Hazardous Freedom

In December 1965 three high school students in Des Moines, Iowa gathered at the home of Christopher Eckhardt, 16. The subject: opposition to the Vietnam War and how to protest America’s involvement. The solution: wear black armbands to school and fast on two days — activities they and their parents had previously participated in. School officials learned of the plan and quickly issued a policy that any student with an armband would be asked to remove it, and upon refusal would be suspended until they complied.

Christopher, his sister Mary Beth and John Tinker wore their armbands, were sent home, and did not return until after the agreed upon period for armbands had ended. Their parents sued for nominal damages and the case ended up in the United States Supreme Court (Tinker v. Des Moines) where Justice Fortas wrote the opinion:

But, in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression. Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. Any word spoken, in class, in the lunchroom, or on the campus, that deviates from the views of another person may start an argument or cause a disturbance. But our Constitution says we must take this risk… and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom — this kind of openness — that is the basis of our national strength and of the independence and vigor of Americans who grow up and live in this relatively permissive, often disputatious, society.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 200-meters medal ceremony, 1968 Olympics

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 200-meters medal ceremony, 1968 Olympics

Three years later — October 18, 1968 — college teammates, then Olympic athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals in the 200-meters. During the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos stood in stocking feet, eyes averted away from the flag, and held a black-gloved fist in the air — the black power salute.

Smith said at the time:
 I couldn’t salute the flag in the accepted manner because it didn’t represent me fully; only asking me to be great on the track and then obliging me to come home and be just another nigger.

It was the fist that scared people… White folks would have forgotten the black socks, the silk scarf and bowed head. But they saw that raised black fist and were afraid.

Their medals were revoked and they came home to death threats.

Skip ahead to…

On June 28,2004 Sony Computer Entertainment America sent out a press release entitled “Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, Jay-Z and Paris Hilton Join PlayStation2 to Celebrate 4th of July Weekend in Style.” It read in part: 
To kick-off the July 4th weekend, PlayStation2 will celebrate Independence Day with the debut of the PlayStation2 Estate, a private, all-inclusive retreat that will serve as the ultimate Hamptons destination. Located in Bridgehampton, NY and situated on six acres of pristine property that includes a three-acre pond, a 12,500 square-foot mansion with nine bedrooms and full guest amenities, the PlayStation 2 Estate will feature a series of private evening events hosted by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Paris Hilton. During the day, the PlayStation 2 Estate will also offer a variety of activities to keep guests entertained such as spa treatments, badminton, horseback riding, canoeing, bocce ball, croquet, ping-pong, and the latest in PlayStation 2 gaming.


Sunday, July 4: PlayStation 2 and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs Celebrate the Red, WHITE and Blue.
Celebrating Independence Day “Diddy Style,” PlayStation 2 and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs will host the annual WHITE party. The ultra-exclusive event will feature a viewing of the original Declaration of Independence and a special musical performance.

During that star-spangled evening, Mr. Diddy launched his new non-profit coalition called Citizen Change.

I want young people to know that your vote can change your life… I am asking young Americans to hold their vote hostage and force the candidates to address our issues… There are only a few people in America who have the energy and enthusiasm to get young people to step up to the plate and get excited and passionate about this election, and I am one of them… The revolution has begun.

Of course, this effort needs a logo.


This is unsettling. Unsettling because this initiative was announced at the “ultimate Hamptons destination” during an “ultra-exclusive event” — with no huddled masses in sight. Unsettling because Mr. Diddy borrowed Norman Lear’s copy of the Declaration of Independence and told guests that it was “his date”. I wonder… What are “our issues”? How does one “hold their vote hostage” — by not voting? What “revolution” is he speaking of? I’ve been to the website and there’s not much there. How is he planning to do anything in only four months without any plans of action? Its a good thing he got the logo done in time!

So here we are again; a once-powerful symbol held upside-down at the ankles with everything of substance being shaken out of its pockets. Eyes averted in bitterness are now averted because that’s what those two runners did — and I’m a runner! I ran a marathon! And that cliched criticism of being wrapped up in the flag is also appropriated without that difficult irony. Like a contemporary Potemkin village, I present the Citizen Change logo. No matter what one thinks of the type or how it’s drawn, you just know that we’re going to be seeing it on sweat suits and T-shirts.

The last words go to Olympian Jesse Owens’ comments, directed to Tommie Smith and John Carlos:
 The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers — weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.

Ain’t that the truth.

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