Forty years ago, I was in Chicago, preparing for the coming Democratic Convention, working in “the Mobe” office, which had loaned the newly formed Chicago Newsreel, made up at the time of myself, Peter Kuttner, and Kurt Heyl, a room to use. In the spring I’d made, at the behest of some old-line Commies living comfortably in the suburbs, a little film about a demonstration in April, following in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I did almost all the work, naturally (so it seemed at the time), for free. Peter had shot some footage and I gathered stills, and had a New Left guy from Chicago do a voice over to go with my own. The film was called April 24 and I’m told is in the collection of Newsreel. As the convention was coming some of the New York Newsreel group came into town riding rather roughshod over we locals, making their own film and commandering our meager resources. Their arrogance left a permanent anti-NYC prejudice in me, one that sees all such grand metropolitan places – London, Berlin, Paris, LA – as the ultimate in provincialism, unable to see across town to the broader world. At least the denizens of the world’s many Second Cities (and far lesser) know they do not sit in the navel of the universe.
Sometime about 2 weeks before the convention Kurt and I went down to the stockyards on the Southside to take a shot of the little White House portico we’d read was being tacked onto the side of the Convention building, thinking it could be useful for the film we were making. We arrived, looking like raving hippies with beards and long hair, shorts for the hot weather, and took a few shots with tripod and Bolex. On getting back to Kurt’s banged up VW, four or five police cars swooped down on us, and Mayor Daley’s finest did the first bust of the convention. We were taken to the local office and grilled by the precinct cops until the Red Squad – Daley’s special political police arm with which I’d grown familiar as they parked in front of the Uptown apartment I shared with Marilyn Katz, or barged periodically into the Mobe office – showed up and they took over. Then it was the FBI. And then the Secret Service. As we went up the totem pole, interest clearly waned. I was a year out of prison and still more than a little nervous about the police in general, but we hadn’t committed any crime, and the Secret Service didn’t see us as would-be assassins – more just like asses. But Kurt’s car had some parking tickets on it or some other minor infraction, so when I left after about 8 hours, he got a further taste of the clink before his wife bailed him out. We called the event into the Mobe office, and if I recall right they got a lawyer to be ready to deal with it. In hindsight none of us read this little event for what it was, a strong hint of the nervousness of Daley’s boys, which would unfold a few weeks later in the heat of August making for a spectacle seen around the world. In light of the events of the previous months, nervousness made sense: Martin Luther King had been assassinated on April 4th of that year; Robert Kennedy had been killed on June 5th. The latter left an indelible imprint on me, and, so she tells me, Marilyn. She and I were driving with some others for a meeting in New York, and sometime around 3 am in the morning, on the Ohio Turnpike, we were awakened by the driver who let us know Kennedy had been shot in LA. We listened to the radio which reported his death. In the slightly fogged darkness of Ohio we watched as a man in a trench coat was caught in car lights, walking zombie-like in the center of the highway, gliding by us ghostly as a shadow. We had to assume his appearance was prompted by the grim news of the night.
Back then the Vietnam war was escalating, and the Nightly News of Brinkley or Cronkite usually started off with a report, listing the “body count”, with a graphic showing how many US GI’s and how many VC allegedly died that day, usually with a ratio of 1-10 or so: 10 GI’s/100VC. Night after night, often accompanied with grim film footage, the war was placed at the nation’s dinner table. In January of that year the Tet offensive had shocked the military, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and the Johnson administration, leading to Johnson’s withdrawal from the Presidential election. For those who were not there to experience this time it is impossible to imagine the tension which coursed through the nation. Little wonder Daley was anxious and the boys in blue were jumpy.
