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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Protest on the Pentagon *Contains Spoilers*

On October 21st, 1967 100,000 people stormed into Washington D.C. for what would go down as one of the biggest anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. The Protest on the Pentagon was very nerve wracking for me to write. It is almost legendary at this point for both its size and the fact that despite all of those people and the many many ways it could have gone wrong and ended in violence, it remained mostly peaceful with only a few incidents of violence breaking out here and there. It has been immortalized in movies like Forrest Gump (Yes...THAT was why Jenny was in Washington that day....and yes...Abbie Hoffman is the guy with the American flag as a shirt that liked to say the F-word A LOT!) and the mini-series The 60's. So I not only had the task of doing it right and making it as accurate as I could using what I could read about it, I also had to try to do it in a way that made it unique to the book somehow and not just like all of the other recreations of it. I wasn't going to post the actual part because it is long, it does contain stuff you are not supposed to know until you read it....but...in the words of Abbie Hoffman....FUCK EM'! :) If you plan to read the book and you don't wish to see the spoilers feel free to leave now or scroll down to where I am posting the news clip of that historic event:

     
     'The few weeks leading up to the protest on the Pentagon were the most hectic of my life. I won my bet with Professor Wilkins and I didn’t drop his class. In fact, as soon as I was able to open my mouth, I excelled in it. Listening to the more conservative right wing members of the class talk about supporting the war, opposing the idea of legalized abortions, and America’s battle to remain ‘moral’  in the face of ‘hippie communist combative techniques’  it was hard not blow up. But, just as the professor predicted, it was a new and challenging task and I learned a lot from it.
     In the middle of all the class related stuff I was frequently swamped by phone calls. As the date of the protest grew near my phone rang constantly, sometimes as late as three a.m. Abbie called often, Jerry sometimes as well, and the students from all over California rang in asking for more details. When I went to cover the Death of the Hippie ceremony in Frisco on the sixth of October Brian actually kept the phone off of the hook until I returned because he couldn’t deal with the constant ringing. Things were growing more chaotic with every passing day.
     One day Brian and Ross came in later than usual announcing, “We have something that will help a little with the transportation.”
     “Well, what is it?” I questioned.
     “That you will see the morning that we leave. Till then just trust us.” Brian replied. I couldn’t help but notice that Ross was beaming.
     “Have we decided yet when we are leaving?” Julie asked.
     “Well, it takes roughly forty hours to get there if we drive straight through. Switch off driving, sleep in the vehicle, pack food in a cooler…”
     “Piss out the window.” Ross offered with a laugh.
     “So I’m thinking we’ll have to leave early Thursday if we want to make it by Saturday morning.” We all nodded. Of course, at that moment the phone rang. Brian rolled his eyes dramatically. “I’ll be so fucking happy when this is over!” He announced, adding, “So I can change the damned phone number!”
      The day of our departure came at last. I woke up early Thursday morning, having packed one duffel bag and my type writer case the night before. I had no more finished making coffee when the phone rang. It was Ross telling me to wake Brian up because he was headed over with the “surprise”. Dutifully I did as he said. Only then did I have time to sit down and smoke a cigarette. “What are you doing sitting on your ass? You just never pull your weight with this shit.” Julie joked, sitting down beside of me. “You wanna flip a coin to see who gets the shower first?”
     “You go ahead but save some hot water. This might be our last shower for a couple of days.” I warned.
     I had just finished getting ready when Ross came in announcing, “Lizzy, Julie, please come out and view your surprise!”
     I walked outside and nearly shouted my excitement. There, in front of the house, sat a VW bus. The fucker was huge! It was used but in great shape. Its original green and white paint was like brand new. Upon the hood, however, someone had added a peace sign colored like the American flag. “I suggested adding a flower to it but asshole here said he would never let me live it down.” Ross smiled through that admission. I was suddenly so full of the loving spirit, I stood up on tip toe and planted a kiss on his cheek. Together we laughed. “See, Brian, you buy her jewelry once or twice a year but I bought her a bus. I could take her from you like that!” He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
     “Yeah, yeah.  You’re going to sell it as soon as we come back so don’t act like a hero! Are we going to get on the damned thing?”
