Rock ‘n’ roll was where the power was. It could be seen by anyone, and if you wanted to raise money for anything from the Vietnam Day bail to the Democratic Party, you ran a rock dance.
—Ralph J. Gleason
For every concert and happening at which I cavorted there was an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. They were usually a mixture of dead seriousness, satire and song. You could get mowed down by police in riot gear, but you’d go down singing a Beatles’ song. Community organizer Jerry Rubin said that protestors could “join the revolution and have fun.” People joined protests in very large numbers. The fervor against the Vietnam War was enormous. Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco were key places for such protests. Anti-war activities gathered steam starting in 1965, when I was fourteen. I was passionately against the war and participated in protesting it as much as I could.
Early on there were teach-ins on college campuses: large gatherings where educators and public figures spoke out against the war. The largest teach-in in the country was held on May 21–23, 1965 on the university campus in Berkeley. It was organized by a newly formed group called the Vietnam Day Committee. One of the founders was former Berkeley graduate student Jerry Rubin, The many speakers included luminaries such as Dr. Benjamin Spock; socialist leader Norman Thomas, writer Norman Mailer, journalist I. F. Stone, Zen philosopher Alan Watts, comedian Dick Gregory and Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio.
The teach-in was attended by 10,000-30,000 people, including an enthusiastic fourteen year-old girl. Miraculously, my parents even let me spend the night at the thirty-six hour-long event. I met a boy I knew from summer camp, and we huddled together on some bleachers during the long, cool night. It was the first time a boy had ever put his arm around me and I was petrified.
In 1965, the Vietnam Day Committee organized a march down Telegraph Avenue from Berkeley to Oakland. About 10,000 – 15,000 people participated. Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were there in their psychedelically-painted bus. The marchers were met at the Oakland City line by 400 policemen. The protestors retreated and marched to Provo Park for a rally.
Country Joe McDonald performed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” standing atop a flatbed truck. He sold copies of an EP of the song for fifty cents. Country Joe and the Fish would become a popular feature at anti-Vietnam war demonstrations for years to come. Always preceding the song was the interactive, crowd-pleasing “Fish Cheer.” Country Joe would lead a call-and-response with the audience:
(Joe) Gimme an F!
(Him) Gimme an I!
(Him) Gimme an S!
(Him) Gimme an H!
(Him) What’s that SPELL?” he’d yell three or more times, and we’d all scream back “FFIIISSSHHH!!!!” until we were happy and pumped and hoarse.
The exercise was the essence of the Make Love, Not War philosophy: Why make your reality into killing and exploiting when life is here to express joy, to make music, to celebrate together?’
Country Joe McDonald told me: “I remember when we went into Kezar Stadium on the march [on April 15, 1967], playing that song. I felt like I was part of some surrealistic dream. We were riding along in this truck. The band was playing.There was a misty rain. It was early in the morning. The streets were lined with people hanging out of windows. I was stoned out of my head on LSD. Everything was vibrating, and I was looking around and you could see soldiers and people sneering, and you could see pictures of napalmed children and signs saying ‘End the War.’ We were playing this joyous, incredible music and people were dancing all around the truck, throwing flowers up in the air while we were singing, ‘Whoopee, We’re all gonna die!’ It was like we were heading off to these beautiful pastoral gas chambers; we were all going to parade ourselves into these gas chambers and then they were gonna wipe us out. It’s an insane song, really insane.”
In 1965, the Vietnam Day Committee held another march, this time from Provo Park to Oakland. Allen Ginsberg headed up the crowd, playing finger cymbals and reciting the Hare Krishna mantra. The Hells Angels broke through the heavy police presence, confronted the first wave of marchers and proceeded to beat them up. They considered them to be traitors to America. It was a terrifying reminder that, despite feeling the joy of being part of a large group with strength in numbers, protesting was still serious, frightening business with heavy opposition.
