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Forthy 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.
MITCHEL COHEN is co-editor of “G”, the newspaper of the NY State Greens. He can be reached at: email@example.com