     One right after another we piled in and I was surprised to see six people and Ginger already inside. “We also loaned out my car and Brian’s to eight kids who had no way to go. We would’ve found people for yours, too, if we thought they could get in the door.”
     “Let alone cross the state line.” Brian added with a grin.
     I smiled fighting back the urge to gush thanks at the men before me. “You two are really great. I could have done no better myself.”
     “Coming from the queen of doing it all, that really is a compliment.”
     We all had to decide on seating arrangements because, as it turned out, only Ross, Brian, Julie, and I actually had a driver’s license. We had to form a schedule. Starting out was Ross driving, Brian riding shotgun. Whenever he got tired Brian would take over with me riding shotgun and so on until we got to D.C. It was time saving and sometimes nerve wracking. I personally had never been behind the wheel of a van much less a bus but no one complained. No one dared. The strangest vibe had settled over us all and we were too busy grooving off it to bitch about anything.
     I was shocked to find that I was very excited about this protest. It began the night before we left and it only grew the closer we got to Washington. In my heart it didn’t feel the same as any protest I had attended in the past. I couldn’t put my finger on the thing that set it apart but I felt a strange sense of…importance. It was like this was going to be a bigger deal then the ones before it. This protest was going to make history. Because I felt so good I never entertained the idea that it might be negative, this huge event. It was Brian who looked at me as he drove and I sat beside him and said, “Liz, these things are rarely a big deal unless there’s violence. You know that. Maybe we are going into a situation where we are going to get our brains bashed in. I sort of hope this feeling of yours is wrong.”
     “I’m telling you, Bri, it’s not like that!” I protested with conviction. The two of us had lost a coin toss that made us the grave yard shift drivers for a second night and the bus was silent around us as everyone slept. I smiled to myself for no reason at all except that I felt peaceful and happy. “It’s not like that at all. Watch and see.”
     None of us had even an inkling of how many people would show up. We figured the number would be somewhere near ten thousand, twenty thousand at the most. We never imagined we would see somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty thousand people on and around the Pentagon that weekend. All of us had come together and united for the same cause. Preach peace, end the war, and go home, if possible, without any bloodshed. Because we got there just in time we considered ourselves very lucky that we found three vacant rooms at a cheap motel that wasn’t too far from the Lincoln Memorial where we were all to meet for the kick off rally. Julie and I had just enough time to shower and get ready but we went all out with our makeup and our clothes. Elephant bell bottoms, peasant shirts, denim and fur jackets decorated with patches and pins, and of course, our trademark headbands. These were our every day clothes at the time but they also felt like our suits of armor. We couldn’t save the world until we were properly put together.
     To avoid traffic we opted to walk the few blocks to the memorial. We soon realized that we were not the only demonstrators who thought of that as groups of “our kind” flooded the sidewalks, sticking out like sore thumbs in the otherwise conservative city. All of us were headed to the same place. It was another show of unity. Just as we caught sight of our destination a girl came up to me and asked in a sweet high pitched voice, “You got any flowers, mama?” I shook my head no and she smiled. Extending a bunch of fresh, fragrant flowers from a basket on her arm, she handed them to me as a man beside of her put a crown of daisies on my head. “Spread the word. Flower power!” She then threw up a peace sign and walked on.
     I noticed that others were doing the same, passing out daisies mostly. Flower power, peace, love, love, love! Those were the messages to be spread that day. Smiling behind me at a bewildered Brian I cried out, “See, I told ya!”
     “The day hasn’t started yet, Elizabeth! Just keep walking.” He proclaimed, eyeing me with annoyance as I handed him a daisy. “This won’t exactly protect you from being clubbed, you know.”
     Laughing, I replied in a sing song fashion, “Flower power, peace, and love….Anything is possible!”
     At the Lincoln Memorial thousands were already gathered. Ginsberg was there surrounded by people sitting cross legged and chanting, “Om.” Music was being played. I spotted Abbie and, as I walked around, I saw a group of Black Panthers. About a half an hour later people began making speeches about the injustice of the war and the desperate need to “Stop the war machine from turning!” Suddenly there was a call to anyone present with their draft cards to burn their “death warrants”. All around us guys no older than me began torching their numbers. “Now, let’s go stop this fucking war!” Someone shouted. Just like that we gathered in formation and began marching from the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River to our final destination, the Pentagon itself. “1,2,3,4 We don’t want your fucking war!” We all shouted as we walked, passion ringing in our cries. When we reached the lower parking lot that we had to pass through to get to the steps, Abbie and his friends were there trying to “levitate” the building with chants of “Out demons, out!” Around them people were banging on bells, cymbals, drums, even beer cans. It was quite the spectacle from the looks of it but I only caught a glimpse as I charged on.