For me the Chicago Convention was both traumatic and chastening. After two plus years in prison I had concluded that America, like anywhere else, could become like Nazi Germany; that an order to the prison hacks to take X segment out back and shoot them would be met with minimal resistance. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo more than prove the point, though many a state prison could too. I’d come out, worked for the draft resistance, made some films, helped start up Chicago Newsreel and jumped feet first into the current of the time. I lived hand to mouth, no job, sometimes communally. At the Mobe office I worked with luminaries of the left of the time – Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, and as the Convention came up, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and the venerable pacifist Dave Dellinger – and even before the convention I was a bit struck by what some of them had said to me. Hayden had told me he didn’t think he could ever do 2 years in the joint, which whacked me mentally a bit when early in the convention period he was arrested and put in jail overnight, and a crowd of Mobe organized folks went on the streets chanting “Free Tom Hayden.” Why is he leading, I thought. Tom later went on to marry Jane Fonda. At the end of the Convention, when the police mayhem, and the National Guard had turned the fizzled Mobe effort – which had drawn a mere 10,000 to Chicago instead of the hoped for 100 thou – into a big success, a farmer out west of the city had invited us all to come out for a picnic and BBQ at his farm. I rode with Marilyn on one side, and Rennie Davis on the other. Rennie had been smacked on the head by a cop, and wore a big bandage on his head, with hints of blood. As we got into the suburbs he lifted the bandage from his head and said “I guess we don’t need this any more.” Prior to the convention in order to fit in with the times Rennie had let his hair grow to a kind of early Beatles length from its 50’s crewcut, a gesture as fake as his banged up head. Rennie went on from doctrinaire lefty to Guru Maharaji Jee acolyte. Jerry Rubin, the “revolutionary yippie” became a Wall Street consultant. Between the fraudulence of my cohorts, the trauma of being surrounded by cops and National Guardsmen, knowing that it would take only a slight change in the rules of engagement and we could be mowed down like dogs, (as happened later at Kent State) and the hypnotized behavior of the crowds chanting “Hey hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today,” or whatever other simple rhymed phrase they were offered, I recoiled from any attraction to mass politics. It seemed to me the same crowd could metaphorically have been whipped into a frenzy and goaded to do the opposite, say, go South Side and kill anyone dark. And indeed the decades that came after seemed to have suggested it was so: the hippie of the sixties, like Rubin and Davis, morphed readily into the Yuppie of the 70’s and 80’s, bell bottoms left behind for BMWs and Soho lofts. For most of the 60’s generation it was just a fad, as meaningful as a hula hoop. Though for me there is nothing quite so pathetic and absurd as an unreformed hippie holding onto his/her glorious past, dressed in beads and patched faded jeans, like Elvis fans hold theirs. Living is for learning.
A week or two after the convention Marilyn and I drove off to California. The elections came, with a lame Hubert Humphrey taking the Democrats’ banner, opening the door to Tricky Dicky. The rest is glum history, symbolized by the gash of black granite in Washington DC, and the subsequent take-over of America by the corporate right under the banner of “the culture wars.” This pendulum has reached its nadir under Bush and now clearly swings another way.
Those who took up the Nixon banner though did learn their lessons. Covered with a plaque of patriotic platitudes, wrapped in the red white and blue, Dick Cheney and those who had watched their guy impeached and marched to a helicopter in shame, dug in and did, ironically in the lefty sense, “the long march through the institutions.” They had “other priorities” and it was to seize the government and U-turn the 60’s. And they had learned the hard way just what they needed to do – they needed to take hold of the reins of power, wrap themselves and their doings in utmost secrecy, and use the levers of government to do what they wanted – reward their friends, punish their enemies, pack the courts, diminish government intrusions into corporate practices, cut out so-called welfare while amping warfare, and otherwise gut the policies of the 60’s. Fuck peace and freedom. Decade by decade they did so, using frontmen as their draw: one Hollywood cowboy and smooth-talker, Ronald Reagan, and then one Connecticut rich-kid of deep family GOP connections, also playing cowboy, but with anything but a silver tongue, rather a kind of refugee from the Simpsons, America’s most beloved family. And when their chance came they too, as if to prove themselves, cooked up their own war, one to win, picking on an oil soaked, population 23 million realm, hyping little Iraq into a world-threatening would-be Reich, and speaking with forked tongues, they used 9/11 (again, their own concoction for sure, see PNAC for proof) as a causus belli, and invaded in a blatant war of aggression. Shock and awe was the promo line, hawked like another product, a real show-biz spectacle. Their corporate friends went to the feeding trough, but this time around there were to be no pictures of grisly warfare, no nightly body counts, no counts or accounting of any kind. And preferably as little “news” as possible. Rather a theater of cheer-leader Bush with megaphone perched on the rubble of the WTC, or wearing air force flight gear, strutting manfully with his self-advertised body language and gut, “catapulting the propaganda” as he openly put it. In their “long march” they’d assured this by buying the major networks, setting up their own propaganda news system (Fox), establishing a network of “think tanks” and “pundits” to promote the party line, and otherwise jiggled the system enough to institute Total Information Awareness. Or so they thought, or at least they’ve tried to implement this juggernaut of an Orwellian police-state structure.
