Levitating the Pentagon

Photo by gregwest98 | CC by 2.0

The summer of 1967 the Israeli military seized the West Bank and Gaza from the Palestinians in what came to be known as the Six Day War.  My friend Doug. whom I had left in Israel in 1962, returned home disillusioned.  Whatever lingering hope I had for Israeli socialism was forever shattered.  How could there be socialism at the expense of the Palestinians?  Socialism was about sharing the wealth with all.  It couldn’t be built on the backs of another people.

That was once more a summer of serious urban rebellions in over a dozen major U.S.  cities, among them Detroit, Newark, Atlanta, Cleveland and New York.  On August 9th President Johnson approved sixteen additional Rolling Thunder targets and an expansion of armed reconnaissance in Vietnam.  U.S.  imperialism and its allies were moving on all fronts but there was resistance everywhere from Black urban centers to Palestine and, of course, to Vietnam.

The Berkeley anti-war leader Jerry Rubin, my boyfriend at the time, was already in New York assuming his new job as Project Coordinator for the October national demonstration against the war.  The National Mobilization Committee Against the War (affectionately known as “The Mobe”) had agreed to hire a few of Jerry’s posse from the Bay Area.  While activists Stew Albert, Karen Wald and I got ready to leave Berkeley, Jerry was already embroiled in internal debates about the nature of the October plans.  The Mobe was made up of much more moderate elements in contrast with us West Coast radicals.  Some of the main players were Women Strike for Peace, the New York Parade Committee, Chicago Peace Council, Student Mobilization, and the Ohio Peace Action Committee.

Out west in California we all loved the idea of a huge national mobilization that included civil disobedience and we felt it was important for the Pentagon to be the focus.  Our argument went something like this.  Demonstrations were always taking place at the Capitol.  It would be humdrum and we would never actually get in there.  We felt that the Pentagon was the best symbol of U.S.  militarism, the real face of U.S.  policy, and that demonstrating there would channel the anger that we all felt into a real political weapon.  It wasn’t only a clash of ideas.  People were dying because of the war machine.  We didn’t want to target the civil government.  We wanted to target the true center, the war machine.  We knew that our presence at the Pentagon would result in a confrontation but we welcomed that confrontation in order to visibly demonstrate the true nature of the U.S., to illustrate that it dominated not through its moral power, not through its Peace Corps, but by force and violence.  We wanted the War Machine to be Shut Down!  And we wanted to be the agents of history.  We wanted to actually shut it down.  Shut It Down!  That was the slogan we proposed.

Two processes had developed immediately upon Jerry’s arrival in New York.  One was the interaction between Jerry and the Mobe.  He had to convince the Mobe that the targeting of the Pentagon was a good idea.  Among other things, we Californians were in the dark about logistics.  We didn’t know that the Pentagon wasn’t even in DC but was actually across the bridge in Virginia.  Legitimate practical problems were raised and we were unsure how to respond.  There was only one way to solve our lack of knowledge and that was to scope out the Pentagon itself.  Bob Greenblatt, the coordinator of the Mobe and a Cornell Professor, Fred Halsted of the Socialist Workers Party and Jerry went off together to take a look.  A discussion followed about the pros and cons.  The Pentagon won out and our plan was to shut it down.

On August 28, the Mobe held a press conference at the Overseas Press Club in New York to announce its intention to shut down the Pentagon in less than two months time.  Participants ranged from Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh to H.  Rap Brown of SNCC.  Father Hayes of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship announced:

…we will shut down the Pentagon.  We will fill the hallways and block the entrances.  Thousands of people will disrupt the center of the American war machine.  In the name of humanity we will call the warmakers to task.

Abbie quipped that “We’re going to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet in the air,” while Rap Brown noted that “I would be unwise to say I’m going there with a gun because you all took my gun last time.  I may bring a bomb, sucker.”  Dellinger stated there would be no government building left unattacked although it would all be done nonviolently.  Jerry warned that “We’re now in the business of wholesale disruption and widespread resistance and dislocation of the American society.”

The Pentagon demonstration was off to a roaring start.

