Note 50 years after the March on the Pentagon
This month marks the 50th anniversary of a historic event: the 1967 MOBE rally and march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of students, committed leftists and anti-war activists as well as veterans of the Civil Rights movement from all over the nation descended on Washington and put their bodies on the line at the center of the US War Machine. Over 700 were arrested and jailed, among them the author.
In this report — this journalist’s first piece of newswriting, done at the age of 18 — I think readers, and especially younger ones who missed the ‘60s, may get a glimpse of the kind of thinking that was going on among those of us who found ourselves coming unexpectedly face to face with the reality of our government as an oppressive global empire, and with the idea that our own government lies.
There is a naivety here that I hope people will understand and see for what it is: evidence of how middle-class people raised in the post-war era as I was had been lured into a sense of comforting illusion even as our nation was overthrowing governments, propping up brutal dictators, and promoting Cold War with the USSR which threatened to produce a thermonuclear war.
What I missed in my instant, and rather negative analysis of the significance of the MOBE was that it led to the peace campaigns of both Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek another term as President. It also signaled the beginning of a more militant anti-war movement – one which no longer saw the war as just a mistake or a pointless effort, but as part of a vast imperial scheme of global dominance. I also failed to even imagine that the violence I saw aimed at MPs guarding the Pentagon was almost certainly the work of agents provocateur.
Hopefully we can all learn something useful for today by looking back at that crucial event through the eyes of someone whose worldview was shaped by his participation in it.
Confrontation at the Pentagon
Washington, DC (Oct. 26, 1967). As I sat on the bus with the other students, all riding down to Washington for the confrontation, there was a whispering question which sat like a knot in my head. I was going down there to commit civil disobedience and probably to get arrested and sentenced to a short stint in jail. Why was I doing this?
I think that there were several reasons I would have give if asked, but none of them really satisfied me. I am opposed to the war in Vietnam. Still, I love this country and a by no means a subversive…I’m a patriot. These two sentences are not mutually exclusive. I’m opposed to the war not because I think we are losing or because we cannot win, but for another reason which I have not completely resolved. It seems to me that the whole of recorded history has been of wars and killing. Right now we are by no means in some millennium, while we humanity, actually contemplate the very real possibility of total self-annihilation and are finally capable of it.
Now certainly, aside from the word “communism,” which inspires a rather paranoid fear, I am convinced that we, as a democracy and the strongest nation the world has ever known, should oppose tyranny, and not just out of self-interest. But not by war! I confess to a dilemma when I ask myself what I would have done in WWII, but I can see no point in wiping out South Vietnam as well as North Vietnam in an attempt to “keep South Vietnam free.” Of course, I recognize this to be a political facade anyway. Even Secretary of State Dean Rusk tells us now that we are there in the interest of national security.
Well, this was as far as my reasoning had gone as I rode through the early morning twilight into Washington DC, the city I was born in 18 years ago. Why was I going to break the law though? I had gone on the April anti-war march in New York City. Along with many others, I had been very disappointed not only with the generally poor news coverage given to the event, but by the fact that President Johnson and the government in general were not affected by it, large and peaceful as it undeniably was. Between April and September I had become discouraged further by the failure of the Vietnam Summer Program to wake people out of pure apathy. Apathy is a malignant disease and the worst single thing that can exist in a democracy. Also during this period I had been faced with the draft. This occurring when it did with the Vietnam War raging, made me realize that I could not simply surrender my identity and submit to the will to the government, carte blanche. I had to have some say in whom I killed. I could not go along with the draft.
At this point I am still trying to decide what action I should take against the draft, and when. At any rate, I knew on the bus that I was also going to Washington because I felt that the draft goes against the principles of this country, one of which is “freedom of conscience.” I think though, it was the general disappointment over the failure of thoroughly legal methods of protest and political action to change government policy that was my main motive for committing civil disobedience. I had to go further or retreat into apathy and merely personal resistance myself.
When I got to the Reflecting Pool, I was standing between memorials to two of the greatest founders of this country: Washington and Lincoln. This impressed me very much, as it did many other people. Both of them had been presidents during wartime; the two most important wars in our history, in fact. It emphasized to me the fact that I did love this country, and also that I was not opposing them by being in Washington.
