yes, i agree that it was a rite of passage, in several respects. it was the first time that i felt i was not just a passive traveller in society, but an active player with a stand and a power that could be felt. it was a major source of generational identity. i remember how the war suddenly became a real thing when i realized the boys i knew were eligible to be drafted. it made the world large and small at the same time - large because my perspective now included something much bigger than my previous high school concerns, and smaller because vietnam did not feel far or distant. it was the first time i felt that it was my turn to take a stand.
joined: yes, i think joined is the right word for me. my family has always been organizers; labor activists, civil rights activists. i was a high school student when the moratoria started, and i was approached by a peace group just by happenstance to be an organizer on the high school campus. i said yes because all my life i had been taken to marches. but when i started working with this group the issues took on a larger life. it connected me with people who though a lot about peace, not just regarding this war. and, when i started organizing and saw the hostile reaction, it gave me true feeling of "oh, shit, there's *lots* to be done - better get going!"
i was a high school student when this began, so my parents never let me go to any of the marches in dc. my role was to organize simultaneous marches and protests in my home town. now, i grew up in a white privileged family in a white privileged suburb. leading my first march was the first time that i was on the other side of the system. i was shocked by the rage and fury this march for peace and an end to the killing inspired. we had to be surrounded by police for our own safety. people tried to throw things at us and hit us and splash us with paint. it really made me begin to think about what made people have such a strong stake in supporting the war, with frightening conclusions.
since i stayed in my hometown, the marches became less hostile as more people supported our view. quite satisfying in the end.
i also did a lot of fundraising to bus people to the dc marches, and i became aware of how limited most people's concept of social consciousness was. very few could see any personal benefit from ending this war (remember, privileged: had lots of ways of keeping their *own* kids out.) i was accustomed to my parents, and was shocked at all the lip service, no action, no sense of an intangible good.
and as to the sixties, well they seemed more like a call to arms than a madness to me. i remember standing in a service with my father while he tried to explain to me what had happened to martin luther king, and going to the strategy session of the civil rights group he worked with afterwards. it seemed unreal until rfk's death, when the picture finally jelled for me. i remember going to see rfk's coffin just because i felt a need to really witness it, to be a part of the changes that were happening.
and i guess i believed that we were changing the world. that we would bring about world peace. that we would bring about a time of human understanding and caring.
i believed then that there was cause for revolution and i believe there is cause now for revolution. the power in our society is held by the few and excercised for their benefit at the expense of the many. people's fears are divided and manipulated to keep them from joining together in common cause. our leaders (and i don't think that our *real* leaders necessarily correspond to our elected leaders; i think their strings are pulled but other people) are playing chess, to quote tom paxton, "using pawns and bishops made of flesh and blood and bones".
i think our social fabric has been torn because the ideals and activism of that generation was not incorporated into the social landscape, but brutally excluded by those in power.
When you started organizing at high schools, where did the hostility
You started organizing peace marches in a safe suburban town at
the same time the marches were going on in DC. I would like to know
some more details about the first march you organized, if I could.
You started organizing peace marches in a safe suburban town at the same time the marches were going on in DC. I would like to know some more details about the first march you organized, if I could.
Let me answer both of these in a somewhat roundabout way. to start, the day was absolutely gorgeous, perfect marching weather. this was a big moment for me because, while i had been taken to untold numbers of protests, this was the first i had organized myself. i was excited, but scared that it wouldn't come off, and scared that i wouldn't know what to do if it was successful. the whole plan was very low key - we were meeting at the high school and marching down a couple of the back streets to the main route into town and then to the town green, where a couple of speeches from local politicos and peaceniks were planned.
a fair group of us gathered at the high school. there were roughly 75, mostly students and teachers, some parents, and a few peace organizers who couldn't get to DC. we kind of milled around for a while, and then sort of came to a consensus to start off. we were accompanied by a few police, which seemed to me to be a ludicrous precaution at the time.
we were walking together without any chanting or organized behavior, just chatting among ourselves. there was an incredible spirit of joy and solidarity, and a sort of pride in taking a visible stand. and there was a sense of uniting across the gaps, teachers and students, adults and kids. and, suprisingly enough, there was an ease with letting the students be the leaders and directing the program.
we were fine 'til we hit the main drag. there was a hostile crowd with bats and sticks and rocks standing in our way intent on preventing us from marching. i was stunned. these were the same people that i had seen and chatted amiably with a million times in town. i will never forget the look on the cops' faces. they were scared, but mostly confused. kids were valued very highly in my town, so there was no way they were going to let the mob hurt us. but the mob was composed of what the cops had always thought of as the quintessetial "good citizens" and they couldn't see coming down hard on them either.
finally, they radioed for backup from all cops on duty (remember, it was a little town). they formed a human barrier between us and the mob and escorted us into town.
this confrontation changed many things. first of all, it created an extraordinary sense of solidarity among those of us in the protest. the speeches on the green were much more ringing than previously intended, and carried promises of future action. people who were inactive before joined to show support.