The other parallel process was Jerry’s developing relationship with Abbie Hoffman and various counterculture figures in the New York area.  Haight-Ashbury was known as the center of the hippie explosion, but the East Village in New York was also an extremely vibrant nexus where artists, musicians, poets, journalists and activists were forging a counter-cultural community.  Abbie was right in the middle of that mix.  With a long, bushy mane of curly dark hair, more energy than a spark plug, and a distinctively Boston accent, Abbie was an unforgettable character.  It wasn’t just his physical appearance that was remarkable but he was also as funny and clever as any standup comedian.  A divorced father of two, he had just married Anita Kushner in a public hippie wedding in Central Park that was splashed across the media.  At first, Anita was not an activist, but she was alienated from middle class society and madly in love with Abbie.

Jerry had been known in California as the PT Barnum of the political left.  What began as a derogatory characterization coming from the “straight left” would now become a proud emblem for Jerry.  Through Abbie, Jerry was introduced to a whole community of people who would resonate to his theatricality and lead him to embrace thoroughly the PT Barnum designation.

One evening Jerry telephoned me back in California to share his excitement.  Abbie Hoffman, Jim Fourat and about a dozen others had gone to the third-floor gallery at the Stock Exchange and rained down a thousand single dollar bills onto the floor below.  Jerry reported that the stockbrokers stopped trading, got down on their hands and knees, and fought over the money while one young woman shouted, “This is a paradise on earth.  There’s enough for all.”  Then Jerry and Abbie set a handful of money on fire, to the outrage of all around, and for all the media to photograph.  They hadn’t forgotten to notify the press and images of the event spread like wildfire.

From that moment on, life changed.  Back in Berkeley, we had been trying to figure out ways to meld radical politics with the hippie counterculture.  But now here were these people actually doing it.  What’s more Jerry and Abbie seemed to be soul mates.  Both wanted to unite radical politics with the counter culture.  Both understood the power of the media and wanted to figure out creative ways to reach people.

Abbie was surely a hippie, but he had also been deeply influenced by the civil rights movement.  Most recently he had founded Liberty House, an outlet for goods produced in the south by various poor people’s cooperatives.

By the time I arrived in New York, talks were proceeding with a whole range of people in the counter-cultural scene about participating in the Pentagon action and there was great enthusiasm.  Instead of behaving like the usual “Project Director” he was hired to be, Jerry was spending his time with his new friends, planning a Levitation of the Pentagon.  It had been discovered that the five-sided polygon known as the “pentagon” was a baroque  symbol of evil and oppression.  So what better than an exorcism?  A group of “Holy Men” would encircle the Pentagon and conduct a ritual of drum beating, chanting, incantations and incense that would raise the Pentagon a hundred feet in the air and exorcise the evil spirits.  When we applied for a permit to exorcise the Pentagon, it was reported in the mainstream media that the government said okay, but no more than three feet off the ground.

Jerry, Stew Albert, Karen Wald and I – the crazies from California– published the first issue of The Mobilizer, a newsletter we would mail to peace groups across the country.  The editorial stated:

We live in a society which trains its sons to be killers and which channels its immense wealth into the business of suppressing courageous men from Vietnam to Detroit who struggle for the simple human right to control their own lives and destinies.  We Americans have no right to call ourselves human beings unless, personally and collectively, we stand up and say NO to the death and destruction perpetrated in our name.

We also included a piece by Keith Lampe.  Lampe was a committed pacifist and anti-war activist who possessed a lively and creative imagination.  Keith’s article “On Making A Perfect Mess” suggested that, “A thousand children stage Loot-ins at department stores to strike at the property fetish that underlies genocidal war.”  When The Mobilizer came out there was a wave of indignation from the Mobe regulars and all hell broke loose.  They confiscated the 5,000 copies of The Mobilizer and put out a new, respectable version featuring, “Sid Peck Answers the Questions of Housewives About the October 21 Demonstration.”  (Sid Peck was the leader of the Ohio Peace Action Council.)

Dave Dellinger, who had invited us to come east, was out of the country when the conflict erupted.  Dave was a very respected long-time peace activist and editor of Liberation magazine.  He was the people’s ambassador for peace with a gentle, friendly demeanor, very much the consensus maker. He was the perfect coordinator but also as hard as nails in his own way.  Dave very much wanted to see the anti-war  movement advance “from protest to resistance.”  He had no problem personally with going to jail.  In fact, he had been imprisoned for close to two years for being a conscientious objector in World War II.  We counted on Dave to absorb and deflect the anger of the Mobe regulars, but unfortunately he was not around for this skirmish.  When he returned even Dave could not bridge that gulf.

