Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 22: At United Parcel Service and Queens College, 1969

Chapter 22: At United Parcel Service and Queens College, 1969 (viii)

After getting paid triple time for working on Thanksgiving at UPS, I decided to quit the job and give up my Jackson Heights room. My neighbors in the rooming house were very straight males—in terms of their orientation towards the 9-to-5 world—and were complaining about my guitar practicing and my playing of Supremes’ vinyl records on my portable phonograph. And I felt my job at UPS, while giving me a good sense of what factory work felt like and where blue-collar workers were at politically—was isolating me too much from Movement activists in the evenings.

In early December 1969, I began to crash in the living room of my parents’ smaller apartment in Fresh Meadows, Queens. They had moved to the smaller apartment in a slightly more affluent neighborhood, because they finally realized that my sister and I no longer needed to have bedrooms in their apartment anymore, because we had both left home. In the 1960s, the rent control laws made it easier for young people to live away from their parents during their 20s.

I was crashing in my parents’ apartment for only a few days when the TV news reported that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two leaders of the Illinois Black Panther Party, had been murdered in their beds by the Chicago cops. The next day, cops in Los Angeles stormed the BPP office there and shot it out with Panther activists, before making arrests. It appeared that the U.S. government had decided to escalate its war on the Black Panther Party—from the level of judicial frame-ups, arrests and random street shootouts in which over 25 Panthers were killed to an all-out campaign of orchestrated attacks on all Panther political action offices. It appeared that civil war between BPP-led Black ghetto masses and the U.S. government’s armed agents—which, during the summer, the Weather Statement had predicted was coming—was about to break out.

An anti-war demonstration was being held in the evening in Midtown Manhattan during the same week to protest the presence of Nixon at the Waldorf-Astoria. The “Dial-A-Demo” telephone answering machine announced the demonstration’s time and place. I traveled into Manhattan and joined a few thousand other protesters. People at the demo chanted “Avenge Fred Hampton! Avenge Fred Hampton!” A few demonstrators threw some rocks through store windows. The cops used the stone throwing as a pretext to charge into the crowd of demonstrators, clubs swinging, and to make some arrests. On the street while retreating from the cops, I bumped into a Movement guy named Steve, who worked as a film editor for Newsreel. I had met Steve during the summer, when he requested my assistance at his apartment for an afternoon, during his editing of a film on the Richmond College Social Change Commune that Karen of Newsreel was also working on.

Steve was a tall guy from rural Western Massachusetts who was more of a hippie-anarchist than a New Left politico. He lived in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, in a cheap apartment, but he was planning to move into a 4-room pad on W.16th St. and 8th Ave. with an even cheaper rent of $40 per month.

“What are you doing these days?” Steve asked.

“I’m looking for some Movement group to work with,” I replied.

Steve smiled. “Why not work with Newsreel? We need activists for our high school organizing caucus. I think you’d be good at organizing high school students.”

“I’d love to work with Newsreel. But I need to find an apartment to share. And once I find an apartment to share, I’ll have to get a straight job to pay my rent.”

Steve continued to smile. “I’m moving into this apartment where the rent is only $40, with some High School Student Union people. Why don’t you move in with us? Then you won’t have to get a 9-to-5 straight job and you can work as an organizer for Newsreel.”

I smiled. “That sounds great. When are you moving in?”

“In a few weeks. Why don’t we get together tomorrow at my place?”

“O.K. I’ll give you a call tomorrow.”

The next day I went into Manhattan and Steve showed me both his old run-down apartment and his cheaper new run-down apartment. On the way to the apartment to which we were going to move into, we stopped off at the local public school to pick up a Newsreel film that had been rented and screened by a 6th-grade special ed teacher. It turned out that the teacher was an anti-war guy I had known at Richmond College, who had gone into teaching in order to avoid the draft. He was attempting to teach his class in an experimental, free-school fashion. While we were in the classroom, he had Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ album playing on the phonograph. But the eight students in the class appeared more interested in fooling around than listening to the Dylan record. And the anti-war teacher looked frustrated.

“A free-school, experimental approach doesn’t work in the public schools. The public school system is a mess,” he whispered to me glumly.