Still, anger at the war laced with joy was the prevailing vibe at the protests. in November, 1966, during a demonstration in Berkeley protesting a Navy recruiting table on campus, people on the picket line sang the joyous, loony anthem of the Beatles, “Yellow Submarine.” Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio said that it was, “an unexpected symbol of our trust in the future and our longing for a place for us all to live in.”
Stop the Draft Week, October, 1967
The Students for a Democratic Society organized the first of two “Stop the Draft Weeks” for Oct. 16-20, 1967. It was to be held at the Oakland Induction Center, through which young men from all over the country were processed before being shipped off to Vietnam to fight. The Induction Center was taken as a symbol of the entire war machine, and the brain-washing of innocent boys to believe that it was a war worth giving their lives for. Besides demonstrating against the war, protestors wanted to reach these boys and convince them not to go. It was an exercise in futility. The boys looked at the protestors and saw unpatriotic, dirty hippie freaks.
I cut school for the week to join in the demonstrations. On the first day, several dozen people committed civil disobedience by sitting down and blocking the doorway to the Induction Center. They included my beloved teacher from Walden School, Ida Wilcher, and more prominently, Joan Baez. Of them, 124 people were arrested and taken to Santa Rita County Jail.
Joan Baez wrote, “We were in Santa Rita twice: once in October and a second time in December. I remember because Martin Luther King came to visit us the second time at Christmas. The first time was ten days and the second time was three months with forty-five days suspended. They threw my mother and me out after a month because they thought we were instigating stuff. My mother was, but I wasn’t. She was sneaking candy bars into the holding cells because she felt sorry for the people.”
On the second day, 2000 – 4000 protestors who were gathered around the Induction Center blocking the entrance, were met by lines of Oakland police in full riot regalia. I watched a long-haired, bearded man walk slowly back and forth in front of a row of riot police standing shoulder to shoulder, wrapping flowers around the riot sticks they held in front of them, informing them that “those sticks are just power symbols of your dicks.” Whatever they were, a row of club-wielding cops in full riot gear looked damn scary to me.
There were a handful of arrests, and some people were beaten and ended up in the hospital. The police roughed up press photographers to prevent them from documenting their mistreatment of demonstrators. By Friday, 10,000 demonstrators were met by 2,000 Oakland policemen and Alameda County deputy sheriffs. Despite the show of force, this time some of the demonstrators reacted angrily by destroying property: they painted anti-war slogans on walls, slashed tires on cars and deflated the tires on buses and blocked the streets by hauling parked cars into intersections.
After it was all over, a group of parents petitioned the Berkeley School Board to excuse Berkeley High School students who had cut classes to attend Stop the Draft Week protests. My parents were against that, feeling that students should learn to take responsibility for their actions. In my memory, there were no suspensions or other punishments meted out.
There were a number of very large demonstrations in San Francisco. Music was always a part of them. Donovan told me, “It wasn’t entertainment. Being brought up by a zealous socialist romantic like my father inspired me, filled me with zeal to want to be part of social change. When I heard the songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Buffy Sainte Marie and Joan Baez, and saw the commitment of the American folk singer, that’s where I wanted to be.“
Richie Havens told me, “We were not anti-war, we were for global peace. That’s very different from being anti-soldiers. I still have on my Vietnam bracelet of an MIA from 1970. I had one from someone who came home, and I turned it in and they gave me a new one. That’s a commitment that’s important to me.”
Singer Barbara Dane and her husband, Irwin Silber compiled protest songs into The Vietnam Songbook. They wrote, “ This book, then, is designed as an act of solidarity, a testament of friendship, between men and women of the United States of America who oppose and work against the criminal policies of their government and their comrades of Vietnam – both north and south. To express this solidarity in its most profound sense, we have included not only the songs of our own anti-war movement here, but songs from all over the world which will help create a bond of mutual action with the people of Vietnam. . . . All are weapons which our movement uses in its struggle.”
