Home......Poetry......Short Stories......Art......Reviews......Articles......Contributors

 

Don Coorough
Protesting War

 

Heavy news traveled fast in May of 1972, even without using computers and cell phones. No one sent a text or IM to inform students about sinister events. The underground radio stations carried the news through the electric air. Phones rang, seemingly causing receivers to jump out of their cradles into youthful hands. The buzz hung thick in the night, like smoky, tendril fingers of incense alerting college campuses to the putrid stench of burning flesh as Nixon’s carpet of bombs, yet again, destroyed villages and farms, burning villagers without warning while napalm oozed across the placidly serene Cambodian countryside that some industrious American military planner called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and deemed must be harboring Viet Cong forces. Of course, Nixon’s propaganda machine told news broadcasters all the dead bodies were enemy - America didn’t admit killing innocent civilians in 1972.

Long-haired students ran out of dorms or commuted to campus from apartments. Underground radio news reports spread the good news, campus insurrection protested illegal US military action. Every campus across the States came alive with outrage as thousands of protesters from each campus joined together, denouncing Nixon, the bombing and the war. I heard reports about a flaming Bank of America building in Isla Vista. Placard carrying students blockaded freeways. Angry students broke into ROTC and administration buildings with occupying sit-ins.

It was dusk when I arrived back at the USC campus. A disappointing, apathetic quiet drifted through the trees as I kept on truckin’ to the Student Activities Center. A small crowd coalesced in the upstairs meeting room, and Sam Hurst V, a senior who had been elected Student Body President and then stripped of his office by the USC administration, was about to speak. I sat on the floor with crossed legs in patient lotus position awaiting Sam’s words.

Dressed like so many others of us in his blue work shirt, faded jeans, blue bandana and leather boots, Sam told us to keep on keepin’ on. He talked about Nixon, the war, the illegal bombing, the charred bodies of wasted, innocent lives, and the activity on campuses across the nation. Sam chided us to add our voices to those of the other students and to take some kind of action guaranteed to make news, thus proclaiming USC’s protest movement lived and functioned.

Someone wanted to know what we could do. Sam suggested taking the ROTC building. The student replied that was illegal and he didn’t want to be arrested. A murmur of dissention spread among the students. I wasn’t going to let the cabal of concerned students - who were there because they wanted to do something and take a stand - fizzle out before a protest even began. So, I stood up and told Sam I was with him, brother. As I walked to his side, I looked around the room, challenging others to join us.

There were twelve of us who filed out of the Activity Center and marched over to the ROTC building. Sam led the procession. I was right behind him. It was an old, two story, bungalow styled building with wooden stairs leading up to a door that had glass panes in the upper half. We clamored up the steps. Sam broke the glass pane nearest the door handle and we rushed inside. The lights went on as the protest got off to a smashing start. Almost immediately, additional students poured inside, milling around.

I estimated three hundred people eventually huddled inside, each talking about what action to take next, as if just taking the ROTC building couldn’t be statement enough. Numerous students approached me suggesting ancillary activities: blocking the freeway at the multilevel interchange, marching down Wilshire Blvd., or some other idea. I put heads together to plan them, creating committees on the spot. Sam and a few other seniors commandeered a separate room, perhaps planning activities of which I had no clue. Nonetheless, many students saw me as another leader of the USC protest movement because I spent the previous year as a freshman getting stoned and eating brown rice with Denny Thompson and Steven Schmidt, both of whom were the unquestioned leaders prior to their graduation in the spring of 1971. I suppose that is what led so many to indulge me with their ideas, along with my proximity among the throng and my approachability.

While the ROTC sit-in was getting’ down and funky, one of my friends, Rusty Geller, showed me a can of black spray paint. We grinned broadly and shared the same thought; we wanted to tag Tommy Trojan with a peace sign. We snuck out of the building, dodged patrols of campus security officers and made our way to the statue. Not only did we tag Tommy Trojan, we painted peace signs and slogans on buildings all over campus that night. By the time we returned to the ROTC building, the protest lost much of its enthusiasm. The number of students dwindled to about 30. Rusty went home. I stayed.

A few moments later, Dean McManus paid a visit. He threatened us with suspensions. I pointed out he didn’t know many of our names. He puffed up a gruffer exterior and threatened us with campus security. We laughed. The dean wandered out, but the campus pigs did storm in next. In a scene straight out of the movie, “The Strawberry Statement,” we sat on the floor, locked arms and legs and chanted give peace a chance. The brave pigs grabbed a couple of young women first and carried them downstairs. When they returned, I was the next one carried away. Once I had been deposited downstairs, I noticed no more security guards, so I led the girls back up the stairs. The pigs threw up their arms and said we were in big trouble now.

Dean McManus materialized from seemingly nowhere, threatening us this time with the LAPD. All right! Now we’re getting somewhere is what Sam and I thought. Maybe this will get us some publicity. So far, no newspapers even covered our scene. Well, some students split after the threat of the LAPD. I think our numbers dwindled to about 18. We sent someone to wake up the dorm students for the LAPD arrival and to call the newspapers. Unfortunately, neither more students nor press coverage arrived. However, the LAPD did.

After some high level conferencing between Dean McManus and the LAPD officers, the dean spoke to us with one of the officers standing by him, continually slapping his Billy club into his open, gloved palm. The dean decided not to arrest us, but did determine that anyone who didn’t disperse immediately would be suspended. He looked in my direction and said he’d have no trouble figuring out who was there. I smiled back at Dean McManus and told him I hoped not. The remaining 18 of us continued the sit-in through the night.

