It’s all beginning to come back to me now. Donald Trump walked across the street from the White House, Monday, to St. John’s Episcopal church, not to pray, but to do a scene, specifically, to set the tone for Operation Themis, which he is now implementing by deploying 2,100 troops armed with bayonets on the streets of the nation’s capitol. (Themis is the goddess of divine law and order.) Trump hefted the Bible, as if testing it’s weight, and when asked if it was his, he replied, “it’s a Bible.” Trump probably doesn’t know that people actually own such things and read them. Trump held up
his the Bible, maybe channeling divine power, who knows, and he muttered a few words about what a great country this is and how it’s going to become even greater, bla bla.
Bishop Mariann Budde saw the charade for just what it was, Trump using the Bible as a political prop and denounced him for it. She said, “he didn’t come to pray” and “a Bible is not an American document.” Now in order for this impromptu street theater to take place, Trump unleashed tear gas upon what was a peaceful and lawful assembly and seeing that brought back memories. Believe me when I tell you that the introduction of tear gas into a peaceful protest is an unforgettable, and unforgivable, experience.
The year was 1972. I was 19 years old and and studying journalism/media at the University of Colorado. It was springtime, as now, and an election year, as now, with a despised Republican incumbent running for reelection, as now. If you weren’t there, or are too young to remember, the politics of that era were wild. As a young person I took it all in stride, having nothing to compare it to, but my elders told me that they had never seen anything like this before and I believed them.
JFK was assassinated in 1963, followed by Martin Luther King in March of 1968 and then in June, Bobby Kennedy who was the front runner for the Democratic nomination was murdered. The death of Bobby Kennedy was a milestone in American politics. That was a fork in America’s road and we will never know what that road not taken would have been. Kennedy offered a vision of hope for the country and a continuation of his brother’s dream. With his death, the Democratic party lost it’s most capable and charismatic leader.
The resulting 1968 election, with Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic standard bearer against Richard Nixon, and with George Wallace pulling in 46 electoral votes as the American Independent Party candidate, was catastrophic. Political scientists defined it as a “major realigning election” which translates as an election which results in sharp changes in ideology, party leaders, issues, and/or regional demographics or bases of power. This particular major realigning election of 1968 permanently disrupted the New Deal coalition, which had been in effect since 1932. Democrats were the majority party for all those years. We had the White House that entire time, with the exception of eight years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Eisenhower was nothing like the Republicans of today. There is no room for a character like Eisenhower in today’s GOP. In the face of tragedy and riots, Tricky Dick won the day in 1968 and then in 1972 wiped out George McGovern, winning 49 out of 50 states.
But before that happened, 1972 was about Vietnam, Vietnam and Vietnam. It was all anybody ever talked about. In May, 1972 the Vietnam war escalated with the invasion of Cambodia and all hell broke out nationwide, exactly like what we have seen in the past few days since George Floyd’s death.
In Boulder, Colorado students blocked the Boulder-Denver turnpike and protests broke out simultaneously all over the city. Here is old news footage that I found on You Tube.
My first awareness of this development was when I was lying in bed in the infirmary and I heard voices chanting “Peace Now.” I got out of bed and walked to the window and from that vantage point I could see what looked like hundreds of people snaking up towards the Hill, a Boulder landmark that is on a hill near the campus.
I was in the infirmary because I had a case of food poisoning, but they rehydrated me and treated me nice and I was as good as new. Now my recollection of details is hazy at this point, but I think the scene out the window was the previous night and I was discharged the very next day, but things were still hopping, demonstration wise. I went to the student union and got a cup of coffee and asked a couple of people what I had missed, and they put me up to speed about the number of people arrested so far and said that more demonstrations were scheduled for that night.
So I decided to go to the demonstration, my first. As night fell the crowd began to gather and it was reminiscent of a rock concert. Remember, I was 19 years old, I didn’t have too many events to reference to, so that’s how I was seeing this, as an ad hoc, outdoor gathering, with placards and politics in lieu of bands and music. We spoke about Vietnam and Cambodia. We spoke of people who had been drafted and killed, of those who had evaded the draft, we spoke about Nixon, we spoke about how McGovern said he would end all this his first day in office, we smoked a little weed. It was a pretty normal night in Boulder, all things considered, except we were standing outside en masse. Somebody near me had a radio and estimates of crowd size were being made. There were quite a few people out in the streets and more coming.
Where things started to go south, was when a group of vigilantes, separate from law enforcement showed up. I never found out who these people were. One image burned in my memory is of a tall, fat, bow legged redneck dressed in jeans and a ten gallon hat carrying a piece of green rubber garden hose. He straddled the sidewalk and he had a kind of nervous tic going with the hose. He would take it in his right hand and smack the hose into his left, and then repeat the action, maybe envisioning bashing in some hippy fairy’s head. He was scary. At least he managed to scare me, because I decided to head elsewhere.
I think I turned down 28th Street, or maybe it was Pearl — I was on foot — but in any event, I found myself walking towards a huge group of protesters and they were more organized than the group I had left. They were thrusting placards in the air, with the classic slogans of the day, “draft beer not students” “make love not war” “end the war before it ends you” and lustily chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go.”
