On Being Watched in the 60s

There would come to be the notion that the sixties were the product of immaculate conception. In fact, they were more an act of conversion, conversion of the isolated, unfocussed, dispersed and inarticulate alienation of the 1950s into a mass movement with common language, direction, and rules. One of those rules was that nothing good and pure had ever happened before.

So if you had come of age in the fifties you were something of an anomaly, especially if you were a big guy and white and easily mistaken for a cop. Under a tree by the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool during a big peace march in 1967, the tie-died, pony-tailed protester next to me was quiet for a long time. Then he turned and asked softly, “CIA?”

I puffed on my pipe. “Nope”




I took the pipe out of my mouth. “Half & Half, all day long.”

“Cool,” he said and gave me his love beads.

I did not get off as easily at later demonstrations. At an early environmental protest, an alternative video squad from upstate New York found me taking notes in a dark blue T-shirt and baseball hat. With camera rolling, they quizzed me at length as to my law enforcement affiliation, finding my answers profoundly unconvincing. Later, I sent them some copies of the Gazette along with a note saying that even 220-pound iron-pumpers might want to save the environment. I never heard from them.

Once, a demonstration against a proposed Potomac River bridge was joined by New York City radicals in town for another, more macro-political protest. There was no more ostentatiously radical activists than those nurtured on the polemics and politics of New York City. They were, as Oscar Wilde put it, more certain of everything than I was of anything.

In this case, the New Yorkers’ tactics included throwing rocks at the police. There had not been much of that sort of thing in Washington. As I wandered down Georgetown’s M Street — turned into a sort of free fire zone with helmeted cops on one side and protesters on the other — the prop wash of a rock lapped my face and I decided it was time to leave the scene.

Others did likewise, propelled by the constabulary. The whole protest reformed on the campus of Georgetown University where I was soon accosted by several screaming, camera-grabbing, visiting radicals absolutely convinced that I was an undercover cop. This misapprehension annoyed me, since I was actually one of the few anti-freeway journalists in town. I was about to express my annoyance more firmly when a local demonstration leader stepped in and vouched for my bona fides.

In truth, undercover agents were all around. Throughout America, police were spying on, infiltrating and disrupting movement groups. Even outside America, students took notes on other students for the CIA, students – it was later reported – like Bill Clinton. You knew it was a problem, you saw it, it had names on it. I tried to be pragmatic. After all, I had spent summers in a house in Maine with a crank telephone and a 10-party line. Anyone on the line could listen in on anyone else and the operators could listen in on everyone in town. If you asked the operator to dial Joe, it would not have been surprising for her to tell you that Joe was currently at the barbershop or that she had just seen him walking down Main Street.

I thus had never thought of the phone much as a device for private conversation. Further, I figured that one of the best ways to handle the problem was not to overload one’s life with secrets and conspiracies. I told friends that the worse thing that could happen if my phone were tapped was that the intruder might actually learn something. I considered myself something of a missionary and who better to convert than a member of the intelligence community?

I therefore found it interesting but not unduly alarming when a subscriber I suspected was with the CIA bought two subscriptions year after year. I was somewhat flattered when this subscriber introduced himself and invited my wife and me to dinner and then was somewhat disappointed when nothing more was heard from him after the dinner except for his annual renewals. Apparently my policy of non-conspiratorial openness was too boring to pursue.

Similarly, I enjoyed my conversations with a 9th Precinct police officer who would drop by the Gazette office with his dour squad car partner. I may have been the only underground newspaper editor in the country who was periodically visited by a uniformed cop to discuss politics, both of us on company time.

To be sure, I had known the officer over the years, mainly as his sister’s brother. He had first come around to my office shortly after graduating from Harvard to discuss what he was going to do with his life. One of the options had been to join the police department. I attempted to discourage him but to no avail. He took the job and ended up in my own precinct and with my own office on his beat. Officer Don Graham would continue to ignore my advice in his later employment as publisher of the Washington Post.

I assumed Graham was filing reports about me with someone, just as someone had filed a report on another alternative paper in town, the Colonial Times, when it ran a cover showing a fat lady protesting a local revenue proposal with a button reading, “Fuck the food tax!” A postal inspector, apparently assuming that our papers were locked in mortal commercial combat, came by my office one day to suggest I file an obscenity complaint against the Colonial Times. Instead, I gave the man a lecture on the First Amendment and called my friends at the Times to warn them of the danger afoot.

