of renewable generation means we can win this (The highpoint of the staging savvy of the evening was the introduction of this point and of the turn toward more optimism overall. It was a powerful and emotional performance of “Here Comes The Sun” by a young activist named Antonique Smith)
Renewables, and the changeover to them, can best be accomplished by taking them up at a community level in conjunction with struggles against poverty and injustice. 
We need “energy democracy” including insuring that the millions of new green jobs created are decently paid union jobs.
The enemy has much to lose, and the money to buy the politicians it needs to stave off change. We must build a movement that builds on our accomplishments so far and unites hundreds of millions who have much to gain.

A Few Observations

Attending such events answers some questions about what the leading figures in are thinking and what they will be doing. The emphasis on attacking the big fossil fuel corporations is a promising new approach, though no claim is made that that successes in divestment campaigns so far, while impressive, have made a qualitative difference. The success of sanctions against apartheid was cited repeatedly, but the likes of Exxon are, by comparison, hardened targets.

Klein, McKibben and the others are clearly intent on baking into this movement a central thrust of justice and equality, and an internationalist stance. This is, of course, helped by the very global nature of the crisis. The symbolic message of who was up on stage, and on screen, was part of this, obviously. Rev. Yearwood wore a Sandy hat for Sandra Bland and name checked Black Lives Matter. And while some of it just came of as earnest assertion, a strong case was made that many of the initial victorious struggles thus far have emerged from indigenous communities, poor and marginalized.

A schedule of big demonstrations pegged to international events like the Paris Climate Summit this December will move things ahead along on the path the group has been following. Ramping up divestment efforts will not take out Big Oil and Big Coal. McKibben hinted at more civil disobedience, but it’s not clear how that might be directed at, say, Shell or the Koch Brothers.

Of course, things which weren’t said also deserve our attention. For instance, McKibben did not mention the July 20 declaration by noted climatologist James Hansen and fellow scientists that newly understood feedback mechanisms may well mean a rise of ten feet in global sea level by 2065, which would be beyond catastrophic. Does disagree with Hansen? Or feel that the news is so grim that it would upset the balance of the ON+OFF dynamic embodied in the group’s new slogan?

More understandably, electoral politics and capitalism itself were touched on only by implication. The refusal to address the upcoming US presidential elections was. I think, wise, and reflects their understanding that only a huge mass movement can produce the changes needed. Subsuming such a movement in a presidential campaign would risk its continued existence once next November has come and gone. (That said, Sanders kids were present in large numbers and leafleting the crowd.) As for a frontal attack on the capitalist system itself, that’s not the job of the spokespeople for a broad and, one must hope, growing united front. That’s our job, us being the Reds, the revolutionary socialists in the movement.

Yo! Frankie!

But this does bring up the most interesting omission, an issue my partner Dody asked me about straightaway when I was telling her about the program: Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, which was mentioned only in passing. Not only is this document the most positive development in the Climate Justice movement so far this year, but Bill McKibben himself wrote an impassioned and thoughtful appreciation of it for the NY Review of Books, which she and I had read together.

The Pope challenges, more directly that anything at the OFF+ON event, the “deification” of the market and the money power. More, Francis identifies the biggest obstacle to uniting the hundreds of millions needed to win this life and death battle. As McKibben summarizes him:
Our way of life literally doesn’t work. It’s breaking the planet. Given the severity of the situation, Francis writes, “we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing, and limiting our power.” had an already convinced and ready-to-act audience at BAM. If such people are judged unready to rethink and take on the way late capitalism operates, with its television-reinforced culture of consumption über alles, and to change their lives accordingly, we really are in deep shit. 

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July 2, 2015

Two Trips, To Kent State And To Jackson State, 45 Years On

This May I took it upon myself to attend two memorial observances, the 45th anniversaries of the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State.

On May 4, 1970, four students were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University as part of a massive upsurge against the war and for social change that was sweeping American campuses. Ten days later on May 14, Mississippi state troopers and Jackson police opened fire on a student protest at Jackson State, killing two young men, James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs, in a massive fusillade. These two shootings were critical points in the events of May ’70, the most massive and militant nation-wide student strike this country has ever seen. (I have written a series of pieces on May ’70, 19 of them and counting.)