We were upset.  We knew that if we had a confrontational demonstration at the Pentagon, it would be young people who would be the troops.  Yet here were these over-40 type people who were censoring us and holding us back.  It was more than a controversy over obscene language, although it was that too; it was a controversy about the nature of the action itself.  They didn’t like our writings.  They didn’t like our art.  They didn’t like our looks.  They didn’t like our levitation.  They didn’t like our militancy.  They didn’t like our resistance to U.S.  society.  They increasingly stressed the safe, legal and I felt humdrum side of the demonstration and things were looking bad.

As for me personally, that fall I was having my own hard time with The Mobe.  I was 23-years-old and supposed to be the staff person in charge of  “The Midwest.”  I didn’t have a clue about how to be “in charge of the Midwest.”  I tried to carry out by rote some tasks that I was given but it was too far outside my realm of experience and familiarity.  I was used to talking to people, door to door, one on one.  I was used to being part of small groups working together on a collective vision on activities in a familiar and close-at-hand area.  I was used to working in situations where people helped each other.  I was not experienced at being part of an administrative staff.

In addition, I was moving away from the “Straight Left”.  I feel a need to explain that further since many books on the period, often written by academics who are cut out of the same mold as the “Straight Left”, underestimate what people like us were trying to do and what we were able to accomplish.  I am often asked: Were you really a yippie?  What would be the draw of sex, dope and rock ‘n roll for a person like you?   How could you make the mistake of elevating the hippie phenomenon beyond that?  But I looked at it this way.  For the first time, the opportunity seemed to exist to really connect with masses of people in our society.  There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people who were alienated from America.  And it wasn’t an opportunist connection, we really were a part of them and they of us.

We had shared values, values that appeared to be very different from the dominant society, from the older generation.  A large number of young people had dropped out of society, rejecting the roles that had been assigned to them, just as we were.  In some ways they were more communistic than we were.  They lived communally, sharing food and material goods. They spoke of peace and love, not war.  They believed in living for the moment and exploring with their senses and valued joy, laughter and the human imagination.  They unapologetically preferred smoking marijuana above guzzling alcohol.  They hated the police and the authorities as much as we did and were not afraid to commit illegal acts.  We had a lot in common.

Hippies were developing counter-cultural institutions.  In New York there was a Free Clinic and a Free Store.  There were alternative newspapers like the East Village Other (EVO) and The Rat.  Major rock bands identified with this counter culture.  Country Joe and the Fish’s “Vietnam Rag” was played everywhere and The Jefferson Airplane’s “Gotta Revolution” became an anthem.  All these people identified with the counterculture.  It was a much broader cross-section of America than those involved in “straight” politics. It was a force bigger than the Socialist Club, bigger than the Socialist Workers Party or the Communist Party.  And it was way more fun.  Hippies seemed to be in it with the whole of their hearts, minds and bodies.  They were not going to school or work in the daytime and then having an occasional meeting or demonstration.  They were talking about changing their entire lives.  For me this resonated with what Paul Potter and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) had been saying about turning our lives over to building a movement.  It made sense in terms of what Stokely Carmichael of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) had encouraged us to do, to go into the white community and influence consciousness and behavior.  We thought that as part of the political element of this counter-culture, we could influence it towards a politically revolutionary direction.  If there could be a melding of the New Left and the hippies, it would be social and political dynamite.  We were not totally wrong.

I had dropped out of graduate school and now I dropped out of the Mobe.  I spent time with Abbie, getting to know the “Free” community on the lower east side and talking up the Pentagon action wherever we went.  Abbie knew everybody!  Many of his friends were cultural icons, opinion-setters who influenced thousands of other people, particularly youth: poet Alan Ginsburg, satirist Paul Krassner, radio MC Bob Fass of WBAI and folksinger Phil Ochs.

