The demo that fizzled
Whereas most of the VDC events were hugely successful, such as the teach-ins and the marches to Oakland, there were also a number of creative but less spectacular smaller actions and some that failed ridiculously as well. Of the former, Gerard de Groot writes:
The VDC were not bungling anarchists. Many actions were wonderfully imaginative and perfectly planned. For instance, the group discovered that napalm was produced at a nearby plant and try to to Port Chicago, on the bay. VDC volunteers followed the convoys in a suitably military looking truck mounted with flashing lights and a boldly lettered sign which read “DANGER NAPALM BOMBS AHEAD.” 14
One of the latter is described by Sam Angeloff, a Life Magazine writer who infiltrated the VDC in order to write about it from the inside. The action he describes just happens to be the one and only time I participated in any kind of demonstration other than a large march or a troop train stopping. It happened to be taking place on a rare occasion when I had some free time and did not feel like spending it doing something alone. For me, it was a purely social activity on that day. I just knew some sympatico people were going to go do something that would not be dangerous and figured I might as well go hang with them. It was very rare for me to participate in such a half-assed event, and I think this might have been the most half-assed one I ever did participate in.
The plan was to picket the San Francisco home of Governor Pat Brown to protest his action in reprimanding a prominent Democrat for speaking out against the war. Angeloff’s description follows:
Toward the end of September large signs began to appear on the campus: BIG MARCH ON GOVERNOR BROWN’S HOUSE. SHOW HIM HE CAN’T SUPPRESS FREE SPEECH ABOUT THE WAR. . . .An organizational meeting was called for 8 o’clock Wednesday night, but it was 9:30 before anyone at the V.D.C. house noticed the meeting hadn’t been held. Everyone had forgotten it. It was held the next night, and those present decided to hold a rally Sunday afternoon at San Francisco State College, then march on to Governor Brown’s San Francisco address, nearly two miles away.
On Sunday morning, I drove to San Francisco to scout the scene with Steve Smale, a brilliant, 35-year-old professor of mathematics at Berkeley and a V.D.C. leader. . . “We ought to get a hundred people or so out today,” Smale said, mindless of the dreary overcast. “That’s pretty good, isn’t it, for a Sunday morning?”
Smale found Brown’s address—460 Magellan Avenue—then drove over to the San Francisco State campus to collect a crowd. After nearly two hours the best we could do was 20 people, four of them newsmen. We drove back to the governor’s home and got out of our five cars to divide up our picket signs, taking too much time and feeling rather silly. Finally about five people began walking toward the house and the rest of us followed. The picketing had gone on about 15 minutes when a neighbor walked by and said:
“You’ve got the wrong house, kids. Brown hasn’t lived there for five years.”
We all thought this funny, but we kept picketing; we didn’t know what else to do. Anyway, the governor did own the house: indeed, this was still Brown’s official voting address. After an hour we stopped kidding ourselves and went back to the V.D.C. office in Berkeley. As we relaxed there a V.D.C. member said, “What the hell, all marches are symbolic. Take the trains last summer. We didn’t have a prayer of stopping those troop trains. But people saw what we were doing, and they could see that we cared enough to take a chance. It made people think, and that’s why this movement is as big as it is now.”15
There is nothing about Angloff’s description of that fiasco that I would modify. However, I was startled to read that not one, but four, of our little group had been reporters. I never suspected that there were spies among us and had, in fact, been flirting with Angeloff to the best of my ability all the way over in the carpool to San Francisco from Berkeley. I had spotted him early on this day, had thought he was awfully cute and had a very balanced, calm, rational aura about him that I liked. Plus, he spoke knowledgeably about the issues. He clearly knew more than I did about Vietnam. I maneuvered to be in the back seat of the car with him as we drove to this demo, and flirted with him in my probably-too-subtle, dignified way all the way there, then made sure I was right behind him in the line, in case we should take a break and I could renew my efforts. I never suspected for a minute that he was a news-mole.
