November 15, 1969: 500,000 people, protesting The War, march by a barricaded White House in which the President watches football.
December 1, 1969: The first draft lottery since 1942 affects the lives of 850,000 men aged 19 through 26.
April 30, 1970: President Nixon announces U.S. invasion of Cambodia, a fait accompli, considering that incursions into Cambodia were by then routine.
May 4, 1970: National Guardsman, “only following orders,” kill four and wound eleven student demonstrators at Kent State University.
May 15, 1970: Two Jackson State students are killed by police who riddle a dormitory with automatic weapons fire, following protests over discrimination and the Kent State killings.
March, 1971: Lt. William Calley is found guilty of the premeditated murder of 22 unarmed civilians at My Lai, Vietnam, but is paroled shortly thereafter.
Death stalked Sean’s thoughts. Not only were U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese dying, but U.S. students were being shot and killed. It began to look as though protest was not only ineffective, but deadly. So far Sean had been lucky, the draft had passed him by, and he wasn’t in jail. He’d marched in demonstrations, and spoken out against The War. Nothing had changed, but the excitement of protest had been exhilarating.
Imagine agreeing with half a million other people all assembled in one place! At the ‘69 demo Sean had been to, he’d been swimming in a sea of people. The crowd had swelled from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. There had been entertainment between the speeches, and that time the Broadway cast of Hair performed, and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and even the Beach Boys sang and denounced The War. Kathleen was there for that one. She and Sean were too far from the stage to see much, so Sean offered to put Kath on his shoulders, as many others were doing. She accepted, much to Sean’s shock and delight. The feel of her legs in his hands was incredible. Her mound pressed against the back of his neck. It was hard to concentrate on the speeches, but the music was fantastic. Most of those people had marched thought the D.C. streets: working stiffs, college students, high school students, feminists, civil rights workers, unionists, and children in baby strollers, chanting and shouting around the Nixon White House. It had been surrounded, barricaded with bumper-to-bumper D.C. transit buses. Nixon had been freaked out! That was the biggest anti-war march of them all. Not even Johnson had drawn so many people to D.C. President Johnson had been running the War when Sean had first gotten involved in protest. His administration had increased spending on social programs and the War. There had been good legislation passed during his term of office, so there had not been the tremendous backlash of hatred that Nixon was now enjoying. Nixon wanted to broaden the War, increase military spending, and cut domestic spending.
So there was the feeling that the protests were ineffective. Neither Johnson nor Congress had ended the War. The Nixon government seemed to think that people who opposed the War were naive, misguided, and of no consequence compared to the silent majority, who wholeheartedly supported their government. There were some people, seeing only the ineffectiveness of marches and lobbying efforts, who said, “Bring the War home.”
The Weathermen, formally part of the Students for a Democratic Society, hoped to start another American revolution. They called attention to local infestations of the war machine by bombing them. It didn’t seem like such a bad idea to Sean. ROTC, Dow Chemical, and weapons research labs sure seemed to deserve it, and burning down a branch of the Bank of America made sense – the bankers were financing and profiting from The War. But Sean didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Wasn’t he opposed to war? to violence? to the settling of economic and political differences by short-lived military solutions?
Sean really liked the SDS chants though, things like: “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war.” There were others too, people who supported a North Vietnamese victory. They had chants: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, N.L.F. is gonna win.” The N.L.F., as Sean understood it, was an organization of people in South Vietnam who opposed their own corrupt government and were collaborating with the North. More and more, it appeared, the Vietnamese were fighting a civil war not unlike the US’s own, and the US was not welcome in Vietnam.
Anyone who opposed the U.S. government was alright by me, Sean thought, but he wasn’t about to join any of the crazies, not yet. Sean saw what the cops did to them, and how little difference it made. The real power, he thought, lay in the ability to organize people of diverse backgrounds, having different ideas, into one solid block of opposition to The War. Sean sure as hell didn’t know how to do it.