Jerry and I became good friends with Anita and Abbie in a couples sort of a way.  By that I mean that Anita and I never spent much time together alone, just the two of us.  However, the four of us spent a good deal of time together, often with others such as Paul Krassner, Phil Ochs and many others.  Frequently we would just hang out in the small living room in their ground floor apartment on St.  Marks Place.  The room had very little furniture, mostly pillows along the walls and various people would come and go, hang out, smoke some weed and talk, talk, talk.

I don’t think we ever talked about the past—our families, relationships, past academic or career paths.  We were single-mindedly focused on the present.  I was aware that all four of  us– Jerry, Abbie, Anita and I were raised in Jewish families.  If I didn’t know it then, I later found out that all three of us—Abbie, Anita and I were dropouts of psychology graduation school.  But these were not things we ever dwelled upon as we were so busy living in the present and trying to prepare for the near future.

Being in the eye of the generation gap maelstrom had some personal implications for me.  Returning to New York had accentuated the situation.  It meant closer proximity of Jerry and my parents.  My mother and father had always been extremely supportive of me, no matter what I did. Anyone that I brought home, they would try to love.  This had always been the case and there was no reason to expect it to be different.  But I hadn’t considered Jerry and the baggage that he brought along.

I believed in the Generation Gap (“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”)  but I didn’t intend to apply the maxim to my own parents.  Jerry on the other hand, once described living in his home as an education in psychological warfare. He was also orphaned at a relatively young age, had never really dealt with his childhood issues and could not accept my closeness with my parents.  Perhaps the relationship was threatening to him in some way or another.  It’s hard to second-guess what was going through his mind and I don’t recall us having adult, serious discussions about this.  But I do remember that I brought him home to my parents’ house on Long Island and he insisted on smoking marijuana in their house.  They let it be known very clearly that they had difficulty tolerating that.  He and I were unwilling to gracefully compromise with them.  We disregarded their feelings and responded with a disrespectful act– smoking in the bathroom.  My parents were disappointed but they created no scene and life went on.  In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that I would treat my parents so disrespectfully.  I believe this was an instance of Jerry’s bad influence me.  I don’t blame him for almost anything else.  Everything else we did was consensual; I was in there heart and soul, and take responsibility for all decisions.  But I allowed him to influence my relationship with my parents and to treat them shabbily and that I do regret.

While I went off to hang out with Abbie, Anita and others, Jerry kept working for the Mobe although their mutual dissatisfaction was increasing.  The Mobe had been meeting with Harry Van Cleve, a government lawyer from the General Services Administration, selected to do their negotiating.  He said that if The Mobe planned to “close down the Pentagon,” the government would not issue permits for any rally or march, not even a legal rally or march.  In fact, our buses would not even be allowed to unload people in Washington at all.  Well, that was the worst thing he could have done for his team! Suddenly, people who had been luke-warm or opposed to the demonstration were calling in their endorsements.  We heard from Martin Luther King, Benjamin Spock and SDS among others.

As this momentum developed the government was thrown into a quandary.  Van Cleve then telephoned, requesting another meeting, and in the next two weeks there were six meetings.  They had a new strategy to defuse the impact in a myriad of different ways: can’t use the preferred bridge, no sound at the Pentagon, can’t arrive at the Pentagon until 4:30 (buses were returning to NY at 5:00).  Jerry was concerned that our whole vision was being compromised and wanted to break off the negotiations.  He also felt that it was somewhat ironic to be planning civil disobedience, an illegal activity, while negotiating with those who would do the arresting.  On a more profound level, he understood that the government really had to negotiate with the protest.  If we stood firm, he felt the government would have to back down and grant us some of our vision.  Ultimately, Dellinger signed what my friends and I believed was a less-than-perfect agreement.  The unfolding of the day seemed to render the agreement fairly irrelevant but we had no way of knowing that in advance.

On Saturday October 20, 1967 more than 100,000 (some say 200,000) people streamed into Washington for the legal rally at the Lincoln Memorial.  The usual speeches went on for hours.  I don’t remember any of them.  My friends and I were eager to get on with the action.  Eventually a mass of people, perhaps 50,000 began the two-hour march across the Arlington Memorial Bridge with helicopters buzzing menacingly overhead.

