Ron Jacobs wrote an interesting piece published
in Counterpunch connecting the crucial upcoming
antiwar march on the Pentagon on March 17, 2007
with the first march of the sort against the
Vietnam war on Oct. 21, 1967, which was a turning
point for the movement. See, http://counterpunch.org/jacobs02162007.html
These are some of my own reflections on the same
events, which I originally wrote as the
introduction to my booklet "A Head Full of Ideas that are Driving me Insane."
Storming the Pentagon
by Mitchel Cohen <[log in to unmask]>
Brooklyn Greens/Green Party, and
co-founder, Red Balloon Collective
FORTY YEARS IT'S BEEN. In October 1967, I was an
18-year-old junior at SUNY Stony Brook,
organizing students to participate in the first
militant demonstration on the East Coast against
the Vietnam war. At the Pentagon.
Phil Ochs -- my hero -- was scheduled to perform
at Stony Brook that night. Many students were
saying they weren't going on the march because
they wanted to go to Phil's concert instead. SDS
wrote letter after letter trying to get him to
change the date. No answer. Finally -- oh, how it
cut my heart out -- we organized a boycott of his records.
Then, of course, his manager (his brother,
Michael) was quick to respond. "Go ahead, attack
the heavies in the movement if it makes you feel
better," he wrote in an open letter to me printed
in Statesman, the official student paper. But
just as quickly they moved up the date to October
20, the evening before the march. Phil gave an
interview over WUSB radio, Kenny Bromberg's show.
"Who's this creep Mitchel Cohen who's telling
everyone to boycott my records?" Phil raged. My
first claim to fame. Somewhere at the station
there's a dusty tape of that show.
October 21. The huge anti-war demonstration swept
past the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and
over the bridges into Virginia, wave after wave
of young anti-war warriors crashing against the
walls of the Pentagon. One-hundred-thousand
people -- some carrying signs depicting their
town's opposition to the war against Vietnam,
their unions, churches, campuses -- inched up to
the line of soldiers standing shoulder to
shoulder pointing their rifles at our chests,
their unsheathed bayonets glinting like a
thousand points of fright in the afternoon sun.
I'd saved the shirt I wore that day, that
orange-striped pullover with the hole where I'd
pressed up as far as I could against one
soldier's bayonet. He didn't budge; I backed off.
I remember it as vividly as the infamous sunrises
over the Bread and Puppet festival in Vermont, or
the incredible sunsets in New York City the week
following 9-11. The man carrying the hand-made
sign: "Lyndon Johnson pull out, like your father
should have." The chants, "Hey hey LBJ, how many
kids did you kill today?" The young woman who, in
a moment of inspired artistry, began dancing up
and down the lines of soldiers, as thousands of
voices sang "join us," inserting flowers into the
rifles. Soon, a dozen people joined her. "Flower Power," East Coast style!
Suddenly, around one side of the building -- we
cutely called it "the biggest edifice complex in
the world" -- hundreds began climbing ropes
a-fixed to a parapet overlooking a set of huge
doors, just beyond the soldiers' reach. The
sit-in blocked the entrance. It lasted three
days. Yea, and in high school gym I couldn't
climb the ropes to save my life. Oh well. Try
anyway. I had managed to drag myself up a few
yards when a hand grabbed one of my legs. I
panicked, tried to kick it away without losing my grip, but it wouldn't let go.
"Uh-oh, this is it, I'm going to get arrested," I
thought, my first arrest. Kicked more and more
frantically. Finally, in panic, I looked down; my
father was yanking me back and my mother was
screaming: "Where do you think you're going?"
"What are you doing here? How did you find me in
this huge crowd? I've gotta join my friends ...
sit-in ... all my friends are up there."
"No way." Indeed, my friends from Stony Brook SDS
were already up on the ledge. Even a professor
from Stony Brook, Mike Zweig, was sitting-in.
"You have to let me go. I helped organize the
buses!" I shouted, as if that compelling point
would clinch the argument, the frustrated and
embarrassed tears already beginning to spill down my cheeks.
"You're exhausted, get down right now."
My parents were right about one thing: I was
exhausted, racing around on an adrenalin high
having not slept in three days. SDS and the
Organization for Progressive Thought had been
selling bus tickets around the clock door-to-door
in the dormitories, cafeterias and TV lounges at
Stony Brook. We helped bring seven bus-loads of
protesters to the Pentagon -- around 300 people.
