Antiwar 2

Certainly no racial or economic barriers were placed before anyone wishing to come down to the headquarters at 5 Beekman Street and participate in the discussions. The problem I think is that, if and when a black radical happened to pass by the offices at 5 Beekman Street for a visit, he encountered an alien atmosphere unconnected to his needs or interests. Devoid of any sort of ethnic prejudice the Peace Movement created a de facto segregation by virtue of its having nothing to offer the victims of social injustice. It is a fact that in New York City, as well as in other major American cities, the movement against the war in Vietnam was far away from the streets. High up on the 10th floor at 5 Beekman Street, it invested much of its time discussing the most effective way to "create the right impression", or to "make itself understood" to "the man in the street".

Now to the second point: the sense of powerlessness shared by practically the entire American Left. This attitude comes, I suspect, from a kind of obstinate delusion common in the United States where , in the presence of so many institutions of a despotic character, most citizens, including most intellectuals, still believe the system to be fundamentally democratic. It has sometimes been described as a "benign totalitarianism". The events of the last five years, such as the enormous escalation of the war in Vietnam, the reinstatement of the draft, the riots in the ghettos, the racist brutality in the Deep South ( not excluding much of what goes on in the North) , the minuscule progress in civil rights, the enormous power of the extreme Right in governmental circles, raises doubts as to how benign that totalitarianism really is.

The pathological inertia of the bureaucratic process, highlighted by the sudden collapse of Johnson's so-called 'War on Poverty', the power of corporate interests over all aspects of government , the shameless manipulation of public opinion by the press, the military and the schools, work together to submerge the democratic ideals in which Americans believe, and which so many of them feel they have a right to impose on the rest of the world.

A left-wing activist doesn't know where to begin his struggle against the totalitarianism of these institutions. As terrible as the situation is in Mississippi, the right to vote of its black population has been, at least, a concrete issue on which one could continue to agitate. It may sometimes be more difficult to oppose a "right to vote", which has already been granted yet which it manipulated to the point of being virtually worthless. The vote can't mean very much if the electorate is obliged to choose between Goldwater and Johnson. At the same time it's difficult to know exactly what one ought to do to change the situation.

Independent political parties can of course present alternative candidates. These have almost no chance of getting a hearing from the electorate. One votes for them as a symbolic act. What they receive will be from the membership of their tiny party, from personal friends and sympathizers.

At each election, parties such as Progressive Labor, the Socialist Workers Party and other groups always propose a slate of candidates for every political office, including the presidency. In the 70's my sister ran for governor of Pennsylvania on the Socialist Workers Party ticket. David McReynolds, active for many years with the War Resisters League, had been presented several times as the presidential candidate for the American Socialist Party. Bradford Lyttle, founder of the Committee for Non-Violent Action, created his own party, the Pacifist Party, and runs himself for president.

Everyone recognizes that some black activist, unknown apart from a handful of well-wishers in his Trotskyist party headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, has no chance of becoming president. He has no money, no access to the press. Popularity is worth more than ideas in American elections, and popularity is a form of merchandise marketed by the propaganda industry: newspapers, television, advertising and the movies.

Such candidates are put forward merely to affirm the right to do so. Any native-born citizen of the United States has the right to run for president. If these symbolic candidacies prove anything at all, it is in their demonstration of the immense gulf separating the reality of American democracy from the myth.

Many initiatives on the Left are symbolic exercises of rights that in fact exist only on paper: the presentation of candidates for political office, the refusal to pay taxes that support the war effort, the efforts to engage well-known political figures in constructive dialogue ( such as the invitation extended to Hubert Humphrey to attend a meeting of the Progressive Labor Party), boycotting the Chase Manhattan Bank because of its support for apartheid in South Africa, and so forth.

Such actions are morally necessary, and in fact I support all of them, knowing that the majority serve as mere dust thrown against the wind. Neither I nor most of my acquaintances will open an account with the Chase Manhattan Bank, although one can be certain that the Rockerfellers couldn't care less. They know than one will never be able to mobilize more than a negligible fraction of public opinion on our side, let along put people into positions of political power on the basis of their support for our campaign. The picture differs radically from one state to the next, and occasionally such initiatives may sway enough of the electorate in California or New York to make a difference. Most of the population of the United States however is concentrated in extremely reactionary states such as Texas, Ohio, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Arizona, and so on .

