I was baptized, by my own choice, on December 10, 1961, at the age of eleven-and-a-half. I mention this because it so closely predates the time that I began having serious doubts about the existence of God. I continued to attend church for a couple more years, amidst increasing discomfort. By the time I entered high school, in 1964, I had decided to reject Christianity altogether. My adolescent doubts coincided with bigger social changes.
The assasination of President Kennedy and the subsequent controversies, the coming of the Beatles to the US a few months later, my introduction--by my elder brother--to Allen Ginsburg's Fact Magazine, and my involvement in high school debate combined to make me see American society as being quite a bit different from its representation. I had entered high school having rejected God as the ultimate authority. I learned in high school to question the official version of just about everything.
Q: How did it happen for you? Why did you join?
I graduated from Belmont High School, in Los Angeles, in June 1967 and was to start at UCLA in the fall. I bought a used car, got a boxboy job at a supermarket, took once class at LACC (to get it out of the way), and spent much of the summer dating the girl with whom I had gone to the prom. I had decided already, sometime in my last year of high school, that I was against the war in Vietnam, but had not thought of doing anything about it. Then, on a Sunday in late summer, between the end of my LACC class and the beginning of classes at UCLA, I heard an announcement on the radio of an antiwar march down Wilshire Blvd. We lived three blocks from Wilshire and the entire route was within easy walking distance from home. This made it a rather simple matter for me to join in. The prospect excited me, and I tossed the idea around in my mind for a couple of hours before deciding to walk up to the assembling point.
Thousands of people had gathered. Some were preparing to march behind banners of a political party or organization, others had signs to hand out. It seems I had already made the decision to march by going that far; when the march began, I found a place in it and marched down Wilshire from just east of Western Avenue to LaFayette Park. I imagined myself quite daring, though there was probably little chance of danger. The one point in the march I do remember is when we passed Vermont Avenue and I saw a couple of people I knew from church standing at the corner watching and shaking their head in disapproval. I felt then that, for the first time, I had publicly declared myself to be opposed to my government's war.
Q: Do you remember 1968?
Not long after starting at UCLA, in the fall of 1967, I came to see the best hope for ending the war in Vietnam in the upcoming presidential election. The election, in fact, loomed over everything as the promising vehicle for change. The vote at that time, of course, had not been extended to 18 year olds, but there were still plenty of chances for involvement.
During the early primaries, I just followed the news and thought about who might have the best chance to effect an end to the War. Gene McCarthy was the choice of the purists, because he was the first to openly challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination. I came to favor Robert Kennedy, though, because I thought he had the best prospects for actually getting elected. Throughout the 1968 election, I held to a pragmatic line like this.
The very first day I volunteered for the Kennedy campaign, through the UCLA Kennedy support organization, we were driven to the Crenshaw district to canvass, house-to-house. Enthusiasm was high in this mostly Black neighborhood; some people asked if I was related to Kennedy (must have been my hair), and the feeling at the end of the afternoon was optimistic. When I got home that evening, President Johnson was announcing that he had decided not to run for reelection. Not a bad day's work!
I continued to campaign for Kennedy, for Alan Cranston, and for Henry Waxman and, on the day of the primary helped to bring out the vote. Since we lived only seven or eight blocks away from the Ambassador Hotel, I walked up to take part in what we expected would be a victory celebration. After I had been there for a couple of hours, I guess, packed in a ballroom, waiting for the candidate to come down to talk to us, I heard what sounded like firecrackers going off way down the hall. Minutes later, the announcement came to us that Kennedy had been shot.
Within a week of Robert Kennedy's death, and after my finals, I wrote a series of letters to some of the leading members of the California delegation to the Democratic convention, who were mandated to support Kennedy for President. The gist of my letters was that they should throw their support to McCarthy, and from then until the convention I campaigned for "Clean Gene." I helped man the McCarthy table at UCLA during the summer quarter and did more canvassing. All the time, I had a feeling of futility, since it was said that Humphrey already had the nomination sewn up. My previous optimism was being replaced with a grimmer disillusionment.
I experienced the Chicago Democratic Convention through television. The day of the police riot, I had pleaded too much homework to get out of going with my parents and sisters to visit relatives in San Diego. In this I was lucky; I didn't have to listen to my father cheer on the police (as I am sure he probably would have) and I was left to experience my anger and disgust by myself.