Many people had answers. Some of the socialists wanted to see more mass demonstrations: “Power to the people!” The Communist Party, America’s bogeymen, called for more participation in electoral politics, especially within the Democratic Party. The Communists’ influence was already weak. By asking us to keep on believing that we could reform the Democratic Party, they alienated themselves totally from the anti-war movement. Other groups wanted to form “The” workingman’s party, but couldn’t agree on who would head it. Every little group knew that they were the only ones who could “lead” us to victory using “the lessons of history.” Some of these weirdos had split off from one group, formed their own “correct” group, and spent most of their time and energy just attacking each other. No strategy, no coalition, no party was allowed to accomplish anything for long. Every proposal was argued to death.
“This meeting is being run by men, I’m tired of male planning.” “The meeting is not addressing the issue of discrimination against gays.” “We can’t stop war and injustice until we change ourselves.” “This is wrong, Lenin said….” “Marx said….” “No he didn’t, what Marx really said was….” “Trotsky….” “Mao is the only true socialist.” “You say you’re for a labor party, but you’re all middle class kids.” “Only the ‘oppressed’ can lead us.” “Only a Party of trade unions can win.” “Only women can get us out of this mess.” “You’re all racists.” “I object to using Roberts’ Rules of Order.” “I object to making decisions by consensus.”
People objected to the clothes people wore, to the food people ate, to the way they lived, and the way they worked. “You support the system of injustice and war by consuming.” “You can’t change the system, you work for it, you benefit from it.” Sean knew he had to do something, but what? Beats the hell out of me, he thought.
He went to a different kind of demo next time he was to D.C. Several groups had called for a C.D., a civil disobedience, in celebration of May Day – an international distress call, a pagan celebration of spring, and also a working peoples’ holiday in other parts of the world. May Day had begun in the US, but few knew it. Using Gandhi’s technique, the streets of Washington would be blocked, and bring business-as-usual to a halt.
Sean couldn’t find anyone else willing to go to D.C. this time. There was more of a risk involved. Few people seemed willing to risk arrest as Gandhi and Martin Luther King had. Sean asked around the Free Medical Clinic that he volunteered at, but no one was going among the people Sean knew. The people in his night school classes said that they couldn’t take time off work and miss school too. Some political “activists” claimed that the whole thing was just a schoolboy adventure. Even Sean’s own brother John said that Sean just wanted to get arrested. Eventually Sean took a Greyhound to D.C., and the Greyhound people there told him what bus Sean needed to get to the park by the Washington Monument. There were thousands of people there already, and a sound stage was being set up.
Once again, the performers were there. Music blared out a rebel beat all the first day and night. Words of protest bounced off Washington’s monument and rippled the Reflecting Pool at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln sat listening, as usual. There were planning meetings and strategy sessions with all the usual bickering, but in spite of those who wanted to take over the planning, and those who wanted more violent actions, they managed to agree to block streets in an organized fashion. Sean would go with a Washington-Baltimore group to a specific street at 7:00 a.m. Monday. We will shut D.C. down, and force the business-as-usual war machine to listen to us, Sean thought. On Saturday night he listened to the familiar sounds of rock’n’roll, and slept peacefully, knowing that he was with good people, and that he might be able to affect the course of The War. The police had other ideas.
May 2, 1971: 242 people arrested at antiwar camp.
Dawn catches most people asleep, but not the police. Squad cars drove across the grass forcing sleepy people out of the way. Paddy wagons gobbled up everyone who didn’t run fast enough. Night-sticks were swinging. Sean got the hell out of there.
Some were able to regroup, later on that day, in safe-houses, churches, and empty offices. Many people were afraid to use the phones (wiretapping was so common) so runners carried messages around. Everyone was determined. The vote, no, the consensus, was to proceed as planned. No one knew exactly how many people were left. Whereas previously there had been groupings by affiliation, as from a certain church, city, state, or other organization, now there were simply groups, groups large enough to block a street each. Sean hooked up with some people who worked out of a church office that what used as a command post. He saw the runners coming and going. He felt like he was in a war zone. He couldn’t find out much. Some runners reported that people were going home, some said that people had been arrested, and he heard speculation that everyone was being hunted down; that the police were searching everywhere, and that we were all going to be arrested just to keep traffic flowing. It was depressing, exciting, and unreal at the same time.
