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One of the most hopeful aspects of the current movement against war is the large numbers of young people who are not only involved, but are taking the initiative. In our local coalition here in Vermont, the high school and college students (and those of that age who are not in school) have involved themselves in most of the planning and strategizing. To their credit, most of the older folks have encouraged this and invited these coalition members’ input. As a person who opposed the US war in Vietnam while in high school, my empathy for today’s younger protestors stems from the frustration I felt when ignored by older activists merely because of my age. Indeed, the only antiwarriors who encouraged me to write and organize back in the early 1970s were the GIs who I hung out with in Germany.
As the month of May rolls around again, I am reminded of two dates from that month: May 4th and May 14th. These are the anniversaries of the 1970 murders of student antiwar protestors at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi by military and lawmen. These murders marked a turning point in the war and the protest against it. The antiwar movement grew up with those murders. Now, protest meant risking one’s life. The U.S. government had made it clear once and for all that it would tolerate only so much dissent. Of course, African-American and other protestors of color-and the revolutionary anti-imperialist wing of the antiwar movement-had known this all along. After the original burst of anger that brought millions into the streets and shut down universities and high schools around the country, many protestors put away their banners and raised fists for a life with less confrontation. The rest of us reaffirmed our commitment to do whatever it took to stop the war.
Despite its relatively short life, the current movement against the war and whatever else lies ahead is in its adolescence. We share an innocence with that pre-May 1970 movement, yet at the same time know that the state is willing to do whatever it takes to keep its power and its wars. Messrs. Bush, Ashcroft, and Rumsfeld have left us no doubt in that regard. We have yet to see police or army murders of protestors in the US this time around, although two Western members of the international movement have been killed by the Israeli military in the last couple of months (and a third mortally wounded).
I’ve jotted down some memories from those days in early May 1970. My dad returned from Da Nang, Vietnam in February of that year, where he had spent the previous year as an officer in the Air Force. I had become more opposed to the war during that same time. I was in ninth grade.
Dad came back in February of 1970. Although I was glad to see him out of harm’s way, there were times I wished I was somewhere else.
We arrived in Frankfurt am Main in March 1970. Within a week, my siblings and I were back in school. The junior high I attended was on the other side of the city on a military compound. It had been a German women’s prison prior to its utilization as a school. The school building was surrounded by a twelve foot high wall. Each of its corners held an empty guard tower. Most of the students felt that prison was an appropriate metaphor for their experiences there. I made a few friends pretty quickly.
This always happened on military bases since most of the students were always in transit, but the fact that I owned some rock records that hadn’t made it to the Post Exchange or into the German music stores certainly helped. With most students feeling that the epicenter of our (counter)culture lay in the U.S., anyone who arrived from the States and was just a little bit hip was milked for updates on what was really happening. Neither the Stars & Stripes newspaper nor the Armed Forces Radio Network were providing that kind of news. The only news the Stars and Stripes was really good for was sports news, and that wasn’t something I discussed with my new counterculture friends.
When I awoke on May 1 that year, I was, like many other people in the world, incredulous and pissed off that Nixon had sent troops into Cambodia. Although my political awareness was still relatively unformed, it had taken me no time to realize that Richard Nixon was a pig. Still, I didn’t think he or anyone else would actually expand the war in Southeast Asia when everybody–including my dad–wanted it to end. When I went to the kitchen for breakfast my father was still there and we had a short debate about the invasion before he headed off to work. That interaction got me fired up for a day of debate. Sure enough, even though homeroom was run by the gym teacher (a man with the last name of Agnew who usually didn’t talk about anything other than sports), we spent the whole class period arguing about the war. By the time civics class came up right before lunch, some of the more radical students (whom I was just beginning to know) were trying to organize some kind of protest. However, since the weekend was coming up, nothing concrete was devised.
When we got back to school on Monday, May 4, most of us who cared had heard the news reports all weekend about the massive protests taking place all over the US against Nixon’s move into Cambodia. In addition, the German students had kept the police busy all weekend in Frankfurt with constant rallies and marches against the invasion, of which I attended at least one. By noon on Monday, some hastily drawn posters began appearing on the walls of our junior high urging students to protest the war on Wednesday, May 6, by wearing black armbands and refusing to go to homeroom. Of course, as soon as the posters appeared, they were ripped down by administrators or a pro-war student or teacher. One girl was suspended when she refused to remove a poster she had just put up. That night I found some black material and made myself an armband.
Like always, I turned on the radio when I awoke the next morning, May 5th. I liked to listen to the news, especially when something big was happening. I was not prepared, however, for the news that morning. Nor do I think I will ever forget how I felt when I first heard it. Four students had been shot dead in Kent, Ohio by the National Guard while protesting the war. Several others were injured. I knew what Dylan meant when he sang of his tears of rage. My eyes were brimming over with such tears and my heart was pounding in anger and disbelief. I didn’t say much as I got ready for school. My mom was silent as I read the Stars and Stripes report on the killings over Cheerios. My older sister and I talked about them while we ate.
I put my armband on while waiting for the school bus. Upon arriving at school, I searched for some of the kids most involved in the antiwar planning. In homeroom, Mr. Agnew read a memo from the principal expressing regret over the slayings in Ohio, but warned that no protest of any kind would be allowed at Frankfurt American Junior High School. The gym teacher (who I was beginning to believe opposed the war as much as I did) looked around, noting that three or four of us wore black armbands, and said nothing. One of the guys asked if he could read something relevant to the current events and the teacher said yes. Steve took out a copy of the text to Arlo Guthrie’s antiwar poem “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and began reading, complete with four-part harmony. By the time he finished, class was over.
Most of the teachers turned the classroom time that day into a discussion of the war in Vietnam and the repression of the movement against it. Those students who wanted to do more than just wear armbands passed the word that people should still refuse to go to homeroom the following day. We would hold a silent vigil in the parking lot instead. A few students were forced to remove their armbands by the more reactionary teachers. Other teachers took armbands provided by the students and wore them themselves, probably risking a pay raise if not their jobs, especially seeing as how the school was on a military base.
When the bell signaling the beginning of classes rang Wednesday morning, about a hundred students in the parking lot made no moves toward the building. We waited for a signal of some kind from one of the protest organizers. As we milled around, certain teachers known for their allegiance to the rules appeared on the outskirts of our small crowd. Slowly but surely they herded us towards the entrance doors and slowly but surely we filed in. I don’t think we had a failure of will as much as we had no organization. Later that day there was a two-hour all-school assembly where, after some sanctimonious nonsense from the principal and an Army officer about defending freedom (both of whom were eventually shouted down), we argued about the war. By the time the Jackson State murders took place on May 14th, there was no more arguing left to do. And tears were not enough.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: email@example.com