Another excerpt, following Hard Rain…
Time has come today
Young hearts can go their way
Can’t put it off another day
I don’t care what others say
They say we don’t listen anyway
Time has come today
- Lester Chambers
The 1967 Pentagon Demonstration was in some sense the kick off event of the massive period of the national antiwar era. Roughly 200,000 of us assembled in DC and marched to the Pentagon. There were all manner of folks, from Yippees trying to levitate the place, to militants hoping to rumble, to organizers celebrating the turn out and energizing themselves for more to come, to attendees mostly moving ever further leftward.
The event was a great success. The Pentagon was ringed with young soldiers standing at attention, holding rifles with bayonets. This was the home of the masters of war, after all. But the Pentagon’s guards could be dealt with. Organizers talked to them. Hippies put flowers into the barrels of their guns. They were a captive audience, at least until the final stages over thirty hours later. They had to stand. They had to hear us. Every so often one would break down, drop his weapon and walk or run off, having become sick at the position he was in. Whoever defended the citadel of violence was assaulted by men, women, girls, and boys all exuding love and peace and calmly presenting stomach turning facts about our military’s behavior.
Only a small number of soldiers broke ranks, of course, but you could easily see harbingers of the dissolution that was to come in the fields and forests of Vietnam. Most of the impact was on us and on the country. But on the other side, it wasn’t just the soldiers who had their consciousness jolted and went AWOL. Daniel Ellsberg later reported that on the day of the Pentagon demonstration he had been in Robert McNamara’s office, helping draft plans to invade North Vietnam. Hearing noises outside, Ellsberg and McNamara went to a window and saw demonstrators being clubbed and carted off. Ellsberg reports looking on and saying to himself “They are putting their bodies where their hearts and minds are. What would happen if I did that?” Like for me watching card-burnings in the Arlington Street Church, for Ellsberg, watching our collective resistance to the Pentagon did its thing. Ellsberg followed suit in his own way, surreptitiously releasing the aptly titled Pentagon Papers.
I could also see at that time the tremendous power of a movement that was only a little bit beyond its audience in the broader society, a movement that didn’t appear so different, so other worldly, as to seem crazy or alien. This is precisely what was lost to our movement as time passed. The movement began to separate itself in its internal manners, tone, style, and appearance from its own potential audience. This was largely, I think, an identity problem. At first we were Americans, concerned about our country’s misadventure. Then we were hippies, with confrontational cultural consciousness. Then we were outlaws situating ourselves as far from the mainstream as we could swim. Had we been able to remain concerned Americans but with more and more consciousness and commitment, our ability to reach others might have been greater.
We were too insecure for that, though. This politics stuff had come into our lives very quickly. From school to mayhem, from the constitution to anarchist manifestoes, from Jefferson to Che; we transformed virtually overnight. Our connections and commitments were often tenuous and we protected ourselves against backsliding by going further and further away from our past as forcefully as we could. It’s easy to see in hindsight that aggressively differentiating ourselves was self defeating. But we were between a rock and a hard place. We faced a Catch 22. Those who didn’t rebel with a vengeance almost universally slid back toward the mainstream.
How do I put this? We went from doubting deceit, to doubting everyone over 30, and from doubting everyone over 30 to decrying everyone over 25. Smash patriarchy became smash monogamy, and for some, it even became smash your parents. The rejection of the war and racism and later sexism was paramount, to be sure, but personal devolution in self defense of independence sometimes warped its potentials.
In hindsight, we could have achieved more had we avoided over-playing our hands. But the truth is, it could be that as we thought then, had we not overplayed our hands our hands would have overplayed us.
It is hard, that is, especially when young and surrounded by deceit, to not put up barriers to separate oneself from the rot. And the easiest barrier to erect is often a wall of difference as well as denigration. Instead of the best of us being organizers rooted simultaneously in new insights as well as in respect for and communication with the broad populace we needed to reach, we let the allure of our new insights drag us away from continuing connection to that broad populace. This distancing of ourselves from the lives lived all around us, plus our inability to move from fighting for ideas and life styles to fighting for specific and lasting institutional gains, were two of the key reasons our Sixties movements accomplished less than we might have. These same factors persisted in diminishing movement achievement in the seventies, eighties, and nineties too.