Next day, a cold grey D.C. morning, Sean and so many others advanced – by foot, thumb, bus, or van – to designated streets. The police were waiting. Sean stood, with others, on a corner looking at the police across the street. He crossed the opposite way with a large group, and the police followed from corner to corner, with their riot helmets, tear gas, and clubs. But everyone obeyed the traffic signals! It was clear, however, that the cops weren’t going to let the streets be blocked. Some people elected to stay behind to keep the cops busy. The rest ran up the block and jumped into the street. No one knew if the vehicles would stop. People, especially union pickets during strikes, had been run over before. The cars did stop, but then police began rerouting traffic. They found ourselves blocking empty streets.
Now, from up the street, Sean saw dozens of little white motor-scooters, with the men in blue. He waited with the others for the clubs to start swinging, but the cops would just ride straight on to spook them. They held on, for a while. Then the cops got the idea to come right at them, and, if they didn’t move, to brake and slide sideways right into people. That broke the line. People traveled up the street in groups, and the cops followed. Sean watched one cop, whose activity defined him as a “pig”, tap a guy on the shoulder from behind, and squirt Mace into his eyes when he turned his head around. Someone stayed to help the poor guy but got a club across his chest. Both were arrested, probably for assaulting a police “officer”. Sean kept going. The police stopped every once in a while to make arrests, but Sean managed to stay ahead. There were no contingency plans, so they were forced away from the main streets. Then more cops showed up, and they began chasing people down with their scooters. Sean took off running, pulling trashcans off the sidewalk into the street as he went, hoping to slow ’em down, and keep the streets closed a bit longer.
Elsewhere, streets remained blockaded when not enough police were available, but within an hour, the Mace, clubbings, and arrests cleared the streets. Sean wandered the sidewalks with one large group until he saw a transit bus pull up fast. Helmeted police jumped out and started clubbing people with the biggest night-sticks Sean had ever seen, four-foot riot batons. Sean saw people go down, but there was nothing he could do. Sean spotted Phyllis, from the Free Clinic at home, running the wrong way. Sean grabbed her hand and ran down an alley. The police were waiting on the other side, but at least the riot batons were behind. As they came out of the alley there were fifteen to twenty people leaning against the wall being searched. There was a cop directly in front who calmly asked them to stop and motioned them off to the side. Sean and Phyllis just stood and watched.
“Phyllis, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Neither did I. But Carole was coming, and I came with her and some other people from the Women’s Center.
“I don’t know. We were walking down the street, and the police started grabbing people all of a sudden.”
“Weren’t you blocking traffic?”
“Hell no. We tried it earlier, but they chased us off. We hadn’t even gotten to our designated street yet.”
“Where is everyone else?”
“I don’t know. Somebody said, ‘Run,’ so we ran. People went in every direction. I lost track of Carole.”
“What do you think is going to happen to us now?”
“I wish I knew, I just want to get out of here.”
“Well, nobody seems to be paying any attention to us, let’s go!”
“OK.” They started to move away.
“Where are you two going?” the calm patrolman asked.
“Well, we haven’t been arrested, we’re leaving,” Sean said.
“Get back here.” Still more people were brought over and searched. They were arguing with the cops about The War. “Won’t you join us?” “Please join us, together we could stop The War.” The cops asked: “Would you support us when we ask for higher wages?” “Of course,” was the immediate reply. The cops laughed, and everyone relaxed a bit. Another bus finally pulled up, and the cops made us get on it. It was an ordinary bus. Everyone found out how to open the windows because the little sign said: “Push Here in an Emergency.” Sean saw people jump out of a bus in front of them, and Sean wanted to do the same, but Phyllis wasn’t going for it. Sean didn’t want to abandon her, so they rode along, flapping the windows like wings and calling out to the people we passed: “No more war! U.S. out! Stop the killing!”
The destination was a football field. What was this? Sean wondered. As it turned out, the jails were full. There were about two thousand people herded into that field, surrounded by a fence, a ring of National Guard, and a ring of cops. We’re that dangerous? Sean wondered.
