"Joined" the antiwar movement... I think that is a very strange term. We didn't have to enlist or enroll or anything. If the antiwar movement wasn't "joined," one merely "became" a part of it as it evolved. Do you agree? How did it happen for you? When you first went to the antiwar moratoria, why did you go? Was it all to protest the war, or were there social considerations involved? I suppose you studied Thoreau and civil disobedience in high school. Did your studies influence your thinking in any way?
Probably, although I did not participate in any mass actions while in high school. At the time such actions were mostly associated with civil rights. And I was quite the moderate there, too, although the town I lived in was about 60% black (well, we said "Negro" back then--"black" was considered an epithet), and my high school girlfriend was black (we referred to inter- racial dating, which was common, as "going zebra"). That was quite a time, the mid-60s. The academic standards at my high school were not all that great, but I got a social education I wouldn't trade for anything. Anyway, Carol and I both belonged to the local NAACP chapter, and we deplored the in-your-face posturing of CORE and SNCC.
I remember reading a lot of existentialist writers at the time -- people like Sartre and Kafka. Writers who portrayed a mad, upside-down society, where the only antidote for madness was for people to take control of the world and society and establish their own values of good and evil. The sixties seemed like a decade of madness to me. If it got unstuck, when did it do so for you?
We'll get to that. At the point I entered college I was a science nerd -- I had not read much literature nor did it interest me. My biggest shock upon getting to Ann Arbor was that there were so many white people in the world. It was a sleepy campus that very little happened at during the whole span of the 60s, by the way. Anyway, what did happen was that I discovered drugs and sex (in that order). Very much the awkward introvert at that juncture, I thank that glorious culture-du-jour for essentially thrusting them in my face, and pelvis, respectively
So I guess it was marijuana that got my rebellious juices flowing--a society that made pot smokers common criminals (and even uncommon ones--you could at that time get 10-20 years in some states merely for possession; this happened not just in Texas, but to activist John Sinclair in Michigan) had obvious and basic flaws. And so I started to read some of the cultural literature--Wolfe, Barth, Vonnegut--and just kept reading.
Let me reiterate what I regard as a very important tale. What happened to you happened to most of the people I knew in our generation. I want to trace the changes you experienced:
Fire away. You started out as a patriotic guy, with high hopes for society and your role in the world. When you got to college, you experimented with grass. Who didn't? Unfortunately, some very stupid and repressive laws turned you (potentially) into a common criminal. That put you on the outside of the society you had such high hopes for. Those stupid laws are still stinging good people -- just think of Ginsburg's nomination to the US Supreme Court. Was being a criminal (for whatever trivial reason) the first step in one's disaffection with his native country?
For many people this probably was the first step toward alienation. It certainly put me in off the deep end. I think the first step for me, however, occurred in high school, when I realized that no matter what LBJ said (e.g., "We shouldn't be sending American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing."), he was not telling the truth. And I remember thinking, "What does this mean that when the president says something that directly affects my future, I can't believe him?"
I'd like to skip ahead to 1968 now. It was a watershed year in the history of the world. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and the Democratic Convention occurred within a few weeks' time of each other. What did the year look like for you?
Up through the summer of '68 I somehow balanced my hippie activities (and school--couldn't drop out, though I wanted to, lest I be drafted) with a sense of responsibility I still don't understand how I mustered. I joined Julian Bond's New Democratic Coalition. I campaigned very hard for McCarthy-- lots of long bus rides to Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs for the Wisconsin April primary. The guy I was usually working with had a good friend highly placed in the Michigan McCarthy team. He was sure if we went to Chicago we'd be able to get into the hotel and hobnob with the honchos, maybe even Gene himself. And besides, we could stay with his folks in Lincoln Park. So off we went--although we were delayed for a day while he repaired his car-- to see democracy in action. Well, we saw it but good. By the time we got there, most of the convention locations had been completely sealed off by the cops and the National Guard. We wound up watching the proceedings on his folks' TV, in sensurround and smell-o-vision as we heard the continual sirens and breathed in the wafting tear gas. And on Saturday Aug 31 when it was all over--and I shaved for what would be the last time to this day-- we drove back to Michigan. I joined SDS the following week. John--I lost track of him. I had heard in succeeding months that he had dropped out. Flash forward 24 years. It was late April 1992 when I got sent to a conference in DC, I decided to take one beautiful, warm afternoon off and go check out the sites. And in roaming around I stumbled across The [Vietnam Memorial] Wall. And there among the 50,000 others was his name.
You remembered from high school civics classes that democracy depends upon an informed, involved citizenry. You supported Gene McCarthy in '68. You went to Chicago to see democracy in action. However, Chicago was nuthin' like you learned in school. That was when you got a firsthand taste of repression, and entenched powers protecting themselves. America in '68 didn't look much different from any other totalitarian country. Is that the way you felt about the American society then?
Some demonstrators' signs out in Grant Park said "Welcome to Czechago". The meaning was not lost. It became very clear to me that what the Czechs faced and what Americans faced was different only in outward form, but not in basic substance. The American ruling class didn't need to use force when they had such firm control of the media. Why bother with tanks when you can exert even better control with commercials? There's so much less mess. Although we were getting fascism-with-a-friendly-face, as with meaningless electoral choices, the government demonstrated that it would not hesitate to resort to the old methods for those who refused to accept the new ones.
