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Voices From the Suburbs

It was not, by most measures, a rally of monstrous proportions.

Only about 300 protesters gathered in a vacant lot on a hot day, not the 2,500 the rally’s organizers had hoped for.

There were no bellows of rage, only expressions of frustration, no cry to arms, only a quiet march on a freeway frontage road.

Even the rhetoric of the politicians who tried to cash in on the issue seemed oddly lackluster.

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When it was over, some of those who participated worried that their effort was a failure and that their voices would not be heard.

“What does it matter?” one young mother said. “In Sacramento, they’ll do what they want anyhow.”

Not necessarily.

The rally was organized last weekend to protest the construction of a state prison in the Santa Clarita Valley.

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Those who attended the protest meeting in the Hillgate housing development don’t want the new prison in their area for the same reason the people in the downtown neighborhoods don’t want the prison in their area.

Prisons do not attract wonderful people.

The downtowners marshaled their considerable forces and effectively chased the prison planners away.

A state committee next recommended the Santa Clarita Valley, a blend of rolling hills and fresh new housing tracts, and a whole different protest sprang to life.

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Which brings us to the rally in Saugus last Saturday.

Were it not for the presence of placards and politicians, the protest at first glance would have seemed more like an enthusiastic neighborhood picnic than a serious effort to debate a social inequity.

Young mothers in shorts and jeans carried babies or pushed them in strollers. One man brought his parrot. A dog romped through the crowd with a sign around his neck.

I expected that at any moment teams would start forming up for a softball game.

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It wasn’t the kind of rally I remembered from other times and other places.

My protest experiences are rooted in the days when great movements stopped traffic, shut down universities, reshaped civil rights, toppled a President and ended a war.

The rallies of the 1960s legitimized civil disobedience as a form of public protest and kindled flames that fired a generation.

There was thunder in the air in those days and blood in the streets.

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None of that feeling was evident in Saugus last Saturday. As I wandered through the crowd of amiable neighbors, I wondered, as others wondered, how anyone could take seriously a protest born in such glorious surroundings.

One thinks of suburbanites as a pampered people, elements of a privileged class, which, years ago, marched from the inner cities in search of white ghettos with red-tiled roofs and legislators that would put their needs first above all others.

One sees them sleek and self-contented, like well-fed cats sleeping in the sun.

When suburb dwellers complain, it is more the whine of spoiled children than the roar of a generation in pain, and one cannot help but observe that the very conditions the suburbanites once fled have fled with them at last to the quiet hills and the tree-shaded lanes.

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Well, maybe so.

I do find a kind of poetic justice implicit in the sudden realization of those in the tracts that there is, indeed, no place to hide in today’s bullet-riddled world.

Plans for a new prison next to a new housing development somehow embrace all of the ironies of dedicated self-improvement in the sun-blessed environment of Southern California, placing those who work for what they get just over the fence from those who take.

But still. . . .

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I spoke to many who attended the rally and what they want is not so different from what we all want, which is just to be left alone to live in peace.

They have no less need for it in the suburbs than in the ghettos.

We have all become a kind of pursued people, rarely able to stop and catch our breath before some new evil comes pounding down the road after us.

I think the day is past when we can dismiss with impunity the protests of those who live down the shady lanes because, in the end, they do represent a kind of last chance to get away from it all.

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If they can’t make it, who can?

But even that isn’t the point here. The abiding strength of a free society is that, in the long run, everyone makes a difference, even the middle-level suburbanites.

Although the Saugus rally lacked the committed tone of the 1960s or even the gritty street savvy of the downtown people, it offered for us all a look at the future, when all the failures of the inner city become the failures of the suburbs too.

That may give them a chuckle downtown, but I find myself uncomfortable with the idea that, as Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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