My first direct experience of state violence came during the protests that erupted after the Kent State killings on May 4, 1970. By “direct” I mean getting teargassed and billy clubbed live and in person! I wasn’t alone.
The week that followed the Kent State tragedy was a week of explosive protests around the country, mostly on college campuses. The protests were uniformly met with police violence. Hundreds of colleges and high schools were closed down by students going on strike in protest of the killings and the escalating Vietnam War. Some four million students joined the strikes. A mere five days after the shootings, 100,000 people descended on the nation’s capitol to express their outrage.
Although I had spent most of the previous year working for the Gene McCarthy for president campaign — the leading anti-Vietnam War candidate of the 1968 election — I didn’t get to personally participate in a mass anti-war demonstration until April 5, 1969, fifty-one years ago. As a 17-year-old, I was impressed.
The march was held in New York City. I and two friends drove up together from our New Jersey suburbs. We rented a double room at a YMCA (in or near Greenwich Village, as best as I recall). We managed to increase the sleeping capacity of the small room when we came upon another room that was in the middle of being cleaned. The door was wide open and the beds were stripped. Most importantly, no one was around. So we grabbed one of the mattresses and ran down the hall to our room. Voila! Accommodations for three.
On Saturday the 5th, we protesters gathered in Bryant Park and eventually marched up Sixth Avenue (the so-called Avenue of the Americas) to Central Park, where the rally was held. The march was kept to one side of Sixth Avenue so traffic could continue to flow. Every once in a while, police would hold up the march to allow crosstown traffic to cross the road. It was all very polite. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated.
I don’t recall any of the speeches or speakers. I don’t recall any of the musical performers, although I’d bet that there were some big names involved. It was New York City, after all, in 1969. What I do remember quite clearly is feeling something I’d never experienced before — the feeling of being part of a movement. A mass movement. It felt powerful. It was exhilarating. It was inspiring. I wanted more.
The arc of my life started taking shape in 1968 during the McCarthy campaign. The anti-war march in New York cemented it. I’ve been marching ever since. And when this coronavirus thing is finally over, we all better be marching again.
A few nights ago my partner and I attended the premiere playing of a newly discovered audio recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s controversial (as it turned out) “Beyond Vietnam” speech, given on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York. The recording was one of six long lost tapes recently discovered in the archives of WRVR, a public radio station that was owned and operated by the Riverside Church from 1961 to 1976.
This past summer was defined by 50th anniversary commemorations. First out of the gate was the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, a historic event certainly worthy of review. And did it ever get reviewed — TV specials, newspaper inserts, even a commemorative coin issued by the U.S. mint.
Then came August and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The Woodstock celebrations were personal for me as someone who had actually gone to Woodstock. More commemorative events and publications. Even a stamp. But no coin as far as I know.
Coming up soon is another significant 50th anniversary event, another one with deep personal meaning for me — the anniversary of the massive Vietnam War Moratorium March on Washington, which took place on November 15, 1969, exactly three months after Woodstock. I was there, too.
Recently, during a brief visit to my hometown — Westmont, NJ — I checked out the site of the old local office of the McCarthy for President campaign. I volunteered for this campaign in 1968 at the age of 16. It was where I got started in activism.
Although the stop by the old campaign office was short, time enough only for a couple of photos, I’ve been thinking about the 1968 campaign itself. Not the small town New Jersey campaign, which was a great experience, but the bigger picture. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it may hold a lesson for us in this presidential campaign season.
The history of grassroots activism abounds with classic stories of struggle against all odds, and tales worthy of telling around a campfire. History is the important element.
My own campfire tales were told around a flickering TV monitor last night. Owing to my impending retirement, I felt free to invite myself to be the guest on the monthly TV program that I produce and host.
Elliot Margolies’ interview was a marvel.
My goal for this blog is to tell more of these stories. Old and new.
The first time I was hauled into a police station for thoughtcrime was in 1968. I was 16 years old.
I volunteered for the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign that year. In an unlikely turn of events for the suburban New Jersey town where I lived, a McCarthy campaign office had opened in a former pet shop (“former” being just the week before). I happened across it on the way home from school and dropped in.Continue reading “My First Thoughtcrime”→
I’ve just finished reading “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” by Lawrence O’Donnell. Highly recommended if you lived through it or if you weren’t around. Maybe especially if you weren’t around. 1968 was one hell of a year in this country and we should know the history and try to learn from it.
Two assassinations (MLK and RFK), riots and rebellion in the streets of nearly every major US city, an utterly insane and ultimately corrupt presidential election campaign, with the relentless brutality of the American war on Vietnam providing the background cacophonous music to it all.
For those who didn’t experience 1968 firsthand, this book could prove to be an eyeopener. American society and politics were both unraveling in unforeseen ways, and they were doing so at breakneck speed. We had a president, Lyndon Johnson, who was driven mad by the determination not to be the first president to “lose” a war. So he kept bombing and bombing and bombing. We had a leading presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, who would stop at nothing to take power, including treason (a charge well documented by O’Donnell). And we had a large supporting cast of scheming, cynical politicians who darted in and out of the presidential campaign based on the day’s wind direction, looking for an opening to advance their own power. Issues? Policy? Issues are for amateurs.
And then we had an oddball poet-philosopher-Senator who decided to challenge an incumbent president of his own party solely on the basis of the war and the need to end it. Now. O’Donnell describes Gene McCarthy’s campaign platform as a simple matter of “life and death”. Indeed, he shows the entire year could be reduced to that simple formula: Choose … life or death,
But the real force that year turned out to be the still-growing peace movement. Not that it mattered, in the end, to the election results. But it mattered in the long run. It changed everything.
O’Donnell says, “The peace movement won. The peace movement drove U.S. forces out of Vietnam, not the North Vietnamese army. American politics responds slowly to protest, so it took several years for the peace movement to win. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger complained for the rest of their lives that they were not able to achieve peace with honor in Vietnam because congressional support for the war kept dropping. That is a complaint against democracy. … The millions of women and men who were active in the peace movement saved lives by forcing the war to end sooner than it would have if they hadn’t taken to the streets in protest …”
I was 16 years old in 1968 and deeply involved in both the Gene McCarthy presidential campaign and the peace movement. I’ve been a student of that era ever since. It is important — no, essential — history to grasp. Because we have the same simple yet stark choice before us right now: life or death.