Despite the rapidity of modern communications a peace demonstration in New York City rarely resonates in the rest of the country. This was true even for the 5th Avenue Peace Parades. By April 1967 I was living in Philadelphia again, my home city. The Peace Parade drew me , along with many others, back to New York City for a day. Estimates for the size of the turnout to this event varied greatly: my informal estimate made in consultation with others put the figure at a minimum of 200,000 marchers .

Philadelphia is less than 90 miles from New York. That evening upon returning I picked up copies of the early evening editions of the local newspapers. They cited the ridiculously low figure of 5,000 or fewer demonstrators. One paper conceded that perhaps as many as 25,000 had been there.

Philadelphia is a big city, with a population of 2 million. By and large it learns about what's going on in the outside world from three extremely reactionary newspapers: the Bulletin , the Inquirer , and the Daily News .( By the 80's all 3 papers had merged into the Inquirrer, which meant that a city of this size was getting, and was content to receive, but a single perspective on the greater world.)

The New York Times cited a figure of 100, 000, about 50% of the real total. Considering its normal coverage of such events, this was acceptable. Despite its evident superiority over the rest of the American press, the New York Times can hardly be considered an organ of the radical Left! The sad truth is that, despite the impressive achievement of the organizers of the 5th Avenue Peace Parade in bringing together 200, 000 marchers from across the country, the majority of Philadelphia's inhabitants received the impression that a straggly band of college drop-outs, dirty and unshaven, had wandered down 5th Avenue in the rain and been dispersed by the police.

If a parade as large as this one could be denigrated down to nothing , in the press of a city less than a hundred miles away from New York, its easy to understand that the smaller demonstrations which were now occurring on a daily basis in New York City had absolutely no effect on the rest of the country.

Let us examine how these factors were played out in the context of a very different kind of action, the draft card burnings of1965. These were, at least, productive of a enormous amount of media coverage.

In 1965 a bill was pushed through Congress asserting thatthe mutilation or destruction of a draft card was punishable under Title 18, with sentences of up to 5 years of imprisonment and/or $10,000 fine. The radical Catholic draft-resister David Miller was the first to openly defy this law in a public demonstration. Although there were laws requiring all draft eligible men to carry this registration card on them at all times, since World War II many people had lost or thrown away their card without ever being hauled in court. The passage of this law had been a product of war hysteria to gratify the extreme Right and intimidate the anti-war movement.

A follow-up draft-card burning demonstation was scheduled for the following month. Its participants were Tom Cornell ( FOR, the CW and the Catholic Peace Fellowship which he'd set up with Jim Forest) and Mark Edelman, who was only with the anti-war movement for a short time. It was planned to take place on the steps of the federal courthouse in Foley Square in lower Manhattan.

Left to Right: Tom Cornell, Marc Edelman, myself, David McReynolds. At the far end to the right, AJ Muste

Before the arrival of the demonstrators , the courthouse steps were mobbed with TV cameramen, reporters and a sensation-seeking mob out to get its thrills from witnessing American patriotism under fire. There were also a few committed anti-war activists. The situation was so bad that Mark and Tom were afraid that even a lit match in such a crowd might result in someone being burned. Finally the event had to be cancelled.

It was therefore rescheduled to take place on November 6. Tom Cornell and Mark Edelman were joined by 3 others: Jim Wilson, a young man facing 2 years imprisonment for refusing to register for the draft, David McReynolds of the War Resisters League, and myself. It would turn out to be among the most successful of all New York City anti-war demonstrations in that period.

Intensive planning took place all through the month preceding the event. Much of the discussion at our meetings centered about the effective manipulation of media coverage. All of us (and I definitely include myself) believed that the workers of this great nation ( All nations are great by definition) would be edified during the consumption of TV dinners earned by the sweat of their brow, watching TV images of 5 young men, well dressed, well educated, and well-spoken, doing their duty to humanity by burning their draft cards. We did not doubt that the typical "man of the people" ( whose heart is always in the right place though tragically misguided ) would enthusiastically endorse our ringing challenge to an unjust federal law in the name of higher principles of conscience.