As the day progressed, the word went around that the penalty for civil-disobedience was not too petty, in fact. We were told that it could be as high as $500 and/or six months in jail. After a good deal of deliberation and discussion, I decided that I could not commit myself to such a heavy penalty , as a freshman in college only five weeks into the term, since I was not convinced that my sacrifice (of my parents money) would accomplish anything.
While waiting for the march to start, I met a girl whom I stayed with throughout the whole demonstration. We talked a good deal about the march and what our own part in it was. Finally the march began.
I think I should describe briefly the composition of the marchers. Regardless of what the news media have stated, I can state categorically that the vast majority of marchers were college students, graduates and middle-class adults. Certainly there were hippies too. I am disappointed in the deliberate focus on them by the news media. Another failure on the media’s part was to place Th. more politically radical groups in their proper perspective within the march. The march was organized around the one=mile perimeter of the pool, under the letters of the alphabet, so that groups from New England, for instance, gathered under the letter “P” and groups from New York under “S.”
Notably, those political groups mentioned above were all concentrated at first under two letters: D and F, and their total assembly was smaller than any other single contingent. The point is that these groups, when the march started, broke order and ran about the march making themselves prominent. It doesn’t take too much insight to realize this, but reporters and cameramen failed notoriously and therefore, I assume, deliberately.
As the march moved towards the Pentagon, I was surprised and relieved to see virtually no signs of harassment, of which there was a lot at the New York march, from bystanders and from the police. There was a rather gay feeling through the march as the day got warmer.
We got across the Potomac and the Pentagon came into view. People were there already. The march began to move faster, and soon we were on the Pentagon grounds.
When we got to the North Parking Lot, the buses were already there to take us home, but many people were moving off towards the mall of the Pentagon —a sort of enormous front porch. I went there with another Wesleyan freshman and the girl I had met. When we got there, we saw that the stairs to the mall were packed with demonstrators. Along the edge of the mall was a line of MPs carrying billy clubs and wearing helmets. Some people were using ropes to climb the wall. There was general disorder and confusion but apparently no violence on either side.
Out of curiosity, we worked our way up the packed ramp and stairs until we were near the head of the group near the MPs, who naturally looked tense. Suddenly someone near me tried to climbing the last eight feet to the top of the wall above the side of the steps, where two rows of MPs were standing. They kept him down by prodding him with billy clubs. I will not pass judgement on this action…he was not injured.
People started jeering and suddenly threw a piece of wood. It was fended off. The conflagration grew quickly and soon about thirty feet of MPs were under a barrage. I felt sick and turned to leave. Then someone started yelling, “Peace! Peace!” in a chant while others tried to stop the throwers. It was tense, but the chant caught on. I joined it. Soon the sound was everywhere. In not more than a minute or two, the pelting had stopped. Everyone was relieved. I began to feel confident. It is easy for a mob to stat into uncontrollable violence, but if a mass of unorganized people can stop such a situation that mass is no mob, and it is a sign of the character of the majority, who were in fact steeped in non-violence.
When we got to the top of the stairs, we could see the flat expanse which reached to the entrance of the Pentagon. For the first fifty feet there were thousands of demonstrators. They were packed up to a line of MPs who were standing on the other side of a chalk line. About twenty feet behind them was another thicker line of MPs and other soldiers with fixed bayonets, and the steps leading to the Pentagon doors were packed with soldiers. Between the first two lines of MPs walked many federal marshals with armbands and billy clubs.
The MPs were standing with their feet apart and their guns at their sides. Each held a billy club in one hand. No one was making a move, and most of us assumed that we were within the bounds of the permit at the time. Nobody informed us otherwise at any time; neither the march organizers not the military. People began to sit down in anticipation of a long sit-in. Those on the front line tried to talk with the troops, who apparently were not allowed to respond. The prevailing attitude among the demonstrators was that it was not the troops we were against, but the government, and consequently we viewed them as fellow human beings and nothing less. Most people tried to be friendly. The object of talking was both to show them that we were friendly and to have, some of us felt, a sort of teach-in.