My younger brother Robert and I were among the
handful responsible for selling tickets, making
bus arrangements and trying to make sure the
drivers would not leave us stranded somewhere en
route because they hated our politics, which is
what had happened to buses from a number of other
campuses. There would be time enough for sleep
later. I simply had to be up there! And now my
parents (how did they ever find me in that huge crowd?) were yanking me back.
My father, who had served in the Marine Corps in
the South Pacific in World War 2 and who always
spoke out against the Vietnam war, offered an
interesting proposal: "We're not going to let you
up there. But they're going to need food and
blankets (those were in the days before the
anti-nuclear movement introduced a structure in
which each affinity group selects one support
person, who is not to get arrested, to be
responsible for the group's logistical needs).
Let's start making a collection." We spent the
next few hours doing precisely that, collecting
dozens of blankets and warm clothing for those
sitting in; afterwards, they put me on the bus to
Stony Brook and made sure I stayed on it, waving
good-bye as it pulled away. I crashed out in
someone's (whose?) arms. Vaguely I remember someone kissing me.
Forty years ago! Che Guevara had been murdered by
the CIA in Bolivia just two weeks before. We had
called in an obituary to the NY Times, billing it
to the student government without telling them.
They were at a loss to account for it when the
university administration reviewed the bills.
A few weeks later, New York City would be rocked
by a police riot, and a few weeks after that I
would be one of three Stony Brookers rejecting my
draftcard and facing five years in jail. (My
parents learned about that from WINS radio news.)
In November, thousands of students descended on a
dinner for the war makers. Some radicals had
gotten jobs in the New York Hilton's kitchen and,
when the country's elite lifted the lids of their
dishes to dine they found pigs' heads staring
back at them from their plates, and waiters and
waitresses chanting: "U.S. out of Vietnam!"
Outside, all hell was breaking loose. This was
the first "street action" anti-war demo on the
East Coast. Hundreds of people would begin
crossing 6th Avenue at the green light, very very
slowly. We'd only be halfway across when the
light would turn red. Everyone would link arms,
face the traffic, close our eyes and feel the
adrenalin take over. Screeeeech! When I dared
open my eyes, I found a car had skidded to a stop just inches from my stomach.
Then the police moved in, and everyone
snakedanced the wrong way down one-way streets,
tying up traffic and making it hard for the police cars to chase us.
Looking back, it sounds heroic; actually, we were
scared shitless. Leaving the dinner, Secretary of
State Dean Rusk's car was hit by the first
molotov cocktail I'd ever seen. The cops started
cracking heads. Willa Kay Weiner grabbed my hand
-- Kay, where are you now?! -- tearful, gasping
for breath: "Mitchel, let's get out of here!" We
raced through Manhattan in search of the bus back
to Stony Brook and were amazed to find that most
everyone arrived at just about the same time, unscathed.
The next month, the anti-war movement erupted
everywhere: Anti-draft riots, draftcard burnings,
military recruiters chased off campus after
campus, "defense" contractors exposed, thousands
blocking troop trains and munitions factories!
Even Bill Clinton, in the one good thing he ever
did -- which he should have sung out proudly
during his campaign instead of apologizing for it
-- took part in the anti-war actions. And then
... 1968: Paris ... Columbia University ...
Czechoslovakia ... Chicago ... Martin Luther
King's assassination ... Robert Kennedy's ...
Eugene McCarthy's anti-war presidential campaign
... LBJ's abdication ... the world spinning madly
out of their control, revolutionary movements being born.
The pace of time accelerated. Whole lifetimes
crammed into the space of a few months. We lived
"emergency lives" filled with meaning, fear,
excitement. Who would know it then, forty years
ago -- a swatch of time longer than from the end
of World War 2 to the height of the anti-war
movement of the eighties, hard to believe! --
that the demonstration at the Pentagon on October
21, 1967 would be the start of the
anti-imperialist, as opposed to simply the
"anti-war," movement, marking the baptism of a
new generation -- with great leaps of insight,
risk, and imagination -- that would shake the entire world?
* * *
Stony Brook always had sizable contingents at
anti-war demonstrations. We had the largest SDS
chapter on the East Coast, after Columbia, a fact
curiously omitted from books on the new left.
Most of today's authors seem to find import only
in what went on at elite Ivy League schools --
just as they did in the old days -- and not a
whit for state universities or community colleges.
The Independent Caucus of SDS was everywhere at
SUNY Stony Brook in 1968. Red Balloon emerged
from the caucus the following year, the most
politically volatile in Stony Brook's history. I
was 20 years old and still a sophomore, after
four years in and out of college, coordinating
the United Farm Workers grape boycott on Long
Island. I'd met Roberta Quance, a recent transfer
from Oberlin, in professor Jonah Raskin's English
class, and we became constant companions and
lovers. Roberta brought an acid-tongued feminist
sensibility into our emerging collective, along
with a healthy dose of anarchism. And Jack
Bookman, the third member of the founding group,
was planning to commemorate the opening of the
then state-of-the-art computer center with an
action against the University's ties to the Department of Defense.