I was watching the crowd and a guy next to me was taking photos. When he reloaded his camera I chatted with him and he said that he had been in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic National Convention and had photographed those protests. He said he had photographed Bobby Seale in court. Seale was tried separately from the Chicago Seven and he was raising so much hell in court that the judge ordered him bound and gagged and tied to the chair. His lawyer objected and said, “Your Honor, this is no longer a court, it’s a medieval torture chamber.”
While we were talking a guy walked up and introduced himself as a reporter from KHOW radio and asked the photographer who he was working for. Then the reporter and I started talking and I told him I was studying journalism. He thought I was articulate and so he asked me a few questions and recorded my answers and they played later on the news that night. I didn’t know bupkus about this demonstration and I had just gotten out of the infirmary, but I was selected to be the voice of the protest, or one of them at least, by chance. So I talked about guerrilla theater. I have zero recollection of what I said, but something about Vietnam, capitalism and making a spontaneous socio-political statement in the streets. It made sense at the time.
So the reporter asked me and the photographer if we wanted to come with him in his news car while he covered the protest and we said sure. The car had a police radio, naturally, and we were listening to police dispatches from the Highway Patrol, Sheriff’s Department, and both Denver and Boulder police departments. We drove all around various streets in Boulder where protests were taking place and got out from time to time to talk to people and take pictures. And then for reasons that I didn’t find out that night, or ever, somebody gave the order to forcibly break up the protest — just as Donald Trump gave the order to break up the protest so that he could do a photo op at the church across the street.
What transpired next was positively surreal. The three of us were standing in the street and we could see the protesters, and then farther up the street, several police cars and a snake line of cops standing in a row. It was like a western movie gunfight, where the good guy and the bad guy are in the street, with a big space between them, looking at each other, waiting to draw. Except the protesters didn’t have anything to draw. They were carrying placards, not weapons. The photographer, who was a veteran of the 1968 Chicago riots, and who had been tear gassed before, saw it coming and he shouted, “We’re fucked!” and we started to run for the news car. A huge cloud of white smoke appeared and we were down wind. Maybe that’s why the cops fired, maybe they were just waiting for a change in the wind, so they didn’t gas themselves.
The tear gas hit us. If you’ve never experienced this, you get a burning in your eyes and nose and a searing pain in your throat. You feel like you are suffocating, choking and going blind simultaneously. At least those were my sensations. We reached the car and I got in the back seat and the reporter got in the driver’s seat. The photographer had locked his door and so he was pulling on it and in seeming slow motion I leaned forward and flipped up the door lock. He had only been outside maybe 3-5 seconds longer than me, but it made a difference. Tears were pouring down the man’s cheeks and his eyelids were starting to swell. There were gas masks in the back seat. I handed him one and put one on myself and got some blessed relief from the oxygen cylinder.
Outside the car, people were running and screaming and it was mayhem. I felt sorry for the people still outside and without benefit of the equipment that I had. I don’t have certain answers from that night. I don’t know if it was tear gas or pepper gas or why anybody ordered it deployed in the first place because nothing was going on — at least not that I could see or hear. No windows were being broken, nobody was being rowdy, nothing. The situation escalated and got ugly only because the tear gas was deployed. It was unnecessary. That’s all I knew then and that’s all I know now.
It occurred to me shortly afterwards that I was tremendously lucky to have had access to that car and that gas mask at that time. It also occurred to me what an idiot I was to have gone to the demonstration to begin with, but as soon as I had that thought, my next thought was, “Isn’t the right of peaceful assembly guaranteed by the constitution?” Yes, it is. But when those rights are abridged by a trigger happy constabulary, it is a sober and frightening thing.
That night was a pre echo of things to come in my life. I ended up working at KHOW in 1978, as the Assistant Music Director and then I went to another radio station, KWBZ, where I was a newscaster and talk show host. There I made friends with talk show host Alan Berg, who was gunned down by neo-Nazis in his driveway in 1984. If that piece interests you, read this one about women in broadcasting in the 70’s.
I also ended up meeting Jerry Rubin, one of the Chicago Seven, at a press conference in 1979, where I shocked those present by asking Rubin to address allegations that he was a sellout for going to work on Wall Street and becoming a millionaire. Rubin didn’t answer the question although I was far and away not the only person to have put it to him.
Then I worked on a documentary film that had its roots in the same 1968 Chicago riots that made Rubin infamous. A friend of mine who was in film school at the time lived close to the riots and grabbed his camera and went down to shoot some footage. He ended up meeting a group of American Indians. He followed their lives for the next eight years and made a documentary called “The Divided Trail” which was nominated for an Oscar in 1979. Goes to show you how your life can change by just picking up your camera and following your curiosity.
Then the last mystic chord of memory from this era — up until tonight — was struck in 1981. Jane Fonda was married to Chicago Seven activist Tom Hayden at the time. They were living in Santa Monica and having a fundraising party for one of Hayden’s political campaigns and my friend Kit got the catering gig. He called me, desperate for a hot h’or d’oeuvre dish and I told him, “crab curry in coconut milk in a pastry shell — with a doily underneath.”
So now you know my roots in the 1968 Chicago Riots, the 1972 Boulder Riots and what it’s like to be tear gassed at a peaceful demonstration.