I am sorry to as that several people within my observational radius were belligerent. They were viewing the troops as symbols and treating them that way, by calling them names. We all tried to dissuade these few from talking and they were indeed a minority where I was. I was told later by a fellow jail inmate that were he had been, a much tenser area on the left side of the wall that a few people had spit at the troops. This still sickens me and doubtless hurt the cause, though it shouldn’t. Again though, I cannot stress too much that these incidents were rare and not planned beforehand. Since that type of incident is newsy though, it is what the press picket up and ran with. I think that is irresponsible journalism.
Early in the demonstration, the three of us moved up to the front of the crowd, still assuming that were not liable to arrest. We had been standing up all day and were glad to sit finally. I was facing a rather young MP and I tried to converse with him now and then by asking questions he could not do. I found out he had enlisted and had been in the service for three years.
About then, someone about two hundred feet away burned his draft card. Within less than a minute, the whole demonstration looked like a candle ceremony (it was dusk by then), as over a hundred followed suit. We all felt good watching that display. A spirit was developing.
It was getting dark when some men went down the line behind the troops with some kind of password. Very gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, the MPs began to shuffle forward over the chalk line. The tactic was very clever. It did not show up on television cameras, and those reporters who were not near the front or who did not stay very long in one place, were unaware that it was happening. Consequently, the only paper which even mentioned that the line advances was a good though little-read one: The Christian Science Monitor. When the line bypassed my outstretched leg, leaving it behind the soldiers, though in the same place with reference to the chalk line, a marshal kicked it, telling me not to cross the line! This scene was repeated all along the perimeter.
When an MPs food met someone’s body, the person would be ordered to move back. When I asked, a marshal informed me that the line was not moving. By about 10:00 pm, everyone had moved back about 10 feet and could go very little farther without simply leaving. Some had already refused to move and had been yanked across the line of troops by the marshals. The majority, who went limp to the paddy wagon, were actually beaten by the marshals, who were strung out along the path the truck. We could see this uncalled-for brutality under the floodlights illuminating the mall.
We were informed by march organizers over a megaphone that on the left things were the most tense. We could see people being dragged by marshals from there. Many — men and women — who were limping badly. Some were being carried.
I decided at that point (113 had been arrested, the megaphone announced), that if they could get arrested at the risk of being severely beaten, I owed it to them to follow suit. I was angry that the line had been honored and that people were being kicked and clubbed for not moving and for going limp when arrested.
A while before, my girl friend, who had been wearing a yellow gardenia in her hair, offered it to the MP in front of us with whom we had talked earlier. He smiled. I said, “Can’t you wear it?” and he shook his head no. Then the girl took the flower and asked him if she could put it in his gun barrel. He smiled and she did it. We were friends.
I informed him that I could no longer move back; that I would not do it. The troops on either side of him continued to advance and marshals were clubbing those who refused to retreat. Our MP did not move forward. The others were six inches ahead of him when a cheer went up from the far left side of the mall.
The megaphone declared that an MP had deserted! I since met another Wesleyan student who saw it happen, and it has now made it into the papers. At any rate, I looked up at the MP to try to persuade him to do the same. There were tears in his eyes. Someone said, “Hey man, you can do it. I’ll do it!” and then burned his draft card, holding it up for the MP to see. Five other guys near me followed suit and at that point I joined them. Two more cheers went up and we were informed that two more MPs had deserted. I thought that this man in front of us was really considering it himself. He was sticking out behind his line at that point like a blister.
Then another soldier came up and told him to leave. He was replaced. As he turned to go, he took the flower out of his gun and put it slowly in his pocket.
His replacement was quick to catch up with the rest of the line. We were packed up so tightly that there was no longer any possibility of backing up. The megaphone suggested that we turn our backs on the MPs so as not to provoke them. We were also told that a concussion was not as likely on the back of the head. We did this. We also linked arms and legs, to make ourselves difficult to remove. We now knew that arrest was imminent, and people continually reminded us over the megaphone that those who did not want to risk arrest were free to leave. The military would not bother them. No mass exodus occurred. I saw no one go, though I considered going myself. We really began to feel that we owed it to those who had been arrested and, I’m afraid, beaten, to get arrested ourselved, six-month sentence or not.
