Autumn in America
Autumn 1973 was quite the autumn. Personally, I had just moved to New York City to attend college at the Bronx campus of Fordham University. I vaguely recall my first full weekend in New York, checking out the Village and attending a showing of National Lampoon’s production Lemmings at the Village Gate. Some of the cast members would be household names by 1980: John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Chevy Chase. I smoked a joint during the show and afterwards took the D Train back to the Grand Concourse. The next weekend I met an older woman who invited a fellow dorm resident and me back to her apartment. We drank whiskey and danced.
Perhaps a week after we danced, the Chilean military overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity party. This is exactly what the international Left had feared. Articles regarding the subversion of the socialist Allende government by US corporations IT&T and Anaconda Copper had been running in the Left and underground press for a while. Of course, these corporations were generously assisted by the CIA and the Nixon White House. I followed the news with an expectant horror. After the generals attacked the palace, I knew it was over. There was a protest outside the UN building in Manhattan where Angela Davis spoke. The numbers attending were pitifully small. Elsewhere in the world tens of thousands protested. Meanwhile, the junta in Chile continued to round up leftists, journalists and others opposed to the coup. Copper futures rose sharply.
On September 25, the great poet Pablo Neruda was buried by his friends after the authorities refused a state funeral and made it illegal for mourners to attend. Thousands did anyhow. His last poem had been smuggled out of the country to Argentina where it was published. The poem lashed out at the authors of the coup in Washington and Santiago, calling the latter “prostitute merchants/of bread and American air,/deadly seneschals,/ a herd of whorish bosses/with no other law but torture/and the lashing hunger of the people.” Meanwhile, in the football stadium in Santiago, soldiers and other authorities tortured thousands and killed hundreds, including the popular folksinger Victor Jara. Other detainees were held on an island off the Chilean coast. On September 28, the Weather Underground bombed the ITT offices in Manhattan in protest of the coup. Six days earlier, coup architect Henry Kissinger was appointed Secretary of State.
It seemed like only days later that Egypt, Syria and a couple other Arab armies attacked Israeli military positions. Within days the television was saying that the Soviet Union was threatening to join the fray while Washington was sending an emergency shipment of arms to Israel. Like most wars, this wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the fact that Israel had not pre-empted the attack was at least unusual. To add to the sense of crisis, the oil-producing nations instituted an oil embargo against the United States and other nations providing arms to Israel (European nations quickly ended their shipments). Even in Manhattan, there were long lines of cars waiting to buy their ration of gasoline at every service station. Like always, the energy industry would profit no matter what happened. So would Henry Kissinger, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with northern Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho. Mr. Tho refused the prize because there was no peace in Vietnam.
In the United States, the situation known as Watergate continued to expand in terms of how it affected the White House, Congress, and the relationship of the US citizenry to the government. To stave off his critics, Nixon had appointed a special prosecutor whose job was to investigate the possibility that crimes had been committed (even though most of the US already knew the answer) and what those crimes might be. On October 10, Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor. Elliott Richardson, the Attorney General resigns instead, as did his assistant. However, the man who was third in line at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, carried out Nixon’s order and fired Cox. The shit had barely begun to hit the fan as far as Watergate was concerned.
Thanks to my perusal of several leftist and underground newspapers, I was somewhat aware that students opposed to the military dictatorship of General Papodopoulos in Greece had taken over Athens Polytechnic University. This had followed a series of protests and the conviction of seventeen protesters for resistance to authority. The convictions provoked more, larger protests. After a couple weeks, the army sent tanks through the gates of the university and police chased students off the campus. Around four hundred young people died that night and the next day, killed by the authorities. Students continued the protest, while the dictators outlawed numerous student organizations and arrested dozens. Papadopoulos made some efforts to appeal to the students and others opposed to the dictatorship. In response, he was overthrown by another set of military officers opposed to what they saw as a liberalization of Greek society and the protests continued.
A friend from Teaneck, New Jersey who skipped class for a week while he hired himself out to commuters needing gas but not having the time to sit in the growing lines of gas purchasers. The price at the pump was slowly creeping up to $.59 a gallon and rumors of rationing were growing. Tempers were heating up, too. The nightly news on WABC usually featured at least one story per broadcast of a fight or sometimes a shooting at a gas station. Usually, the incident was provoked because someone jumped in line. Back then, Geraldo Rivera was a local reporter and still had somewhat liberal political leanings. So did a lot of people who would eventually swallow the poison pill offered by Ronald Reagan less than a decade later.
There was an Attica Brigade chapter on my campus. This was a leftist anti-imperialist youth organization connected to the Revolutionary Union, which was one of many organizations arising from the 1969-1970 dissolution of the Students for a Democratic Society. They were primary sponsors of the first Impeach Nixon rally in New York that fall and inspired a fair number of protesters to attempt a takeover of the Justice Department at another impeachment protest in DC the following April. Their battle cry was “Throw the Bum Out!” We all know that the bum was eventually thrown out, only to be succeeded by a procession of more bums, some worse but none much better. This is what so-called democracy looks like, although objectively it doesn’t seem much different from the aforementioned colonels’ junta in Greece or the revolving dictatorship in Egypt. We fool ourselves when we pretend that it is.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.