Skip to main content

A Revolutionary Remembrance, My first protest, fifty years ago today

A Revolutionary Remembrance, My first protest, fifty years ago today
A Revolutionary Remembrance, My first protest, fifty years ago today

A Revolutionary Remembrance:

My first protest, fifty years ago today

by Kevin Annett

July 14, 2023

It happened on Bastille Day, naturally.

I was seventeen and a raw recruit to radical politics, having sampled it at the local socialist hangout known as Vanguard Books. The flaming red poster on its window announced a big protest rally that day against the latest U.S. nuclear testing that was radiating our west coast. I was off like a bullet.

The sound of the multitudes reached me before their numbers came into view: a sea of humanity stretching from the old Vancouver courthouse down Georgia street as far as I could see. Thousands of voices exclaimed a common outrage as they swept me into their ranks. The downtown core shook with a new sound that drowned out banality and business as usual. We can stop them, said that single voice. We are many, and they are few.

In that instant, a joy I had never known that would last a lifetime raised me above myself to a new purpose. Here is where I belonged, in the struggle to change things. To live only for myself seemed suddenly selfish and absurd.

With surging delight, I worked my way through the crowd as friendly hands thrust leaflets at me and friendlier faces beamed with our shared bliss. I was drawn to the heart of the protest on the courthouse steps, where speakers ranted and longhairs like me draped banners and themselves over the staid stones.  

That’s when I spotted the army cadets across the street.

They were kids my age and younger, and they formed an Honor Guard for the Lieutenant Governor who was scheduled to appear at the Hotel Vancouver right next to our rally. The guy’s name was John Nicholson, and he had as much chance of getting past us into the posh hotel as a pig has to fly.

Some of our people were grouped around the cadets talking to them and pinning what turned out to be Greenpeace buttons onto their uniforms.

“You guys should all desert!” an old man yelled at the kids, who looked vaguely embarrassed. “That asshole Nicholson is a big wheel in Brascan, the Canadian company that overthrew the Brazilian government in ’64 and brought in the fuckin’ military!”

We all cheered our support as I handed leaflets to the cadets, who read them carefully.

“Reminds me of the ‘peg back in 1919,” the old man said to me.

“Winnipeg?” I replied.

“Fuckin’ A,” he smiled, showing gaps. “We had the soldiers cornered in their barracks and we told ‘em to desert and some of ‘em did. They knew they were bein’ used to bust our strike and they didn’t like it, so we put it to ‘em.”

“You mean the Winnipeg General Strike?” I said. “You were there?”

“Wasn’t any older than you are,” he nodded. “Made me a goddamn radical for life.”

A burly cop appeared in the besieged doorway of the hotel and stared with horror at our motley crowd as he said something into his walky talky. My buddy spotted him and spat out,

“Fuckin’ scabs in uniform. They never change.”

“Well, they can’t do much harm to us right now,” I replied, gesturing at the crowd.

The guy slapped me on my arm with a laugh and a look that took decades off his face.

“That’s it, boy! Workers of the world unite, and we’ve got the bastards by the balls!”

Somehow our colossus began to move towards the American consulate as our banners and bullhorns led the way and some guys shimmied up lamp posts with their signs. My old buddy vanished into the crowd, waving his arms and shouting. But something of him remained.

I couldn’t get anywhere near to the consulate, but it didn’t matter. There were plenty of other juicy targets along the way. A bunch of protesters burst into the Royal Bank and started leafleting the tellers, while a younger version of my buddy yelled at them with a bullhorn,

“Royal Bank, blood money from Brazil! Occupy, nationalize, throw out the corporate bums!”

Across Burrard street was the Anglican church that three decades later I would help occupy alongside native survivors of Christian genocide: a slaughter of the innocents that was happening just a few miles from where we marched. On the church steps a woman was yelling something at us with a twisted look of hatred.

It’s a curious fact that even the most militant Canadians will stop for red lights during demonstrations, and our crowd was no exception. The riot police who lingered nearby used the break in our ranks to rush in and start arresting people. But once our people combined again, Vancouver’s less-than-finest found themselves surrounded. Their thuggery dissolved in the face of our power.

Apparently, some top cop read the Riot Act to our people at the consulate, but nobody was worried. We knew that as long as we stuck together, nothing could touch us. That lesson was not forgotten by me and many of us on that radiant day.

We would be back again in greater numbers over the years that followed; indeed, only two months later, after 30,000 people like us in Chile had been butchered by a U.S. sponsored military coup. That tragedy taught me that we cannot make our revolutions only half-way, any more than you can skin a tiger claw by claw. We always learn the best lessons the hard way, but we do so together or not at all.

What passes for protests these days is like watching compliant psych ward patients line up for their medication. The irreverent outrage, imagination, and courage of my generation is nowhere to be seen. But our spirit persists, nevertheless. 

I felt that spirit the other day as I stood where our voices once filled the sky and I was baptized into my purpose. Take away our hands and our feet and even our lives and it will still endure, as does the soul of every defeated revolutionary that finds its way into our hearts so that the vision can continue and take root again among us.

I recently ran into one of my few remaining comrades from those early days. He gave me a happy smile when I reminded him of that mega-protest on July 14, 1973 where we first met and took our step together into the revolutionary movement.

Larry’s aged eyes sparkled as we recalled that wondrous devotion and how it never left us, and he began to cry. Then he took my arm and said,

“It never mattered if we won or lost, did it, Kev? What mattered was that we tried, and we never gave up.”

During the American Civil War, our brother Walt Whitman put it this way:

Courage yet, my brother, my sister! Keep on!

Liberty is to be served whatever occurs;

for nothing is quelled by failure or the indifference of the people,

or by the show of power, soldiers, cannon, penal statutes.

What we believe in waits forever through all the continents.

What we believe in invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light,

knows no discouragement, waiting patiently, waiting its time.

Not songs of loyalty alone are these, but songs of insurrection!

For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over,

and he going with me leaves peace and routine behind him,

and stakes his life to be lost at every moment.

Then courage yet, revolter, revoltress!

till all else ceases, you must not cease!

For when liberty goes out of a place, it is always the last to go.

When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs,

and when all life and the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth,

only then shall liberty be discharged too, and the tyrant enter into full possession.

So, carry on in revolt, and revolt again!

Walk unheld, free, the whole earth over,

till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and peoples, and saturate all eras,

that the men and women of races, ages to come,

may prove brethren and lovers, as we are.

Kevin Annett (left), age 17, with fellow student radicals at a Vancouver press conference, April 1973

See Kevin’s latest books here:

Recovering the Dream: The Promise of Revolutionary Socialism and Prospects for its Rebirth: Annett, Kevin: 9798851584985: Books

Crimes against Humanity in Canada: A Dossier of Evidence: The case of 60,000 murdered children and the man who surfaced their fate: Annett, Kevin: 9798399033556: Books ,