May 1970: A Memory of Activism

by Jonathan Wallace

On May 5, 1970, I opened the New York Times as I was eating my Frosted Flakes and read that four young people had been shot to death by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio. I started to cry, went to school, obtained a bull-horn, led a student strike, braved some degree of personal danger, and almost got expelled from Midwood High. It was the finest week of my life.

I have a life long prejudice against autobiography, which I believe to consist mainly of the subject bragging and complaining, probably with equal numbers of lies in support of both. Most autobiographies are the least reliable source either for the life of the author or for an account of the events he witnessed. In writing this, I had to overcome the strong feeling I would be boasting by telling this story.

Here's a corrective, though. Some of the worst and most shameful actions of my life were also taken that year and the next. I am not saying in what follows that I was transformed into some kind of young saint, just that the skein of possible pathways suddenly included some new ones, based on traits I hadn't previously known I had.

In May 1970, I was two months short of my sixteenth birthday, living in a house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with white aluminum siding. My parents were both doctors, and I knew we had more money than most of my friends, but not ostentatiously: my father drove a Buick. I had always been in the classes for intellectually gifted children, where I had never been popular, and I had never been in any kind of leadership position. A few months before, in the fall of 1969, I had started smoking pot and letting my hair grow.

That week in 1970 I consolidated the gains I had made since the previous fall, of creating a face for myself, which simultaneously involved learning what face I had.

The trip I made, which I have made several times since in my life, was to move from the margin to the center of my own life, to take on a role and play it with some importance, but genuinely; to play it under circumstances where I could say it was more than a role, because I had been tested. No-one ever tries to stab Hamlet with a real knife on stage.

From childhood, even before I discovered how marginal I was, I had had a rich fantasy life. But it largely involved being close to, not at, the center of interesting events. In a serial I constructed across months of sleepless nights after reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea, I was a child-advisor particularly relied on and trusted by Captain Nemo; I never dreamed I was Nemo himself.

I do not mean to imply that the killing of the four students was only an opportunity for me to play a glorious role. It was the final brick of a structure I had been building for some time, a theory that the adult world, because mysterious and violent, was only explainable as an evil conspiracy of unclear goals.

I had first asked my father about Viet Nam two or three years before. My question was not originally what the war was about, but whether I would someday have to fight in it. His answer-- "Its always the other guy who gets killed in a war"-- was very unsatisfying, as I was old enough to imagine that the other guy's father told him the same thing. He also told me that the war would be over long before I was draft age, which was untrue, as I was nineteen when it ended.

My parents were apolitical: their lives were constrained to practicing medicine, being a family, and little events and accidents like grades on tests or the dog chewing something up. The war didn't involve us, and we didn't need to think about it: just a conflict some other people were having with some other people.

Once I started thinking about it, I couldn't stop, and for at least a little while, I decided I was in favor of it. I can no longer remember what my criteria were, or what facts I relied on. I must soon have been overwhelmed by the sheer lunacy of what we saw every night on the television news: men running desperately amidst flashes of artillery and then, bloodied, being lifted out in stretchers by helicopter. Then there was the weekly body count, which was horrendous. On the one hand, no-one we knew was in the war; it was literally being fought by "other people", whom we did not know. On the other hand, people from our country were dying, in very cruel ways and large numbers, and at some point I wanted to understand why.

When thirty thousand had been killed, I did a thought experiment. Our auditorium at school held about one thousand people. I imagined the auditorium full of the bloody corpses of Americans, thirty times over: for what?

I was born nine years after World War II ended, and for children around 1960 that was the only war of which we knew. Korea, perhaps, was too fast, confusing and ambiguous to have taken much hold of anyone's imagination. (There was a veteran on our block who claimed that US troops had massacred civilians in Korea, just like at My Lai, and this year's headlines have proven him right.) When we played in the street, we divided up into Allies and Nazis, and the scenarios we enacted were from movies like The Dirty Dozen (which, incredibly for a violent and sadistic film, had been shown to us in school), Stalag 17, Operation Crossbow, and The Train. It was a war everyone's father had been in (except mine, who claimed he had been rejected for flat-footedness, a story I could never understand, as there didn't seem any reason why a flat-footed man couldn't shoot a gun.) And it was a war with no moral ambiguity whatever, where the good guys and the bad guys were clear.

Probably not more than a year or two elapsed from the last time I played a war game to the time I became disturbed, then offended, by the war in Viet Nam. The search for an explanation wasn't getting me anywhere. In fact, as any child knows, there are lots of things parents can't explain, but they usually are successful in hiding behind a mysterious royal mantle of "you'll understand when you're older." In my inquiry, I benefited from my parents' lack of convictions; if they had been more ideological I might have accepted theirs (or organized myself in opposition) instead of forming my own.