Perhaps with no little irony the internet – originally developed for the military and for university research institutions doing “defense” R&D – became their Achille’s heel, circumventing the centralized news control, and moving virally through the public. Fewer and fewer people watch the news on TV or read it in papers; more and more read in the quasi-anarchic pipeline of the net, which while constructed and in effect paid for by the corporate system, has yet to come under their full control (though, worry not, they are feverishly working on it). So sometimes a bit of slippage comes through and the images and sounds of truth leak out:
Forty years ago America was angered over a misbegotten war in Vietnam, one of a string of errant imperial adventures which nationally we seem to prefer to forget or deny, claiming whatever it was, we did it for the good of the others (our victims), and it was our sacrifice to do so. Of course the rest of the world, particularly those places where we’ve made “our sacrifices,” tend to see it in a different light.
So this August, 2008, 40 years after the Chicago Convention of 1968, we have another so-called war, like the other one – undeclared by Congress and so in Constitutional legalese not even a “real” war. Like Vietnam this one was concocted on trumped up and false claims, and like it had some theoretical underpinning. Back then it was “dominoes” – all of Asia would fall to the wicked Commies if we didn’t draw a line in the jungle. This time around its “if we don’t fight them terrists there, we’ll have to fight ’em here,” though under the Bush con-men the deck get shuffled so often it’s hard to keep track of the reasons, though one stands out under all the rhetorical juggling: oil. And now, forty years later, for this war some slick political moves were made clearly with the aim of dampening or evading some of the causes of the 60’s upheavals. So we don’t have a draft and the fighting is done by our “all volunteer” services, never mind that a lot of National Guard troops didn’t really “volunteer” for 8 years of stop-loss bookkeeping tricks and all the other corporate mind-sets which the Bush regime has put into regular practice. In Bushspeak “support the troops” is really “screw the troops.” Now, and when they come home, if they come home. And thanks to corporate control and manipulation of “the news” we don’t have to see or hear much about this so-called war – no coffins coming home, no TV news reports, no rationing, no hardships. Go shopping was the clarion call of Bush’s Uncle Sam. And then in another card-shark scam, taxes were cut for the wealthiest and for corporations, and just like the rest of the country did personally when given marching orders to shop til you drop, the government borrowed the money to fund all this. Right now every man, woman and child in America owes a mere $470,000 or so in public debt for the pleasures of the Bush regime, never mind whatever they might also owe personally. Through such machinations the government has managed for the most part to keep the public distracted and off the streets, these days more by the yoke of a nine to niner, or 2 jobs and more reduction to simple survival for the majority. Hard to work up the steam to scream when you’ve been run into the ground just trying to keep afloat.
