Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 11: Ted Gold and Dave Gilbert: Roommates, 1967

Chapter 11: Ted Gold and Dave Gilbert: Roommates, 1967 (xiv)

On October 21, 1967, the big anti-war event was the “Confront The Warmakers” march on the Pentagon. All the SDS heavies around New York City and at Columbia felt this march was ill-advised because it distracted people from the more politically sophisticated and promising New Left strategy of “local organizing.” Dave, for instance, felt so unenthusiastic about the “Confront The Warmakers” march on the Pentagon that he didn’t even bother to go down to D.C. on October 21, 1967.

Influenced by the Columbia and National SDS leadership, I also didn’t see much value in going down to D.C. once again. But as October 21, 1967 approached and the U.S. Establishment media and underground press started to publicize the possible confrontational aspects of the demonstration more, I began to feel that it made sense for me to go to D.C., despite my “local organizing” strategic emphasis. At the last minute, I arranged to go down to D.C. along with my sister, on one of the pacifist buses.

In D.C., it was a warm, sunny autumn day. Around 70,000 people gathered around the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial where we all impatiently waited for the speeches to end and the march to confront the Pentagon to begin. About 95 percent of the anti-war demonstrators were white. A few people carried National Liberation Front [NLF] of South Viet Nam or “Viet Cong” flags. There was a group in New York City led by Walter Teague which used to provoke endless debates within anti-war circles, by insisting that the correct political tactic at the time was to bring NLF flags to anti-war demonstrations, despite the reality that the NLF flags tended to alienate many pacifist activists, many anti-war demonstrators and many unconvinced people, at this time.

Most of the October 21, 1967 demonstrators, like me and my sister, had never been to the Pentagon before. People seemed eager to confront the men responsible for carrying out the war of mass murder in Viet Nam. Yet because we all knew that many U.S. troops had been mobilized to stop us from marching beyond the Pentagon parking lot, there was also a feeling of tension in the air. The main political division among the demonstrators was between those who were satisfied to just rally in the Pentagon parking lot and those who were going to move beyond the limits of the rally permit and try to get close to the Pentagon steps. By the time the anti-war march reached the parking lot, it was obvious that most of the predominantly young anti-war demonstrators were going to try to get to the Pentagon steps because they were not satisfied to just hold an ineffectual, non-confrontational rally.

On the march across the bridge into Arlington, Virginia, I noticed Teddy and Nancy and Ted and Trude. I can also recall suggesting to both Ted and Carl Davidson, while people were gathering in a dissatisfied way in the Pentagon parking lot but hadn’t yet figured out which path led to the Pentagon entrance, that perhaps SDS people should lead a spontaneous march and blockade at IDA headquarters, which was located only a few miles away in Arlington, and was probably not being guarded by the U.S. military with as many MPs and U.S. troops as were now guarding the Pentagon entrance. Both Ted and Davidson thought a march to the unguarded IDA headquarters might be a good idea. But, before any SDS people could spontaneously begin to organize such a march, anti-war people had found paths through the grass and bushes near the Pentagon and ways of breaking through or climbing over some of the fences and barriers that had been placed between us and the Pentagon entrance.

I felt excited as my sister and I followed the anti-war crowd as it moved closer to the Pentagon entrance later in the sunny afternoon, between 3 and 4 p.m. More and more people began to go as far as they could, until we were face to face with MPs at various points around the main Pentagon entrance.

“Peace Now! Peace Now! Peace Now!” was the chant of thousands of people, as we faced off with the MPs, who all looked quite unsympathetic to us.

It felt like resistance to the war had escalated. We actually were all facing the guns of the U.S. government directly. Were the troops going to try to push us away? Were the troops going to actually shoot at us?

Outside the plaza in front of the Pentagon entrance, I felt that I was in some kind of unreal movie. Clearly, we all had spontaneously escalated our resistance to the war machine. But they seemed to have so much more firepower. And after about 15 minutes of our anti-war chanting, the MPs put on their gas masks and would periodically fire some tear gas canisters at sections of the anti-war crowd, or start to prod people with their guns. Yet no Establishment media cameras were anywhere in sight.

