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Posts Tagged ‘Protest’

In the last few days, there was a video from the Portland protests that showed a confrontation between a single protester clad in a sweatshirt and a baseball cap standing against several stormtroopers (how can they not be called that?) in full tactical gear, armed with batons and semi-automatic weapons while brandishing canisters of pepper spray.

This lone protester did nothing provocative, showed no aggression at all. In fact, he stood like a tree. He was a large guy and one of the stormtroopers stepped up to him and absolutely wailed on him, taking a stance like he was Mickey Mantle at the plate with legs spread wide and delivering several full swings with his baton to the legs and body of the protester, who stood stoically still without flinching as he absorbed the blows. Another trooper moved in with pepper spray and shot two huge bursts at point blank range into the protester’s face. At that point the protester wheeled around and walked away, defiantly raising both hands above his head to give the stormtroopers the finger with both hands.

It was like something out of a Marvel movie, Captain Portland, as he came to be called on social media.

Turns out that guy was a 53 year old Portland resident and graduate of the US Naval Academy named Chris David. He had wrestled for the Naval Academy and served in the Navy after his graduation. He was angered by the actions of the stormtroopers he had witnessed on the media and decided that he needed to face them directly so he could ask them face to face if they believed in their oath to the Constitution. At the protests, he stated the troopers emerged en mass from the Federal Building and immediately surged into the crowd. He observed that they had no discernible strategy or maneuvers that suggested that they had any knowledge of crowd control. He said they appeared to just be guys with sticks hitting whatever was in their path. Scared guys, as he noted, who were actually inflaming violence rather than controlling it.

It was a mesmerizing image, this large middle-aged bear of a man in a white sweatshirt and shorts facing several fully armed troopers and taking their heavy blows without flinching. I can imagine that the trooper swinging the baton was shaken that he couldn’t move this guy. The image of Chris David calmly walking away ( face on fire from the pepper spray and a hand so broken it will require surgery) while brandishing that symbol of angry defiance reminded me of another image, one that I saw as a child that has stuck with me for 52 years.

It was this photo taken by photographer Perry Riddle at the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It shows a group of protesters with a shirtless young man at the center giving the camera the finger with a gusto and anger that encapsulated the rage that was taking place at that time.

I was nine years old and saw the large full page photo in a Life magazine at our home. I didn’t exactly know the meaning or the actual wording behind “the finger” at that time but I sure knew that it was a symbol for expressing your anger at someone. The photo really burned its way into my memory and over the years I had futilely searched for it before giving up on ever finding it.

But seeing Chris David’s fingers of defiance sent me on a search for it yesterday morning. Within several minutes I finally uncovered one image of it with a caption with the name of  the photographer, Perry Riddle, and the name of the young man, Frank C. Plada, who it added was later killed in Viet Nam.

There had to be a story behind this Frank Plada and his death in Viet Nam. I did a search and turned up next to nothing. I finally did a search on a newspaper archive and came up with one story from 1978 that ran in the Chicago Sun Times. It finally shed some light on that angry young man who had been living for the past fifty years in my mind with his finger in full FU mode.

It turns out that Frank Plada wasn’t even originally a protester that night. He was just a 17 year guy, a junior high dropout fro m Chicago who had been knocking around at odd jobs, who went downtown to go to the movies. But seeing how the demonstrators were being treated by the police that night inflamed his anger. He joined in and was beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested for his trouble that night.

Ironically, instead of continuing to protest as you might think someone would whose image was viewed as a symbol of those Chicago protests, Plada enlisted in the US Army in the fall of 1968. He felt that he was going to be drafted so decided to enlist and do his three years. Get it over with.

But, contrary to the caption  on the photo, Frank Plada did not die in Viet Nam.

Well, not all of him.

While there, he contracted malaria and was treated with drugs. He also added a heavy diet of amphetamines and a heroin addiction that followed him home after his three years were up. The drugs and his experiences in Viet Nam took a heavy toll on him. He began experiencing seizures and had other health problems related to his addiction and PTSD. On January 1, 1976, Frank Plada died in his sleep. His family reports that the doctors said that it was not an overdose, though he had a low level of methadone in his blood from addiction treatment. They said he had experienced severe lung damage and they had simply collapsed in his sleep.

Frank Plada was 24 years old at the time of his death.

I was glad to finally see the photo again and to know the real story behind that angry young guy in the white pants who was throwing up his finger at the powers that be. The actual story is a sad tale, one that could probably be applied to any number of young men of that era. Knowing the story of Frank Plada tempers my memory of that Chicago photo a bit.

So, there are two images, 52 years apart. Their fingers may be the only thing that links the two but both gave it in dissent to the injustice they were witnessing.

These fingers, that urge to rebel against authoritarianism, might very well be that part of the American character that will ultimately save us.

Good on you, Chris David. Rest in peace, Frank C. Plada.

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