Monster meeting is a quaint, old-fashioned term describing protests and demonstrations and 1968 was a vintage year. Lately I’ve been thinking about the incredible impacts of the 1968 demonstrations and musing about my time in Australia where I spent that fateful year. Maybe it was the January 30th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam or, perhaps, it was the recently released National Security Archive cautionary tale of the Tlatelolco Massacre before the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Mostly, however, it is the recent homeschool-driven, in-depth study of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right of ‘people peaceably to assemble’. Around today’s world, including in the U.S. where the citizen’s rights are supposed to be protected, demonstrations by the people are being met with terrible violence. In Australia, a bastion of several great experiments in democracy, at least one politician wants to “place the power to decide what is ‘legitimate protest’ in the hands of police”. Monster meetings are important catalysts of change. They spark fierce debates that tear at a country’s soul and may change its direction for better or worse. If proof is required, the protests of 1968 stand now in mute testimony.
Forty-six years ago (January, 1968), I was sweating in a blue bungalow in a new housing tract in Adelaide, South Australia reflecting on my immigration adventure and contemplating a beach day, when news of the Tet offensive in Vietnam flashed across the airwaves and through the radio to which I was half-listening. Vietnam seemed much closer in Adelaide; just an island’s hop, skip and jump away. Australia’s political and military establishments supported the U.S., but lately its people were beginning to rebel. I recalled the late Prime Minister Harold Holt’s battle cry, ‘All the way with LBJ’, and now wondered how this latest escalation would sit with Australians. The month before, December 1967, Harold Holt had apparently drowned while swimming and Australia was in a political uproar. Conspiracy theories surrounding his death were spawning like mushroom spore and growing in the same medium. Australia’s political system was in turmoil as each political persuasion posited its ideas for Holt’s replacement and the newspapers were experiencing a windfall of storylines.
I immigrated to Australia from Africa for £ 10, and when I arrived in Sydney the government sent me to Adelaide, South Australia. There I joined thousands of other immigrants from
England, the Ukraine, Europe and Colonial Africa. Times were tough in the 1968 Australian trenches. A disagreement between Holt’s Liberal government and the agricultural community had driven produce prices through the roof and the legacy was a terrible inflation. During this period, my neighbors and I paid $1.00 (Australian) for a potato and shared the cost of inexpensive cuts of mutton to feed our families. I do hope I never have to eat mutton again. Meeting the challenges of daily life in Adelaide was not without its rewards, however. We were a collection of immigrants who brought our recipes and our cultures to the neighborhood table. Somehow there was always plenty of red wine and laughter, while we chased our neighbor’s escape-artist wallaby or took turns buying the local newspaper for a community read. Maybe in Sydney, they would protest, but in Adelaide the game of survival was being played in earnest.
As I was scheming to escape the summer heat in South Australia and the anti-war protests were gearing up to the northeast, the rest of the world’s citizens were awakening. The Civil Rights, anti-nuclear, feminist, and anti-war movements in the U.S. were tame compared to the rest of the world, and the U.S. government was relatively benign compared to the massacres that took place elsewhere but those times were anything but peaceful. Many people died or were injured in violent conflict with various governments to make a point. Wikipedia provides a catalog of the 1968’s main monster meetings:
- The German student movements were largely a reaction against the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the German government and other Western governments, particularly in relation to the poor living conditions of students.
- Workers were joined by students at the University of Madrid to protest the involvement of police in demonstrations against dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, demanding democracy, trade unions and worker rights, and education reform.
- Students in 108 German universities protested for recognition of East Germany, the removal of government officials with Nazi pasts and for the rights of students.
- In what became known as Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s first secretary Alexander Dubček began a period of reform, which gave way to outright civil protest, only ending when the Soviet Union invaded the country in August.
- In January, police used clubs on 400 anti-war protestors outside of a dinner for U.S. Secretary of State Rusk.
- On January 30, 300 student protesters from the University of Warsaw and the National Theater School were beaten with clubs by state arranged anti-protestors.
- Orangeburg massacre – On February 8, a civil rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina, turned deadly with the death of three college students.
- In February, protests by professors at the German University of Bonn demanded the resignation of the university’s president because of his involvement in the building of concentration camps during the war.
- In February, students from Harvard, Radcliffe, and Boston University held a four-day
hunger strike to protest the war.
- 10,000 West Berlin students held a sit-in against American involvement in Vietnam.
- People in Canada protested the war by mailing 5,000 copies of the paperback, Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada to the United States.
- On March 1, a clash known as battle of Valle Giulia took place between students and police in the faculty of architecture in the Sapienza University of Rome.
- On March 8, the 1968 Polish political crisis began with students from the University of Warsaw who marched for student rights and were beaten with clubs. The next day over two thousand students marched in protest of the police involvement on campus and were clubbed and arrested again. By March 11, the general public had joined the protest in violent confrontations with students and police in
the streets. The government fought a propaganda campaign against the protestors, labeling them Zionists. The twenty days of protest ended when the state closed all of the universities and arrested more than a thousand students. Most Polish Jews left the country to avoid persecution by the government.
- In March, students in North Carolina organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter that spread to 15 cities.
- In March, students from all five public high schools in East L.A. walked out of their classes protesting against unequal conditions in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. Over the next several days, they inspired similar walkouts at fifteen other schools.
- In March, Italian students closed the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest.
- On March 6, 500 New York University (NYU) students demonstrated against Dow Chemical because the company was the principal manufacturer of napalm, used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
- On March 17, an anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London, ended with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.