At about this time, another incident occurred near me, which I feel should be mentioned for the light it throws on the character of the demonstrators. An attempt was made to split us in half by a wedge tactic. The lead man, helmet number 503, must have been a really demented person, completely atypical. He was using his gun butt viciously to beat back sitters, regardless of sex or age. His face was intense and grim. Those who sat and faced him were being hit on the shoulders; those who tried to flee were hit on the back. The other MPs were not hitting anyone. They were just lining the gap he was making.
We were incensed with rage and hated him, and began to yell at him. Then some people in the back began throwing food (“dead fish and tomatoes” according to the media). They threw not indiscriminately at the troops, but accurately at him. Here was a real potential riot. The other MPs knew it and all raised their gun buts over our heads to bring them down on us if we made a move. However, everyone in front began yelling at the throwers to stop. The chant “Peace! Peace!” rang out again, and the throwing stopped. It is a credit to the troops that when someone came and told the man to leave, al the MPS smiled and looked as relieved and genuinely glad as we did. Throughout the whole tense situation, never was a fist raised against any of the troops. We had not acted like “a riotous rabble, storming the Pentagon” as one Washington paper described s.
I now knew for sure that I was participating in a group which I could agree with in conscience. We all resolved to stay put. We didn’t have to for very long.
By then the MP behind me, to keep up with the progressing line, had to put his toes under me. I, in turn, had to lean up against his legs, which he allowed me to do.
I had given the girl with me my leather jacket, and just had a sweater on. She said that she was coming if I got arrested. Right about then, the other Wesleyan freshman with us was snatched through the line and carried off, as he went limp. They were hitting him; I was next.
A marshal put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re under arrest,” as he yanked me across the line. Those around me held firmly onto my ankles and another marshal hit out hard at my ankles with a billy club, as if I were holding on with my feet and could let go.Each
Once I was through the line, they picked me up and carried me toward the paddy wagon. Each time I went by a marshal, I was hit out at, and I caught several sharp knocks on the ribs. When I had been carried a hundred feet of so, or about a third of the way to the wagon, a marshal asked me threateningly if I was going to walk the rest of the way. As I was beginning to hurt pretty badly, I said I thought I would. I walked to the wagon, my arm gripped by a marshal.
When the rear door of the van was opened a man’s feet came flailing out of it. The non-cooperator inside was trying to keep them from opening the door. I got in and he kept kicking at the door. A marshal smashed on the man’s ankles with a club and slammed it.
The next time the door was opened, the girl was standing at it with m suede jacket. She was only 16. She had come to the truck voluntarily and had not been hit. However, as soon as she appeared, the man in the paddy wagon with me, thinking she was a boy, yelled, “Go limp!” which she did. She was a small, lightly built lightly built girl and one of the marshals could have picked her up with one arm and set her inside. Instead the two marshals beside her began to strike at her viciously with their clubs!
I realized who it was and, with the other man, rushed to the door and snatched her up and in, getting struck again. She was shaken I guess but unhurt. This totally uncalled-for brutality, I’m afraid, exemplifies the methods employed by the federal marshals on the mall — the same type of men whose performances at civil rights actions in the South have already been demonstrated. Here, however, they managed to escape any publicity.
On the ride in the paddy wagon, the other man in the truck told us about how one demonstrator had been carried unconscious past the wagon. He too had only gone limp. I had no trouble believing the story.
We were taken to a station, where prison buses were waiting and where charges were filed, fingerprints made and our names recorded. I was charged with “crossing the line,” a misdemeanor, though it was the line which had moved and I had actually been pulled across it. The girl was charged with “crossing the line and harassing an officer,” a felony.
At the District Work Farm at Occoquan, Virginia, we had beds and were given enough to eat. The only real complaint I have is that in those early hours, the wardens were completely unwilling to divulge information to worried husbands and boy friends about where their wives and girlfriends were being kept (they could have told us they were only a few hundred feet away in a neighboring dormitory cell but chose not to). Nor did they respond to the particularly plaintive requests from those who had seen their women beaten.