A large group of people did try to bust out. Sean remembered the chain-link fence bent and sagging to the ground with their weight. The police moved in, past the Guardsmen, and beat them back with tear gas and clubs. No one tried that again. Everyone on the field got the gas. Most couldn’t see for awhile; the fumes were so intensely acrid that Sean shut his eyes, trying to squeeze the obnoxious irritant out. The police didn’t trust the Guard, so they increased their strength. One Guardsman said to Sean: “I don’t know if they’re guarding you or us.” He told him that many of the guys like him had joined the guard in order not to be sent to Vietnam. “We’re with you, hang in there,” he said.
Phyllis had found her friend Carole, so Sean wandered around trying to figure out what was going to happen. A meeting (of course) was called. They found tarps, ordinarily used to over the field, and constructed a tent, using a goalpost as the support. They met in the tent, but, naturally, couldn’t agree on a plan of action. No one knew what was “going down” anymore. More of the tarpaulin was ripped up and used to build privies for the women, and trenches were dug to carry waste to the rear of the field. The Guardsmen lent them shovels, and a water tap was available. They begged the guard for cups and canteens to get water, after it got muddy and slippery around the tap from hundreds of people trying to run water into their mouths. When night came many people were huddling together for warmth and comfort. Sean was desperate for a little physical and human warmth, so he sought Phyllis out. Sean liked her and he hoped to use the occasion to snuggle up with her, at least. When Sean found her she was with some smoothie, a stranger, who had his arms around her and was taking her to a small tent he’d made – so that she could warm up. “Oh, God! I want to be warm,” she said, and snuggled up against him. How the hell had that happened in the short time I was in the meeting? “Me too,” Sean said. The guy, Bruce, said, “I’m afraid there’s barely room for two, but you’re welcome to use my space blanket.” Phyllis had her hand in Bruce’s. “Thanks,” Sean mumbled. I suppose I should be grateful, he thought, but he wasn’t. It had turned into a lousy day. The main tent was full by then, but Sean found a space behind it where there was some shelter from the wind, and he managed to grab a few zees – it was a good blanket.
Around midnight the lights Zapped! on. Amazing how noisy those floodlights are in the still of the night. The buses were back. They were being moved out. It was pitch dark past the floodlights, and no one could see anything with those things blasting sleepy retinas. They were herded onto the buses, packed in like cattle. There were no families or press around. Sean was scared. No one knew what the government would do. Sean and most other people conjured up nightmares of concentration camps, or worse. After all, hadn’t the U.S. government rounded up and imprisoned Japanese-Americans during the last war? And, hadn’t Nixon and Agnew called peace activists traitors to America? The buses drove away. Sean tried to get back to sleep, but that’s not real easy to do standing up. Sean couldn’t see where they were going, and he wasn’t much relieved by the sight of a huge fortress-looking structure. It turned out to be Washington Coliseum, and they were taken inside. Everyone was exhausted, and tried to sleep on the concrete floor. The Guard finally brought in wool blankets. The police did nothing.
May 3, 1971: Using tear gas and night-sticks, police arrest 7,000 antiwar protesters in Washington, D.C., including 1,200 who are arrested while legally assembled on the Capitol steps.
As daylight penetrated to the deep floor from up above the bleachers, they were awakened by shouts. More people were being brought in! Some had been released from jail. Most were people who had heard of the bust from them, and joined them in the streets that morning. They got a standing ovation, with cheering and singing. Sean was totally freaking amazed. No one had any idea how many people had been arrested. The news media spoke of only a few hundred busts. Clearly there were thousands. Every D.C. jail was full. People sang songs and told jokes and wondered what to do. The police came in with bullhorns. They said that anyone could leave, if they admitted to resisting arrest – a felony! The entire assembly split up into three groups, discussed the “offer”, and passed word back and forth (easy to do in those crowded conditions). The consensus: “refuse to cooperate.”
