LIBERTY'S TRIUMPHANT SYMBOLISM
Nothing touches the heart more profoundly than when a people yearning to be free courageously resist tyranny. Since the turn of the Seventeenth Century, there have been thousands of memorable instances of extraordinary courage and determination by people willing to pay the ultimate price for freedom. Some of those instances come with symbolism so profound that they stand out as historic markers of man’s unending quest to be freed of the shackles from government. Here are a few of those instances, ones that affected all of humanity at the time they occurred and continue to linger in human consciousness, beckoning us to be vigilant in defense of those same liberties today: (1) the toppling of the statue of George III in Bowling Green, New York; (2) the lone unarmed protestor in Tiananmen Square facing down a column of tanks; and (3) President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate beseeching Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
On August 21, 1770, in Bowling Green, New York (at what is now Broadway in lower Manhattan), agents of the Crown erected a 4,000 pound gilded lead statue of King George III wrapped in the Roman garb of an emperor riding atop a powerful stallion. The statue invited spectators to be humbled by the monarch’s absolute power. The colonists refused the invitation. Joseph Wilton from London designed the statue at the Crown’s request to fill the colonists with a sense of awe and deference for the Hanoverian King; instead, the statue became a focal point for colonial protests against British oppression. Offended by the imposition of laws that would tax and regulate them without their representation in Parliament, colonists desecrated the base of the statue with graffiti expressing their revulsion for monarchical tyranny. In 1773, the colonial government of New York enacted an anti-graffiti law and encircled the statue with a protective cast-iron fence. Atop each fence post were miniature cast iron crowns. Angry colonists cut the crowns off several of the posts.
On July 9, 1776, upon hearing the Declaration of Independence read for the first time on the steps of City Hall in New York, certain of General George Washington’s troops, Sons of Liberty, and interested by-standers transformed their elation into a riot, racing down Broadway to Bowling Green, aiming to vent their rage against imperial tyranny. They assaulted George III’s statue, snapping it off its marble slab base. The head of George III was severed from the body of the statue. Certain of the protestors then paraded it about New York on a pike staff. The protestors sawed the remainder of the statue into pieces. At the direction of Declaration signer Oliver Walcott, Sr., certain portions were then shipped to a Connecticut foundry and melted to form 42,088 patriot bullets. Once part of a statue heralding the reign of an absolute monarch, the bullets were donated to General Washington’s army as ammunition to shoot at British regulars. No doubt some British soldiers died with lead in their bodies supplied from the statue.
On April 17, 1989, tens of thousands of university students gathered spontaneously in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, calling for press freedom and political reform in that authoritarian communist state. By April 27, an estimated one in ten Beijing residents joined in the protests. Fearing that the unrest might lead to revolution, the Chinese Communist Politburo approved marshal law on May 18. On May 20, Peoples Liberation Army troops attempted to enter Tiananmen Square and disband the protestors to no avail. On May 24, the PLA withdrew. The protests continued, raising speculation as to whether a change in government leadership might be in the offing. On June 2, party elders approved use of military force to end the protests. On June 3, PLA soldiers accompanied by armored vehicles and tanks fired on civilians with AK-47 rifles. On June 4, the soldiers occupied Tiananmen Square. Parents of student protestors attempted to reenter the square via Chang ‘an Boulevard but were repulsed with live ammunition. When rescue workers tried to aid the fallen they were shot. Overall, some 2,600 people were killed in this historic demonstration of intolerance for political dissent.
On the morning of June 5, the PLA had regained control of Beijing and the hunt for protestors to incarcerate and execute continued in earnest. As a tank column moved forward along Chang ‘an Boulevard, a young man carrying shopping bags ran into the street and stood in front of the lead tank. At first, the tank maneuvered to pass the young man but each time he repositioned himself to stand in front of it. Failing repeatedly to get around him, the tank stopped and the driver turned off the motor. Then the young man climbed atop the tank and tried to talk to the driver. Several other people then rushed from the side of the road to remove the young man from the way. No one knows for sure what became of him, but the image of him standing in front of that tank became an international symbol of freedom in the face of tyranny.
Tens of thousands of protestors were arrested and many were imprisoned. An unknown number were executed. The ugly verities of communism proved themselves to the world all over again.
On August 13, 1961, the East German communist government, endeavoring to stem the flow of East Germans to West Berlin and freedom, erected the infamous 87 mile long Berlin Wall that became a symbol of enslavement. The Soviet Union demanded that the wall be constructed to put an end to an extraordinary exodus from East Germany (3.5 million defected before the wall was constructed). The wall had 116 watchtowers along it with mounted machine guns, manned by GDR troops carrying automatic weapons. Mesh and signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, beds of nails, and German Shepherds reinforced the wall’s defenses against those who would be free. A wide trench, known as a “death strip,” was constructed and filled with raked gravel to reveal footprints. On the death strip, kept free of visual obstacles to ensure a clear line of fire for the watchtower guards, over one hundred souls perished, preferring to risk death than to remain enslaved. Once shot on the death strip, people were left to bleed to death. The guards prevented all rescue attempts.
On June 12, 1987, as political unrest began to rise in the Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union appeared incapable of suppressing moves for independence, President Ronald Reagan, against the wishes of his State Department, stood at the Brandenburg Gate and beseeched Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev with these words: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Reagan’s speech was translated into German and broadcast through loud speakers to the East German side of the gate.
In 1989, the Soviet empire began to collapse as the bankruptcy of communism proved itself. In September of 1989, civil unrest broke out across East Germany, causing the communist government to announce that it would relax limits on visitations between East German citizens and West German citizens in Berlin. Then on October 18, 1989, East German dictator Erich Honecker resigned. On November 4, a half million protestors gathered at Alexanderplatz to deomonstrate against the government. On November 9, chaos ensued within the East German government as large numbers began massing at border crossing points. Guards frantically called superiors seeking orders to stop passage but no official would authorize use of force to prevent the exodus. The guards then opened checkpoints and thousands began pouring out of the communist East into the free West. As the East German government made repeated concessions to ever increasing public demands and began to lose governing control, people seeking freedom refused to wait, crossing the border in even greater numbers, doing so without permission and without resistance from guards. Beginning the evening of November 9, 1989 and continuing for weeks thereafter, tens of thousands of people attacked the wall with hammers, chisels, and sledgehammers, breaking this symbol of oppression apart. Finally, even the Brandenburg Gate was opened on December 22, 1989, the triumphant response to President Reagan’s bold demand.
We are each born with a yearning to be free. When government presumes to direct our lives, take our property, and rob us of the fruits of our labor, we are no better than slaves. From each of the foregoing examples, we learn precious lessons about freedom from those who have been deprived of it. We now face in our own country a federal government that presumes to direct an ever greater amount of our daily lives, that is taking control over ever greater amounts of our property, and that is denying us an ever increasing quantity of the fruits of our labor.
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Freedom is hunted by government as an enemy of centralized power. We must defend our freedom against this assault. We should heed the words of President Ronald Reagan who warned us that “[f]reedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
© 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved