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Remembering Dave Dellinger

A 1993 Interview

by DOWNTOWN MAGAZINE

(This interview with Dave Dellinger, who died on May 25, 2004, appeared in DOWNTOWN MAGAZINE in 1993. Thanks to Bob Feldman for reminding us.)

What are your most vivid memories of what happened on the streets and in the parks of Chicago during the 1968 anti-war protests outside the Democratic National Convention?

DELLINGER: Inevitably, the most vivid memory I have is of busloads of police driving up to where we would be gathered, jumping out, getting into formation and marching into the crowd, goose-stepping as they marched. Slapping their sides with their clubs and shouting: `Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Then they would go in and hit everybody that they could over the head–or jab their clubs into people’s groins.

How seriously were people hurt by the Chicago police?

Many people were very seriously hurt. Not only by the clubs, but by mace. I guess the tear gas wasn’t that serious, but it certainly had all of us coughing and gasping for breath.

Who was responsible for that violence? Some people I speak to, they say `Well, the antiwar movement of the ’60s provoked the confrontation and was responsible for the violence.’ Is that true?

No. First of all, the mass of protesters were overwhelmingly nonviolent. After the first attacks by the police, some people–but only a small minority–began to lapse into the unproductive approach of calling the police `pigs.’ But, actually, we circulated a leaflet–handed it out to the police–which said that we did not blame them for what they are doing. And saying that we supported them in their attempts to get overtime pay. If I remember correctly, the police had been in negotiations and in some kind of temporary strike shortly before the Convention. But all that was laid aside.

I think, for example, of a time in front of the Hilton Hotel–where a lot of the action took place. I think of a guy by the name of Fred Gardner–who had organized the first coffeehouses for GIS in which we had tried to explain to the GIs our friendly attitude toward them despite our militant opposition to the Vietnam War.

In the 1967 siege of the Pentagon–which was the last major national action before Chicago–we had agreed on a slogan and used it in bullhorns and person-to-person, saying: `You are our brothers. Join us. You are victims, too. Join us.’

Fred Gardner had played a key role in that kind of approach to the GIs, and together we tried to apply it to the policemen in Chicago. Fred Gardner, Phil Ochs and I climbed on the roof of a car and Fred and I spoke to the police. First, though, Phil Ochs–who was probably the most popular folksinger of the day–sang to them.

How did the police respond? It wasn’t too effective, was it?

Well, the fact is that a lot of the Black police responded. And in our trial–which came a little more than a year later–one of the people who testified for us–although he was not allowed to say most of what he wanted to say to the jury–was Renault Robinson, the head of the African-American Policemen’s Association. He told us that many of the Black policemen were so upset by the unnatural violence against us that they spoke up about it. As a result, they were relieved of duty during that period, as part of the mayor’s attempt to be sure that the police would be as violent as they were.

Probably, readers won’t know that a presidential commission was appointed to look into the roots of the violence at Chicago. And they unanimously ruled that most of it had been `a police riot.’ They gave examples of police not only beating up demonstrators, but going on to porches where people were sitting outside their apartments watching what was going on. Going up there, dragging the people down and clubbing them.

Now why was the Democratic Convention seen as an appropriate site for an antiwar protest?

First of all, you should understand that it was more than an antiwar protest. The original plan was that we would hold an alternate political convention in which we would lay out a broad platform. We had separate meeting places for a variety of issues: women’s rights, Native Americans’ rights, the schools, the environment, the economy. All that kind of thing.

You see, it’s a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, we felt the importance of going there with the antiwar message. We knew that the media would be there and at least some attention would be focused on it because it was a time of great uncertainty, confusion and disillusionment in the country about the war.

The paradox was that, on the one hand, we thought it was terribly important to carry the antiwar message, but, on the other hand, the main organizers–at least from the National Mobilization Committee–had in mind showing that Vietnam was not an accident. That Vietnam represented attitudes towards human life and human beings that extended into the whole culture and society, domestically as well as in foreign relations.

Now what happened was that we had tried to get permits for people to sleep in Lincoln Park, as the Boy Scouts and the Elks and various other groups had been able to do. And that was particularly important for the young people. But, for others also, who couldn’t afford the price of hotels and didn’t, perhaps, know people in Chicago that they could stay with. But we couldn’t get the permits and were ordered to leave the park every night at a certain hour. We decided to do that, but on the first night, as we were walking out of the park, at whatever the hour was, I felt somebody tug at my sleeve, my right sleeve. I turned around, and it was the mayor’s youth commissioner. He and I had met several times, in prior attempts to work things out amicably, and we had become, at least up to a point, friends.

He said, `Dellinger. When you get out of the park turn to the left and get away from there as quickly as you can. Because the police are going to attack from the right.’ And that’s exactly what happened.