Protests and Race
The racial element of the Vietnam War was was taken up by civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Panthers. Many of the soldiers in the Army were from poor black families who could not afford to send their kids to college to get a student deferment, or otherwise get out of serving in ways that were more available to middle class whites. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokley Carmichael’s cry, “Hell no! We won’t go!” was adopted at many protests. In 1968, Loretta Scott King addressed a Vietnam War protest in San Francisco. The Black Panthers, on the other hand, reacted with threats of violence, taking the stand that the white power structure was using the war to oppress people of color, and to kill off blacks in battle.
David Hilliard of the Black Panthers spoke to 100,000 protestors in Golden Gate Park in November, 1969, saying, “We say down with the American fascist society. . . .We will kill Richard Nixon. We will kill any motherfucker that stands in the way of our freedom. We ain’t here for no fucking peace, because we know we can’t have no peace because this country was built on war. And if you want peace you got to fight for it.” Secret Service agents arrested him a few weeks later for “willfully and knowingly” threatening to kill the president.
Protests as Noir Entertainment
There was a loony party element with music and noir-humored merriment to most demonstrations. General Hershey Bar and General Wastemoreland, named after real Vietnam Generals Hershey and Westmoreland—danced through the audiences in their U.S. government surplus military uniforms dripping with fake medals, miniature toy guns, plastic soldiers, bombs and rockets. At least one of them showed up at every happening and Vietnam demonstration in the Bay Area, making their presence a surreal anti-war statement.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe formed the Gorilla Marching Band. They would perform the National Anthem with antiwar lyrics, and would bring out signs saying “Get Out of Vietnam” at the finish. In 1969 they marched in the municipal St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The Army, Navy and R.O.T.C. had marchers in the parade. The performers held up a sign, “S.F. Mime Troupe Gorilla Marching Band” and a “Get Out of Vietnam” banner.
After the enormous 1969 demonstration in San Francisco, there was a huge traffic jam on the freeway entrance to the Bay Bridge. The boy I had gone to the demonstration with was driving a VW with a sun roof. He handed me a tennis ball. I stood on the front seat and hung out of the sun roof. I threw the ball to some people in the car behind us. Soon all the cars around us were cheerfully tossing the ball around as traffic remained stalled. Eventually, a Highway Patrol officer on a motorcycle appeared and told us to stop. But he was laughing and seemed to be enjoying our high spirits.
Wavy Gravy told me about organizing a demonstration to support the Chicago Eight, leaders of the protests at the Democratic National Convention who had been arrested, and ending up at a Vietnam War protest in Washington, D.C. As usual, he mixed absurdity and music with serious activism in his unique way.
“I was in Chicago dong a benefit for the Chicago Eight at the Aragon ballroom. Just before the moratorium, I contacted Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Apparently David and Graham wanted to perform at the demonstration, and Stephen and Neil were leaning the other way. Graham wrote the song, “If You Go to Chicago,” and gave me credit in the liner notes. I was deeply touched. We ended up with a full bill that included the Chad Mitchell Trio, Bob Gibson and an amazing harmonica player named Jeff Carp that Janis Joplin recommended.
The demonstration was the evening before Thanksgiving. It featured fifty turkeys under strobe lights. When the rock and roll hit the turkeys they went stark nuts. I went to get some industrial twine, and fifty people volunteered to be turkey tenders. Abbie Hoffman came in and said, “Why are these turkeys in jail? Set the turkeys free!” I put something in his hand, and he thought I was handing him drugs. Then backstage he saw that he was holding the severed toe of a turkey. I took him to a station where the turkey was being bandaged. Without blinking, Abbie looked at the turkey and hollered, ‘I ate your sister!’
“We drove from there to Washington D.C. for the Moratorium on Vietnam. There was a woman named Donna who helped care for the turkeys, so we named her “Donna Turkey Tender.” Years later, we saw her playing violin for Bob Dylan. Her name was Scarlet Rivera. There were two buses that had the folks who were part of the benefit in Chicago. Our bus got built into the stage at the moratorium. We had a half a million people in the streets against the war. Bill Hanley did the sound; he was the guy who did the sound at Woodstock.