Later, after Sean ate two of the several thousand bologna sandwiches that suddenly showed up, the “offer” changed. Now, they were promised no felony charges would be brought, but the arrests would be misdemeanor charges only! Another meeting followed, and the huge group rejected that plan too. A few people left, but Sean figured that was their right. He looked everywhere for Phyllis. He liked her a lot; they were both volunteers at the People’s Free Medical Clinic in Baltimore. She had an infectious smile, and wore thick coke-bottle lenses. They worked as patient advocates, people who stayed with a patient through their visit, to explain things, ask questions, take medical histories, and follow up before the patient left. He and Phyllis made sure that patients asked questions of the doctors, got explanations of treatment, and were given treatment options. As advocates they received frequent group trainings, and had even gone on retreat together to Assateague Island, camping among the wild ponies. Sean found her very attractive.
The A.C.L.U. lawyers finally found out where everyone was and began negotiating with the cops. The Guardsmen tossed Frisbee’s back and forth with the protesters, carried messages for them, and even brought them chocolate bars (talk about feeling like a POW) until their Commander caught them at it. He forced them all to stand at attention. Sean heard it start and he joined in: “…sit down. Let them sit down.” All three thousand or more chanted: “Let them sit down. Sit down. Sit down. Sit down. Sit down.” In fear of a riot, for that is how the media reported it, the Guardsmen were allowed to sit back down in the bleachers. Victory! Sean thought, and felt better.
Of course, no one else was allowed to sit in the bleachers. People wandered aimlessly around, ate more prison-fare bologna sandwiches, and tried to get messages in and out. Sean finally got access to the phones, so he called his boss to tell him that he couldn’t make it to work. Sean’s boss asked him where he was. Sean told him, but he didn’t seem to believe him. “I heard about a ruckus in Washington where some people got arrested. You weren’t involved in that were you?” Sean told him that the police had been arresting everyone on the streets, and that he wasn’t sure when he’d get back to work. “Is there anything I can do?” he asked. “No,” Sean told him, “I don’t think there’s anything you can do now, but the ACLU is trying to help get us out of here.”
People sang, some people performed roving plays, and some chanted. Someone got the idea to do a round with om. Sean joined in a continuous ommmmmmm that was maintained for over an hour by having large groups start at different times. Feels great! Sean thought, and such cooperation! The effect was mesmerizing – there were at least 3000 people jammed into that place. Another night passed in this way.
Sean still hadn’t found Phyllis, so he curled up in a wool blanket and tried to sleep. Some crazy guy ran around half naked, danging his penis and balls in women’s faces where they slept. A roar of disapproval echoed around the collesium, and he was gone. Next morning they were offered a new deal. Who’s in charge here? Sean was not the only one wondering. If they allowed themselves to be “processed” – fingerprinted and photographed – they would not be charged. Sean was ready for that. It wasn’t a bad deal, despite the contradiction of being booked without having been arrested, but no one would be charged with a crime.
Some were against it, pointing out the contradictions, and wanting to maintain the “revolution”. A group calling themselves “Weatherwomen”, presumably a split-off from the “Weathermen”, who were a splinter group from the nonviolent Students for a Democratic Society, argued against it vehemently. They passed word around that some of them were wanted by the F.B.I., and that we had to help prevent their arrest. They actually screamed at the crowd to stay, but they’d had enough. No one knew these people anyway. They could have been police agents. There was no more to be gained by staying. At least people knew what had happened. A vote was taken and it was agreed to leave. Sean managed to find Phyllis again; her friend seemed to have disappeared, and they stayed together for the rest of “processing”.
It turned out to be a real gas. People borrowed each others clothes and hats, and painted mustaches on each other. Sean borrowed Phyllis’s thick glasses and they both stumbled through the lines. People with P.O.W. tattooed on their foreheads with magic markers signed their names as Mickey de Mouse, Donald Q. Duck, Tricky Dick Nixon, Ho Chi Minh, Mao ZeDong, John Hancock, or even John Mitchell, the U.S. Attorney General who had illegally ordered the mass arrests. The F.B.I. got everyone’s fingerprints, but a judge later ordered the records of the illegal arrests destroyed. No one was left in jail, and no one had been seriously hurt.
Sean’s boss had been understanding, after he’d heard the whole story, so Sean still had his job. Public opinion had changed. Day-to-day organizing, in churches, in synagogues, in PTA’s and labor unions, was finally beginning to pay off. The end of The War would come soon, or the Government was in serious trouble. Sean saw only two options for his future: jail or Canada.