I remember feeling that day that we were in some kind of a funnel, where the numbers of people kept narrowing.  At the outset there were possibly a hundred thousand people at the Lincoln Memorial with perhaps 50,000 people continuing the march across the bridge.  The majority of the demonstrators left Washington on the 5:00 o’clock buses after leaving us much of the food they had brought along, their final donation to our well-being.  The crowd got younger as we headed out towards the bridge.

As we walked, we talked about what had happened the week before in California.  Stop the Draft Week  had erupted in Oakland with 3000 demonstrators converging on the Oakland induction center.  Some of the demonstrators were wearing helmets and carrying shields to ward off police attacks but the cops had used Mace on the demonstrators and attacked them with a vengeance, injuring about 20 and arresting 25.  By Friday morning there were 10,000 demonstrators around the induction center, many of them using what came to be known as “mobile tactics.”  When the police began to attack, they blockaded intersections with whatever they could lay their hands on and then took off running.  The stories of that confrontation rippled through the march and it was rumored that some veterans of that battle had driven across country to join us.  These were our people and I wondered which of our old friends from Berkeley had been involved and who was in the crowd with us.

We crossed the bridge with great anticipation.  At some point, the police blocked us from marching toward our preferred route.  In response we sat down on the bridge, tens of thousands of us as far as you could see, forcing the government to yield.

The government had brought in more than 6,000 Army troops.  Twenty thousand were on alert around the country.  Two thousand National Guard troops and 2,000 Washington police were on hand.  Eight hundred cops were stationed at the capitol and secret service helicopters hovered over the White House.  Their central command post was inside the Pentagon.

The levitation of the Pentagon was one of the first successful aspects of the day, providing creative imagery of the fusing of politicos and acid heads into an activist community.  Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of the The Fugs, decked out in multi-colored capes, provided the music.  Alan Ginsberg opened the ceremony with what would become his hallmark “Ommmmmmmmm.”  Others led incantations of “Out, demons, out!”  Truthfully I think the actual nuts and bolts of a levitation were not that high on my interest list, since my mind is foggy on the facts.  Or perhaps the levitation has just been overshadowed in my mind by the following events.

As we left the bridge area, there was a rush on the Pentagon by a militant contingent made up of SDS and a group calling themselves the Revolutionary Contingent.  They broke down a fence and got right up to the Pentagon.  In fact, a few people actually made it inside for a brief moment until they were swiftly arrested.  As more protestors came across the bridge, this group that had rushed to the Pentagon began to swell into the largest contingent, putting ourselves in a direct confrontation with the troops who were lined up at the top of the stairs at the main entrance to the War Machine.

SDS and the Revolutionary Contingent were joined by hundreds of other protestors who were willing to risk arrest, but at the same time a legal rally was going on over at another area of the Pentagon.  As evening came on, many of the people from that legal rally left as well and we were down to a couple of thousand people.

Though SDS was not a sponsor, because of disagreements with the conception, they had joined the mobilization in the final hours and their contribution to the actual confrontation was significant.  They were a group of people who were able to coordinate their activities and move as one.  I remember feeling how we were just separate individuals, Jerry, Abbie, Anita, our friend Stew Albert and me.  You might think that we had some kind of tactical leadership role to play, or at least Jerry would have.  But that was not the case, as far as I can remember.  As would happen many times in the future, we had helped to create the stage, had set up the situation as best we could, but had no clue as to how to physically influence the actual event.  Inevitably there were others who would move in to fill that vacuum.


As the sun went down, it became cooler and cooler.  The crowd was getting younger and younger.  We were on our own.  The protection of the older generation was disappearing.  Even Uncle Dave was gone.  We heard that Dellinger, Norman Mailer and several others had been arrested early on in a choreographed civil disobedience action, crossing over a forbidden line and being taken into custody.  I had never been arrested before and I remember feeling apprehensive about what was going to happen.  It was a volatile and unpredictable situation.  We had no idea what was going to transpire.  Would we be there for an hour?  Would they mace us as in Oakland?

Maybe they would even shoot us?  This was not a situation for anyone who needed to be in control, who needed to know for sure what was going to happen next.  You had to go with the flow and some of the possibilities were really frightening.

