Jon Oberg on the protest at the Washington Mall on July 4th

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Washington — Against the advice of many, I went down to the national mall on the 4th of July to attend the president’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, to protest his transparent attempts to politicize our military and appropriate American history for his own purposes.

I am a U.S. Navy veteran, a patriot not a nationalist. I’m also a taxpayer who does not like to see wasteful spending on what can only be a called a Trump rally. The Defense Department had to come up with $1.5 million for a contrived air show; the Department of the Interior had to take $2.5 million from national park entrance fees to stage the event.

Ordinarily, I would just stay away from these provocations, but a few of my friends said it was important to show up and not let the occasion become just one more example of the recent erosion of our freedoms and our heritage. Two of these friends had protested Nixon’s use of the U.S. Army to threaten their rights as U.S. citizens in Berlin in 1973, and actually won a subsequent lawsuit protecting their liberties. So who was I to say that our 2019 protest would be meaningless?

Five of us made a few protest signs and wore caps with the inscription “No Man is Above the Law.” We could not get tickets anywhere near the speech, so we had to stand for hours in the heat and the rain along the north side of the reflecting pool, hundreds of yards away.

We attracted attention from the surrounding crowd, many of whom were wearing Trump paraphernalia, but not all attention was hostile. One man with a “Trump 2020” hat came up and had his picture taken with us, with all of us smiling. “Freedom of speech, that’s America” he said. A woman in her fifties, from Virginia, came up to us, friendly and genuinely curious as to why we would protest. But she quickly said Hillary Clinton was a liar and should be in jail, and that Trump has never lied. One man, also obsessed with the former Democratic nominee, did not like our hats and said they should read “No Woman is Above the Law” and asked why we weren’t working to put Trump’s former election opponent in jail.

Some in the crowd, as they surged by and saw our signs, were belligerent. “Go back to where you came from!” was one taunt, which for me would be 19th century Sweden, apparently. “USA! USA! USA!” was another frequent chant but it always stopped quickly when we joined in with equal vigor.

Our signs and hats attracted a Canadian who expressed support and several others who apparently felt comfortable around us as opposed to mixing in with the Trump supporters, some of whom were attired more like goon squads than celebrants of the 4th.

Our little group attracted unexpected attention from the news media. The first to show up was ARD, the German radio and television network. Sebastian Hesse interviewed two in our party. His report was broadcast across the ARD audience on July 5th. (Scroll down in the link for the audio.) He and his party also remained close to us for the president’s speech.

A reporter from Süddeutsche Zeiting came along, perhaps worried that ARD had scooped him. Soon thereafter, Jonathan Tamari of the Philadelphia Inquirer wanted interviews about our presence, one of which was soon published.

The president’s speech itself seemed to leave the crowd flat, puzzled even. I clapped briefly for the mention of Lewis and Clark. The thought crossed my mind that someone mischievously had put a high-schooler’s Fourth of July oration into the teleprompter. Many started to leave midway through the speech, when it became clear that Trump was just the announcer for an air show that would have been booed for being boring had it been a real one. Some of us who have spent years around ships, planes, or tanks have a high bar when it comes to being impressed with military hardware.

Nonetheless, the brief appearance of a bat-shaped B-2 stealth bomber drew sufficient rapture in the crowd for a latter-day Leni Riefenstahl to make the most of it. Count on seeing it again and again.

We struggled to get away from the reflecting pool through a crush of people, misdirected to non-existing exits by local police and military personnel who clearly had no experience in moving crowds along. Away from the mall, taunting continued. One of our signs protested spending tax dollars for a Trump rally. A young, overweight, red-faced man with a MAGA hat said. “See, you’re wrong, it wasn’t a Trump rally. Just admit it!” One of us replied that it was a rally to politicize the military. To which the MAGA man said, “You wouldn’t even have a country if it weren’t for military might to win our wars.”

As we took a rest at a sidewalk cafe, a young woman from Nevada engaged us, curious as to our impressions of the speech. She volunteered, before we had said anything, that it was only military might that made America what it is. I explained my view to the contrary, that it was America’s values and will that were essential to our nation’s success. I told her I was a veteran, having served in the Vietnam war, where military might did not prevail, nor has it in Iraq or Afghanistan since. I also recalled for her that one of my family’s ancestors fought under Lafayette in the Siege of Yorktown, and that in my estimation it was not American military might that won the Revolutionary War, but it was our will to stand for the values of the Declaration of Independence that eventually wore out George III, with the strategic help of the French fleet that bottled up Cornwallis. I could have added that it was the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin that led to our country’s first success in rallying allies to defeat tyrants, something that could well be remembered today.

Not sure how many more protest demonstrations I have in me. As it turned out, this one may have been worth it, if only to show that not all veterans are willing to be politicized, that not all taxpayers are blind to waste. I was glad to see at least a few friendly people among the Trump supporters, to share the regret that all this divisiveness is not good for the country.

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