The only explanation I remember hearing from anyone--it was probably given by a teacher at school, or perhaps I got it from the newspaper--was the "domino theory", which was not persuasive even to a twelve year old. I never intuitively felt that the loss of Viet Nam would flip over another country, then another, until we faced Communism on our borders. The risks were not at all tangible, but the costs were.

Three photographs played a major role in forming my views, and all three are still well-remembered today. The first, and most vivid, was the naked, burned little girl screaming as she ran away from napalm. Our napalm. The second was the Vietnamese offer, our ally, shooting a handcuffed prisoner in cold blood. And the third, the one that made me cry the morning of May 5, was the screaming girl kneeling over the body of the Kent State student who lay face down, his arms neatly at his sides, and his blood draining away on the sidewalk.

I am crying now as I write about it. I think what I saw that morning was me. He had hair like mine, he was skinny like me, and his posture as he lay there, dead or dying, was somewhat embarrassed, as mine would have been. I guess one expects dead people to be sprawled on their back, arms flung out, expressions of rage or horror on their faces. This middle class boy, after catching a bullet he didn't expect while expressing his views peacefully on a fine May morning, looked as if he had clapped his arms to his sides, and fallen face forwards. Like me, he didn't know how to die, dramatically or even gracefully.

It was the last brick in the wall. I believed that America, exemplified by President Nixon, was willing to slay perfectly ordinary young people, simply for disagreeing with the war. I had watched the President on television, justifying the bombing of Cambodia. Though we knew nothing definite of illegal surveillance, Cointelpro, the activities which became the Watergate scandal years later, popular rumor held that illegal police and federal activity against people just like us was commonplace. On television, Nixon presented as an angry, frightened liar on the verge of a nervous breakdown--a man capable of anything including a military take-over of the United States to preserve his position of power.

The words I wrote above--"obtained a bull-horn, led a student strike"--seem more remarkable to me as I write them now than the actual experiences did at the time. I had the pure, unself-conscious feeling that "this is an outrage and I want to do something." Being fifteen years old, the transition from desire to action was immediate; there was no need to worry about a job, reputation or the consequences of expressing my belief. As I walked to Midwood High School I had my eyes open for opportunity and the first remarkable event of the morning occurred just minutes later.

As I passed Brooklyn College, as I did every morning, I could see students milling about inside. I went in to talk to them, and found that they were organizing a student strike to protest the killings. When I said I was from Midwood, next door, someone gave me a bullhorn. Not the cheap kind you could buy at Radio Shack, but a heavy, loud, professional-quality bullhorn. The person who gave it to me didn't make me sign anything, or fill out a credit application, or show any identification; in the optimistic and enlivened air of the time, I'm sure there was some understanding I would return it. A few days later I loaned it to someone else and never saw it again.

I walked over to Midwood, where students were also milling about, clicked on the bullhorn and so became one of the leaders of a student strike which crystallized immediately around us. Shortly, hundreds of students were marching in a circle in front of the steps of the school and I was talking to them through the bullhorn. I had no idea what to say--I had never been in any kind of a role at all like this one before--so I just said what I thought. That Nixon wanted to kill us because we opposed the war. That the war was wrong, that it didn't make any sense, but that it was more important to America than her children. That we were wasting our time and our lives there, because the NLF was gonna win, and should, and in winning wouldn't do any harm to us. That the domino theory was a crock.

We needed some way to identify the leaders of the demonstration, so one of us went around the corner to a stationery store and bought some red tags which we tied to our shirt buttons. Jokingly, we called ourselves the Red Tag Society and unknowingly created a fearful ghost in the imagination of the dean of boys. The last sigh of the Red Tag Society was when the dean called me into his office more than a year later to ask if the Society had any connection with the recent bombing (by M80 fireworks) of a school bathroom.

The next few days were very heady. The other strike leaders were all friends of mine. We were all the kids who a year before were still getting picked last for softball, and we had all transformed ourselves into the most powerful and interesting kids in school. Girls were looking at me in an entirely new way (which I was too inexperienced to take advantage of).

But at the same time we were trying to get real work done. An informal communications network sprang into being that week; we knew not only what was happening next door at Brooklyn College but all over the city. Requests and invitations came in for our support of other activities, and we held frequent meetings to decide what to do about them.

We were invited to help occupy a Brooklyn College building that had been seized by the students, and I (who had never camped out, and rarely slept away from home) went over with a sleeping bag and rolled it out in a hallway. Around two in the morning there were fire sirens and a grim-faced boy ran through the halls telling everyone that the fire truck was a cover for a police raid which would occur in minutes. That we would all be arrested. And I got up and left because I wasn't ready to be arrested.

