What would you do if you found yourself standing face to face with people bearing signs accusing you by name of killing babies and encouraging the shooting of American soldiers? Might you lose your cool? Might you get involved in an exchange that would ultimately lead to anger or descend into the shouting matches we've been seeing at so many Town Halls lately?
Not if you're Joan Baez, who, in the 50th year of her career, continues to live according to unshakeable ideals of non-violence and compassion in ways that should inspire us all.
Last night, four Vietnam veterans protested Joan's concert in Idaho Falls with signs reading: "JOAN BAEZ - SOLDIERS DON'T KILL BABIES, LIBERALS DO" and "JOAN BAEZ GAVE COMFORT & AID TO OUR ENEMY IN VIETNAM & ENCOURAGED THEM TO KILL AMERICANS!"
Joan was informed that the men were protesting her concert about an hour before it was due to begin and she immediately walked out onto the street to talk to them. When she approached, one of the first things they said was "We appreciate the work you did on civil rights and women's rights." They wanted to make that point clear.
She listened closely as they discussed their views. Primarily, they wanted to express the way they felt betrayed by anti-war protesters when they returned from combat. Joan assured them that she stood by them then and now. They had mixed reactions as she explained her actual positions and her support for all veterans, across the board.
At this point, Joan's merchandise salesman, Jim Stewart, who was a Captain in the US Army during Vietnam, approached the group. Jim is one of the most kind-hearted people you could ever meet. He is not one to speak lightly of what he went through in Vietnam. He took Joan's arm and said to these four men, "I stand by this lady 100%. She did the right thing then, and she stood by us when we got home. She even recorded a song at that time from which 100% of the proceeds went to us vets."
Here Jim listens, then engages in conversation:
Unbelievably, one of the four protesters began to question Jim in an accusatory fashion, pressing him for details about what division he was in and and where he served, as if, somehow, he were making it up. It brings tears to my eyes, as I write this, to remember Jim being questioned in this way. These protesters were there, theoretically, to lament the poor treatment of American soliders and yet they belittled and questioned the service of a veteran because he did not agree with their views.
Jim played their game for a bit before seeing it for what it was and disengaging. Joan stood by his side and said, "Oh, he's got the stories all right. But he doesn't feel the need to talk about them."
Ironically, a man on his way to the concert approached at this moment and, without really following all that had gone on, interjected, "Those who don't realize that what they did in Vietnam was wrong are kind of SLOOOOOOW." I watched Jim's face as he heard that statement - literally getting it from both sides within less than a minute.
At this point I engaged in conversation with the man holding the sign accusing liberals, rather than soliders, of killing babies. He said "I never killed any babies and I don't believe in guilt by association." I asked him how in the world he could justify holding a sign with Joan Baez's name on it that basically implied she killed babies if he didn't believe in guilt by association. He replied "It's an analogy, you probably wouldn't understand it!"
Jim said he should destroy the sign and he then claimed we were trying to trample his Constitutional right to free speech. We replied that we weren't questioning his right, by any means, but rather his sense of decency, considering that he was there having a conversation with Joan and she was clearly not a baby killer. Since his entire point was that guilt by association was wrong, it made sense to us. But he replied "I'm Pro-Life and I'm proud of this sign." With those words, he held it higher.
As we discussed these things, one of them repeated, "Soldiers don't kill babies." I said that so many horrible things happen in war that it's impossible to make such a blanket statement, especially when bombs get dropped from the sky, and I said it all comes down to the truth that "War is hell."
I continued, saying, "And you all know that far better than me."
They were suprised by this statement, as if shocked that anyone on the "other side" recognized what they'd been through. It seemd to render them speechless for a moment.
At this point, Joan's continuing acceptance of their stories and her willingness to hear them out began to melt their anger. In a twist that seems hard to fathom, they then asked her to SIGN THEIR POSTERS! She replied that she would sign the back but not the front of "those horrible things." Incredibly, the man with the baby-killing sign replied that he would take her name off the poster if she would sign it.
She did end up signing them, and also getting copies of her book for each of them, and offering tickets to the show, which they did not accept. She signed the back of the poster about her encouraging the killing of American soldiers - "All the very best to you, Joan Baez."
When we got back inside the theatre, Joan broke down in tears. I said to her "You are so brave to face people like that." She wasn't crying about the way she had been treated, however, but about the way Jim Stewart had stood up for her. "Did you hear his voice shaking?" she said. "That was bravery..."
And she was right. Stepping back into the mire of Vietnam was not something he did lightly - he bore the literal denigration of his service by another veteran in order to defend her.
During the concert afterwards Joan dedicated a song to the protesters and said "You know, they just wanted to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard. I feel like I made four new friends tonight."
She took the high road, as always. It wasn't my name on those signs, yet I gave into anger. She never did. As we deal with tea parties and increasingly violent right wing protests it would do us all good to remember the example of non-violence and compassion that Ms Baez has exemplified for the 50-plus years of her career.
Her heroes are Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In my book, she's right there with them, leading the timeless and essential march along the high road.
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for the recs! I'm so happy that this story has inspired members of this community. You may want to check out the version of "We Shall Overcome" that Joan recorded in her kitchen in June, with some lyrics in Farsi, in the hope of directly inspiring the people of Iran as they stand up for real democracy against real oppression. The link follows...