Here are a few reflections based on what I observed. Please bear in mind that I had not been back to the battlefield at Kent since 1994, and this was my first trip to Jackson State.

1. I am goddamn old. I was an adult, a young one, when this shit happened, and that was going on half a century ago.

Nevertheless, like many who were around then, I am unlikely to forget these killings before I check out.

2. Amidst numerous moving and inspiring moments, I want to cite two that struck me particularly. The May 4 Visitors Center at Kent State, one of the most important victories won there in the long struggle against forgetting, has as its centerpiece a short film, 9 minutes perhaps, with many photographs and sound recordings of the deadly moments around the National Guard firing. I sat through it three times.  If you are ever within, say, a three hour drive, you should watch it.

At Jackson State, the then-president of the school, Dr. John A. Peoples, described the aftermath of the shooting. He told how for the next four years at every sporting event the school’s team played in, Jackson students greeted the national anthem by standing silently with their fists in the air, Tommie Smith & John Carlos-style. His pride was evident, as was his quiet delight when he described sitting next to the governor of Mississippi at one such game.

3. Kent is an amazing anomaly. For forty-five straight year people have made hajj to the campus from across the country, joining with a core of regulars associated with the university and the town of Kent to remember May 4, 1970. I cannot think of anything comparable in the left movement in this country. In New York there is an annual memorial for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. In Bay View, WI, now part of Milwaukee, the local labor movement remembers the 1886 murder of seven strikers by National Guardsmen at a steel mill. Both of these events are mainly local in character and both date in their current form to the revival of labor militancy and interest in the working class during the '60s and '70s.

Why is Kent so different? The most obvious thing is that it was white college kids who were shot, on their campus, by the National Guard. It stunned the country at the time, a time when hundreds of thousands of us were on strike at our own campuses. This was reinforced by the classic musical mnemonic, "Ohio" written by Neil Young and pushed into immediate release by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the aftermath of the killings.

Further, the university administration did its best to obliterate all memory of the killings. This led in 1977 to Tent City, erected to block the construction of a gymnasium on the murder site, and to a decades-long campaign of militant struggle rejecting further attempts to kill or to coopt and dilute the memory.

Nowadays, May 4 is observed by several days of talks, forums, and culture. One I attended was run by young members of Black United Students, whose powerful panel and heartbreaking stories laid bare how little has actually changed since their predecessors were organizing and protesting racism and discrimination at Kent in 1970.

The heart of the observance is memorial rituals now enshrined by time: a candlelight march as May 3 turns into May 4, this year numbering 335, followed by a vigil in which volunteers take rotating shifts holding candles at the now-memorialized spots where the four fell. (I stood for Jeffrey Miller and Sandy Scheuer at different points during the night). It culminates with an emotional memorial program.

While folks come from around the country to take part, the commemoration is centered on Kent people. In addition to nationally recognized spokespeople like my old compa Alan Canfora and Tom Grace, there is a core of people residing in Kent who do the invisible work that makes it happen. Here I will single out as representative the folk I stayed with there, Mike Pacifico and Kendra Hicks Pacifico, whose basement is a well-organized stash of decades worth of banners, candles and other nuts and bolts of the protest. And the ongoing student group, the May 4 Task Force, provides not just bodies but leadership.

The whole comprises what old hands call the Kent May 4 Family. And in multiple ways it is a family. First, relatives of the fallen have been part of it from the start. Most of the parents, active from the start, are now dead or are unable to attend. Laurel Krause, Alison’s sister, is always a presence. So is Alan Canfora’s sister, Chick, another Kent alum. Beyond that, family members of longtime participants who have been brought to Kent since they were itty-bitties have now come on their own. And new regulars are adopted, like Canadian photographer Christian Bobak who came to document the anniversary five years ago and has returned every year since.

4. At Jackson State this year, a short memorial program was followed by a panel with vigorous participation from veterans of May, 1970 in the audience. Apparently, annual programs had fallen by the wayside in some past years but with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement focused first and foremost on police killings of young Black men, this year’s program had to happen.