The prison chaplain was a good man, and he tried his best to find out for us later, and by early morning everyone had been told what he wanted to know. The lights had been left burning all night in my dormitory cell, which was housing over a hundred people. We had to sign up on a list to make our allowed phone call. We were informed that if we did not make our call when our turn came we would be put on the end of the list. Then, beginning at 2 am of the next day, a warden came in every five minutes and yelled out a name for the phone, as boisterously as he could. He successfully kept everyone awake all night that way, and chuckled each time.
The arraignments we had the next day amounted to mock trials. The commissioner who handled me was particularly hostile, and the lawyer supplied by the march organizers (a volunteer) informed us that we were certainly guaranteed a 30-day sentence if we pleaded not guilty, as he was sure they had no intention of acquitting us. He told us that he had two other alternatives. We could plead guilty, be fined $25 and leave, or we could plead nolo contendere (no contest), which says in effect, that we knew they would find us guilty and that we did not consider ourselves to be, but wouldn’t contest the ruling. The standard penalty being handed out for nolo pleas was a $25 fine and a five-day suspended sentence. I decided on that course of action.
However, when my turn came, the commissioner (there were several working), only offered me two options: guilty or not guilty. The lawyer asked for and was granted exactly five minutes to find a precedent showing that a nolo pleas should be allowed. The commissioner said such pleas were only for traffic violations. My lawyer ran off. In the interim, I decided that I could not plead guilty, and if the nolo plea were not allowed, I’d have to plead not guilty on principle.
When five minuted were up, the lawyer was still gone. The commissioner called me up and asked for m plea. I said I would wait until my lawyer returned, and he looked at me belligerently. Just then, the lawyer came back with the needed information, much to my relief.
I made my plea and was convicted. However, the commissioner maliciously gave me a stiffer penalty than usual. The fine was the same because that was all the money I had. In addition I was given a 10-day suspended sentence, and was also told that I could “never again” participate in a “disruptive demonstration” of any sort in the area of Washington, DC, or I’d risk having the sentence imposed. [10/30/17 Note: a gratuitous and false threat by the magistrate, though I didn’t know it at the time, as there are statutes of limitation for such “crimes”]
I am still, as of this writing (it is five days since I was released from jail), not sure what was accomplished by the demonstration. I am sure that it cannot have been less effective than the peaceful demonstration in New York last April, which accomplished nothing. Now that the country has been confronted with a more forceful action, we hear statements like, “The October demonstration has damaged irreparably the worth efforts of those sincere people who participated in the April march.” But it is too often the same people and the same paper saying this that last spring were condemning the April march as unpatriotic.
I do know that I have gained a lot from my participation in Washington. I met people in jail who had been hit with tear gas and yet the Pentagon brass denies publicly that it was used. The papers were at such a loss over these contradictions that some have conjectured that it was the peace marchers who were responsible for its use, rather than believe that the government lied. I no longer have reason to doubt the government’s capacity to lie, as well as to release incomplete information about such touchy matters as the Vietnam War. Time Magazine, in their fine article on the march, reported that 15 demonstrators were wounded. The New York Times said 27. In all some 700 people were arrested, yet among the 100 in the cell I was in, there were 20 who needed medical treatment…one out of five! Some had bandages over their entire heads. One had a head wound from a billy club that had required seven stitches. Another had his arm twisted until the joint tore, so that he could not bend his arm. These facts and realizations dismay me more than the brutality itself, but I’m glad I have found out what really goes on.
I still wouldn’t call myself a subversive and I certainly advocate working for change within the system as much as possible. I am disturbed about a moral decay which is taking place in this country. An end to the Vietnam War is important, but I’m afraid that the war is only a symptom of this decay here at home. I plead for non-violence at all times, and I plead for dedicated action on every person’s part. The evidence is before us. My participation in the October demonstration in Washington was a strike against the prevalent apathy in the country.
I will continue to act as I did then for that reason.
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