October 1, 2008

Spring, 1968--Duty to What?

Probably I can't do it justice. Books have been written about the Sixties, and a million lies. I was there too. I was just another nobody, a white man "trying to get in," as a drunken black man on a train in Harlem put it to me. Things were hopping in Harlem in 1968, but I wouldn't go there anymore. When I'd first moved to New York in 1964, I'd gone there now and then on my bar-hopping safaris. Nobody ever bothered me. Of course I got some strange looks, but I didn't give them back. I was friendly and happy to be there. I was on their side. But I didn't make a point of hanging around. Familiary/contempt.

Things happened so fast in the Sixties, one event piled on another day after day; or maybe I was just younger and everything was new, fresh, and more involving. No. Actually, things were popping then. Somebody shot Lincoln Rockwell the famous American nazi. Charles Whitman went nuts with a rifle in the Texas Tower randomly killing more than 20 . Another fine day in November somebody killed the President. Then someone killed the guy accused of killing the President. Next, that guy dies of cancer in jail, swearing he wasn't the only one. It goes on. Along the way others blast Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and a whole bunch of Black Panthers like Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark. Others, whose names elude me now, were murdered by police and FBI and probably even the CIA. Each shooting was more unbelievable and preposterous than the last. The FBI and Chicago police shot hundreds of holes through the apartment of Fred Hampton--killing him in bed--and swore for years the holes were shot from inside. When it all came out in the wash, was there an invetigation? Was there a prosecution? Did you see one? If anyone answered for these crimes, please, let me know.

For some odd reason, perhaps because I had been a marine and was a newspaper reporter during the Sixties, I felt that I was involved in it all : the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar struggle, the daily skullduggery of national politics, and the only truly grassroots mass movement I had ever seen. More than involved, I felt that I somehow had a responsibility to it, that I even had a duty to challenge it if it seemed the only way to change things for the better. It did seem that the government wasn't listening to the American people.

I believed in democracy then.


Nothing could be more ludicrous? I still don't know. Unlike many of that generation--nearly a decade older than most students--I had read the war critics, and personal testaments of Black Panther Party members, the statements and books of black leaders and black people in the southern Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, and had identified with students and blacks, rather than with my own race and class.

I've tried elsewhere to recount how the southern struggle for civil rights and finally the killing of JFK were deciding factors in me getting away from the South. Those events had set me solidly in the liberal camp as far as domestic matters went that I had everyday experience with. It was really simple for me: I knew black people, had been in jail as a teenager, and I knew what it was like to have "a shackle on your hands." I didn't have much education, and followed my heart's desires. But nothing in those years between 1963 and 1968 made me doubt or question the authenticity or sincerity of the United States Government, which I had sworn to uphold when I had joined the marines. I had followed the news since age 12, and during the marine years I must have watched every televised press conference of John Kennedy, but I knew little or nothing about history or American foreign policy. I had no clearcut views or ideas on the subject, and felt it was beyond my competence and pay grade. All my attitudes about America came from growing up in the post-war Cold War period of the 1940s and 50s. My political views--excepting my antiracist ones--were formed more by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged than any knowledge of politics. My sympathy for blacks and other minorities came not from knowledge but from my heart. And my hatred of and aversion to bullies.

The transforming event for me was the Whitehall Antidraft Demonstrations in the Spring of 1968. It was where I finally came face-to-face with the ugliness, injustice and deceit of war and the brutality of police. It looks so naive to me now; that I was shocked and outraged when I realized my government was lying to me. (Weren't you?) And that the cops would beat you up for exercising your right to free speech. That was the corker. It became apparent after awhile that "free speech" was free, except when free speech actually threatened the Established Order with change.

"You can say anything you like, as long as you don't say anything." (Dylan)


The demonstration was in Lower Manhattan and far from any actual battlefield like the one in Vietnam, where my old amtrack unit had been massacred. I'd read about it in the NY Times. I don't even remember now what year or where exactly it was, or even the name of the unit, though I knew when I read it that I had been in that platoon. I had served in all three Divisions of my day. (Top left NY Times, 1967 or 68.)