The next day, a representative from the McGovern campaign spoke on campus. While the other protesters hung out in the upstairs of the ROTC building, I split to the McGovern rally. At the conclusion of the speech, I strode defiantly up to the microphone. I announced to the crowd that a protest was in progress at the ROTC building and that we needed their presence. As I marched off to rejoin the protest, most of those 2000 students followed me like the pied piper.

The crowd milled about while first Sam, and then I, rapped to them. Sam gave a similar speech to the night before in the Student Activity Center. He added that we wanted the ROTC building be given to us as a Center for Life and Peace. Sam continued to explain that the lower floor was occupied by ROTC students, and to be effective, we needed to clear them out. He asked the throng to circle the building and prevent anyone from entering the lower floor or assisting the students in it. The crowd stood there unmoved and disinterested.

I followed Sam to the makeshift dais atop a blue trash bin. I talked about the people dying in Vietnam, pointing out any of them could be next to go. I talked about the savagery of the war and provided a picture of Cambodian women and children dying for no real purpose. I challenged them to see a better purpose for the ROTC building than to convert it into a Center for Life and Peace. Then I pleaded with them to listen to Sam’s request and help us by circling the building. The kids grokked me and sealed off the building.

Later, Sam met with Dean McManus to present his demands in return for our ending the sit-in. The dean refused to comply. The most he was willing to offer was a room at the Student Activity Center for our purpose, but we’d have to fund it and staff it ourselves. The sit-in persisted through the rest of that day and through the night. The administration refused any additional contact. Student interest waned. Finally, as the third night approached, and the core group of protesters grew weary from two and a half days without sleep, we dug it that our protest would not be covered by the news and the administration would never accede to our demands. The students voted to end the sit-in. We dispersed, went to our pads and crashed for several hours.

Another meeting was held at the Student Activity Center that night. Students exhibited far reduced energy levels at the meeting. None of us really had any ideas for where to take the protest from there. Joel Rosenzweig, who had been the USC administration’s chosen replacement for Sam Hurst V as Student Body President and whose main claim to fame had been his direction of a stage presentation for The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” the previous spring, appeared at the meeting with an agenda. Joel’s idea was to combine with UCLA in marches from opposite ends of Wilshire Blvd. I believed Joel was a plant from the administration, sent to diffuse whatever energy there was left of our protest. The administration knew, as I surmised, the student body would not utter a collective, “Right on!” and join in a march, and even if it did, the scene would be off campus and could be discredited by the administration as not being comprised of actual USC students if it did generate any press. The march never materialized by either USC or UCLA students.

That weekend, when I visited my father, he mentioned the national protests and asked me if anything occurred at USC. I said yes. He wanted to know what happened and what role I played, if any. I told him the details of the events as well as my part in the campus protest. As I related the events, I watched disgust grow in his countenance. When I finished describing the details, he stood up and walked over to me. He called me a commie son of a bitch and told me to get out of his house.

As I stood up to leave, he took a swing at me and landed a punch squarely on my jaw, knocking me to the ground. He stood over me with his fists clenched, venom in his facial expressions, and hurled a series of angry epithets. He said I was a yellow bastard, and no son of his. He called me a traitor. He dizzied with rage and stumbled backward, so I stood up. I told him I was proud of my actions and I’d repeat them. I told him if it made him feel like a big man to hit his son, I’d turn my cheek and offer him the other one. He ordered me out in a rage. It took years for us to overcome the rift which opened that day.

In the grand scheme of protests, the one I took part in at USC was pretty tame. None of us were gunned down in the manner which occurred during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar Massacre) in Amritsar, Punjab on April 13, 1919 during India’s independence movement. No one was beaten or threatened with violence like that which occurred when 10,000 protesters were met by 23,000 police and National Guardsmen during the Democratic National Convention on August 28, 1968 on what has come to be known as the police riot. No students were shot and killed like occurred on May 4, 1970 at what has become known as the Kent State Massacre or May 4th Massacre when Ohio National Guardsmen shot into a crowd of protesters 67 times for 13 seconds killing 4 students, one a woman, and wounding nine others including one who suffered permanent paralysis. Nothing like the events of May 15, 1969, known as Bloody Thursday, in Berkeley occurred when Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese ordered the California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into people’s park in Berkeley, where the officers, in full riot gear, headed into a crowd of approximately 6000 protesters with nightsticks swinging, and later dispersed the crowd with tear gas and 00 (double aught) birdshot shotgun fire which ultimately fatally wounded one young man and permanently blinded another while 128 Berkeley residents sought hospital treatment for their buckshot wounds. We didn’t face the kind of horror witnessed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers, who protested for racial equality and civil rights, especially like what occurred on March 7, 1965 which has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” when a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama was marred by a mob of police and white civilian bigots as they perpetrated atrociously violent actions on the peaceful marchers. No, we did not face those kinds of oppressive tactics, but we still persevered in our protest, trying to add our collective voice to the din of unrest leveled against the war in Vietnam.

When I watch today’s protests, I wonder if there exists any commitment in the people for peace. I wonder at the lack of resolve and the lack of determined effort. I wonder at the lack of direction and ease with which personal financial issues dissolved a growing antiwar movement into self-obsessed, silent myopia. I wonder if iPods, text messages, laptops, DVD players, Play Station IIIs, Viagra, Cialis, Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Paxil, and Disney movies, reality television and the internet have finally anesthetized the public to a sufficient degree that mass movements are no longer capable of arising to promote the common interests of the downtrodden and disaffected, or to hold governments to the ethics and morals of the people within those nations. I fear that the only interests that will be advanced in the future are those of corporations, super-wealthy capitalists and imperial militarists.

 

 

 

 

 

The content on ospreyjournal.co.uk is copyright 2007 by osprey journal and individual contributors, and may not be reprinted or retransmitted in whole or in part without express written consent.