As it played out, there were moments of exhilaration and community.  And there were moments of outright fear.  As we jockeyed for space there was physical, literally face-to-face, confrontation with the army.  The scene became very tense and we finally, at the suggestion of SDS, all sat down.  When we started out that day we had no idea how many people would stay.  Maybe it would just be a handful in the end.  However, the actual numbers lifted our spirits; there were well over a thousand of us.  But what’s more, the group that remained seemed to beat with one heart and that gave everyone strength.  We were on a mission and we knew we were right.  We looked to the right and we looked to the left and we knew that all of us would remain up until the point of arrest.  For hours there was an impromptu teach-in to the troops.  People climbed up on a ledge and, using a bullhorn, spoke to the troops.  There was an open mike (well, actually a bullhorn) for anyone who wanted to speak.  I did not have the confidence to speak, but I was very proud of what people said.

It has been said that our movement was disrespectful of the troops, but I don’t think so at all.  We were speaking the truth to them.  Those truths had the potential to save their lives, as well as the lives of millions of Vietnamese.

That evening at the Pentagon, Berkeley non-student activist and future yippie  Stew Albert addressed the troops:

I went to PS 206 in Brooklyn, and when I was in school nobody liked the monitors.  They were kids like us, but they worked for the strict teachers.  We didn’t like them when we were kids, so why should we like them now?  We always considered the monitors to be finks.  And now you guys are acting like monitors.  Join us!

In unison, the crowd spontaneously chanted “Join us!  Join us!”

We were right up against the troops.  When Super Joel, one of the earlier levitators, stepped forward and placed a flower in the bayoneted gun barrel of one of the soldiers, it became an iconic image.  Other protestors followed suit.  (Paul Krassner later pointed out that Super Joel’s grandfather was the mafia boss Sam Giancana and that Super Joel had dropped out of the family business.)  The confrontation between demonstrators and troops lasted thirty-three hours, all through the first night and until midnight of the second night.  Especially during the night, the soldiers would every now and then make forays into the front of the crowd, clubbing a few people and dragging a few others away to be arrested.  We sat, arms locked as tight as possible, to impede them as much as possible and to protect one another.  In the end they dragged away everyone who remained.  Well over a thousand people were arrested, with 780 of us held and several hundred released.  Some people were beaten or gassed.

I was arrested alongside Anita Hoffman.  It was the first time either of us had been under arrest.  I would later learn that it was a very atypical arrest experience.  They took hundreds of us, all women, to what seemed to be a huge dormitory.  There were scores and scores of cots lined up next to each other, like being in a huge summer camp.  Anita and I were able to stay together and were on cots right alongside each other.  The camaraderie was palpable and exciting.  After spending the night on our cots, we were herded to court and as counseled by our movement lawyers, we pleaded nolo contendre, meaning we don’t say we’re guilty, we don’t say we’re not guilty, we just don’t contest it.  This was worked out between the government and our lawyers.  We did what we were advised, paid a small fine and went home.

Later, we learned that several paratroopers had left the line, saying they wouldn’t be part of the military any more, and they were now held in the stockade.  Dave Dellinger reported that over the years he kept meeting veterans who said they were on duty that day and had been affected by the teach-in.  Much later we learned that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had watched the entire battle from his fifth floor office, accompanied by his young assistant Daniel Ellsberg who later released the famous Pentagon Papers.

Years later, when asked about Jerry and the hippie entry into the peace movement, Dave Dellinger offered this: “What I remember is just being thrilled and excited that this whole new element of humor and creativity and youthful zest was coming into things”

Were we right or wrong in our conflict with The Mobe?  The final outcome of the Pentagon demonstration was awesome.  It was one of the most successful activities I have ever been involved with.  I believe the character was greatly affected by our continuously agitating for a militant, theatrical, unpredictable scenario.  It was that projection that attracted thousands of young people and forced the government to dig in its heels, threatening to deny our basic civil liberties.  That denial then brought thousands of additional people into the protest.  In our estimation of the final negotiations with the government lawyer Van Cleve, perhaps we were too pessimistic about what we had already won, but that’s much easier to say in hindsight.  We wanted no rock left unturned in our effort to make this a successful political confrontation.  In the end, the victory was really a result of the energy and the numbers of the people that participated.  Even the children of officials in the Johnson Administration were joining us.  In a political sense the country was now really at war with itself.  This realization seemed to hold within itself the possibility that we could end the war with Vietnam.