Swallow Deeply Before Reading

This is a long one.  But this is the kind of stuff I think about.  So I hope one or two of you will hang in there.

So many positive thoughts came to mind as I watched the DC March For Our Lives yesterday. A lot of them were about how different this movement is from the anti-war marches of the 1960’s. At 78, having lived through what I’ve lived through, being heartened like this is not easy to come by.

I was also reminded of other things from that period. One of the students at the Margery Stone Douglas school who spoke brought them to mind. Something about the way he talked and looked put me in mind of radical groups involved in the anti-war movement of the ’60’s, of which I was a small part.

Is every kind of radicalism bad? I don’t believe so. The young people who marched on the 24th are taking a radical approach to the issue of gun control, by the following definition: “Radical: characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive…”

There’s a radicalism that springs from people recognizing the need to stand strong against a very powerful force, to bring about a complete change: “advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change…”
But there’s another kind I know about when radicalized leaders fall in love their own importance and power, when that power feeds their rhetoric, and the response to the rhetoric feeds their ego until you have a person whose entire raison d’être and self-perception depends on continuing to be an extremist radical.

That kind of radicalism can lead to acts of violence, which end by defeating the main cause and polarizing followers.

Here are my creds for all this: in the early 1960’s when the anti-war movement had not yet found its footing, I had a roommate who was a member of Students for a Democratic Society.  SDS had first formed around the Civil Rights movement in the ’50’s, and became increasingly anti-establishment during the Viet Nam War.

I knew nothing about her membership or even what SDS was. On the other hand,  I had heard of the students who had traveled to Cuba in defiance of the US ban on such travel, coming back with enthusiastic praise for Castro’s regime. My new roomie told me she’d been in the 2nd group of students.

I learned about Cuba the first night she moved in as we sat in my little Greenwich Village kitchen having coffee. I knew then that my new roomie was a genuine radical. It was frightening, but what was I gonna do? She’d signed an agreement, and she’d been the only one I’d interviewed whom I’d liked!

There were frequent meetings of her SDS group at our apartment and SDS flyers were all around. I learned to separate likely facts from heavy-duty propaganda. One morning as I entered the City College campus where I was a student, I’d grabbed a copy of the school newspaper and saw there was a photo of my roomie on the cover. She’d been arrested.

Not long after, my landlord suddenly told me that having roommates was against building policy and mine would have to go. Since she was my 3rd roommate and I’d been the 3rd of the previous lease-holder, clearly something was awfully wrong.

My roommate told me this had happened before, and that it was the FBI. After my first snicker, I realized it was the only explanation that made sense. It seems all those students who’d gone to Cuba were followed up by the FBI — and no doubt her membership in SDS made her a person of some interest.

Since she had to go, money-wise so did I. But my time living with her had given me a different outlook on things and paved the way for my joining marches to Washington later to protest the war.  I was by no stretch a radical, but I knew enough to question the government’s stories about what was going on there.

SDS was replaced by a far more radical group called the Weathermen. Their stock of pipe bombs blew up a townhouse in Greenwich Village – maybe you know about it – right next door to Dustin Hoffman’s home, and they were involved in the Brinks Armored Car robbery that caused the death of a guard and sent members into hiding for decades.

So all this is what reverberated as I listened to this young man speak. He brought to mind those radical leaders I’d come to know something about.

But without those groups and their flyers and propaganda, it’s possible the anti-war movement would not have developed as it did, and the marches that were mostly headed up by these groups and might never have happened.

If only they had dropped out of sight when the American public took over! Most anti-war activists were not spitting on soldiers or calling them names; most were not committing acts of violence. Those were far more radical groups. We were ordinary citizens who took a day off from work to climb on a bus at 6 AM and head down to DC to express our disapproval of a war that remains a blight on our history. Perhaps the country wouldn’t have splintered the way it did if not for those actions.

But the young people who marched on the 24th seem determined not get shoved into any mold that will lure them away from their purpose. They’re trying to be leaderless, to achieve their ends without having to be radicalized. I think they just might be able to do it. They’re much more sophisticated, much more worldly-wise.  They seem to know what to avoid.

Who knows? They may pave the way for a future march in favor of protecting whatever’s left of the environment!  Smile when you pass a 4th grader!

One thought on “Swallow Deeply Before Reading

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