This week’s horrific rioting in Ferguson, Missouri brought back memories. Believe it or not, I was swept up in a near-riot myself 34 years ago, and consider myself lucky for living to tell the tale. Here’s how it happened.
It was the summer of 1980, and I was a 19 year-old kid from Joplin, Missouri who had just finished my first year in college. Wide-eyed and eager to taste life, I secured a summer internship on Capitol Hill in Washington. In a bit of good luck, my childhood best buddy Chris also landed a job in DC that summer, so we pooled our meager resources and roomed together.
Ah, the magical summer of 1980! Change was in the air. Disco was (mercifully) dying, Jimmy Carter was on the way out, Ronald Reagan was on the way in, and my summer in Washington gave me a front row seat to the whole spectacular show. But events 6,300 miles away were about to overshadow everything.
Seventeen months earlier, the Shah of Iran’s 38 year rule had ended with the Iranian Revolution. Driven from the throne by Muslim fundamentalists, no country wanted the guy on their hands. He bounced in exile from Morocco to the Bahamas, and then Mexico, where he got sick and insisted on getting medical treatment in the U.S. President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed him to come here in October 1979, whereupon angry protests erupted as pro-Revolutionary Iranians demanded he return to Iran to stand trial for human rights abuses. Carter couldn’t get him out of the U.S.A. fast enough, and he was sent back to Mexico before finally landing in Egypt once and for all. But the damage had been done: in many Iranian eyes, the U.S. was now involved in their unfinished business with the Shah.
Fast forward to late July, 1980. Chris learned pro-Shah and pro-Revolutionary Iranian college students were planning simultaneous demonstrations in downtown DC on our last weekend there.
Chris was eager to see it. “What are folks in Joplin gonna say when we go home and tell them we didn’t see a single demonstration all summer?” I was fine with that, because I smelled troubled brewing. But Chris was bent on going, so I figured I’d better tag along in case he got into trouble.
We arrived on the scene on Sunday July 27, 1980. It didn’t help matters that the man at the center of this controversy, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had died earlier that morning, pushing raw emotions on both sides to the surface.
I have never seen pure, unadulterated hatred before, but I saw it that day. These people were my age, but all similarities ended there. Many of the pro-Revolutionaries had been harassed, and some even tortured, by SAVAK, the Shah’s dreaded secret police; many of the pro-Shah demonstrators had been forced to flee their homeland with just the clothes on their back, and some had relatives executed by the new fundamentalist Muslim regime. This wasn’t academic politics to these people – it was deeply, intensely personal, and that intensity was fed by sheer fury.
Someone thrust a stick with a little paper flag into my hand; I later learned it was the Shah’s imperial crest. While I was trying to figure out the symbol, the crowd began moving, and I was carried along with it. I looked around; what had happened to Chris? He was nowhere to be seen.
Dozens of police officers were locked arm in arm, separating the two sides. I saw spitting, I heard what I took to be curses hurled in Farsi. Except for the cops, no other faces around me looked like mine: I was surrounded by a sea of irate Iranians, with a little paper pro-Shah flag clutched in my hand.
And then all Hell broke loose.
Rocks and glass bottles were flying through the air like missiles. Punches were thrown. I actually saw a knife plunged into a guy’s chest. I distinctly recall the sensation of being carried along with the crowd without my feet moving. On a street curb, a young guy was cradling a young woman in his lap, blood flowing down one side of her head while he screamed over and over at no one in particular, “Is this the justice of America?”
It was truly terrifying to realize something terrible was happening all around me, and I was totally unable to escape it.
I looked ahead: a row of policemen stretched across the street, blocking the way and wildly clubbing every protestor they could reach. And I was speeding straight toward them.
Not knowing what else to do, I screamed “American! American!” at the top of my lungs. I truly believe the officer who struck me tried to break his swing; but the blow that hit my ribs was still powerful enough to knock the wind out of me. I staggered to a sidewalk, and noticed a rip in my pants that hadn’t been there earlier. Otherwise, I was safe. Nearly 200 students were arrested that day; I was just glad I wasn’t one of them.
I wandered around until I finally ran into Chris, the guy who had wanted to go in the first place. After we’d become separated, he quite sensibly found a spot out of harm’s way and had a grand time watching the melee. We didn’t talk for two days.
I recently found an online news archive that said, “July 27, 1980: Violence erupts between pro- and anti-Khomeini demonstrators in Washington DC.” That was putting it mildly. I’m not sure at what point a demonstration becomes a riot, but this one straddled the line.
That was the first riot (or near-riot) I ever experienced, and I hope it will be my last. I also hope the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri ends very soon. These things aren’t fun for anyone. Trust me.
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