To bring about the effect that we sought, we did what we could to make a favorable impression on all the journalistic media, television, radio and newspapers. Several days before the event a press conference was held in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel at which representatives from every New York media organ were present. Our passionate concern that we not be misunderstood did not prevent a number of radio stations from insinuating , somewhat maliciously, that we were publicity seekers and nothing more. Our sobriety of dress, determined on the advice of our ACLU lawyers and others, gave the impression that we were on our way to our jobs as school-teachers. In responding to questions that were often rude or biased, we comported ourselves with the dignity befitting middle class intellectuals. We were nonetheless treated as 'beatniks, 'riff-raff', 'scum' and so on. It must be conceded that our combination of suits and ties, recent haircuts and courteous manners rang a somewhat false note in the light of our manifestly anarchist intentions.

Sensibly, the demonstration of November 6th was moved from the steps of the Foley Square courthouse to Union Square at the intersections of 14th Street, 4th Avenue and Broadway. As its name indicates this park has served traditionally as a setting for labor movement and other left-wing rallies. The neighborhood is intensely commercial, with a long corridor of discount stores and restaurants along 14th Street, and office buildings along Broadway and 4th Avenue .

On the morning of the demonstration a high wooden speaker's platform was erected to face the large open space in the center of the square. A space for the press had been reserved in front of this platform. We expected, and received, coverage from the local, national and international press. Indeed, a photograph of our demonstration, with accompanying article, was printed in an edition of the principal newspaper in North Vietnam . ( I was about to write ' Hanoi's government-controlled press', although the monotonous support for government and military in our own press mocks the very idea of freedom of expression.)

Reporters had been coming up to the 10th floor of 5 Beekman Street on a daily basis, to conduct interviews with us and with the leaders of the Peace Movement. On the morning of the demonstration journalists from the Herald Tribune and the New York Times followed us in taxis all the way to Union Square, a distance of about 3 miles. After it was over they followed us again all the way back to Beekman Street. Any one of us had he been so inclined could have launched a career as a movie star .

Sitting on the platform with us were two venerable elders of the American Left, persons rightly deemed of enormous stature in 20th century American history : Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, and the 90 year old minister, A.J. Muste, a tireless militant radical, then president of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. They were there to lend support to the demonstration and did not give any speeches.

The crowd of 300 contained a mix of sympathizers, curiosity-seekers and hecklers. A guitarist led off with a number of peace movement ballads. Each of us read a short prepared statement. Then, as we all removed our draft cards from our wallets Mark Edelman produced a cigarette lighter. The show was on.

The legions of the press went wild. Papparazzi to the core, their behavior towards us was predictably obnoxious. Some of them yelled to us to show more of our profiles, lift the cards higher, face the audience. They fought with one another for convenient angles of vantage and acted in general like the crowd at a bull fight. Their hectoring chimed in with the heckling coming from certain parts of the audience, lending to our already acute sense of anxiety and personal distress the trappings of farce.

A minor incident came as something of a relief: someone with little sympathy for our cause, or perhaps merely a novel sense of humor, opened a fire extinguisher on us at the moment we began igniting our cards. It was inevitable that most of the TV networks and newspapers would select this key moment as the focus of their coverage of an event that lasted an hour and a half. The reporter from the tabloid New York Daily News even wrote that because of the fire extinguisher we had cancelled the entire demonstration! No one in fact got it quite right, yet we could take some pride in the photgraph of our drenching that filled the front page of the New York Times. The counter-demonstrator was hustled off by the police. After assuring them that we were not going to press charges, we lit matches, the cards were re-ignited, and everything went off without a hitch. After the singing of a few more folksongs, we were escorted through the crowd by a police cordon to the cars awaiting us for the trip back to 5 Beekman Street.

The aftermath was different for each demonstrator. The case against David McReynolds was dropped; no one, including McReynolds himself, knows why. The Federal District Attorney , Peter Fleming, may have thought he couldn't get a conviction against him because McReynolds was already in his 30's. The defense strategy of the ACLU ( which did not get us an acquittal but did set a legal precedent), was that burning a piece of printed cardboard worth less than a quarter constituted "symbolic free speech". James Wilson's sentence was assimilated into his two year sentence for draft resistance . After over two years of court delays and postponements, Tom Cornell, Mark Edelman and I were handed down 6-month sentences. The NY state court of appeals exonerated us and the case went to the Supreme Court.

Freed on my own recognizance and tired of waiting around I departed for France in February, 1968 . A letter from the ACLU arrived in Paris that June. It informed me that the Supreme Court had refused even to look at our case. My instructions were to go to the Foley Square courthouse immediately and turn myself in to the FBI to begin serving my sentence. I was happy in France and decided to stay. Tom Cornell and Mark Edelman gave themselves up and served their time.

