The time had come. It was time to block the street. The symbol for the May 1, 1971, anti-Vietnam War demonstration was an image of Mahatma Gandhi sitting cross-legged, right fist in the air. The idea was to blockade the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. with civil disobedience. The Federal Government’s strategy for preventing this from happening was far from civil. Backed up by rifle-toting National Guardsman, D.C. police squad cars raced back and forth making the main thoroughfares leading to Capitol Hill less than appealing places to sit. The Feds wanted protesters brave enough to do what they came to the Nation’s capitol to do, dead. How did I get myself into this position?
I was in my freshman year at a small college in New York state. Guys I went to high school with were fighting, killing and dying in Vietnam. I was attending lectures, studying in the library, listening to rock and roll music and drinking beer. By attending college I was exempt from the draft into US military service. In addition I had leveraged my history as a Quaker, to obtain Conscientious Objector status to conscription for military service for when my college exempt status ended.
College was great. I got to stay up at night as late as I wanted. I lived in a dorm that provided clean bed sheets once a week. I didn’t cook or wash dishes. I ate in college cafeterias. I could have as many pieces of pie as I wanted with a great variety of fillings. Life was good. I heard it was not so good in Vietnam.
It seemed like I could fit in some protesting of the war into my schedule of learning and fun. I wandered into a room on campus where students were preparing other students to demonstrate against the war. I was a bit of a loner, but this seemed like a nice group to interact with. I engaged in the trainings.
The May Day demonstration was a break from nationally planned events. It was planned to be different from marches and large audiences listening to inspiring anti-war speeches. It called for small groups to do their own planning to play a part in preventing federal employees from getting to their war machine jobs in Washington, D.C. by blocking the streets. Street blockage was to be done by having protestors sit in the streets. In theory, this would slow rush hour traffic into hopeless traffic jams. It would send a message. Then President, Richard M. Nixon, knew he would avoid traffic problems in D.C. because he would be staying at his home in California. There was talk of giving federal employees the day off, but Nixon and associates went with a different plan. Demonstrators would be arrested.
The group I trained with decided that they would bring medical supplies. There were bound to be some cracked heads and various minor injuries. We practiced sitting in a road, arms linked. We imagined what it would be like to resist being moved. We didn’t imagine well what our elected officials and their advisers were planning to keep traffic flowing.
On the last day of preparation, a lecture on what to bring to the demonstration and what to leave home was delivered. It was stressed that as a provider of medical help, our group had a serious mission. Bringing any recreational drugs along for the ride was forbidden.
The next day, we crammed ourselves into the back of a large windowless truck. There were about 30 of us squished together, breathing the same air. We were barely off campus when someone announced in a sing-song voice, “Oh, no. I just found an once of ‘grass’ in my pack.”
“Not cool,” came a reply.
“What should we do?” said another.
A motion to “roll it and smoke it all up” quickly followed.
Without further discussion the “ayes” had it. Inquiry into dissent was not made.
Soon, there was much less oxygen in the truck. The light of a glowing ember punctuated the darkness. Brothers and Sisters of the Revolution bonded as the tiny torch was passed.
I had positioned myself at the back of the truck, by the sliding door, that opened only from the outside. I didn’t consume cannabis, so was more interested in what air was coming through the crack between the floor of the truck’s cargo space and the door.
By the time a joint made it to me, it was a smokeless roach ready for disposal. I don’t remember even considering eating it. I made an attempt to push it through the crack. It wouldn’t go, but I thought having it lodged there was good enough. It wasn’t.
There was then much less complaint about cramped quarters and even some giggles. Then all became silent in response to furious pounding coming from the two passengers sitting next to the driver, outside of the truck’s cargo box.
The pounding stopped as the truck came to a halt. The closing of doors was heard. Then a number of muffled voices. Without ceremony the back door was unlatched and pulled open. I saw two men in suits react to being hit with a cloud of smoke and then surveying the sit-in.
My eyes struggled to adjust, not just to the sunlight, but also to the flashing lights of four police patrol cars. As we were ordered out of the truck, I noticed that he were just inside of the county line.
From the road side, I saw a detective stop, grasp something between his thumb and forefinger and exclaim, “Well what have we here?”
The suits huddled for a while and then one addressed us. Holding up a vial, a detective announced, “This test result is proof that you are in procession of marijuana. Tell us who brought it and the rest of you will be free to go. Otherwise, you are all going to jail.”
It was time for the revolutionaries to huddle. One of the group leaders calmly said that it was unlikely that 30 people would get arrested for the possession of one roach’s worth of illegal substance. It was best to admit to nothing. There was no alternative suggested.
The group leader told the detectives, “We don’t know what you are talking about.” This was met with, “Get back in your truck and get the hell out of here.”
I received no criticism of doing a poor job of destroying evidence, protected by a lack of interest in discussing how getting high had superseded the high ideals that had put us on the road to Washington.
The next eventful stop was to discuss the need for the truck to be pushed. We had run out of gas staling the truck. If we could get the engine going again, gas fumes might get us to a gas station. We did it, but the gas station was not open yet. Someone volunteered that sometimes there was enough fuel in pump hoses to make it to a station that was open. That trick worked. The gods of war were relaxing. The angels of peace were doing their thing.