- Japanese students protested the presence of the American military in Japan because of the Vietnam War.
- In March, British students turned violent in their anti-war protests (opposing the Vietnam War), physically attacking the British defense secretary, the secretary of state for education and the Home Secretary.
- On March 28, the Military Police of Brazil killed high school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto at a protest for cheaper meals at a restaurant for low-income students. The aftermath of his death generated one of the first major protests against the military dictatorship.
- On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, sparking violent protests in more than 115
American cities, notably Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
- On April 23, students at Columbia University protested the school’s allegedly racist policies, three school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours. This was just one of a number of Columbia University protests of 1968.
- On April 27 an anti-war march in Chicago organized by Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and others ended with police beating many of the marchers, a precursor to the police riots later that year at the Democratic Convention.
- The admittance of the South African team brought the issue of Apartheid to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. After more than 40 teams threatened to boycott, the
committee reconsidered and again banned the South African team. The Olympics were targeted as a venue to bring the Black Movement into public view. The entire summer was a series of escalating conflicts between Mexican students and the police.
- In April, Spanish students protested at the fascist regime of Franco sanctioning a mass for Adolf Hitler. At the beginning of spring the University of Madrid was closed for thirty-eight days due to student demonstrations. Students protesting against the military dictatorship were killed in Brazil.
- On April 20, Enoch Powell made an anti-immigration speech that sparked demonstrations
throughout England. His Rivers of Blood speech helped define immigration as a political issue and helped legitimize anti-immigration sentiment.
- May 1968 in France – The French May protests started with student protests over university reform and escalated into a month long protest. The trade unions joined the protest resulting in a general strike.
- On May 24–27, students in Stockholm institute the occupation of the Student Union Building.
- In August, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was disrupted by five days of street demonstrations by thousands of anti-war protesters. Chicago’s mayor escalated the riots with excessive police presence and by ordering up the National Guard and the army to suppress the protests.
- In September, the women’s liberation movement gained international recognition when it demonstrated at the annual Miss America beauty pageant. The week-long protest and its disruption of the pageant gained the movement much needed attention in the press.
- On October 2, after a summer of protests against the Mexican government and the occupation of the central campus of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) by the army, a student demonstration in Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City ended with police, paratroopers and paramilitary units firing on students, killing over a hundred persons.
- In October, the Rodney Riots in Kingston, Jamaica, were inspired when the Jamaican government of Hugh Shearer banned Guyanese university lecturer Dr. Walter Rodney from returning to his teaching position at the University of the West Indies. Rodney, a historian of Africa, had been active in the Black power movement, and had been sharply critical of the middle class in many Caribbean countries. Rodney was an avowed socialist who worked with the poor of Jamaica in an attempt to raise their political and cultural consciousness.
By the end of 1968 governments (repressive or otherwise) and protesters (students, labor unions, agitators and idealists) took stock and, perhaps, a unified breath of relief. In the U.S. and Europe, new movements were formed. The environmental movement grew out of the anti-nuclear movement and replaced the fear of nuclear annihilation with the fear of environmental annihilation. The Tet Offensive and My Lai Massacre increased the Vietnam War protests in America and elsewhere. While the Black Panthers with their ‘Black Power’ battle cry unseated the non-violent civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination became its defining moment. The Civil Rights movement made good strides and most in the U.S. re-examined their views and realized great change was required.
Governments’ positions also shifted in response to the outcries from the monster meetings. In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, and the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, were caught with their agency pants down mooning the rights of citizens and countries. The FBI pledged to change and the CIA went further underground under the cloak of secrecy. Other governments moved their positions and changed how they did business as well. In most geopolitical arenas, the movements were tiny, but there was definite movement. Protestors adjusted their strategies, re-aligned, and prepared for the next round of demonstrations.
In 2014, some of the mainstream and all of the alternative media are alight with news of the world’s decline into tyranny. Posts and stories abound about protests and demonstrations, even those that begin peacefully as in Turkey, being met with extreme and brutal force. It’s nasty in the streets of the Ukraine, Russia, China, the Philippines, Thailand, the U.S., England, Europe and Africa. In 1968, it was nasty as well, but the difference was that Western governments were well aware that citizens had a right to protest and tried to hide its own lawlessness. Eastern governments hid their denial of the right to protest in shame through media and movement control.
In 2014, great efforts are being made to legally limit the right to assemble and that is the tyranny. Once the laws are changed, the governments’ violence against and plunder of its citizens becomes legal. Those of us blessed to live in republics and under other forms of democracy were gifted rights and liberty through long, bloody, horror-ridden wars in which millions have died over the millennia. Let us not return to these times. Our governments are afraid of their citizens. It is time to make the ballot box hum with votes for officials who respect the citizens and their right to peaceably assemble.
The summer of 1968 was long and hot in South Australia, but the world was alive with ideas, movements, and monster meetings. They are not comfortable but they are necessary.
 George Washington University National Security Archive; January 28, 2014; Lauren Harper; The Declassified Record on the Tlatelolco Massacre that Preceded the ’68 Olympic Games; http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/the-declassified-record-on-the-tlatelolco-massacre-that-preceded-the-68-olympic-games/
 The Guardian; January 28, 2014; Asher Wolf; Victoria’s new anti-protest bill is a threat to our freedom of assembly; http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/29/victorias-new-anti-protest-bill-is-a-threat-to-our-freedom-of-assembly