One morning on the national news, there was a story about a young African-American police officer whose associates at the department met him one morning on duty dressed in the hooded garb of the Ku Klux Klan. Even women on the office staff and other department employees joined to taunt and frighten him. The prank went on a long time before they told him it was a joke and had him pose for pictures with them all in their costumes of discrimination. On the news, this handsome young father was being interviewed by a reporter about the incident.
Later the offenders, fearing reprisals and wanting to take back the photos they gave him, threatened the officer. As I watched this young man trying to process such a deep and ugly violation by those he thought he knew, by those who served with him day by day under an oath to uphold justice, I felt powerful emotions rise within me. I felt anger at the indignity and at the violation of so many of the codes that hold any decent society together. I felt deep sadness at the breaking of the human spirit and the robbery of the self-respect of a fellow human being.
I felt brokenness in my soul as I saw his pain and realized that all of us are capable of hurting each other deeply. I left my house to go to the village for breakfast. Every person innately longs to be free. This toddler knew it even in the womb.
The time clock kicked in one day and the same little body that had been content to grow in the security of that liquid environment began to make its way—force its way—through the narrow confines of the birth canal to a place where it could be free. The passion to be free is built into the very fiber of creation: the seedling pushing against and bursting from the protective casing that carried it to its resting place; the gazelle racing from a predator; the squirrel, high above the ground, leaping to a distant limb to escape the competition.
From the building of the kingdoms of Egypt and Rome to the present conflict between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the strong have taken advantage of the weak. But the dream of freedom cannot be snuffed out by force or manipulation. Does it dry up. Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—. And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—.
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Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags. Like a heavy load. Or does it explode? Because so much land was taken out of private hands and forced into collective control and because of the repression of private trade in the German Democratic Republic as East Germany was called in , thousands of refugees fled to the West.
In , , fled. The number of refugees rose to , in as conditions worsened. It is estimated that by , 2. On August 13, —a Sunday morning—under the communist leadership of Erich Honecker, the GDR began to block off East Berlin with paving stones, barricades, and barbed wire. Railway and subway services to West Berlin were halted, cutting off the sixty thousand or so commuters who worked in West Berlin.
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A few days later, the GDR began building a wall. One year after the first barricades went up, an eighteen-year-old man named Peter Fechter was the first of more than a hundred to be shot and killed while trying to escape. But as the wall grew higher, as more and more guards kept watch, as the death area behind the wall widened, and as the trench to stop vehicles deepened, the number of escape attempts only increased. Soon the government ordered that the houses be evacuated and the windows bricked shut. Eventually, the buildings were demolished.
Patrol trucks, watchdogs, watchtowers, bunkers, and trenches were added to the border area.
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Then, behind the wall, a second wall was constructed. In one of the more dramatic escapes, two families secretly bought small amounts of nylon cloth—eventually enough to sew a hot air balloon. They waited until midnight and then drove to a deserted field and launched their craft. Twenty-three minutes it remained aloft before the burner died, long enough to carry four adults and four children to their freedom.
Back in East Germany, the sale of nylon was restricted and there was a ban on the sale of rope and twine. The wall became a symbol of all obstructions to freedom. Throwing out the speech given him by speechwriters, Kennedy wrote a new one while riding through the streets of West Berlin, where between one and two million Germans roared and cheered for four hours. At Checkpoint Charlie, he climbed alone up to the viewing stand. Suddenly, in a far-off window of an East Berlin apartment, three women appeared waving handkerchiefs—a dangerous and risky gesture. Kennedy, realizing their risk, stood in silence facing the women in tribute to them.
Then he squared his shoulders and began the speech that let the world know how universal is the spirit of freedom. We all are Berliners at heart because we all long to be free.
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