On a few occasions, defiant young women demonstrators would sneak behind some of the MPs and be cheered by the crowd until they were pushed back into the anti-war ranks by the MPs. The MPs shoved women who had climbed onto the barriers and fences and walls. As the afternoon turned into darkness, people mostly watched and talked, in-between individual displays of anti-war pacifist bravado and tear gas bursts and prodding and shoving of people, as the MPs advanced or retreated.

More and more people started to move behind the MPs and towards the soldiers guarding the Pentagon, and the MPs were ordered to become less aggressive for awhile and not prevent demonstrators from sitting down behind their frontlines anymore. I can recall seeing Jeff waving enthusiastically to people in the crowd from the front of the Pentagon, behind the line of MPs, encouraging more people to walk past the MPs and get closer to the Pentagon entrance.

My sister and I both decided that sitting down near the Pentagon entrance to get arrested was purposeless, because we were both convinced at the time that local organizing was still a more effective method of war resistance than the moral witness activity and individual acts of defiance, heroism and bravado we saw around us. But I was still acting like a middle-class liberal who felt he had something to protect on October 21, 1967, although I rationalized my unwillingness to throw myself spontaneously into the Pentagon confrontation with strategic rhetoric about “local organizing.”

Near 6 p.m., my sister left me to join most of the other anti-war demonstrators on the chartered buses going back to New York City. But I was reluctant to go home while other anti-war people were possibly going to get beaten later in the evening. So I hung around the Pentagon outskirts until long after the chartered buses left for New York City.

The MPs and troops successfully separated the non-violent civil disobedience sit-in from the anti-war demonstrators who had remained, but who weren’t going to risk arrest. Around campfires near the Pentagon outskirts, groups of us waited to see when the mass Pentagon bust would come. Joints were shared and a few couples were making out and hugging each other, helping to keep each other warm, as the night began to get colder. But people mostly just walked around alone or with friends, in a stoned state. Many anti-war people appeared to be happy that they were able to hang out in an anti-war stoned communal atmosphere.

When it appeared that no mass Pentagon bust would come until the early morning hours, I started walking back to the D.C. Greyhound bus station. As I walked back towards D.C. at around 10 p.m., on the side of the deserted Virginia highway that took cars to and from the Pentagon by day, I was struck by how little evidence there was of the anti-war demonstration that had taken place along the same road, less than 12 hours before. I felt very alienated from everything in and around Washington, D.C., except for anti-war people who had been bused in and were still waiting to be arrested on the Pentagon steps.

As I reached the deserted streets of Washington, a block or two from the old Greyhound bus station, I noticed that the Sunday edition of one of the local newspapers was on the newsstands. As I expected, local coverage of the march on the Pentagon underestimated our numbers. I bought my bus ticket, hopped on the next scheduled bus to New York and drifted into a stoned sleep for most of the trip.

Ted and Trude had joined the sit-in at the Pentagon and were arrested after midnight Sunday, following a 30-hour sit-in, when U.S. Marshals finally waded into the mass sit-in of over 1,000 protesters in a brutal fashion--after most of the non-participant anti-war observers had gone home. During the next week, Ted responded to my explanation as to why I hadn’t joined in the civil disobedience sit-in by saying the following: “Sometimes spontaneous events happen that you have to take part in, even if it doesn’t fit directly into a local organizing strategy. Given the militancy that was being expressed by the sit-in, it was wrong of you not to have joined the sit-in. Being radical means being in the front-line when masses of people are in motion.”

“You have a good point there,” I replied. “I should have stayed to get arrested at the Pentagon,” I added sheepishly.

Within a week afterwards I had come to feel that those anti-war people who spontaneously decided to take an arrest at the Pentagon had been right. But on the Saturday night of the Pentagon demo, I hadn’t joined them.

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