Finally we arrived. Springtime in northern New York. Where we had entered the truck, had not looked the same as springtime in Virginia. The truck had stopped so we could disembark in a park lush with flower beds. I identified with Dorothy catching her first technicolor glimpse of Oz—when the truck door was pulled open once again.
Being a man of peace was great at first. It was a laid back scene. People were singing, dancing, playing drums and guitars. A young women walked up to me, smiled, lifted her blouse to reveal a breast with eyes, a mouth and a nipple for a nose. I couldn’t help but smile in return. She quickly returned to her mission, walking on to share her sign of peace. I had never seen anything like that before. There was more to come.
There was a large stage erected for musicians and major acts performed. I fell asleep on the grass listening to the Beach Boys sing their hit song Good Vibrations. When I awoke there was a different vibe. We were surrounded by police.
The word was that the permit to assemble in the park had been revoked. We had to leave. As the police moved forward, we moved out. We ran in pairs to the road we had been assigned to block. On the way, my partner for peace was run down by a man in riot gear. I thought about stopping to see what I could do, but decided to keep running. Looking back, I saw my partner being thrown into a bus with wire grates on the windows.
Protesters were being arrested left and right, in the distance and behind. When I got to the assigned street it was clear. If I put my body down there, I knew it wouldn’t be there for long. The traffic kept running and so did I.
I saw a police officer on a motorcycle pursuing a fleeing man. The motorcycle hit a bump. The officer fell down. The pursued man stopped to give the officer a hand-up. Once up, the officer beat the man down with a wooden baton.
When none of the assigned streets were getting blocked there was movement towards residential neighborhood streets. If the arteries could not be occluded it was on to the capillaries.
Cars were picked up by swarms of protesters and moved from curb to road. Police smashed windshields to put vehicle gear boxes into neutral so they could be pushed back.
Garbage cans were easier to displace. There was trash everywhere. I yelled at some folks, “Do you think the people in this neighborhood will be anti-war when they come home to this mess?”
“There are babies being napalmed in Vietnam!” a woman screamed back.
I headed back to where the truck was parked. I scampered on board and sat down. The truck pulled away with the rear door open. Suddenly there was a helicopter bearing down from the sky. It waved us goodbye by dropping a tear gas canister.
It was a long trip back. On the way, there came the suggestion that we detour to Wall St. in New York City. We could get some balloons to release to mess with traffic there. The consensus was that we were too tired to do anything but go home.
I hadn’t eaten in a while. I found a sack in the darkness of the truck hoping there would be something to eat. My searching hand found the jagged edge of a discarded tin can.
“I now qualify for a Purple Heart medal,” I told myself as I held together the bleeding skin on my fingers. As I fought back nausea and an urge to faint, I wondered, What kind of man am I?
Before this whole adventure began, I had called my father from my dorm room to let him and my mother know of my planned trip. My father had been stationed at Pearl Harbor on that Day of Infamy. He saw heavy combat in the jungles of Okinawa. He was paying for my college education.
He told me not to go. I told him I had to. He told me no. I put together my best argument and then just cried.
A good man bravely marches off to war or off the other way. What kind of man cries before he goes? What kind of man runs when it is time to stand firm? What kind of man tastes neither victory or defeat and wallows in ambivalence?
There were over 7,000 protesters arrested that day, the most ever for any demonstration then and since. Many believed that this demonstration played a major role in shortening the Vietnam war. Lawsuits filed against the Federal Government were later won. Claims that citizens were denied their right to free assembly were honored.
Many argue that those who profit from war are expert at controlling the narrative, as to why we need to fight, kill and be willing to die for noble causes. Billions of dollars were made by selling the story that the country of Vietnam needed to stand divided into North and South to prevent the spread of communism.
The United States may have lost the war, but a unified Vietnam created a cheap source of labor to make Nike running shoes and a vacation travel destination for surviving Vietnam War veterans and their families. Vietnam is still making many rich.
The world of storytelling is in upheaval. The means of the production of narratives and their distribution is now available to many more. Opportunities to give an opinion have never been so readily available. What then of the body count?
Will good men, inspired by good media, become more willing to put their bodies on the line for peace, to the degree that they have put them on the line for war?
Can billionaires control bodies yearning for peace as easily as they control the words chosen to frame calls to arms?
The US Department of Defense now believes that the greatest threat to homeland security is climate change. Climate change is causing waters to rise and will continue to do so. Nation states and other coalitions will be fighting more and more for high ground.
It is said that a rising tide elevates all ships. Will climate change call all good men and a few women, to come to the aid of their country or will it call good men and good women of all collations, to come together to the aid of humanity?
A most profound revolution in human thought would be the popularization of ancient teachings on death being an illusion. Under such a belief, the goal of life is not to live as long as possible until death finally wins. It is not to distract ourselves from the dread of death by fighting for causes and consuming goods and services.
Under such a belief, the goal of life is to practice compassion and to be witness to the perfection of the universe.
One form of protest against the Vietnam War was conducted by a few Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire. Their sitting meditation practice had prepared them to not flinch as the flames burned up their pain nerve endings before their crumble into ash.
Under such a belief, our bodies are not for the purpose of registering fleeting sensory pleasures and withstanding physical and emotional pain until we are defeated by death.
Our bodies are for blocking that which blocks the light of compassion. That is our highest calling.
Would l answer such a call with my body? Would you?
Photo credit: Getty Images