     It was then that I realized I had somehow reached the front of the long line of people. None of my companions were with me. I thought of stopping to wait but something made me go forward. We charged up a higher parking lot and we found ourselves directly in front of the Pentagon’s main entrance. Blocking our way were the great men of the eighty second Airborne Division, flown in to protect the building from the crazed hippie invasion. We stood there before them in lines, chanting, talking, and even offering them flowers. Then we sat down at their feet as middle-aged marshals started coming toward us armed with tear gas. Although the tear gas was a discomfort I wasn’t really prepared for I decided that nothing short of arrest or serious injury was moving me from where I sat. 
     I sat there in the very first row rapping with people around me and trying to talk to the young soldiers for about an hour before I heard a familiar Massachusetts accent call out, “Liz!” followed by, “She’s way the fuck up there, guys! Let’s go get her!”
     Abbie, his wife Anita, Ross, Julie, and Brian began charging up the steps to me. I smiled, thrilled that they were ok. I hated to be separated from my group at protests because you never knew when and where trouble would break out. I could tell by the look on Brian’s face as he squeezed in next to me that he had been worried as well. “Christ, Lizzy, why did you take off like that? I couldn’t find you anywhere! I finally met up with Abbie and Anita and all we could smell was fucking tear gas…”
     “How’d you like that?” Abbie asked, adding with a laugh, “I fucking hate that shit!”
     “It’s better than the fire hoses!” Brian replied. I was shocked by that statement and the smile on his face.
     “Got that shit right!” Abbie agreed.
     I could only look from one to the other wondering what I was missing. “Quite a turn out we had today, huh?” Anita asked with a beaming smile. I had never met her before but I instantly liked her.
     “I know. Pretty fucking amazing. We all worked hard but, man, it really fucking came together!”
     “Yeah it did.” I agreed, taking Brian’s hand.
      For a while we all sat around observing. Then Abbie and I got into a discussion about the hippies. “See, you’re a hippie but you have the same mind set of us beats.”
     “How’s that?” I asked, intrigued.
     “Man, it’s like…take work for instance. The kids doing the hippie thing now want this free society where no one gets off their asses to do anything, dig? But that’s not fucking possible unless we somehow get all of society to go along with it. As it stands now, if no one does anything to support themselves in a society how in the fuck can a society work? Those of us that were sort of beat, we didn’t believe in working a nine to five every day job but we did things in the movement to make money. Like you and your paper. I even had a paper myself once. Did you know that?”
     “No.” I replied honestly.
     “Yep. Called it Drum. Anyway, can you dig what I’m saying?”
     “I do. I mean, I think we need things like The Free Stores to get people started, sort of help them out when they first come to the city. But then the kids have to take responsibilities for themselves. You can write and make money. You can draw, you can act, you can sing on a fucking street corner but you have to do something!”
     “Exactly, man, exactly! Man, this is really great to be talking to you this way! See, you really GET IT!”
     Our conversation was then cut short. Night had come and the television crews and photographers had retired for the night. Seeing that there was no one around to capture the moment, the paratroopers came forward carrying weapons (which were actually unloaded but we didn’t know that) and sheathed bayonets forming a wedge in our sit-in. It looked as if they were attempting to split the group in half. Federal marshals then came in and began pulling people through the line of troops beating the hell out of the people and arresting them. This was all happening about forty feet in front of where we all sat, just watching, still determined not to move. “If they come this way,” Brian whispered, “don’t get in the way. I’ll make sure they don’t get you or Julie but you’ve got to stay out of the damned way!”
     “You want me to watch them beat the hell out of you and take you to jail without doing anything? You’re crazy, Brian!” I responded.
     Someone was on a bullhorn telling us all to leave. “Getting arrested and beat up is Bourgeois politics. It’s a selfish and indulgent personal catharsis. Focus on the real war abroad!”
     “Why? You fucking chicken shit, focus on the real war going on right here, right fucking now!” Abbie shouted.