Where the observation at Kent State University was overwhelmingly white, the 110 or so at Jackson State were at least that Black. Participation was even older than at Kent. The two activists in their twenties who drove me down from Memphis were among the youngest people there, save for a few in strollers.

The formal program was attended by about blessedly short given the outdoor heat and lack of shade. Bjorn, one of the Tennesseans I traveled with, summed it up as highlighting students from 1970 who had gone on to academic or professional success, and marked by frequent references to the events of May 15 as “a tragedy.” Jackson’s new Chief of Police, a younger alum, had to say he knows what people are thinking about police these days and why, and pledged that there would be no such occurrences on his watch.

Maybe 50 people stayed for the forum after, and folks there were plenty clear. What happened in May 15, 1970 was not “tragic," it was murder. Murder by the police. It was fascinating to watch the veterans share their experiences and try and pull together what they had seen into a larger, more coherent picture of the deadly assault they had survived. Comparisons to the present murders of young African-Americans were blunt and frequent. And I wish every white yahoo who responds to police violence by going on about Black-on-Black violence could have been there to listen to folks from the community grapple with the problem.

(Both halves of the program were livestreamed by Jackson State; video can be viewed here.)

5. LONG LIVE THE SPIRIT OF KENT AND JACKSON STATE! was the slogan that resonated through the student movement in the 70’s and 80’s. Folks that were active in 1970 will, to this day, automatically respond to mention of Kent State by saying “and Jackson State.” Thus, the struggle for memory, and against the tendency of the fiercest of people’s battles to be crammed down the Great American Memory Hole, has also helped keep the memory of the Jackson killings alive far beyond the borders of the campus itself.

Activists in the May 4 movement at Kent have always worked to maintain ties with Jackson State. For years until his untimely death earlier this decade, Gene Young represented Jackson at Kent State every year and was a cherished figure in the community there.

Still, the greater attention to Kent in memory and in history as it is taught and written in this white supremacist country is obvious. It clearly rankles many of the veterans at Jackson State. Several made a point of complaining that the protest at Jackson is too often described as an anti-war protest and not primarily as a protest against the multi-faceted racism directed at Black students in the capital of Mississippi in 1970.

6. It is only natural that the focus on Kent (and, always, Jackson) in the May 4 commemorations carries with it a certain built-in narrowness. While the killings at Kent kicked the national student strike into overdrive, it was already the largest and most powerful student protest in the history of the country.

The thing about Kent is that the administration closed the campus up tight on the afternoon of May 4 and ordered everyone to leave. From the standpoint of Kent, the May '70 story pretty much ends here, but those of us who were around during that fateful month know this was only part of the story. The truncation of the narrative can be seen clearly in the May 4 Visitor’s Center. The Kent-centrism is reflected in the three parts of the museum. The build-up section presents a broad picture of the 60’s and the tectonic shifts in politics, society and culture that that gave rise to the earthquake that was May 1970. The central section is the film about the events of that day. The third part is heavily focused on various responses to the Kent killings, with some attention to Jackson State.

The fact that the movement went on to greater heights, more militant battles, and striking accomplishments is absent. I spoke with two paid staffers, neither of whom knew about the police killings of six young Black men in Augusta, Georgia between the shootings in Kent and Jackson, or about the “hard hat riots,” savage attacks on protestors by union construction workers, organized in conjunction with President Nixon’s White House.

This is baked into the long struggle at Kent and it is not the particular responsibility of activists there to correct it. That falls rather to veterans of all the battles of May 1970: step up, dredge up the memories and spread the lessons, as folks have been doing at Kent and Jackson all these years.

7. There were some intriguing parallels at the two events.

Both sets of May 1970 veterans emphasized the organized nature of the murderous attacks—at Kent, the National Guard unit wheeling, kneeling and firing in unison into the unarmed students, and at Jackson the way the po-po marched in order up Lynch Street before turning to fire on the students.