And the demonstrations that followed 1968... did they get nastier?
Things definitely got nastier after '68--but that's when it became obvious that they were out to get us, and to exterminate those who were not perceived as having previous class privilege, like the Black Panthers. I don't think the rhetoric changed much, except that the splintering of SDS created several fringe groups that were intent themselves on waging total war.
You came home from Chicago and immediately joined the SDS. Most people think of the SDS in terms of rabid revolutionaries in the Weathermen/Weather Underground. I don't think the SDS had evolved to that point by '68. Am I wrong? What were your reasons for joining up with them?
Weathermen split off in 1969, I think. But PLP had already split, and the Yippies had a commanding presence. Anyway, I joined SDS because they understood what America was and what had to be done about it. I had a lot of sympathy with--and friends in--the Yippies, because I felt that a cultural war had a far better chance of success than a physical one. Remember that we--and the Yippies in particular--having been the first generation to grow up with TV, had an instinctual understanding of modern media that the mainstream would not master until Reagan. And this put the cultural revolutionaries completely at odds with the classical leftist dogmatists, who soberly intoned that "The revolution will NOT be televised". Well of course it would! The media, the principal tools of repression, would be liberated, and they would CREATE the revolution. Well, they might have if we had ever pulled ourselves together sufficiently to work this out. We couldn't see it then, so cocky were we, but we should have stopped ridiculing the Old Left and begun working with them. Yeah, a lot of 'em were sexist and homophobic and had this bizarre reverence for the Soviet Union, but they understood what planning was, and what a program was, and the importance of symbols (like the flag) to average Americans.
The SDS continued to evolve as time went by. It took a more extreme stance. You were well-prepared to accomodate the changes. After all, you had seen American repression firsthand -- and you probably knew a whole lot of others who did, too. Is this an accurate summation of the changes you went through? Is this a fair picture of the way you viewed American society?
I'm sorry, Senator, I can't recall. May I consult my notes?
I'm thinking about Abbie Hoffman's "second American revolution." How did you feel about people who wanted to overthrow the government?
At the point I joined there were already 2 factions, RYM and PLP. And then RYM split to form RYM II and Weatherman. We all advocated revolution, but the RYM factions stayed pretty concentrated on the war. The PLers all cut their hair, abandoned their tofu for Kraft macaroni and cheese, and moved to Chicago or St. Louis to work alongside the masses. And Weatherman (later the androgynous "Weather Underground") took to the battlefront then and there.
I wanted to overthrow the government, and felt that Jefferson--not so much in the Declaration of Independence but in his "A little rebellion now and then..." quote--presented a clear American precedent for it. I didn't think it would or could happen through armed struggle, but I felt it was inevitable culturally due to the mass defection of the country's youth. We used to say, especially when we were good and stoned, "You know, in 20 years we're going to run this country." Of course we all knew we'd have smoothed over some of our rough edges, but who ever expected an entire generation to suddenly turn around and spit on the axioms it claimed to hold so dear? I expected Tom Hayden; I never expected Dan Quayle. On the other hand, I still can't say "Congressman Bobby Rush" without laughing.
We were all pretty exuberant, though we knew we'd settle down somehow. Become respectable. But we'd always have our ideals. Well, the joke was on me. I turned around one day in, oh, 1977 or so, to find that there was no community any more, that one by one my comrades had sneaked off to become middle managers in multinational corporations and drive VW rabbits. Apparently it was for the most part just one big party. I dunno--the revolution sure made a lot of sense to me. We said that capitalism was a culture of death--and we were right. I never had an easy time in the movement. I read the Wall Street Journal (and still do). I figured that if we were really going to smash the state it behoved us to understand how it worked, and then maybe play with it a little bit first. I was a planner (and still am). And as I later traveled around the country visiting communes, all invariably in advanced stages of decay and despair, it became clear to me that just having your head in a really good place and watching the sun set was not what anyone could call a sustainable economy. I liked motorcycles, and computers, and modern medicine. I did not really want to relegate myself--and my entire generation--to eking out a subsistence living tilling a gravelly garden with a stone adze. And that seemed to be the only alternative proposed--or else the Stalinist solution of simply take over the factories and run them just like the pigs did. My alienation was not just from the status quo.
Do you think there was a sound rationale then for a revolution?
Of course. There still is. And if the working people of this country ever wake up from the hypnotic trance into which they have been placed by corporate media, their righteous wrath will yet bring their oppressors to justice. You think the issues are any different now than then 20 years ago? Indeed, the squalor--and the suffering--are far worse.
I'm thinking about alienation of youth now. Did anyone ever harass you for being a hippie? A yippie? How did your parents feel about your antiwar sympathies? Were you regarded as a communist? A traitor? An anarchist? Did the police ever give you any grief -- drug searches and the like...
