Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Fiery, and Futile, Protest

Roger LaPorte may be a name you never remember hearing. And you may not even remember the tragic incident associated with him. Just like me until a few weeks ago.
I write this, though, in memory of Roger, who died of burns, self-inflicted. He poured gasoline over himself in front of the United Nations Building in New York City and set himself afire. He died the next day, on November 10, 1965.
Why in the world would a young, 22-year-old man engage in self-immolation? In his case it was in protest over the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. was becoming increasingly involved.
Roger LaPorte, a former seminarian, was a volunteer worker with the Catholic Worker community in New York. He had also met and talked briefly with Daniel Berrigan, about whom I posted recently.
Father Berrigan was asked to officiate at a memorial service for Roger, and he did so in spite of being advised by his Catholic superiors not to do so. Shortly afterwards, Berrigan’s Jesuit superior and New York’s Cardinal Spellman ordered him to leave the country at once. He was exiled to Latin America, unable to return to the U.S. for several months.
Among other things, Berrigan questioned whether Roger’s act was a suicide. Rather, he suggested the young man’s fiery protest should perhaps be seen as an act of “misguided heroism,” the giving of life rather than the taking of life. Shortly before he died, Roger reportedly had said, “I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.”
Roger’s self-sacrifice in opposition to the Vietnam War was actually the third which occurred in the U.S., all in 1965. Earlier that year an 82-year-old woman died by self-immolation in Detroit. And just one week before Roger’s deadly protest, Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker, had set himself on fire right below Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office.
Unfortunately, these drastic protests failed to bring the war to a halt.
And so, three years later the shameful My Lai Massacre occurred. Five years later (in 1970) the U.S. began the questionable invasion of Cambodia. And then in 1972 Kim Phuc, “the girl in the picture” about whom I posted in July was napalmed.
Finally, eight years after Roger’s extreme protest, the war officially ended, although it was not until April 1975 that the last U.S. soldier was killed in Vietnam and the last troops left that country--largely with a loss of face for the United States. There was almost nothing positive to show for the war being prolonged all those years after the fiery protest of Robert LaPorte. What a tragic waste of lives and resources!
Now there are few protests about the U.S. war activities, which by next month will (we hope!) be only in Afghanistan. But there are significant protests continuing in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
So in addition to the war on terrorism that continues in south Asia, domestically we now see what some call “class warfare.” (And the upper class clearly seems to be winning.)
Let us hope and pray that the protests now occurring will be heeded before there is an escalation of violence, and before some protesters resort to more extreme measures.


  1. A cautionary "tale" for our times. Thank you, Leroy.

  2. A Thinking Friend whom I knew in Japan and who now lives in Wisconsin wrote in an e-mail,

    "Good morning Leroy, your essay this morning touched my heart deeply. As you know many Tibetan practitioners of the Buddha also made this decision and took their lives recently. I remember hearing Tae speak about one of his monks in Phnom who also made this decision. And he said this was not suicide it was practice. Both of us having lived in Japan . . . know about suicide in what I call a different context. So this is been a rough week for me as I review the events in Tibet."

  3. I don't know, Leroy. The unfortunate fact about American history is that violence seems to work better than peaceful protests for effecting change. I'm not saying that as one who hopes for it -- not at all -- but as a sociologist who has studied the history of American protest movements. I'm hoping the Occupy Movement will coalesce into a nation-wide, focused, concerted, and peaceful effort to tilt us back towards a country with the conscience of a community. But I'm haunted by human history as well as the words of the philosopher, the late Richard Rorty: “To say that history is ‘the history of class struggle’ is still true, if it is interpreted to mean that in every culture, under every form of government, and in every imaginable situation (e.g., England when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, Indonesia after the Dutch went home, China after Mao’s death, Britain and America under Thatcher and Reagan) the people who have already got their hands on money and power will lie, cheat and steal in order to make sure that they and their descendants monopolize both for ever.” (Philosophy and Social Hope)

  4. Anton, thanks for sharing your comments. It is helpful to have these words from Richard Rorty, and I am afraid his words are too true. (I still find it interesting to realize that he was Walter Rauschenbusch's grandson.)

    But while it is no doubt the case that "violence seems to work better than peaceful protests for effecting change," I want to keep hoping that some effective change can be made through peaceful protests. And I keep thinking that there needs to be more emphasis on and support of peaceful protests. Years ago Art Gish said something like this: "Violent revolutions are taking place because non-violent revolutions are not taking place."

  5. A Thinking Friend in Arizona send an e-mail that begins with the following comment:

    "Thanks for your thoughts on Roger LaPorte's death. It reminds me how desperate people can become when they see no hope for redress of their grievances."

  6. A Thinking Friend in California, whom I have seldom heard from, sent the following comments:

    "Very thought provoking. I've been thinking a lot about the protesters, and we've been praying for them as a family. Ours is a democracy...albeit one from which many now feel disenfranchised. I heartened to see that we're beginning to care again. I don't know where the spark came from, but it's clear that people across the nation in every walk of life are feeling the need and desire to stand up for what they believe is an untenable situation. I, too, hope our leaders listen."

  7. I happened to see a review of a book on John Brown tonight on PBS Newshour. Which lead me to think of the discussion above on the role violence plays in reform. Bleeding Kansas was not exactly a nonviolent protest movement, on either side. But it was at Harpers Ferry that the irony piled on deep and deeper. Brown staged a famous raid to start a slave revolt. The first casualty was one of the slaves Brown wanted to free. In short order Brown and his men were captured, by Robert E. Lee himself. But then, at his trial, Brown, the self-professed man of action, found his voice with a power that shook the nation. Less than two years after his execution, the Civil War was underway. With much shedding of blood, the institution of American slavery was washed away.

    I have long paired Brown with another, less obvious, prophet against American slavery: William Shakespeare. Just about the time American slavery began, Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice. At the climax of the play, in the trial to decide if Shylock can seize the famous pound of flesh, Shylock surprise the court by offering to free Antonio from his contract, if the Prince will simply free ALL the slaves in Venice. The Prince responds by calling Antonio his son, and then launches into an economic defense of slavery that would make any antebellum Southern politician proud. Like Moses before Pharaoh, Shylock is not impressed. Such a thin line separates Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies.

    The price of blood is very high. It is well that the Bible teaches us, "Vengeance is mine, thus saith the Lord!" Yet, from one end of the Bible to the other, God is a bloody god. As He warned Jerusalem, "You would not listen to the quiet waters of Shiloh, so now you shall listen to the thunder of the Euphrates!" In some ways it does not matter whether the bloodshed is for us or against us, it is a terrible time for all. That is a sobering thought for our times.

  8. The picture you have is of Norman Morrison. Not LaPorte.

    1. The picture is identified in Google images as LaPorte. But it seems that the same picture is also identified as Morrison. I do not know which is correct, but they both died in the same manner.

      If you, Anonymous, or anyone else has a verified picture of LaPorte that you could share with me, I will replace the one I used on the posting.