My "political pragmatism" did not end with the conventions, though. Given the actual choice between Nixon and Humphrey, I felt I had to choose Humphrey. In this I have to admit feeling cheapened and cynical. But I was unwilling to give up on electoral politics. I worked for Humphrey headquarters in Los Angeles, as a go-fer and a canvasser...whatever was needed. The day before the general election, Humphrey came to Los Angeles and he wanted a parade in Downtown that would gridlock the center of the city. A few of us walked along the route hours before, delivering large boxes of confetti and excelsior to those office workers who would agree to throw them out of the window on the candidate. We ourselves were stationed on top of a building with an enormous box of excelsior. We all had orange painted styrofoam hats on--the signal to sharp-shooters that we were with the campaign and were not to be shot (!) and, it being a windy day, we held the hats on with one hand and threw shredded paper down on the parade with the other.
None of this, of course, got us any closer to ending the War. For myself, it did destroy my faith in electoral politics as practiced in the USA for many years; I am not sure when that faith will ever return.
Q: When did they (the demonstrations) get nastier?
In 1969, Nixon was President, Reagan was Governor, Sam Yorty was Mayor of Los Angeles. Chicago had shown what the "Establishment" thought of us. From then on, political demonstrations began to get more confrontational. The People's Park episode in Berkeley led to sympathy strikes across the state; we at UCLA, after all, were part of the same university system as Cal. In early May, following a very moving speech by someone I knew as a history teaching assistant for Western Civilization, a large number of us marched to the Administration Building and "occupied" it. We sat in the hallways and refused to leave. We held small group discussions on tactics all night. We were given the names and phone numbers of a couple of lawyers and told to write them in pen someplace on our skin, in case of arrest. Rumors of police being sent circulated all night, but none came. The next day, we left the Adminstration Building and marched throughout the campus to try to attract more supporters. We ended up in the Student Union and proceeded to occupy that (our own building). For the next several days, we heard speeches, canvassed for support in the neighboring community, and wondered what to do next.
In the second week of the demonstrations at UCLA in support of People's Park, I began participation in a hunger strike. Actually, it was more like a fruit juice strike, twenty-some students who vowed to take no food until the National Guard left the Berkeley campus. That, at any rate, is what I think was our chief demand. And we did allow ourselves to drink juice. We encamped in the center of campus, in front of Royce Hall and became a focus for continued rallies that second week. I lasted four full days, while most of the group went on through the sixth before breaking fast at a vegetarian restaurant on Sunset Blvd. My involvement was marginal, but for a while, at least, it helped make me feel a little less powerless. And it put me into close contact with a sector of the movement with which I had previously had little contact. This was the consciously pacifist wing, which stressed non-violent action, but also pulled in vegetarianism, mysticism (e.g. the I-ching) and meditation.
1969 also saw the coming of the draft lottery, which did much to undercut the support of the student protests. Up to this time I, along with most men my age, faced great uncertainty over the possibility of being drafted. As luck had it, a high number- -300--was drawn for men with my birthdate, and so I was pretty much assurred of never having to face the draft. Lucky in one respect, but for the prior couple of years, at least, I had lived with a constant inner struggle over what my personal approach to draft resistance should be. I knew I would not flee to Canada: the choice for me would be the military or prison. I still do not know what I would have done; the lottery removed the need but also the chance for me to resolve that critical life decision.
The invasion of Cambodia in 1970 reinvigorated the movement in a big way. The entire country, in early May, erupted with strikes, occupations, marches and, ultimately, violence. The LAPD rioted at UCLA, busting heads, arresting people randomly, chasing and attacking even people who were not involved in demonstrations on campus. I, along with many others, dropped our classes and became fulltime protesters for the remainder of the spring quarter. I did remain in one class, an undergraduate seminar on the Chinese Cultural Revolution which we collectively agreed to turn around to address the issues of the day.
In September 1971, I began a year of study in Hong Kong, studying Chinese and Chinese history. During most of the year, I was largely withdrawn from political demonstrations until the mining of Haiphong harbor, etc. in the spring of 1972. The prospect of the US Navy confronting Soviet ships coming to resupply North Vietnam had many people worried about a newly widened war. Several of us American students went to participate in a demonstration in front of the US Consulate.
A month or so after that, I returned home. It was only at the point of reentering the country that I realized what a contrast in the level of tension there was between the US and abroad. Almost immediately I felt the polarization anew and realized what a relaxed year I had had. A couple of weeks later, came the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Therein was born the beginning of the end of the American part of the war.
Q: Did you feel alienated from the American culture?
