as the teabaggers put away their signs and flags and depart nashville, heady and spent after another uplifting weekend of patriotic self-affirmation, this weekend's display of racism, birtherism and homophobia recalls for the rest of us nothing recognizable of the historic boston tea party they claim to embody but instead the infamous boston bicentennial event immortalized on film by stanley j. forman and explored in prose in louis p. masur's "the soiling of old glory: the story of a photograph that shocked america":
some two hundred white students assembled for the march to city hall plaza. they attended for every reason, and for no reason at all: they despised forced busing, they hated blacks, they feared change, they followed their parents' lead, they welcomed days off from school, they wanted to hang out with their friends, they felt like they were part of a group. "we all wanted to belong to something big," recalls one teenage protester, "and the feeling of being part of the anti-busing movement along with the rest of southie had been the best feeling in the world." southie meant more than just the geographic place south boston. it meant neighborhood and community and ethnic pride. thinking of the long day ahead, some packed a snack. some made signs that said "RESIST." one student, before leaving his third-floor south boston apartment, grabbed the family's american flag.
from the start, the anti-busing movement identified itself with patriotism. the activists saw themselves as defending their liberty against the tyranny of a judge run amok. the celebration of bicentennial events in 1975 and 1976 only reinforced the idea that they were carrying on in a tradition of american resistance; one anti-busing group had as its motto "don't tread on me." at rallies and boycotts, protesters carried american flags and frequently sang "god bless america." protesters against the vietnam war had often burned Old Glory, but not here, not among the mainly working-class irish of boston.
ted landsmark was late to a meeting. a lawyer for the contractors' association, he was headed to city hall for discussions on minority hiring in construction jobs. dressed well on this mild april morning, he was wearing a favorite three-piece suit, and enjoying the brisk walk.
the protesters spotted landsmark and turned on him. one went to trip him up. a couple of them yelled "get the nigger." a few of the anti-busing protesters at the front jumped him. he was being kicked and punched. another unidentified black man hurried away from the scene.
the flag bearer, joseph rakes of south boston, circled around and began to swing the flag at landsmark.(patriots turned hate-riots: this photo won forman the second of three pulitzer prizes)
age 17, rakes had loved school but had stopped going entirely a year into the protests against busing. he worked part time to help his parents pay the bills, which now included tuition to send his older siblings to a private academy formed to educate those students who refused to attend south boston or charlestown high school. rakes' anger at a situation beyond his control was never far from the surface. he attended most rallies against busing and, on this day, he rushed into the fracas. some officers of the police mobile operations patrol and some adults intervened, but too late. the incident lasted maybe fifteen or twenty seconds. landsmark's glasses were shattered and his nose broken. he was left drifting, bloodied and dazed.
some of the students who did not participate, indeed who recoiled with shock at the assault, trembled with disbelief. at the time, someone said landsmark must have provoked the attack by making a gesture, but an incredulous landsmark told reporters, "i didn't have time to make an obscene gesture." several years later, lisa mcgoff, whose family was profiled by j.anthony lukas in his pulitzer-prize winning book common ground, an examination of the busing crisis told through the lives of three families, informed lukas that she imagined that landsmark instigated the incident. according to lukas, mcgoff's first thought was that "this has to be a trick, because no black guy in his right mind would walk smack into the middle of an anti-busing demonstration."
but it was no trick. landsmark told a writer who wondered how this could happen to such a well-educated and well-respected person that "i couldn't put my yale degree in front of me to protect myself. the thing that is most troubling is that it happened not because i was somebody but because i was anybody. ... i was just a nigger they were trying to kill." to another reporter landsmark said, "i was just out there walking to city hall in my three-piece suit. i was anyone." and suddenly, someone tried "to kill me with the american flag."
as the "browning of america" proceeds with irresistible momentum, crystallized for the fearful by the seating of a brown man in its highest office, "patriotism" becomes their last refuge.