And yet somehow even with all these and many other maneuvers, somehow the scam hasn’t worked. The “cakewalk” war of shock and awe turned sour and the flower-petal strewn welcome turned lethal. Too many small towns have their flags at half-mast for the missing sons and daughters, mothers and fathers; far too many wounded vets, and psychologically disabled ones, litter the socialscape, so that despite the best efforts to hide the carnage and the real costs, word slipped out. And the economy, outsourced like the war, is taking a bath as the dollar shrivels and proportionately the price of gas expands. The easy money ponzi scheme that kept America afloat – the US GDP is 70% powered by consumerism – suddenly hit a reality wall, the neo-con con about “making their own reality” not withstanding. The corporate cleverness of downsizing, outsourcing, and selling debt as a commodity is backfiring, as it did with Rumsfeld’s “quick cheap war” tactics. Despite all the power of controlled news, a government in full-tilt propaganda mode, the illegal machinations of Karl Rove and company, and the traditional weight of respect for governmental authority, it seems events are pointing to a full-scale rejection of all things Bush and Republican come this November.
Back in the 60’s, this image from Vietnam became emblematic of the moral squalidness of our presence there:
While “our” government has done its very best to suppress such imagery and information, as well as a real accounting of the costs of its actions, all in the interest of pursuing its policies unfettered by public awareness and hence revulsion at the realities in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at the real consequences to our domestic national life, perhaps this image will serve as a similar emblem of America’s adventure in Babylon:
The little girl was with her parents in their car at a US manned road block as they were murdered in front of her. Of course, no soldiers were prosecuted. The photographer, however, was evicted from his “embed” post and ended having to leave Iraq.
For those of us who were in Chicago 40 years ago attempting to undo the damage of the Vietnam adventure, it has been a long and somewhat bitter passage. Even more, it is virtually a full lifetime, which now begins to draw to a close, a lifetime lived under the ever worsening fog of American miscreancy – be it in Nicaragua, Guatamala, Chile, Angola, or all the myriad other places where we’ve meddled, “doing good.” In the last years it has hit a rock bottom: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “extreme rendition,” torture and extra-legal murder, all sanctioned and prompted by the highest levels of the American government, staining all of us and our history irreversibly. And making it somehow even worse, that all this was done in the name of moral rectitude, by self-proclaimed pious Christians, all mouthing the same white-man’s burden rhetoric which has burned its way across the world since Columbus. It’s not that those things weren’t done before – only that they were not officially announced policy. Now they are, however much legalistic squirming Bush’s lawyers indulge in.
In one of my films, PLAIN TALK & COMMON SENSE [uncommon senses] (1985), I ended with a small soliloquy which concluded that America is not some big, out-there thing, but rather it is what each of us does, cumulatively, everyday. Symbolically, and in practice, now, America does this, officially, by authority of the President of the United States, and this is who we are:
Until we change ourselves and what we do.
For a first step it is imperative that George Bush, Richard Cheney, Condolezza Rice, and those who aided and abetted them, be impeached and that they be brought to trial for war crimes, for violating their oaths of office, and for committing numerous crimes, many of which are already public knowledge. I shudder to think what full disclosure will show (complicity in 9/11, for one). Failure of the Congress to do this will be an abandonment on its part of its Constitutional duty in the face of the lawlessness of the present administration. Whether done in the immediate period, or after Bush’s departure from office, any failure to hold these parties accountable for their actions will signal the permanent end of the American experiment in democracy. For those who care about such things the recourse will be to return to the words of the Declaration of Independence, which makes it a right and a duty to abolish any government which does not represent the will and interests of the people.
A little PS:
Peter Kuttner still lives in Chicago, works in the film business as a cameraman and is a union organizer in it, and goes often to Hollywood and wherever work takes him.
Kurt Heyl’s life took him to California, then South America, and he now splits his time between Brooklyn NY, and New Mexico, playing improvised jazz and painting. He is an active member of Silo’s Message with weekly meetings in Bklyn. and working with Mundo Sin Guerra on a World March at the end of 2009.
Marilyn Katz lives in Chicago and works as a full-time political consultant and activist on the decidedly left side of the spectrum; her name has materialized of late in items about Barack Obama and his connections to various Chicago political figures.