The antiwar movement, and the 1968 election especially, left me greatly disillusioned with American politics. I had nothing but contempt for Nixon & Agnew. I felt myself moving steadily to the left. By 1971/72, I had become interested in anarchism, ie ways of organizing society without resort to the state. I was seeking ways of working towards a democratic socialism, as opposed to the authoritarianism of Stalinist states. This led me next to the Trotskyism of the Socialist Workers Party. I started subscribing to the Militant and reworking my thinking in more and more radical ways. Mostly, this was on an intellectual level. To this day, I have never registered in any political party, though I never miss a chance to vote. "Culturally," though, I did not feel so alienated. I rejected many of the trappings of a "counter-culture": I never took drugs, never radically changed my dress or my hair length, I never got caught up in the nonsense about a "generation gap." But I did decide, largely as a result of trying to come to grips with the War and the attendant politics, to get into the study of history--Chinese history--and this pretty much shaped the direction of my life.
Q: I was wondering if you could look back to the night [of Robert Kennedy's assassination] and elaborate upon it a little more.
At 4pm on June 4, 1968, the day of the California primary election, I went to the Westwood Kennedy headquarters for assignment. I was sent to Santa Monica, where I worked until 8pm bringing voters out of their homes to vote for Kennedy. I went home and ate dinner and watched the early election returns on television. With five percent of the vote counted (mostly from Northern California), McCarthy was slightly ahead, but Los Angeles County was expected to go to Kennedy. I had been invited to the Ambassador Hotel celebration, so at 10pm I walked over.
Almost exactly a year before, we had had our senior prom in the ballroom next to the room where the celebration for us lower level campaign workers was scheduled. The atmosphere was entirely different this time: the room was crowded with people, it was stuffy, full of the smell of cigarettes, sweat, and cheap perfume. There were television cameras, banners and signs. A mariachi band was playing when I first entered, and various singers--Rosemary Cluny's the only one I remember--entertained the throng as the night wore on. In between, there was a constant rumble of cheering and chanting. Election returns were periodically reported from the stage and it gradually became clear that Kennedy was taking California. Anticipation grew and grew. The sound of firecrackers sounded from the hallway. The chanting grew louder. It had taken me over two hours to work my way to within five feet of the stage where, we were promised, the Senator was soon to appear in address us. Somewhere around 12:15, as we were in the middle of chanting, "We want Bobby! We want Bobby," the master of ceremonies (a guy with red-tinted sunglasses and voice right out of the Columbia School of Broadcasting's rock deejay division) told us to be quiet because something important was happening. When it had quieted down somewhat, they began yelling for doctors. I figured it was for the pregnant woman by the stage who had earlier almost been crushed by the press of the crowd. Then they said, "This is important. Please quiet down...we need a doctor. There has been a serious accident upstairs." All of a sudden, it became very quiet. Someone in back yelled, "What the hell's happened?" All we in that room knew was coming over a transistor radio that the guy with red-tinted glasses was holding to his ear. Listening, he got a horrified look on his face and finally announced, "Senator Kennedy has been shot in the hip!"
In shock, the crowd quickly clustered around the few television monitors and radios in the room to listen for news. Many were crying, some were swearing, most looked shocked. It was clear to me that I was not going to find out anything there that I couldn't watch on television at home, so I decided to leave.
The scene in front of the hotel was more confusing. Sirens were blaring. Five police cars were just pulling up the long driveway. Ambulances, too, were arriving. A passenger bus had been parked across Wilshire Blvd, so as to divert traffic. I still thought that Kennedy had only been wounded in the hip, but I was angry and upset and felt powerless to do anything about it. In lieu of being any help, I began to run down Wilshire, towards home. Along the way, people in their cars would ask me what I knew. The thing is, they probably knew more than I did, since they at least had a radio. When I got to the corner of Wilshire and Vermont, a black fellow stopped his car, leaned way out with his face full of anger and shouted, "What the hell is going on down there?" All I could think of to say was, "They caught the guy." I kept running the rest of the way home and, at one point, slammed my hand against a parking meter: it was swollen for days.
It was not until I got home that I found out that the attack was life threatening. I watched television all night long, trying at the same time to study for a psychology final the next day. His life was in balance all the next day. I went to bed early Wednesday night and awoke to learn that Robert Kennedy had died. The first thing I did that morning was to put out a flag at half mast.
I felt a great sense of futility in the days following. I had participated, in a small way to be sure, in the recognized means of effecting political change, and just at the very moment when victory was at hand it was pulled violently away. The way it was done, though, made it so ambiguous that it was hard to know who had denied the victory. Sirhan Sirhan just seemed to come out of left field. I was at a complete loss trying to understand what he was thinking. After all, I got a "D" in psychology.