When the nonviolent protesters dutifully left the park when the time came that they were supposed to be out of there, the police were waiting for them and waded into the crowd.

How did you come, personally, to lead the antiwar protests in Chicago?

Well, I think it’s very important to recognize that there were many leaders. You know that one of the problems in the society is that certain people are focused upon as being the `leaders’. And this was intensified in the case of Chicago because afterwards–actually not until the Nixon Administration came in and John Mitchell, who ended up in jail himself for perjury–the government thought it needed to intimidate the Movement.

So it selected what it thought of as the leaders of various sections of the Movement: the militant Black movement, Bobby Seale–who hadn’t even had anything to do with the demonstrations. Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, from the Students for a Democratic Society–who were thought of as the leaders of it. Although, actually, by then they had, to some extent, been pushed aside by the younger students. But they were the best known.

I was considered, I guess, the leader of the adult nonviolent movement.

But I think that things would have been very much the same in all of those movements, with or without the presence of Tom, Rennie, and myself. If I played a role, I think it was, first of all, in stressing the importance of nonviolence at a time when some very vocal people–some of them agents provacateurs–were saying that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. had proved that nonviolence doesn’t work. Interestingly, they didn’t say that the assassination of Malcolm X proved that violence doesn’t work.

Secondly, within the adult coalition–which was a very complex coalition of forces–I played somewhat of a mediating role. Because I didn’t believe that there was any single tactic or strategy that everybody should follow. One of my firm beliefs is that we have to have not only the kind of cultural diversity that people are talking more about today, but that even within cultures, we have to have people whose individual lives, personalities, etc., call for different ways of acting.

There was a rumor that you and Tom Hayden thought you might be assassinated if you failed to call off the planned demonstrations. Was that true? Was there pre-demonstration terror directed against you?

Well, after Martin Luther King was assassinated and there were Black riots all over the country it seems that the Chicago police acted with a little more common sense and sensitivity than they sometimes had in the past. At that time, Mayor Daley bawled them out and issued an order that, in similar demonstrations in the future, they must `shoot to kill’ anyone who was thought to be in the act of committing a felony. And `shoot to maim’ anybody who might be committing a misdemeanor. And that was trundled out and used over and over again against us, for a month or more before the convention.

But as far as the specific assassination threats are concerned, what I remember better is that in 1972–when some of us were going to the Miami Republican and Democratic Conventions with similar ideas in mind to those we had had at Chicago–I received a call from the lawyer of a retired <F.B.I>. agent. One who had resigned to protest against the infiltration and violence that they were trying to instigate the Movement to take. And I was told–on the authority of this <ex-F.B.I>. agent who had just recently resigned–that Rennie Davis and I were going to be assassinated in Miami.

When the polcie came to Miami, they came under the guise of fellow protestors. They were organized in `Red Star Cadres’–which it later turned out, had all been organized by the <F.B.I>. They brought guns to Miami and kept trying to get us to use them. When I spoke against this, they said: `Well, you’re just a pacifist. And you have no right to let other people be killed because of your nonviolence.’

Fortunately, the Vietnam Veterans Against The War came to the convention, and, although I had not told most people about the threat–because I didn’t want to have a panicky situation–I told some of their leaders. And they formed an honor guard around me and Rennie for the rest of the convention. Wherever we went, we were circled by them. So that some of them would have had to be shot in order to shoot us.

So that’s much clearer in my mind than the general feeling that we might be assassinated in Chicago.

You mentioned Rennie Davis. Now Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin were charged with you in the post-Convention `Conspiracy Trial,’ yet they seemed to retreat from antiwar activism in the ’70s. Can you speculate as to why that happened?

Well, it’s an uphill fight and one has to develop means, I think, of replenishing one’s energies and spirit. Some people just became so obsessed with the urgency of ending the war that they never had time to do anything else. They spent years of emergency living on the barricades. And they didn’t have time–I say this in my book, From Yale To Jail–they didn’t have time to climb a mountain, read a novel, go to a concert or an art gallery, walk in the woods, do any of the things that keep one, in a sense, sane. Things that help one to avoid becoming either self-righteous or monomaniacal, in the sense that `this is the exact thing that everybody must do right now.’

And I remember Rennie in that connection, one time when we were recruiting for a demonstration after Chicago. He and I were speaking on the same platform and he said that `The next six weeks will determine the future of Western Civilization.’

So it was that kind of exaggerated preoccupation with the immediate present, I think, which led to some of this backing off later.