But my two finest moments came in subsequent days--the things I remember whenever I think about when I was the best I've ever been.

First we decided to take our group to a demonstration which had been organized in Central Park. It was supposed to be a manifestation of unity, with representatives of a wide spectrum of groups on the left, from the Black Panthers to the Puerto Rican Young Lords to Student Mobilization and other white, middle class groups. So we got the students lined up and we marched to the subway at the Junction, to take it to Columbus Circle and the Park.

By the second day of our demonstration, counter-demonstrators had begun to gather across the street from the school, and their leader was a boy named Jimmy whose parents owned the riding stables in Prospect Park. Jimmy and I had been friends for several years in junior high school; to see him opposing us now was reminiscent of the scene in Alice when she emerges from the amnesia woods with the fawn and they remember they are supposed to be enemies. Jimmy and I had had no idea we were so different until the relevant moment.

He led his group to intercept ours and prevent us from reaching the subway station. They got there first, and stood around the sides of it. I called out to Jimmy, "I thought you were my friend," and he answered, with some regret, "Not now, not with this."

With everything that had happened, it was still an innocent time, and I don't think I really feared physical harm from Jimmy and the toughest kids he had mustered. At any rate, I walked down the subway steps through them, and standing above me they spat and hurled cardboard boxes. I yelled up the stairs to my troops, "Its only boxes and spit!" but I could see them all hanging back. I took the subway to Manhattan with two or three of the other leaders.

I still think of this moment often, and it has resonated through other adventures of my life: I knew what to do. I wasn't afraid to do it. But I couldn't get the others to follow me. The experience, of watching the troops peel away at the crucial moment, has recurred a few times. Perhaps I was too tentative. If I was a movie sergeant, I would have gone back up the stairs, and pushed them forward, and abused them terribly. That week I had the most charisma I have ever had but I'll never forget that I didn't get those kids down the subway steps. I am proud I went, though.

The demo in Central Park, which was at the bandshell, ended abruptly when one radical onstage pulled a knife on another. In less than a minute, the entire audience, and everyone on stage, ran away.

Some strangers showed up at our school and at the college, people we had never seen before, kids with crewcuts who called themselves the Young Americans for Freedom. We called them the Yaf or the Yaffies. I saw a fight at Brooklyn College as some students tried to lower a flag to half mast and three Yaffies surged in to prevent them. Then another element showed up--kids in black leather jackets, with shaven heads and chains wrapped around their fists. They gathered along the chain link fence across the street from our school, where Jimmy and his group had been two days before. We had never seen anything like them in our school or our neighborhood, and we believed that the government-- murderous Nixon again--had brought them there.

One of the strike leaders was a boy from Greece--an actual Marxist, of whom there were very few around, and most of them much older people, like the 87 year old Mrs. Marx who would engage you in conversation near the college gates. He approached me now to say that in a few minutes, the thugs across the street would charge and the cops, who had been there every day, watching us, would stand back and let them beat us. This was completely credible, because the day before on Wall Street the cops had watched smiling as construction workers beat demonstrators (several of whom, we soon learned, were crippled for life.) The rumor was that men in suits with American flag pins, talking on unobtrusive radios like the Secret Service uses, had been there directing the attack.

A few minutes later, after several preliminary surges, the mob across the street charged us yelling. Another strike leader, a stocky, plump boy named John, shouted, "Link arms!"-- for thirty years I have wished it was my idea. We executed immediately, like demonstrators we had seen in newspaper photos--except that we did it the wrong way. We wound up standing with our backs to the attackers, looking over our shoulders at them. The people we were emulating always stood facing the enemy. However (as I had time to wonder at that moment) it probably was preferable to be struck on the back than in the face. Behind our human fence were the kids we had been leading all week.

In that moment, unlike the one on the subway stairs two days before, I felt certain that I was about to receive terrible hurt. I have had a few other moments like it in my life, the most prominent when I was held at the point of a semiatomatic weapon in a Paris post office eight years later. I can't say that I felt unafraid: I learned instead that there is another kind of fear than you expect, a kind you can handle. It isn't the panic fear of the movies and especially the cartoons, the wave-your-hands-and-run-in-a-circle please-don't-kill-me fear of popular conception. I felt instead a deep, resigned horror which left me perfectly free to act, though rather slowly. From that day on, I defined courage as simply being able to manage. There must be remarkably few humans who feel no fear whatever when someone is trying to harm them.

The police ran in from the sides and stopped the mob cold. I have often wondered why they did this, when the police on Wall Street the day before let the attack happen. Here is my explanation.