Q: I know Kennedy and McCarthy were antiwar people, but what about Humphrey?...How many people on the Humphrey team were antiwar people, in your opinion?
The contrast between the Kennedy and McCarthy campaigns, on the one hand, and the Humphrey campaign, on the other, was complete. Part of this might have been that it was the general election and so involved serious money. The antiwar candidates could rely on plenty of enthusiastic volunteers who were willing to spend long hours supporting the cause in any way they could. Humphrey headquarters, close by on Wilshire Blvd, was made up of nothing but politicos; paid professional staffers. It took me quite a while, sometime in October, before I could bring myself to see Humphrey as a candidate I should do something for, and that was with the specter of Nixon looming. There was very little mention of the war, for or against, among the Humphrey people. There may have been other volunteers, but I didn't see them. I think some of the staff were rather suspicious of me. One of the first tasks I was given was to deliver a fifteen minute biographical film on Muskie to a television station. There were a few minutes of discussion as to how they could trust this kid with this valuable campaign material. I never saw that kind of suspicion in the Kennedy or McCarthy camps.
Q: Did many of the Kennedy/McCarthy people join the Humphrey team, or was the party rift just too wide and too deep?
If I am not mistaken, Kenneth O'Donnell, a long-time Kennedy associate, headed the Humphrey campaign headquarters in Los Angeles. Other than that, I recognized only one crossover staffer. On the first day I volunteered for Kennedy, the fellow who drove us out to canvass the Crenshaw neighborhood was an enthusiastic fellow. I specifically remember, on our way back to the Westwood office, a car drove alongside us and shouted support for RFK. This staffer, while still driving, grabbed a campaign poster, rolled down his window and passed it to the passenger in the other car. We were in a really jubilant mood that afternoon. I saw this same guy seven months later, the day before the general election. He was supervising the painting of the styrofoam hats which were to identify Humphrey campaign workers (and keep us from getting shot by the Secret Service). It was 9am, and he had clearly been drinking. He was bleary eyed and his speech was slurred. Maybe I read too much into this; perhaps a full year's worth of advance work had ground him down. All the same, the contrast in mood was marked.
Q: Was there a 'lost generation' to the American political scene after Vietnam?
I don't know that a generation was "lost" but certainly the hopes and ideals and enthusiasm which was typical of the primary season of 1968 has never returned, and it ended with Kennedy's assassination. Elections ever since have been grimmer affairs, graphed out and calculated, conducted and supported with ever deeper cynicism. For many years after 1968, I tried to see a way towards a non-electoral political movement (one which at least did not stake everything on winning elections but more on organizing). It is the failure of the left that this never happened and, as a result, we have a country being run by the "near right" and the far right.
Q: What did Kent State seem like to you?
I never really thought of the episode as "Kent State," thought that was the site of the worst violence. What happened was the nationwide outrage against Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. As I recall, over 700 campuses had demonstrations of one sort or another. UCLA, which had always had the reputation of having a relatively placid student movement, exploded with the worst violence in its history. On May 5, 1970, Los Angeles police raced through the campus attacking students and faculty and sparking a radical polarization which, together with similar movements across the country, held out the promise of leading to a lasting and effective progressive organization. Unfortunately, this did not happen. It was the weakness of the student movement that it always took off for summer vacation.
Q: You mentioned the tension and the polarization you felt after you came back from your studies in Hong Kong. Do any anecdotes come to your mind to illustrate the tension and polarization?
The last month I was in Hong Kong, in May 1972, a number of the overseas Chinese students with whom I had spent most of the preceding year, had been given visas to travel in China. They came back all aglow with having seen Cultural Revolution China up close. To those who had to live there, the Cultural Revolution was hell, but it was very inspiring to naive visitors. It seemed to hold out the possibility of a new path to an industrialized society, without so much of the class and social alienation and environmental degradation typical of the West.
When I got off the plane in Los Angeles, my whole family was there to greet me. But I was the last person allowed through customs. For whatever reason--because I had been abroad for a year, because I was a single male coming home from Asia, because I had a copy of Mao's military writings in my luggage--I was the one passenger from the plane to be taken into another room and subjected to a very thorough search. When the customs agents failed to find any drugs or other illicit items on me or in my luggage, they looked really disappointed and allowed me to pass through "this time." I felt like an enemy in my own home country.