We knew that the radical left was going to serve an eviction notice to the Vietnamese Embassy. You can’t walk up to an embassy without running into a wall of police that will club you to the ground. They’ll gas you, and we were afraid that a lot of well-meaning college kids would be swept up into that. So we tried to work out a deal with the government to open up space where there could be an alternative concert. When they tear gassed me, I had a box that would start laughing—that drove people crazy. I always had a wet rag in my pocket. I still feel naked when I go to Washington without one.
“There was an amazing scene where one of the organizers said to me in Dupont Circle, ‘Have the band set up here. I have absolute certainty that no tear gas will land here.’ Just then a tear gas canister landed there. We were going around in a bread truck picking up people and taking people to the office of an alternative newspaper where they could wash their eyes out.
“At the concert, Pete Seeger sang ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ Everyone sang along. Mitch Miller joined him on stage. Mitch Miller said ‘Give me a sea of Vs, and everyone gave V signs and was swaying and singing along. I said to Abbey Hoffman, ‘Middle America has taken over the peace movement, and now we can retire.’ Just then a bird shit on my third eye. Abbie said, “There’s your answer! We can never stop doing it.”
Levitating the Pentagon
Charlie Brown Artman was a hippie elder and a unique figure on the Berkeley scene. He believed that he was a reincarnated Native American, called himself Little Eagle and lived in a teepee that the cops frequently made him take down. While tripping on LSD, he had a vision of thousands of people from all over the country surrounding the Pentagon and meditating to levitate the building. Jerry Rubin picked up the idea, and organized the event for October, 1967.
The City of San Francisco Oracle announced the demonstration. Their vision was of a large crowd dancing and chanting around the Pentagon, causing it to rise 300 feet, vibrate and turn blazing orange. The flyer for the event read,
“Oct. 21, 1967, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., Planet Earth. We Freemen, of all color of the spectrum, in the name of God, Ra, Anubis, Osiris, Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl, Thoth, Chukwu, Olisa-Bulu-Uwa, Imales, Orisasu, Odudua, Kali, Shiva-Shakti, Great Spirit, Dionysius, Yahweh, Thor, Bacchus, Isis, Jesus Christ, Maitreya Buddha, and Rama, do exorcise and cast out the EVIL which has walled and captured the pentacle of power and perverted its use to the need of the total machine and its child the hydrogen bomb and has suffered the people of the planet, earth, the American people and creatures of the mountains, woods, streams, and oceans grievous mental and physical torture and constant torment of the imminent threat of utter destruction.
“We are demanding the pentacle of power once again be used to serve the interests of God manifest in the world as mankind. We are embarking on a motion which is millennial in scope. Let this day, October 21, 1967, mark the beginning of suprapolitics.
“By the act of reading this paper your are engaged in the Holy Ritual of Exorcism. To further participate, focus your thought on the casting out of evil through the grace of GOD which is all (ours). A billion stars in a billion galaxies of space and time is the form of your power, and limitless is your name.”
Filmmaker and devotee of the dark arts, Kenneth Anger, performed an exorcism. There was a more conventional element of protestors who demonstrated and listened to speeches. Others attempted to rush into the Pentagon, where they were repelled and beaten by soldiers. People tossed flowers at the soldiers and placed them in the barrels of their rifles. The flowers were made available by Bill Fortner, a marijuana smuggler, who wanted to shower the Pentagon with flowers from a circling airplane. The plane’s pilot was a no-show, so Fortner delivered the flowers to the demonstrators on the Pentagon steps.
Some of the protest and protestors were more down-to-earth. Barbara Dane told me, “At the levitation of the Pentagon, when we were all seated, we could see in a window the unmistakable head of Robert McNamara [Secretary of Defense] pulling back the curtain. We were surrounded by thousands of troops with guns. Everybody suddenly sat down and started to sing ‘America the “Beautiful,’ a song you thought countercultural people wouldn’t have thought of singing. But at that moment it was the right song.”
Demonstrations of all types continued around the country until the U.S. military abandoned all hope and left Vietnam. The vocal public disapproval of the war help bring about the decision to end it. Power to the people.