Despite that knowledge, I had not paid much attention to the war. I saw occassional television footage and it looked nasty enough, pretty much as I had imagined it to be, when I had trained for warfare. I had never considered the right or wrong of it. We had to be right, of course, or we wouldn't be doing it, was what I thought. Although I had been a newspaper reporter for the previous three years, it wasn't my beat. I covered Selectmen and Town Hall meetings, local courts, City Hall politics, fires, accidents, zoning and planning board meetings, school boards, municipal courts, and occassionally something bizarre, like a skydiver accident. Sure, even in Massachusetts I read the NY Times everyday. It was "the paper of record," and I clipped many an article and filed it away in large brown envelopes, but I didn't read much of the war news. I didn't understand most of it. The only sense I could make of it was that my country was fighting Russian and Chinese communist proxies in Vietnam, and if Vietnam fell, then the Philippines and Japan would also, and we would be in a losing domino game. The commies would take Los Angeles, I would have to learn Russian.

It cracks me up today to hear people explain "the reason for the Vietnam War" as oil-hunger. President Eisenhower had explained it carefully and honestly in the late 50's, when he said that Vietnam was about our ally and economic partner, Japan, and Japan's access to scarce natural resources, and our own need for valuable minerals of Indochina (titanium for jet fighters, for example.) It was also about American "prestige" and convincing allies we would fight for them. Who was I to tell the government it couldn't or shouldn't be done? I'm a former marine. I was trained to fight communists. (Actually, I was trained to drive, clean and fix amtracks and pass inspections, while incidentally qualifying with an M-1 rifle.) Guys like me had died like flies in the early years of the war because they had not been actually trained to fight in near-combat conditions.


I had never known a communist in my life, had never read any communist literature, and only knew like everyone else that a German Jew named Karl Marx had invented communism and encouraged the rabble of earth to wreak havoc and destroy the capitalist system, of which I had known no other. I had no idea what a communist looked like, dressed like, acted like, or believed. I was told that communists enslaved people and turned family members into informers on each other. I read that communism "stifled initiative" and was an unreasonable enemy of "free enterprise." I took that to mean small shopkeepers and people who invent things like geodesic domes. I didn't see any reason why a person should be prevented from being a millionaire, or a billionaire. I balked at trillionaires, though.

(When I finally did meet an actual card-carrying communist in Nicaragua, I fell hopelessly in love with her. But that's for later, if I live long enough.)

In my reporting job, I collected police and fire reports and dutifully wrote what officials told me. I took certain liberties in slanting their lies to make them obvious. I went to the City Clerk for tips, guidance or information about city or public business. I seldom or never had occasion or initiative to interview the victim of an arrest or a criminal sentenced for a crime, though I interviewed more than a few politicians, police chiefs, school officials, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and court clerks. I knew there were a lot of poor people and my heart went out to them, but I didn't want to be one of them; though marginally I was. (Things were cheaper then and the dollar had more value.) I saw nothing basically wrong with American society. I thought people were too religious, and women were too hard to get. Other than that, I had no complaints.

One morning in May after midnight when deadline was past, two editors at The Record in Hackensack invited me to accompany them to the demonstrations against the Draft in Lower Manhattan. I gladly went, and on the way down the West Side Highway they lit a joint and passed it to me. It was the first time I got stoned.

By the time we arrived near the scene, things looked different. More vivid. It was like I had new eyes and ears. Everything was distinct and clear. I felt good. I could feel my breathing and the calm beating of my heart. (My normal blood pressure is 100 over 65.) Wes had attended his first demonstrations against the war in L.A. several years previously, and Bill had been to several too. I had no idea what I was getting into.

It was about 3 a.m. when we parked and began walking toward Battery Park. A stream of people became thicker and wider as we approached, and upon arrival I was astonished at the size of the gathering that filled the park and all the streets around. It seems to me now that there was a lot more color then. People wore red , yellow, green, and purple shirts, and cops provided most of the blue. There were at least a thousand policemen, and many mounted on the lovely thorobreds that New York uses for crowd control. Nobody wants to be stepped on by a horse.

Despite the numbers, the crowd was quiet. Hundreds were waiting in line on the east side of the park waiting to enter a delicatessen for morning coffee and bagels. Although most of the crowd was young--the event had been organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).Everything was orderly and calm. There was an air of anticipation and excitement. I took in the scene with fascination and a certain dread. I had never seen so many people together, and never for such a purpose, though I had witnessed smaller civil rights demonstrations in the South. I had never participated in anything, and saw myself there in my role as a reporter, an observer, though no one had assigned me to cover it. I had a reporter's eyes and ears, and considered myself a superior observer. HAH! I look back on that self as a pompous "wicked messenger." I was a know-it-all who didn't know much worth knowing, especially about war and politics.