    “ This is every bit as real and dangerous as the so called ‘real’ war abroad!” I yelled.
     The point? Unless we were dragged away we were going nowhere! Most people felt the same way because few got up and left. Things eventually calmed down. The marshals left leaving only us and the soldiers once more. At one point people from the city started bringing us all food and joints. All of this was passed around as we sang songs and talked. At one point, after hitting a couple of joints, I turned around and saw three young men in uniform sitting directly behind me. “Do you want to hit this?” I asked, offering them the joint. “No one will know.” I assured them but none of the three accepted. As I looked at them I thought of Eric. They were so young! And they were probably terrified! I felt compelled to talk to them. “I have a cousin in Vietnam right now. He was eighteen when he went over. He’s twenty now. He’s coming home in December and I really can’t wait. Is that where you three are headed?”
     None of them spoke but I could tell it was. The look in their eyes was a triple appearance of a lamb going to slaughter. “He sends me letters all the time, you know, telling me everything that’s happening with him. He was so young when he went. He had never held a gun in his life. And he’s doing just fine. You men will be alright. Don’t be afraid by all you hear and all you see on the news. You’ll all be just fine.”
     “We’re soldiers, ma’am. We’re not afraid to serve our country and we’re not afraid to die for it. It’s our duty.” The cat closest to me said.
     I smiled at him. “You are all patriots. So am I. All of us are. That’s why we’re here. You’re not afraid to serve your country? Well, I’m not afraid to stand up for those who are serving their country. I don’t think it’s right, this war. All we want is to make sure brave men like you and your friends get to come home alive and as soon as possible. That’s all we want. All politics aside, all personal conflicts aside, I am here for all of you because each and every one of you deserve better than this! My theory on all this is that I am for the soldiers but I’m against the war, you dig?”
     None of them spoke but I hoped they got my message. It was from my heart. As I looked around I saw others realizing for the first time that the soldiers around us were our age or younger. Then a chant of, “Join us, we love you!” went up all around. In that moment I felt at one with everyone around me. I smiled, feeling a sense of peace and unity. We all huddled together, demonstrator and soldier alike, on the stairs of the Pentagon that chilly October night and we once more began to sing. Everything was absolutely perfect at that moment.
     At some point during the night we all fell asleep and when I woke up the next morning with the bright sunshine on my face I felt amazing. Brian was awake at my side. Most people had cleared off the steps and were either leaving or wondering around.  “I’m really glad we came.” He said when he realized I was awake. “This really was beautiful.”
     “It was, wasn’t it?” I took one last look at what I could see from the height of the top step. “Where’s our gang? If we’re going to make it back in time to go to class on Tuesday we’d better be getting out of here.”
     I didn’t want to leave at that moment. After we found everyone we came with I hesitated in saying my goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman. Both Abbie and Anita hugged me; Abbie told me once more that I had helped to make it all possible. I felt an amazing wave of pride at that. Taking one last look around, we then set off wishing everyone around us luck.
     That night as I drove with everyone asleep around me I thought of the four page article I had typed up earlier. I imagined the pictures I had entrusted Julie to take and the way it would all look for November’s issue. The event had totally exceeded my expectations. It was more than I could have ever dreamed of. That made the tears that sprang to my eyes all the more perplexing to me. I wondered if it was normal to feel such a deep, painful loneliness after what I had just experienced. Did everyone else feel it too? The feeling that nothing in our world would ever be that perfect again? What could possibly top the events of the past year? The answer seemed painfully clear. Nothing. There’s nowhere to go from the top but down and we had all been sitting on the moon all that year. The only question then was where the hell are we going to go from here?'

And here was how the news saw it:
And here are some pictures just to entertain you:
                           And last but not least...perhaps the most famous moment of the protest:

3 comments:

  1. “The kids doing the hippie thing now want this free society where no one gets off their asses to do anything, dig?... As it stands now, if no one does anything to support themselves in a society how in the fuck can a society work?."

    Maybe if more of that generation had seen that then, things wouldn't have fallen apart for them.

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  2. I personally think that the MASSIVE amounts of drugs done by people involved in the counter-culture played an even bigger part in things falling apart....lol

    ReplyDelete