It occurred to me, when I dropped by the HiTek video store on Bolsa
Avenue in Westminster late one evening this week and found about 300
singing, dancing and shouting demonstrators still there at 11 p.m.,
that Truong Van Tran might have done the anti-communist organizations
in Orange County’s Vietnamese-American community their biggest favor in
years. The question is whether the energy and commitment brought to the
fore by the incident can be used to nudge along the larger goal of
Truong Van Tran, from what I can gather reading old clips, talking
to people in Little Saigon and with his landlord’s lawyers, has for a
long time wanted serious attention paid to his belief that it’s time to
let bygones be bygones and resume normal trade relations with communist
Vietnam. It’s unclear to me whether he considers or ever considered
himself a communist, or whether he figured putting up a poster with Ho
Chi Minh’s picture and a communist Vietnamese flag was a final
desperate way to draw attention to himself.
It worked, but it didn’t immediately. So, besides displaying the
offensive items he sent a couple of increasingly personally insulting
faxes to several well-known anti-communist leaders of the
Vietnamese-American community. Those letters, with phrases like “if
you all think you are great, then go ahead, come over to clear me
out,” were among the bases his landlord’s lawyers used to obtain a
restraining order against the display, contending that he purposely
used “fighting words” to stir people up.
I still believe the whole matter would have been resolved more
harmoniously if it had been viewed as a property and contract case
rather than a free speech case. Tran had signed a lease that included
what lawyers tell me is an unusually strict Nuisance clause
(“Tenant shall not do or omit to be done or omitted anything which
could damage the Shopping Center or injure or impede the business of
Tenant or other tenants in the Shopping Center, or, which shall or
might result in any nuisance in or about the Premises, whether to
Landlord, any tenant of the Shopping Center or any other part …”
etc. etc.) The display created a nuisance and the landlord had the
right to ask him to take it down.
Besides, the First Amendment was written to limit the power of
government (it does begin “Congress shall make no law” after all),
not to create rights that nobody in society can infringe on pain of
punishment. If that weren’t so, it would be a violation of free speech
rights if a theater owner told a noisy, obnoxious customer to be quiet
and stop disturbing the other patrons lest he be kicked out.
But a judge reversed her original ruling and accepted the argument
that Mr. Tran had a free-speech right to display an offensive poster on
his rented store-front despite the wishes of the property’s owner. And
the demonstrators came out to — what? There had been tussles between
Mr. Tran and demonstrators before, so perhaps the demonstrations
included an intimidation factor. At the least, however, they wanted to
show that they still remembered enough to take offense at suggestions
that maybe communism in Vietnam wasn’t such a bad thing.
The night I visited the crowd didn’t seem especially threatening or
intimidating. They were singing and dancing, waving yellow and red
Republic of Vietnam flags made of cloth or paper. There was an
underlying seriousness involved — many people had taken large chunks of
time out of busy lives to express their feelings and beliefs and at
least some vowed to stay all night every night — but I saw mostly
smiles and friendly waves that night.
The chants spoke to a larger political purpose — “Freedom for
Vietnam; Human Rights for Vietnam; Down with Communism (Down, Down,
Down)” — rather than being directed at Mr. Tran as a person. I even
spoke to several people who made an important distinction — they
believed Mr. Tran had a right to display whatever pictures he wanted
to, but that they had the right to make their feelings about his chosen
icons known vocally, and they planned to do so.
Did everyone in the crowd believe that? I doubt it. Some would
probably have been happy to repress Mr. Tran’s supposed rights and
would have felt justified in doing so. If he had shown up, I wouldn’t
have been surprised if a few people in the crowd had confronted him
In any crowd at a politically-oriented demonstration — despite the
pleas from leaders of every persuasion for unity, solidarity, speaking
with one voice and all that — you’ll find people there for a variety of
reasons. At anti-war demonstrations in the sixties there were serious
communist organizers, people there just for the fun, and numerous
gradations. But a crowd has a certain energy. The ability to gather it
suggests the existence of feelings, ideas, emotions or sentiments that
can be used for good or ill.
For some anti-communist leaders — I met with a lot, from all too
many countries, during the cold war period — it’s enough to be able to
mobilize people in opposition, to demonstrate the power to mobilize,
often through negative propaganda (read a direct-mail fundraiser from
any spot on the political spectrum) against a clearly identified enemy
or threat, to feel good about taking a stand. It’s more difficult to
carry out a program of concerted action that might actually have a
chance of undermining your foe.
Those who really want to channel the energy on display in the
protests against the Ho Chi Minh poster to undermine or overthrow the
current dictatorship in Vietnam might even consider whether the
generally preferred policy of economic sanctions is worth supporting.
Sanctions make a statement, but they haven’t gotten Castro out of power
in Cuba; they might even have bolstered his power. There’s no guarantee
that private trade and the promise of prosperity will deal a
dictatorship the death of a thousand cuts, of course, but it could
happen and it has happened.
Whether he intended to or not, Truong Van Tran has demonstrated that
opposition to communism is still a powerful force in the
Vietnamese-American community. Now the challenge is to use that
opposition in effective ways that lead to more freedom in the country
so many were forced to flee not so long ago.