The Wicked Messenger:

There was a wicked messenger
From Eli he did come,
With a mind that multiplied
The smallest matter.
When questioned who had sent for him,
He answered with his thumb,
For his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter.
He stayed behind the assembly hall,
It was there he made his bed,
Oftentimes he could be seen returning.
Until one day he just appeared
With a note in his hand which read,
"The soles of my feet, I swear they're burning."
Oh, the leaves began to fallin'
And the seas began to part,
And the people that confronted him were many.
And he was told but these few words,
Which opened up his heart,
"If ye cannot bring good news, then don't bring any." (Bob Dylan)

I had not heard this song yet, or anything by Bob Dylan that I could listen to. But when I did (on my first acid trip a few weeks later) it went right to my heart, and somehow I knew that my days as a newspaper reporter were numbered. I never wanted to be a bad guy, and still don't.

Then things started to happen. Over near the deli the police had a barricade no one was supposed to cross. Allen Ginsberg the Poet and some others whose names I did not know crawled beneath the barricade and were arrested. The crowd became, as they say, "restive." The dawn broke into a cloudless sky. Inside the park on the northeast corner, a core group of students were shouting and waving a Vietcong flag. The guy who held the red, yellow and green flag wore a motorcycle helmet. Suddenly, from nearby subway stairs spilled a group of men wearing hard hats. They waded into the crowd and beat him to the ground, snatched the flag and began to tear it to pieces. They punched out everyone nearby and barely missed me. I snapped photos of all this and still have some of them.

I think many of them were Vietnam veterans. It was obvious whose side the police were on, because they did not interfere with these thugs in any way.

Somehow Wes and Bill and I were separated.

The action then moved around the corner to Whitehall Street, where the Army Induction Center was located. I made my way there. The crowd was so thick that I climbed to the top of a long stair leading into a brownstone building and kept snapping photos. Immediately beneath me on the steps was a group of students shouting at the police. A police step van pulled up and out of it came about 10 cops who proceeded to beat these people and punch them. They were headed to the top of the stairs. I was ready to leap into the crowd below in order to avoid a baton on my skull, when they stopped and began dragging the injured off to the van. One cop had been injured as well (probably by another baton-swinging cop.) His head was bleeding. They put him on a stretcher and took him away in an ambulance.

I still have a color photo of a young woman whose stockings were torn and blood on her face, standing forlorn and immobile looking at the pile of injured people. The next day the New York Times presented a front page four-column wide picture of the attack. I examined it with a magnifying glass, and there I was at the top of the stairs, camera to my face, snapping photos. I had finally made it to the front page of the NY Times.

I don't remember what happened next. Did I go uptown to Port Authority and take a bus back to Hackensack? Did I stay with the crowd? The scene had been so filled with new impressions and the excitement, fear and dread of a police beating jammed my head with new images and ideas. All I remember thinking is that I wanted more of this. I was elated by the demonstration. I had never seen so many people challenge the Government of the United States about anything. I hadn't even considered it possible that so many could be against the war.

The next day was my day off. Another demonstration was scheduled. I drove into the city and joined it. Still, I was a reporter, nothing more. At one point I ran into Bill Schechner, another reporter at The Record, who later became the first anchor for ABC's Nightline. We walked uptown with uncountable numbers of people. Bill kept his eyes on Homer Bigart, the Pulitizer Prize-winning reporter for the Times. I kept looking behind trying to see the end of the demonstration. There was no end in sight. By theI time we reached Times Square, I realized that I was no longer a reporter, but a participant. My loyalties had changed. One thing that a demonstrator had shouted to the crowd that stuck in my mind was, "Right over there is the Army Intelligence office! THAT is a contradiction in terms!"

A sign in the park (which I have a picture of) read: "There are police provocateurs in this crowd inciting us to riot."

Nothing that had happened in my life ever affected me as much as the Whitehall Antidraft Demonstrations. It changed my thinking and actions forever. After my first demonstration, I made a silent vow to myself: "I will never quit." And I never have. It's probably the only vow I have ever been faithful to, for better or for worse. Mostly worse. I have always had a sense of duty. It is probably my strongest instinct. But, a duty to what?

No comments:

Post a Comment