Similarly, some people at both campuses seem driven to deny that the burning of the ROTC buildings there were the work of campus protesters. At Kent, the conspiracy-minded attribute not only the May 2 fire but also the cutting of firehoses to prevent it being extinguished to the work of provocateurs directed by the feds. At Jackson, the tendency is to blame vandalism by “the corner boys,” young Black men who hung out in the neighborhood of the campus. Well, maybe. But let’s not forget that 30 ROTC buildings developed problems which compromised their structural integrity, shall we say, during the first week of May 1970. Thirty. I know for a fact that some were not the work of provocateurs or “outside elements.”

We have two books to look forward to, both headed for publication. Tom Grace, wounded on May 4 and now a professor in Buffalo, will add his analysis to the considerable body of works on Kent State. The absence of a comparable shelf full of books dealing with Jackson State is to be improved by Dr. Nancy Bristow of the University of Puget Sound, who is finalizing a definitive study.

Best of all is a little script flip. At Jackson State, a white prof, Dr. Robert Luckett of the History Department, evidently played an important role in organizing the program. At Kent the faculty adviser of the student May 4 Task Force for more than a decade is a lecturer in the Department of Pan-African Studies, Idris Kabir Syed, who also acts as adviser to Black United Students there. Sweet, hunh?

8. Finally, I want to issue a challenge to the Kent State May 4 Family and to others, old school veterans and new activists alike, who hold the memory of the events of May ’70 in their hearts. A Venn diagram of the attendees at the Kent and Jackson observations this year would show the circles intersecting at one point. Me. That ain’t right. If there is a 46th anniversary celebration at Jackson State next year, I hope you will join me there.

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March 20, 2015

Shooting Cops In Ferguson

When I saw, last week, a news bulletin announcing that two cops had just been shot in Ferguson, MO at the end of a demonstration, I thought, “Fuck. This could get really ugly, really fast.”

My fears have not been borne out, I am happy to admit. The cops both went home after a day or two in the hospital. The dude arrested for doing the shooting, Jeffrey Williams, reportedly said, and there’s other evidence, that he wasn’t even aiming at the police.

Still I was a bit puzzled by the low-key approach to the whole thing taken by the mainstream media and even moreso by the rather limited stir it caused in the fairly revolutionary corner of Facespace where I spend too much time.

Even as I noticed this, I was reflecting on some lessons from the incident, lessons that folks may have missed because there was relatively little attention paid.

The Ferguson Movement Continues to Amaze and Inspire

Most of all, it showed how astounding the movement in St. Louis has become. Even as it sparked the first real nationwide, as opposed to localized, movement against racist police violence ever in this country and triggered the reawakening of the Black Liberation Movement, it has remained the epicenter of the struggle, despite murders even more shocking than that of Mike Brown, like those of Akai Gurley in New York City and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Consider the March 12 protest which the gunfire ended. It was the community seizing on important victories it had just won and pressing the offensive. With the damning US Department of Justice report on racism in the St. Louis county police and court system, several perpetrators were fired or resigned, including a judge. That very day, the chief of the Ferguson PD resigned.

In the evening, 500 people gathered at Ferguson Police Department headquarters, where most of the protests take place, facing off against a couple hundred battle-dressed cops. They were celebrating by demanding the resignation of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles as well.

Reports indicate there were disagreements, sometime heated, among the protesters over tactics, particularly blocking traffic on South Florissant, the main drag in front of the cop shop. Some of it evidently arose when the core who have been keeping the protests alive month after month tried to school newbies and irregulars who came out for this action in how the struggle has been built and conducted,
 (I saw this dynamic myself acted out when I was among the couple thousand folk from around the country who answered the call to #FergusonOctober last fall. The way in which the organizers and the marshals on that weekend recognized and provided productive outlets for young militants, locals and visitors alike, to challenge the system and the police in non-approved ways without threatening the united front that had been built for the demo was a marvel of political astuteness.)

The fifty or so protesters who were left on the scene at midnight when the shots rang out were themselves terrified. And well they might have been. With two cops down and many others with weapons at the ready, a massacre could have easily resulted.

Despite this, the protesters returned the next night, 50 strong, around the norm for the frequent protests over the winter, to

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