Dissent Is Patriotic. It’s Also a Powerful Antidote to Propaganda.

Demonstrators protest the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings at San Francisco City Hall in 1960.

“If you’re to be called a communist every time you stand up for basic American rights and freedoms, what’s likely to happen? Will you be silent? And if so, is this what the House Committee on Un-American Activities is really after — a silent, submissive, un-protesting America?”

-Ernest Besig, “Operation Correction,” 1961

Fifty-five years ago this January, the ACLU of Northern California was busy filling orders from across the country for copies of its recently produced film, “Operation Correction.” The film was a response to a piece of Red Scare propaganda, “Operation Abolition,” which was produced by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and depicted civil liberties activists in San Francisco as violent “communist agents” bent on destroying the fabric of America.

In those days, the federal government was deeply concerned with the political affiliations of ordinary Americans — if those affiliations were left-leaning.

My own grandfather, who was a World War II veteran and affiliated with the Communist Party in San Francisco, was under FBI surveillance. In 1950, he was fired from a good union job at a glass company after FBI agents paid his employers a visit and informed them of his history as a labor organizer before the war.

Our family bounced back, but the government’s post-war obsession with leftist thought and activism ruined the lives of many Californians.

Leading the charge was HUAC, which investigated suspected communists. Professors, teachers, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and activists all came under deep scrutiny.

In 1960, HUAC came to San Francisco. They subpoenaed 48 Northern Californians — many of them teachers and professors — to testify at City Hall about their political affiliations. At this point, the tide of public opinion was already starting to turn against HUAC.

College students from UC Berkeley and Stanford mobilized to protest the hearings and take a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of association. The hearings, the protests, and the violent police crack-down were covered heavily by local news.

Protesters at SF city hall
Demonstrators outside of the San Francisco city hall. Credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

Inside City Hall, witnesses were called to testify — several of them represented by the ACLU. While the hearings dragged on, the San Francisco Police Department used firehoses to knock protesters down the marble steps of City Hall. Scores were arrested and charged.

 The San Francisco Police Department turned fire-hoses on student demonstrators and then dragged them down the steps of City Hall and out to police paddy wagons.
The San Francisco Police Department turned fire hoses on student demonstrators and dragged them down the steps of City Hall and out to police paddy wagons.

Through manipulative editing and voiceover narration, HUAC’s “Operation Abolition” used real news footage to portray the student activists as violent and dangerous “hardcore Communist agents” and “indoctrinated and trained dupes.”

In this moment, the ACLU of Northern California saw an opportunity to educate the public about the danger HUAC posed to American ideals of freedom, democracy, and dissent.

While “Operation Abolition” was being viewed by millions of Americans at town halls and colleges across the country, the ACLU produced “Operation Correction.” Our executive director at the time, Ernest Besig, narrated the exact same footage and explained the propagandistic tactics being used to mislead the public.

People flocked to see it. In Berkeley, hundreds showed up for a standing-room-only “Operation Correction” event. Copies were distributed nationwide and even shown on TV in Alaska, Texas, and Kansas.

Newspapers like The Washington Post editorialized on the success of the film and the dangers of government propaganda.

Historians credit HUAC’s “Operation Abolition” with backfiring spectacularly. Young people across the country were shown the film at school, saw right through it, and decided they should make their way to Berkeley — after all, that’s where all the action was. Four years later, the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement began.

Let’s remember this moment in history as a lesson in the power of free speech and free thought. And let’s remember it as proof that if we remain vigilant, lies can wither in the face of truth.

In the wake of an election season marked by fake newsopen distaste for journalism, and a president-elect who lied about his own self-documented views during a nationally televised debate, let’s not shy away from reflecting on our government’s willingness to engage in cynical propaganda.

Our 45th president will soon be inaugurated. We will likely see hundreds of thousands of people protesting Donald Trump’s presidency and his proposed policies in cities across the country. It’s crucial for people to know and understand their First Amendment right to demonstrate.

In 1962, the ACLU had to have a ground-game to distribute “Operation Correction.” Today we can all voice our dissent at lighting speed to a digitally networked world. The ACLU will remain vigilant in the months and years to come. We also are ready to defend your right to document injustice, speak your mind, and tell your own stories.

Please keep it up.     

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Anonymous

Is the gentleman with the "Fascism is not our national policy" sign Bernie Sanders? He looks remarkably like the photo of a young Bernie Sanders getting arrested: chicagotribune.com/news/ct-bernie-sanders-1963-chicago-arrest-20160219-story.html

Anonymous

Back in the '70's a ship (Ping Ma) in the port of San Francisco was found to have ~40 kg of cocaine secreted in a chain locker. The ship was owned by the father of Elaine Chao. This actually clears up a mystery about why Elaine would possibly be interested in the Department of Transportation. Surely she would not be trying to protect a family enterprise making them far wealthier than Trump. Having control of the ports could be perverted to such ends so it must be incumbent upon the committee "vetting" her nomination to help her avoid such compromising problems. The crypto monarchy which is surely the biggest threat to us and our rights is also surely interested in the most profitable pastime in the world.

Anonymous

More hypocrisy from Ms. Woolman, who has yet to address the the ACLU's well-documented retreat, over the past decade, from its once-aggressive defense of "free speech" causes, many of which, of course, are notoriously unpopular. Does the ACLU agree or disagree with the "First Amendment dissent" of a single, isolated judge in America's leading criminal "parody" case? See the documentation at: raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/ Compare the words of a French author writing in the late nineteenth century: "I am nauseated by my contemporaries. Even at the highest levels of culture, there is a flattening out of judgment, a collapse of opinions and consciences. In the ambient air of cowardice, they have all lost their sense of revolt."

Joe Trask

Is "Operation Correction" available on dvd?

Jett Rucker

But ... what if I want to protest military and economic aid to Israel, or question the Holocaust myth by which Israel continually justifies its own reprise thereof?

Isn't that, so to speak, beyond the Pale?

Anonymous

First of all I'd like to say ACLU please do not censor my speech most especially " Don't get Political" . The People are " ANGRY !!" To say the least but we got to hear all of it ( let's get it out there ) and deal with it . Please and I will try to do my best , to hear u out . Behave America

Regi Bald

I fear the Trump administration is rolling the dice on our economy and our environment.
Our nuclear power and capabilities are just the toppings.

We're about to extract fossil fuel from every available hole in the ground and we're very likely to increase extraction exponentially.

Pipelines: DONE
Mountain Top Removal: DONE
Offshore Drilling: DONE
Fracking [everywhere & not nearly]: DONE
2 degrees Celsius+: DONE

Economy: DONE

While the Trump administration tries to overload the system (1st 100 Days), causing maximum deflection, they'll be delivering every financial advantage to their corporate overlords; themselves.

Unfortunately, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Otherwise, it would seem even worse. But I don't know how it could be worse. Too many signs of woe in every direction.

I sincerely hope you're watching, and in every possible way. Trump himself is a master at deflection; true of a majority of his cabinet and most especially his immediate staff.

I'll send this to a few environmental groups, as well, in hopes I'll receive a reply in return.

I would greatly appreciate a reply. I wish I could help, but my voice is too small. Slightly louder here!

"Prepare for the worst and hope for the best!"

Judson Witham

FACT IS The Bill of Rights is what America is ALL About. Love it or Leave It .... Nuff Said
https://vimeo.com/235917629

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