In 1969, my friend Gren Whitman called from Baltimore to borrow my office “as place for the press to meet before an action.” I asked what was up. “Don’t ask,” he instructed. “I don’t want you to know. That way you won’t be liable.” I agreed to help. The reporters and the activists arrived at my office at the scheduled time and within minutes departed on their still-unidentified mission. Later that day I learned that nine protesters had broken into the offices of the Dow Chemical Company and spilled blood over the files in an anti-war protest.

The next morning Kathy woke me saying that I’d better look at what was in the Post. In the upper left corner of the front page was a story describing the attack. In the lead it said that reporters had been told to meet at the offices of the DC Gazette and gave the address, 109 8th Street NE.

I was upset and angry. The Post, it appeared, was setting me up for retaliation — legal and otherwise. My only role in the affair had been to provide a gathering place for my news colleagues and now the Great Prude of 15th Street was out to punish me for having done their reporter a favor. I called a lawyer friend who came over and calmed me down. Nothing more came of it. Which, however, is how I came not to trust the Post.

It was a time of hidden agendas and multiple agendas. The police had found a few black militants willing to disrupt white peace groups and a few white radicals willing to do the same. A member of the DC Statehood Party steering committee was, I’m pretty certain, a police informer. When I referred in passing to reported police ties of a certain ostensibly radical black councilmember, he gave me a wink the next time I showed up at the council press table and never denied it.

On May Day in 1971 the police arrested 13,000 people in DC — including reporters and bystanders — in what was probably the largest mass arrest in American history. I noticed a prominent black militant trapped in one of the corrals the cops had improvised. About a half hour later, he was out of the corral and talking to a top department official. Then, not long after, he was back inside the roped off area. You learned to look for things like that just as I had learned to keep looking behind me at demonstrations so I could see where the cops were moving. Which is how I didn’t get arrested on May Day 1971.

Some of those trapped were detained in an old sports arena; others were herded onto the playing field of RFK Stadium. That night the temperature dropped to the thirties.

I went to the courthouse — crowded as a Thanksgiving weekend airport — sometime after midnight to bail out Gren on personal recognizance. I wore a coat and tie and when the judge asked if I were a DC resident, I stood at parade rest and replied, “A native, your honor.” My friend was released.

For three days the DC police department had literally ran amuck. In a searing report , the American Civil Liberties wrote later:

“Between May 3 and May 5, more than 13,OOO people were arrested in Washington, DC– the largest mass arrest in our country’s history. The action was the government’s response to anti-war demonstrations, an important component of which was the announced intention of the Mayday Coalition, organizer of the demonstrations, to block Washington rush-hour traffic. During this three-day period, normal police procedures were abandoned. Most of the 13,000 people arrested — including law-breakers caught while attempting to impede traffic, possible potential law-breakers, war protestors engaged in entirely legal demonstrations, uninvolved passers-by and spectators — were illegally detained, illegally charged, and deprived of their constitutional rights of due process, fair trial and assistance of counsel. The court system, unable to cope with this grand scale emergency caused by the police, was thrown into chaos.”

During the Mayday police riot, people were beaten and arrested illegally, locked up by the thousands in makeshift holding pens with inadequate toilet facilities and food, or stuffed into drastically overcrowded cells. People on their way to work, patients going to see their doctor, students attending classes, reporters and lawyers were all caught up in the sweep arrests. Most of those stashed in the DC Jail exercise yard were without blankets throughout a night in which the temperatures fell into the thirties. And in the most symbolic display of contempt for the law, more than a thousand persons were arrested in front of the Capitol where they had assembled to hear speeches, including several from members of Congress. When Rep. Ronald Dellums tried to keep a policeman from arresting a member of his staff, saying, “Hey, that’s a member of my staff. Get your hands off of him. I’m a United States Congressman,” the policeman replied, “I don’t give a fuck who you are,” then hit Dellums in the side with his nightstick and pushed him down some stairs.

It was the grimmest display of mass police power — not just selective brutality against a few — the city had seen. And it was a clear warning of the fearful danger inherent in Washington’s acceptance of police power as a form of government. The fact that neither the black chief executive, Walter Washington, nor the white liberal newspaper, the Washington Post, could summon up either the wisdom or the courage to denounce what Wilson and his men, acting under orders of the Justice Department, had done made the affair all the more dismal. More and more the city was listening to sirens luring liberty onto the rocks of repression.

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.


Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.