Harrassment--I was never busted for drugs, though I did deal occasionally in pot and hash (and by being very scrupulous in my use of equipment in the chem lab where I worked acquired a well-deserved reputation for honest weights). Usually we long-haired men were called queers, fags, etc.--sexual epithets. (I guess one of the few successes of the Cultural Revolution is that nobody cares about this any more.) I wasn't often called an anarchist, which in retrospect is surprising, because I was one. And still am, by the way.
"Busted for drugs": Reminds me of the time, around 1980, when I was with some friends in rural Wisconsin, including a guy who upon finishing law school had become an assistant DA in this particular county, which I won't mention, lest I scuttle forever his chances of higher office. Anyway, we're driving around, passing a joint, and at one point I'm holding the roach, and I say to him, "You bust people for this, don't you?" To which he responded, "No, I don't bust 'em for dope; I bust 'em for stupidity."
When Agnew gave his famous speech about "effete intellectual snobs," how did his remarks make you feel?
Agnew was always a joke. I personally enjoyed his speeches, which he clearly did not himself write nor even recite very passionately, simply to hear a new turn of phrase, which I could then wear as a badge of honor along with all my other pins. And of course Agnew's character was borne out by the details of his downfall. He was governor of Maryland and sold out for $10,000. The governor; a lousy ten grand--what a small mind; what a pinhead.
At the point Nixon took over the war was very unpopular, and it quickly became clear that Nixon had lied about his special plan to end it. Of course, those of us who knew about Nixon's campains against Voorhis and Douglas knew that there was no "new" Nixon. Flash forward to 1973--I'm running a housing co-operative organization in Madison, and we have as our lawyer just the kind of guy a scruffy bunch of leftists would want-- the Chairman of the Republican Party of Dane County (scrupulously honest, a Boy Scout leader, and he charged us practically nothing, our real estate visions so intrigued him). Anyway, Mark and I would often discuss politics prior to business. Well, one day he was almost in tears. He had figured out (about a month before the Senate committee did) that Nixon was guilty as hell and that he would not be able to dodge the charges. Mark had campaigned intensely for Nixon in 2 elections and felt completely betrayed. I told him about the Helen Gahagan Douglas campaign--he was shocked, but then after a few seconds of clearly painful thought just gave a grim, knowing nod.
How did you feel about the police, the National Guard, the FBI and other people in power?
The cops were pigs. They were the enemy. Sure, they were human beings, with spouses and kids and a mortgage. But they also--voluntarily and proudly-- wore uniforms and guns and obeyed orders to deprive us of our civil rights. Friends who were busted were tortured and had their hair cut off. Others were pounded bloody during nonviolent demonstrations--well they *had been* non-violent until the cops came. So fuck 'em! And dammit, when I get pulled over for traffic violations even now I *still* have the same feeling in my gut. I hate cops, though I now do know a few, and I do respect their sense of purpose and their considerable skills.
Did the situation heat upafter Kent State?
Not where I was--the University of Michigan slept through the whole thing. The only riot during my time there (1966-1970) occurred when the county sheriff (that would be Doug Harvey, brother of famed fascist newscaster Paul Harvey) taunted and kicked a bunch of street people into fighting back. And even then the university president, Robin Flemming, whose background was as a labor mediator, was out at the intersection of South University and East University in his bathrobe, talking to and separating the two sides. Well, he had to get out of bed, the cops had teargassed his residence.
In 1970, you left Ann Arbor for Univ of Wisc at Madison (which I remember was another hotbed). What was the general atmosphere on campus like at that time? What about as Mayday approached?
I didn't get there until the beginning of August. Not much was going on over the summer. Then on August 24 (better check that date) the Army Math Research Center blew up, killing a researcher for the Physics Department that happened to be located in the basement. And that was the beginning of the end of The Movement. There were those who said "My God, how could we?", and those who said "It's sad, but a casualty of war". There was no reconciling the two views, and essentially no effective action occurred thereafter. I recall the spirit of rebellion cooled off after Mayday. Why do you suppose this is true? The revolution didn't fully take hold. Why?
On May 4, 1970 four white students were shot dead in Kent, Ohio. That the system would begin to kill *white* people was an amazing realization. But then barely 4 months later the movement racked up its first non-combatant fatality, physicist Robert Fasnacht. The two events made it clear that this struggle was for keeps, and alas, most of its supporters were mere poseurs. While the revolution remained relatively safe it was a fun time, but now this was real war, and thus another draft to dodge.
Are there any significant aspects of your activities during that time which I've overlooked? If so, please share them with me.
I don't do well in games of chance, but I somehow managed to win the first draft lottery. (It was later proven to be non-random, as you might expect from drawing numbers that had been poured 1 through 366--Jan 1 through Dec 31--into a large barrel and stirred in a circle once or twice.) My draft number was 18. I went off to my pre-induction physical in June 1970, was found suitably crazy (that was luck), and given a 1-Y (6 month deferment). I didn't know how I'd manage to deal with it in December, but by September my draft board (60% black--remember?) simply gave me a 4-F. And that good fortune for me to a poor person's obvious detriment made me resolve never to stop fighting against the war until it was over. Do not misunderstand--I was not and am not a liberal--I did not feel guilty; I was angry. And exuberant. And the day will come when our time will come again.