In the spring of 1972 I opened up negotiations with the FBI, Mark Karpatkin, Jr. , the leader of the ACLU team, serving as interlocutor . It was arranged , contingent on my immediate return to the United States, that no extra time beyond the 6 months would be added on . Returning to New York in August, 1972, my time was served in the West Street jail in New York City, Danbury Penitentiary, Connecticut and Allenwood Penitentiary, Pennsylvania. Upon my release in early 1973, Genevieve Manseau, my fiancee at the time , took me to Montreal and a new chapter in my life.

On the basis of this , and other, experiences, I've come to the conclusion that its a mistake to design demonstrations merely to reach public opinion. This may be a major American myth, but when all is said and done it is just a myth. Madison Avenue methods can't work against Madison Avenue, it's vain to imagine otherwise. The false equation which equates success with public support may prevent one from making an objective assessment of the real value of public opinion. One runs the risk of placing the success of one's initiative under the direct control of monopoly forces opposed to any change in the status quo. Gauging the success or failure of a draft card burning demonstration by the coverage it gets in the newspapers may perhaps be compared to handing a sword to a dragon and asking it, very politely, to commit suicide.
The problem of inventing and mounting actions which relate realistically to external realities is only one side of the difficulties faced by the New Left. There is a constant need to deal with factionalism, the hostilities that may erupt between organizations, even within the context of joint actions, and the useless in-fighting one finds in every sort of organization whether it be Marxist or pacifist.

Such phenomena typify left-wing politics everywhere: the speed at which mistrust and breakdown of communication develop within an organization seemes to be in inverse proportion to the amount of real power in its possession. Had there been some form of united action that could have halted the Vietnamese war in a predictable time period, ( and it is a popular and much overworked cliche that even the government itself was caught in a "quagmire" far beyond its initial projections ) the antiwar organizations might have resolved their differences long enough to accomplish it.

This explains why the 5th Avenue Peace Parades were the only collaborative effort that succeeded in bringing together all the tendencies of the Left, even those whose hostility towards each other was implacable. The spectrum of affiliations represented in these marches ranged from the most strident Stalinists to the most genteel of the peace organizations like SANE. The sight of 200,000 persons walking down 5th Avenue gives the same feeling of achievement to a Spartacist that it does to a Catholic Worker.

By the end of the 60's a great many people were opposed to the war in Vietnam and getting them to express their solidarity by a march wasn't that difficult. Yet in measuring the success of groups trying to bring about radical change it is not sufficient to consider only such grand spectacles. For the rest of the year, most of the people who march in them had no affiliation with any of the organizations of the New Left. Unlike the situation in many European countries, the Left in the United States operates completely outside the official political process. Registering to vote as a Democrat does not constitute support for the Opposition.

The picture becomes even more discouraging when one considers the failure of so many attempts to set up genuinely alternative institutions. Even the minimal solidarity needed to sustain a vision beyond their formulation often turns out to be too much to hope for. As a notable exception to this rule one may invoke the Afro-American civil rights movement. What has given this movement its unique staying power is the continuing presence of the open wound created by the 1860's war. Its utterly unbelievable levels of violence climaxing the centuries of slavery that preceded it, set up a division in the national consciousness that to this day transcends Establishment politics and corporate greed.

In this regard it is instructive to study the failure of the attempt to establish a Free University of New York. Founded in 1965, it had auto-destructed by the time of my departure for France in February, 1968. In the summer of 65, about a dozen or so disaffected scholars came together for discussions around the idea of setting up a radical alternative university in New York City. The person responsible for bringing us all together and the driving force behind the idea was Allen Krebs. He'd been dismissed from Adelphi College on Staten Island from his position as instructor in the Political Science department because of complaints about his handling of a course on Marxist economics.

In its letter of dismissal, Krebs had been charged with fanaticism: we are all deeply sensible of the jealous regard of traditional universities towards their reputation for objectivity! One hears of members of the John Birch Society teaching at American universities who remain in good standing despite their fanaticism. Furthermore, the devotion that Allan Krebs brought to his Marxist and Maoist principles did not quite come up to the obstinate conviction of those professors of Political Science and Economics who have dedicated themselves to pushing the dogma of Free Enterprise and the Free Market down the throats of uninformed, trusting and innocent youth. Unfortunately, in light of the subsequent exposure which the faculty of the Free University of New York would receive to his methods, Adelphi's decision proved to have been justified.