Politics, Protest, Vang Pao, Vietnam

When You Walk Through a Storm, Hold Your Head Up High…

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

It was a beautiful day in my neighborhood today. A beautiful day to stage a protest march. A group of Asian people were out in surprising numbers today walking up Mifflin Street to the Federal Courthouse, around the block and then back down Dayton Street to Broom Street so they could turn around and do it all over again. This parade of people of Asian descent streamed past the windows of the lobby of the Three Threes for a solid five minutes off and on throughout the day. Some of them were bearing plain signs that carried simple direct messages.

It was a beautiful summer day to be out on the streets walking for these modestly dressed people. Most of them were wearing neat and brilliantly white blouses and shirts and black skirts and slacks. A few were dressed in their native costumes from the country the immigrated from. The sun was not too hot and the breezes were pleasant. There are flowers blooming in the beds on the Capitol lawn and the people in our fair city would surely be receptive to their cause today of all days if any day.

These protesters would nod enthusiastically and smile widely if anyone showed agreement with their cause but they did not hoot and holler. They would move politely to one side if anyone needed to pass on the sidewalk, saying excuse me, quietly but mostly they marched with silent dignity hour after hour as they have day after day after day since it has become warm enough to be outside without coats and hats and gloves. They have become a familiar presence in my neighborhood. I have become familiar with their cause.

I have been and am impressed. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s and Ghandi’s urging to pursue civil protest with quiet dignity. I was reminded of Rosa Parks who simply refused to move to the back of the bus. Their quiet diffidence speaks volumes.

And what is it these people want? Well later in the afternoon I was surprised to hear the sound of speeches coming over loud speakers and the chanting of young (male) voices. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get away from my laundry to make the hop, skip and jump up to the square to see what was up. Damn laundry. But surely the news would tell me.

I just got done listening to channel 27’s 6:30 news report. Nothing. I checked Channel 3 and channel 15’s websites. Nothing. I checked The Capital Times Site, supposedly our liberal print newspaper. Nothing. I checked the Isthmus Daily Page. Nothing. OK, fair enough it was late in the day so maybe none of them had advance notice and couldn’t file a story that late in the day. Gee, I could be breaking the news here. <heh>

Who are they and what do they want? Well it’s all tied into this story about the school that was named after a Hmong Vietnam War Hero until it wasn’t. General Vang Pao‘s name was chosen from amongst 41 names submitted to the Madison School Board in April of 2007 and the matter was given due consideration and voted upon. It has become a touchstone of controversy ever since.

Vang Pao is Hmong and the Hmong are from Laos and Cambodia. During the Vietnam War the Hmong gave covert aide and assistance to the American Army and at the end of of our involvement in Vietnam they were literally chased out of their homeland into refugee camps. Eventually many of them were resettled in the United States. A good many of them settled in Wisconsin and have become good citizens. Outstanding citizens. One of them, General Vang’s son, serves on Madison’s school Board.

Much as our country has mixed emotions about Vietnam, we have mixed emotions about our involvement with the Hmong peoples. Many say we owe them a debt of gratitude. Many say they are war criminals. This is true in Wisconsin and definitely true in Madison where so much discussion about the right or wrong of our involvement in Vietnam took place. Apparently we’re still arguing about it.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor McCoy claims that Van Pao is a war criminal and committed crimes against humanity in Cambodia during the Vietnam era.  He was under the command of the United States Army at the time.   MrMcoy was no doubt a protester during the Vietnam war and considers the US Army and government  war criminals.  But the Hmong are not as powerful as the US government.

My personal opinion lie somewhere in between.  I protested against the Vietnam war when it was going on.  However,  I think that we owe the Hmong people something for having involved them in our political struggles. I am not inclined to judge a man like Vang Pao harshly when I know very well that our own government was doing things that would be considered criminal if they were dragged out into the light of day. I’ve talked to too many Vietnam Veterans who have shared their secrets with me.

The Hmong, including Vang Pao, maybe especially Vang Pao, were caught up in the events of history and they made hard choices that had to be made. Maybe not all of them were the ideal choices but let he who is without sin blah, blah, blah…

In a strange twist of fate, General Vang Pao was arrested on June 5th and charged with plotting to overthrow the Communist Government in Laos. Our own government assisted in the investigation against him and is cooperating with the Laotian government. As the worm turns…

The persistence and dignity, of these people who gave so much to our country during the Vietnam war has touched me. Many people don’t know why the Hmong people are in the United States. But these people who were walking miles through my neighborhood on such a beautiful day were there so we won’t forget. Apparently Hmong people across the United States are gathering to make their presence felt.


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