One of the officers there was an Italian-American policeman who had been posted daily at the high school for at least the last two years. (Our part of Brooklyn was about evenly divided among the Italians, the Irish and the Jews.) We feared but did not hate him, because he was easy going and friendly. One Sunday some friends and I had been at the American Museum of Natural History, talking about taking acid, when he heard the officer's voice behind us: "Do I have to watch you even on the weekend?" We turned around and he was there, in civvies, with his own small son. Smiling at us.

This officer did not hate us as many others did, and he wasn't brutal. He had conceived a sense of responsibility for us and I believe that he was the one who wouldn't stand by and let us be attacked. I always remember him as a counter-balance to the other memories I have of the New York City police, like the cop who searched me illegally or the other who happily watched a biker beat a hippie in front of the Fillmore East ("We don't care what you do to each other, as long as you let us alone").

That's it. On re-reading what I've written, its still a marginal story. Other people were shot and beaten that week; I was merely frightened, and pleased by the way I dealt with it. I am still proud of it, but my life has not included any really great challenges.

Our strike ended after that. The following week we were back in school. I had lost the bullhorn. A week or two later, the principal called my father in and threatened to expel me, and my father (who was not an assertive man) said he would sue, and the principal backed down. Another strike leader, who didn't have a father to defend him, was kicked out of Midwood.

There are people in positions of power today whose stories began with a similar experience: lead a demonstration, acquire a taste for it, and build an organization. That week I had acquired the credibility and the contacts to do the same thing, to carry on and build something on the cornerstone I had laid ("The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone".) But I made no attempt to, and went back some distance into my shell instead.

I can't say why, exactly, except to repeat that my life has not been linear. I alternate between being in positions of authority and lying low on the outskirts. (As I write this, after five years as president of a company with seventy employees, I'm on the outskirts again for a while.) My relationship with power is very ambivalent. I believe I can be trusted more than most other people to exercise it, and I enjoy taking a sort of stewardship role, which I have heard called "servant leadership." I believe a leader has a fiduciary responsibility to the people he leads not to lie to them or harm them. When I saw the movie The Thin Red Line recently, I identified with the officer played by Elias Koteas, who refused to send his troops into withering enemy fire. I have had other experiences in which I saw people fade away because I couldn't honestly tell them the bullets wouldn't hurt.

When I find myself poised to say something deceptive, or even something honest where the hidden agenda is to increase my own authority at another's expense, I am ashamed, and I turn left rather than going down that path. I have always wanted respect and even admiration, but not at that cost. It was my opposition to that style of action in the adults in our school and in government which led me to oppose the war. Nixon, on television, seemed to have been maddened by power, to have completely cracked under it.

So the Midwood High School strike of 1970, rather than being the first rung in a career, has been a personal and pleasant contemplation these thirty years. The time I learned I was strong, that I could make decisions and speak in public, and most importantly that I wouldn't run away when threatened. My adult life began there.

I believe there was actual evil abroad that week, and evil is not a word I use lightly. The Guardsmen at Kent State turned and fired as they were about to turn a corner, hundreds of feet from the demonstrators; the people they killed were 200 feet away and more. The causes have never been definitively determined, across years of lawsuits, trials, commissions and investigative reporting. The official story was they thought they heard a shot. There has never been any proof--not eye-witnesses, not forensics--that anyone fired a gun that day other than the Guardsmen. I believe that what really happened is that one of the Guardsmen--the one who can be seen on film, turning first to aim a pistol--coldly decided to shoot someone, and the rest, not knowing why they were shooting, followed suit. We know from the testimony that one of the Guarsdmen then deliberately shot a demonstrator who had annoyed him by giving him the finger.

I believe that Richard Nixon was an evil man. I can feel compassion for him, because he was frightened, and because he saw everything he had worked for slipping away. But what made him thoroughly bad, unworthy of any compassion or respect, was that with the means of terrible abuse at hand--power that could be used illegitimately to harm and kill the citizens of his own country who disagreed with him--he did not refrain from using it. People are not evil based on what they think, but what they do. On one of his tapes, he is heard ordering the Secret Service to beat demonstrators. We may never know whether the construction workers rioted in May 1970 at the instructions of his government, but he certainly created the environment in which both the killings in Kent and the beatings on Wall Street occurred.

However, I also learned soon after that for every evil man there is a multitude of inept and frightened ones. The principal who threatened to expel me called a parent teacher meeting which I attended, to discuss our rebellious behavior. He stood on stage and told the parents, "This is how the students behave. Come here, Jerry," and a teacher who was one of his toadies came over. The principal shoved him; Jerry, to help his boss, extended his own trajectory into a long, exaggerated stumble. Jerry was wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. It was the first time I remember thinking that the grown-ups who governed our world were terrified by the rate and incidents of change, and had no idea what to do. In the week from May 4 to 10th we had become more mature than the adults.