The distant thunder of Vietnam, a hazy, hurtful memory for most Americans, came roaring to the White House today in a large scale protest. But the object of scorn was Vietnamese President and Communist Chairman Nguyen Minh Triet meeting with President Bush to sign a trade agreement. Several thousand Vietnamese Americans from across the country milled at the edge of Lafayette Park penned behind waist-high barriers, shouting across Pennsylvania Avenue facing the White House:
"Free All Political Prisoners"
"Down with the Communists"
I waded through the orderly, noisy protesters, noting they were all ages: older men, some in their Vietnam War uniforms; younger men, one wearing an AC/DC rocker T-shirt, many wearing printed T-shirts, "Stop Kangeroo Court in Vietnam...Human Rights for Vietnam." Women were as boisterous as men, taking up the cadence of the increasingly incendiary chants:
"VC (Vietcong)" the leader would yell into a bullhorn...
"Liar" the crowd would yell back
"VC...Go to Hell"
Protesters waved some American flags, but mostly Vietnamese flags, not the Communist Star flag, but a flag of yellow background with three horizontal red bands adopted in 1948. Many carried banners with pointed barbs, "Freedom of Religion or Death,"..."Triet and his Gang are Big Liars,"...and the most common, a blow-up color photo of Catholic Father Nguyen Van Ly at "The People's Court in Hue City, March 30, 2007," an activist for religious freedom reportedly sentenced to 8 years in jail. The crowd repeatedly shouted:
"Free Father Ly"
"Free Father Ly"
"Freedom for Vietnam"
As I marveled at the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech within earshot of the White House, I began to notice how Americanized these Vietnamese-Americans have become. Ironically, while they were outside cursing what they describe as tyranny, President Bush was inside meeting cordially with the Communist President of Vietnam, and exchanging views on religion and human rights. The Presidents may not have heard, but the sounds and sights I will long remember, especially the hats worn by the protesters. All kinds of hats: a few traditional Vietnamese conical hats, a straw cowboy hat, but hundreds of baseball caps celebrating the vitality of America:
Sports caps: "Boston Red Sox" ..."New York Mets"..."Carolina Panthers"
University caps: "Notre Dame"..."UCLA" ... "Virginia Tech"
Designers: "Tommy Hilfiger"..."CK Jeans"..."PHAT"
Cars: "Lincoln LS" ... "Fairway Ford - Greenville, SC"
Parks: "Disney World" ... "Sea World"
Cities: "New Orleans" ... "Chicago" ..."Atlanta"
And more hats:
Nike, Addidas, Nautica, Izod, Mickey Mouse, camoflauge, berets, Michael Jordan, USA, Vietnam
It was a vigorous protest and a Mad Hatter's tea party. My two favorite toppers were a women who gave me the evil eye wearing a "Monster In-Law" ball cap, and a man inexplicably wearing three caps stacked on his head. I had to look twice at that to be sure. After several hours of shouting and socializing the crowd dissolved away on a sunny, summer day.
The protesters never saw Chairman Triet or President Bush or know whether they were even heard. Before leaving I saw a small group of demonstrators sitting in silence directly across from the White House. They had duct tape over their mouths and had laid a strand of barbed wire on the ground with a sign, "We Want to Speak Up - Help Us." They were heard.