That was the initial core. Soon, we grew to
fifteen in the collective. At first we helped put
out underground papers -- "Introspect," the
radical alternative to Statesman (the odious
official student paper), and then one issue of
"Vanguard," which we worked on alongside others
in SDS; but we finally decided to start our own
paper. After two days of going over possible
names: "Vanguard" this, "Proletarian" that,
"Worker" the other thing, Roberta was ready to
give it up. Already, 18, 19 and 20 year olds were
jaded by the "old left's" sterility. We didn't
want any part of the boring, lecturing style of
The Militant (Socialist Workers Party), Challenge
(Progressive Labor Party) or other papers sold regularly on the campus.
I had just finished a poem, which I read to the
15 people living in the supposedly six-person
suite in Kelly Quad. One line went: "The cat
leapt out of the tree last night, through the air
like a red balloon." Frustrated, Jack said, "Hey,
let's just call it 'Red Balloon' for now. We can
change it next week if we want." Twenty-Five
years later Red Balloon was were still kicking.
Our first official action as a collective: The
Department of Defense Jamboree, which exposed
secret war research on campus. Liberal politician
Allard Lowenstein was speaking on campus the
afternoon of the Jamboree. As he often did in
speeches across the country, Lowenstein targeted
the new left. He denounced our attempts to drive
military recruiters and war-related research from
the campus. Four hundred people in the
newly-opened Student Union building hooted,
cheered, and generally let their opinions be
known. Amid the tumult, Lowenstein got popped by
a water balloon. Though it was just a
physically-harmless water balloon -- we generally
strive to upset the ideological applecarts
without physically hurting anyone, in order to
expose their hypocrisy -- Lowenstein treated it
as though he'd been shot, and red-baited us,
exposing his true colors. That act marked our
birth on campus and permanently sealed our
reputation. It also highlighted our low tolerance for liberal demagogues.
Over the years, hundreds of people have at one
time or another considered themselves part of our
loose-knit Red Balloon collectives. Most of them
are still active in fighting for a better world,
although not always with the same radical flare or direct action politics.
A number of our closest friends and most creative
spirits have died, forever young. Chris
Delvecchio (a week shy of 24 years old when he
was killed in August, 1993), Patty Staib (28),
Pat Dalto (33), Kate Berrigan (24), Bob Rosado
(in his 30s), Shari Nezami (22). Fred Friedman,
Steve Becker, Iris Burlock -- Stony Brook Red
Ballooners. The rest of us are still marching to
the barricades, as well as tearing down the
barricades within. We helped build ACT UP
actions, the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts, and
organized support for the Haitian people's right
to self-determination. We've created alternative
health clinics and continue to fight for women's
reproductive rights. We try to break at least one
law a day, do guerrilla-art attacks and take part
in urban rebellions. We work with political
prisoners, struggle against racism and white
supremacy and, through efforts like the Earth Day
Wall Street Actions, the Save the Audubon
Coalition and the Greens, fight against nuclear
power, genetic-engineering and the destruction of
the environment, exposing the corporate and
government connections to just about every horrible occurrence under the sun.
Some have called us a "Conspiracy" rather than a
Collective. In a sense we were, which is why we
named one facet of what we did "The Red Balloon
Poetry Conspiracy." Hey, every time a
corporation's board of directors meets it's a
conspiracy to sell us things we don't need and
extract as much cheap labor and natural resources
as they can get away with! You can find us in
marxism classes and in anarchist, green,
feminist, gay, lesbian and bi-sexual workshops.
Along the way, like so many others, we've had to
wrestle with various philosophies of
organization, ways of conceptualizing our own purpose.
Unlike much of the Left, we did not try to
recruit people into our collectives; that would
have required us to construct a "program" to sell
to people. We believe that the "recruiting
mentality" has impaired the left. Instead, we
tried and continue to strengthen existing
movements, help people to form their own direct
action collectives and underground papers, and
then link them together. In the course of
developing that approach, all sorts of emotional,
philosophical and relationship-type challenges
have come up, some repeatedly. The Left, however,
has generally refused to treat them seriously as
part of its political mission, to its detriment.
With all the regrouping of the Left going on
today, I offer these reflections to help
articulate some of the hidden questions the Left
could not see, and which the new wave of the Movement still has to face.