it also solidifed the other side in rage. after all, they were the authorities in the town, and they had tried to stop the march, and the cops hadn't obeyed. many who were not a part of the mob simply ignored the violence in it, and reacted to the inability of adults to assert power over the youth. the entire aniwar effort became viewed not as a peace movement, or a moral dilemma, but a generational conflict.
it became plain that there were many issues at stake beyond a war half a globe away. after all, no one who opposed the antiwar march was talking about national seucurity issues or needing to stop the threat of communism, or even our responsiblity to support our allies. the key sentiment was "my country right or wrong, but my country." what they were really opposed to was taking an open stand against a decision made by our government. we had become traitors for daring to influence our own government, for daring to exercise our freedoms to assemble and speak.
this event had some other personal effects on me. the whole plan for a local demonstation of support essentially came about out of my disappointment in not being allowed to go to dc. i had not expected it to have a real impact. but in fact it galvanized town opinion in a direct way that the march in dc did not. it made the subsequent marches in dc more connected to people in town. it made me realize that acting in whatever environment you find yourself is worthwhile.
it also gave me a little taste of what it is like *not* to be on the side of the priveleged. growing up white and wealthy, i wasn't accustomed to having to defend my actions against the powers that be. around this time, the aclu was fighting to allow the nazis to march in skokie, and it was made painfully clear to me how important it was to allow basic rights to *everyone* whether you liked them or not. after all, my town would have prevented me from marching if they could.
Can you tell me a little more about your hopes for a better world behind your activism? Can you tell me what happened to them in the late sixties?
the sixties was a time we were asking people to step out of their pigeonholes and join together in common cause as human beings. the crux of the civil rights movement was that all people are to be valued regardelss of race. the peace movement said that the lives of all people mattered. i felt the antiwar movement was the paradigm of what would be a new world order - people joining together in caring, friendship and support to work for the common good. and i did expect it to be a second american revolution. the voice of the people would replace formal democracy with real democracy and give life to the bill of rights by exercising them.
even the sexual revolution seemed more of a celebration of our human capacities and ability to connect with one another than the hedonistic orgy that it is commonly portrayed as these days.
and as long as the focus was on ending the war, this all seemed possible. the movement kept getting stronger, and people began to feel strong because of the impact their work was having on the public perception of the war, and the sense that they were actively engaged in making the world better. people in the antiwar movement felt almost like an extended family. there was a sense that there were a lot of good people out there who were ready to help you if you needed it. there was also a sense of what nowadays we would call empowerment: that people could shape their own lives.
against this came the violent backlash from the establishment (haven't used that term in ages :-) ). i remember thinking with the kent state killings "my god, they really will kill us if they have to". the increased viciousness of the repression was truly frightening. there was the sense that all existing powers of the state would be used to quash the movement. it felt like a real betrayal. here we had been told all our lives about what democracy meant and what america stood for, and when we actually bought into it and tried to make it a reality, we were condemned and killed. i think the combination of fear and disillusionment was what led a lot of people to drop out.
also, once the primary focus on ending the war was over, many divisions began to surface. as the women's movement blossomed, it became plain that the guy who stood next to you on the barricades would be just as willing to view you as inferior as the guys on the other side. radical chic - what we now call political correctness - became the rage. i remember going to coalition meetings where men from the gay men's caucus would not talk to me because i was female. i remember going to meetings of the women's center where we argued over whether women who dated men were betraying the sisterhood. i remember being criticized for taking a physics class because the professor had gotten funding from the defense department. actually, my favorite memory is when the october league, a now long defunct marxist-leninist movement, outlawed oral sex among its members because it was anti working class.
and the mass movements became victims of internal power struggles. i was at the meeting of sds where it was formally dissolved. pl, a marxist-leninist group, had decided to infiltrate sds to use the mass support for their own agenda. as it became clear that the sds membership had less and less say in actions, people left, until the only folks left in sds were the pl infiltrators. when they finally got tired of talking to themselves, they disbanded.
the group that i was in, the new american movement (also long defunct), spent all its time squabbling about which chapter should be designated the national headquarters. the end result was that those chapters doing serious organizing left to pursue their own course.
it was very discouraging. i must say, however, that the original peace group which got me involved in high school, wilpf, kept a pretty clear head through the whole thing. i remained a member of that group and used them as my primary organizing forum until 5 years ago, when i joined the international humanist movement. i still believe in the wilpf ideals, though i think they have not been successful at incorporating younger generations in the struggle.
i would be very interested in hearing the other stories. i have found this whole experience to be very cathartic. many memories have come back which have brought tears to my eyes. and although i have continued organizing since that time, and thus would not have lumped myself into the "drop-out" category, as i have thought about those years, it has become clear to me how much of that time i have disregarded and undervalued, and basically shut myself off from.
it has also brought home a sense of generation. i am always shocked when i find that someone i am close to has no memory of the jfk assasination. it is so central to my internal landscape that i forget that it is not a universal experience but one that pinpoints a certain group of people in a certain time. so it is with the whole anitwar era. i have been talking about this to my friends and realized that many of them are either too young to remember or come from other countries. yet for me it was a central defining time.
anyway this whole project has been a great experience for me, and opened up many channels of thought.