Jeff Jardine

Modesto’s anti-Trump protest, Veterans Day event shared common free speech bond

Roughly 100 young people marched through the streets of Modesto on Thursday night to protest Donald Trump’s election to the presidency.

They exercised their right of free speech by carrying signs and chanting that he is not their president (not until Jan. 20, anyway). A few shoving matches between anti- and pro-Trump types broke out, but Modesto’s march involved none of the vandalism other cities – including Oakland and Portland, Ore. – have endured from similar protests, and no arrests.

About 13 hours later, one of the protesters – 19-year-old Sarah Thomas – sat among the members of the Modesto Junior College band in the Mancini Bowl. “I played the tuba on the far left,” she said.

She performed during the Veterans Day event that began with a parade down Needham Avenue to Graceada Park, where a large crowd came to thank those who served. Thomas considers herself among the thankful, but she recognizes the irony.

“When Trump was first elected, I never felt more unpatriotic in my life,” she said. “And now, the next day, here I am protesting the night before and then playing for the veterans. I get to protest and also to say ‘thank you’ to those who made it possible for me to do that. I felt very empowered.”

If outnumbered.

Many of those who lined Needham Avenue wore red, white and blue and waved U.S. flags. Others wore caps, vests and jackets indicating they were among the honorees. Thomas told me she didn’t see any of the others who protested Thursday night attending Friday’s Veterans Day event, and that is a shame. They all owe that same debt of gratitude no matter how much they dislike the president-elect. Their right to protest exists thanks to the living veterans and those who died defending the nation, the Constitution and its First Amendment that protects our rights to free speech, peaceful protest, a free press and freedom of religion. Which means Thursday’s protest and Friday’s celebration are linked, not contrasting, events.

The greatest argument for free speech is any argument against it.

Protesters have the right to criticize Trump (or any other candidate) and to protest his presidency as long as they do so peacefully. And those who criticize the protesters in social media and on have the same right. They even have the right to criticize the concept of free speech or protest – but not the right to prevent it.

The other young protesters could have learned something by attending the Veterans Day event and perhaps listening a bit to those veterans who fought or served.

“There are people who have said they wish I’d have found another way to protest, but they respect my right,” Thomas said.

“Those of us who lean toward the conservative side, when things don’t go our way, we grumble and go on,” Navy veteran Eric Jacobs, 68, said. “The left-leaners, when something doesn’t go their way, they find something to blame it on.”

Still, he supports their right to complain.

“There’s too much, ‘I have the right to my opinion and you need to shut up,’ ” Jacobs said. “I respect their right to protest. Just don’t burn anything.”

Army veteran Richard Wright said the protesters are protesting a “legitimate vote.”

“We have to stand behind the transfer of power for the next four years,” he said. “Some are looking for excuses and my question is how many of those protesters out there voted?”

Yet he, too, supports their free-speech rights even if he doesn’t agree with them.

Thomas said that while she respects a Trump supporter’s right to disagree with her dislike of him, a veteran’s opinion carries more weight with her.

“They fought so that I could go to the protest last night,” she said.

Meaning Thursday’s protest and Friday’s Veterans Day ceremonies were from anything but opposite ends of the political spectrum. To the contrary, they were linked by the Constitution and its First Amendment by those who fought and continue the fight to preserve it.

At a time when the political right and left are at complete odds, you take common ground wherever you find it.

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