Doing Time as a Protestor

Tents on the Columbia Lawn

It’s not really déjà vu because the Vietnam era was different. But this week’s massive protests over Gaza on more than 30 campuses brought back heavy memories, mostly illustrating how the principles of protest have changed. I got involved in these early-‘60s protests against the war at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was in graduate school studying French Symbolist poetry and its influence in England, enjoying being a bit of an intellectual snob and teaching a course in jazz. Smoking a little pot with friends. Not the profile of your typical bomb-thrower.

But we started marching in local protests around 1963. In those days many on the UW campus were fired up, with the protests getting more violent each time they occurred. Cops gassed protestors in the 1967 campus uproar over Dow Chemical’s production of napalm—which made earlier events look like a cakewalk. Then came the Sterling Hall bombing in 1970, killing a researcher.

By 1965 at age 31 when I moved to New York City, the war had become hugely unpopular and caused angry protests in the city and on many college campuses. One’s status in the culture reflected the growing split between those who opposed the war (the elites, by and large) and those who supported it (the working classes, by and large). And those divisions to an extent have persevered regarding the Gaza conflict. The 1960s gave birth to modern identity politics on a large scale.

I was teaching English at NYU and later at City College, marching in the streets with my colleagues and thousands of others, listening to Mailer and Sontag and Spock speak at rallies. It was a very heady and disconcerting time. Columbia was in the throes of protest and takeovers and, just as today, they spread to City College. When many of our classes were cancelled, my students wanted to keep meeting, in my apartment and other places. But discussing 19th century French poetry while the war was raging and anger in the streets was rising just seemed futile and absurd.

We talked about what was happening at Columbia, and I asked the kids what they thought the leaders like Mark Rudd hoped to accomplish. “They shut down the school, but they don’t have any real agenda,” I declared. Today, it’s all agendas and no real leadership. Maybe the issues with Palestine and Israel are too complex. But we all know the bombing has got to stop.

Now 76 and a pacifist, Mark Rudd says: “They don’t have the violent rhetoric we had, like calling the cops pigs and ‘Up against the wall, motherfucker,’ that kind of craziness,” he said. “I think they’re a lot more careful. I think they’re smarter.” He also says his identity as a Jew used to be based on Israel. “It took me a long time to get over that.”

As I said in my memoir, Vietnam and its turmoil constituted a major reason why I finally quit teaching. After Kent State (1970) I decided to get out of academia and find something more relevant to my interest in media, communications and the world at large. I was not the Peace Corps type; I had a family to support. But I wanted to write and do some good in the world.

It’s easy to forget how much violence was in the air. On March 6, 1970, the townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village blew up. Working at home just a block and a half away, I heard and felt the enormous boom, ran out to witness the chaos and later learned that the place was a Weatherman bomb factory in which three people had been killed. Homegrown terrorism, right around the corner and heretofore unimaginable despite the constant rhetoric that was feeding it. I had written and marched against the war and helped a few kids go to Canada, but this event took the steam out of my protest, as it did for a lot of people. The unpopularity of the war was growing into a very popular and sometimes vicious cause.

Perhaps the same thing can be avoided now, as thousands of young people across the country protest the criminal actions of Hamas and Israel. Their tactics are very different and their numbers are yet nowhere near those who rioted and bombed in the ‘60s. But Mr. Biden, despite his platitudes about protest (It’s OK if it doesn’t get violent) is totally missing the boat on how significant and powerful their numbers will be for the forthcoming election. If the Gen Zs sit it out and/or fail to vote for him, he will be toast, as I wrote in my little protest here.

As of now, 57 Democrats in Congress have signed a letter urging Biden to withdraw the billions in aid and arms he still quietly permits to flow to Israel. Some 66 percent of the “41 million eligible ‘Gen Z’ voters in 2024 have opposed aid to Israel.” The New York Times is generally conservative about such matters. Yet they write:

Just as students then could no longer tolerate the horrific images of a distant war delivered, for the first time, in almost real time by television, so many of today’s students have found the images from Gaza, now transmitted instantly onto their phones, to demand action. And just as students in ’68 insisted that their school sever ties to a government institute doing research for the war, so today’s students demand that Columbia divest from companies profiting from Israel’s invasion of Gaza. And students then and now have found their college administrators deaf to their entreaties.

Even the deaf administrators and Mr. Biden should be able to read the handwriting on the wall.

Ivysemitism, continued

Trump and Roy Cohn, 1983

I was twenty-five, fresh out of graduate school at the University of Chicago and had just finished a Master’s degree. I had my doubts whether I’d be up for the grind of getting a Ph.D. and decided to take a year and test out whether teaching English could finally be my profession. At twenty-five you really don’t know what you’re doing.

I got accepted into what is now called the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, formerly a teachers college in the remote middle of Wisconsin, and God it was cold there. Back then in 1959 the college was evolving into a more liberal arts institution and later became part of the UW system.

Anyhow, I joined the junior faculty and taught English to what were mostly rural and unsophisticated white kids. I was nervous and unsure in my first classes and had no idea how to communicate to these unspoiled, smiling children from another planet.

The McCarthy era had just passed but was still fouling the political air, certainly in my liberal circle. I’ve written before about how the Army-McCarthy hearings brought about my political exit from a Republican family that to some degree tolerated him.

Anyhow, in one of my first classroom recitals I called out the Senator as some kind of sick despot. The kids just sat there, but one guy, we can call him Jay, got up and announced that the class was no place for politicking and that basically I should keep my political opinions to myself.

I was taken aback and, after later talk with faculty friends, realized that maybe Jay was right. Political controversy was not welcome in that environment, and the Senator of course was from Wisconsin.

I saw some reference to him in the recent blaring discussions over the Ivy presidents and the GOP’s general anger over their waffling responses. Big Donor Bill Ackman has made much noise about firing the presidents and holding all those students protesting Israel to account. Larry Summers, a former Harvard president, agreed with him but said “asking for lists of names is the stuff of Joe McCarthy.”

We haven’t yet realized the depth of the Senator’s vicious pursuit of communists, but an attempt to bring down those hated liberal universities might be in the offing. One must remember that counselor Roy Cohn was the source of Joe McCarthy’s atrocities, just as he later became consigliere to Donald Trump. There is no honor among thieves.