And one also has to say, in all honesty, and perhaps particularly with some people more than others, that because the media focused on our trial–even though there were other trials that were just as important and just as unwarranted. And because the government picked us seven white males and one Black male–when there were many women and other people who deserved the honor of being indicted as much as we did. With all that attention and all that `groupie’ adulation which happened, I think that all of us were thrown off balance more than we should have. And, in a certain sense, one might say that Jerry Rubin made certain attempts to keep in the limelight by doing other things. And that’s understandable.

But I never publicly criticized Jerry, no matter how much I advocate and try to follow a different path than the one he has taken. Because what I remember is that he and all the other ones who were indicted made a joint decision that we would face 10 years in jail, rather than try to win the case on a technicality. Instead of using technical excuses and methods in conventional lawyerly fashion, we would do our best to put the government on trial in our trial.

You mentioned women who were involved. What role did women activists, also African-American activists and lesbian and gay male activists, play in helping to organize the Convention protests?

The role of the three groups were quite different. The Black leadership in the Mobe and in the antiwar movement generally decided basically to stay away from Chicago and not be involved. The main exception was Ralph Abernathy and the Southern Christian Leadership Council [SCLC], which came with a mule train. But even though were were on good terms and friends, they basically did not take part in the planning or in the decision for our nonviolent marches. They wanted to have a purely symbolic presence with the mule train and did not talk about nonviolent marches as a whole–or possible civil disobedience by sitting down if we were stopped on our marches.

What about women activists? The women’s liberation movement?

Well, women were very active. Now I’m generally listed as the `chairman’ of the National Mobilization Committee To End The War. And I was backward enough to have accepted that title for a short time. And then I insisted that I would not be chairman unless there was a co-chairperson who was a woman and a co-chairperson who was an Afro-American. But the women played a very important key role in all of the events at Chicago. As for lesbians and gays, a lot of people who later came out of the closet also played key roles in Chicago. But I don’t remember any public calls there for the rights of homosexuals.

Now you mentioned a book. What have you been up to in recent years? And were you involved in writing a book, also?

For about a year I had been working intermittently on writing what I called From Yale To Jail: A Memoir. I was a little shocked when Pantheon released the book a couple of months ago [in 1993] and changed the subtitle, so that it now reads: From Yale To Jail: The Life Story Of A Moral Dissenter. Which I think is a little pretentious. I never would have approved of it if I had known that they were going to do that.

My preferred approach is think globally, act locally. And I was doing a lot of local acting before the Vietnam War came along. I just felt that I had to go beyond my local community in order to oppose it and–I think because of my peacemaking role amongst the various objectors to the War–was almost forced into the position of becoming chair and later co-chair.

So I am working with a number of groups here in Vermont: The North Country Coalition for Peace and Justice. Several peace and justice campaigns. I’ve been a member of the Vermont Rainbow, which finally ceased to exist because we insisted on being democratic. And Jesse Jackson, in his attempt to win the presidency, decided that he had to control the whole organization and even appoint the state chairs and executive committees.

And we’ve been active, until recently objecting to the manufacture of Gatling guns in the General Electric plant in Burlington, Vermont. Gatling guns which fire–I think it’s four or five hundred bullets a minute–and were taken down to Central America to be used by the <U.S.-trained> and supported death squads in El Salvador. Also, for several years, by the <U.S.-trained> and equipped and financed Contras in Nicaragua.

What do you think are now the major political issues for pacfists, now that the Cold War has ended?

Well,as I have said, one of the reasons we went to Chicago was to get away from the idea that there were only two issues that were central, namely, stopping the war in Vietnam and civil rights. That was why we wanted the alternate convention, which would lay out other things. And I think that now we are in that situation.

We’re in a situation where we’ve gone ahead a little, even though some people who are in favor of ending war and gaining civil rights still drag their feet against gay and lesbian liberation and against full equality for women.

But on the whole a lot of progress has been made. Instead of two issues, it’s like Heinz: there are practically 57 different variets of issues that are getting more attention than they did in the ’60s. Personally I think that one of the important things is for people to have at least one or two of those issues in which they are active in a consistent, long-term way.

But also, I think it is important to get the broader picture. And to understand what some of the reasons are why in every area of life people are taught to compete with other people in order to rise `higher.’ To get more power, money, fame, beauty–whatever it is–than other people. And I think that at the root of that is the military-corporate complex and the economy. So I think that people have to understand the economic ties with all of these 57 areas, whether it’s the environment or women’s rights or Black rights or any of the other places where people are not treated with respect, dignity and as equals.

Finally, I prefer to call myself a nonviolent activist for justice–or justice and peace–rather than a pacifist. Because too often pacifists treat the violence of war and weaponry as more deadly than the violence of our economic institutions. But more people die every week because of the poverty caused by our economic institutions than the total number of GIs killed in the entire Vietnam War.