When I later read the Life Magazine article, in which I am pictured walking directly behind him in the picket line,16 a position I had jockeyed for earnestly, I was able to suss out the reason why my flirtation had failed. It appears that skinny, brainy, bespectacled women are not exactly his type. To read the article these days, I have to adjust my sexism detector in order to filter out the unremitting presentation of women activists as “girls,” trophies, or servants, but that is an adjustment with which I am extremely familiar.
Though I have much negative to say about the article in general and have said it, I have come to appreciate that it well presents the “color” (as journalists say) in the VDC story, along with allegations I have no reason to dispute. Since I was too busy to write anything but my anthro papers and my memories are so loaded with the pain of my experiences, I now find it valuable to have the report of a spy presumably following the journalistic ethic of objectivity.
I appreciated the article even more after my own brief five-year career as a journalist, understanding now just what he did. I hasten to say, however, that I myself, have never and would never infiltrate anything in order to write about it. I am even a little antsy about the well-known story of Gloria Steinem infiltrating the Playboy Club to write about it. I am too much an anthropologist. I would have said up front who I was and what I was doing, and then worked to convince those around me that I would write a fair article. As a “member” (insofar as anybody can be said to have been a member of any Berkeley movement) of the VDC, I am guessing Angeloff’s article would have been just as good, maybe better, without the spy part.
Day of the Angels
The troop train demonstrations were followed in the fall by a series of marches. There were so many, it is impossible for me to sort out how many I participated in or even the specifics of most of them. I remember going to Port Chicago naval weapons station in Concord and to the army terminal in Oakland, from which soldiers departed for action in Vietnam. One of the most memorable of the activities in which I participated was a peace march to downtown Oakland that was curtailed, not by the police, but by the Hell’s Angels.
That march was the upshot of events that had occurred the night before.17 There had been a candlelight march down Telegraph that had only reached Alcatraz Avenue, the city line dividing Berkeley and Oakland. Whereas it was generally assumed that the Oakland police would attempt to prevent the march from entering Oakland, no plan had been agreed on to meet that contingency. The debate was ongoing as the march approached the city line. On Alcatraz, police were encountered, the march turned onto Alcatraz, then stopped while the leaders continued to argue whether to turn back or sit down or engage with the police in some way. The argument contained some political symbolism, since turning back would be a right turn and continuing towards Oakland would be a left turn.
Though my memory of that march is fairly fuzzy, I do remember a truck with a loudspeaker leading it and the long pause, though I also remember having no grasp of the problem or the long argument between the leaders on the truck that seemed pointless to those of us who could not hear it. I was compliant, if a bit bewildered, when we turned around and marched back to Berkeley, where the situation was explained to me by people who were closer to the leadership. Some people were calling it a fiasco, but I did not consider myself an expert on tactics and trusted that the people I trusted, specifically Frank Bardacke, had made the best choice under the circumstances. I was fine with another attempt the next day.
It was a very beautiful day as we walked south on Adeline Ave in the company of very peaceful, pleasant people, most of whom appeared to have come from campus. There was a lot of flow and talk and singing, maybe a bit of sporadic chanting. As we got further away from campus, I noticed that there were children and older people and a good mix of people who did not appear to be affiliated with UC in some way. I was surprised that there were that many people there and I was also surprised at the composition of the crowd. It was not just students and it was not just radicals. I think that may have been the first time I noticed that other kinds of people were being pulled into the peace movement. According to Angeloff, VDC leaders were also pleasantly surprised at the unexpected large turnout.18
Gale and I were very close to the front of the march, no more than three loose “rows” back from the first row. At Alcatraz Avenue, we just stopped, for no immediately apparent reason. Then, maneuvering myself closer to the front and peering in between larger people in front of me, I saw a big line of cops. Well, that was to be expected, I thought. Everyone was taking it all pretty much in stride. It seems to me that maybe discussions were going on among the leaders in front of the march, or that they were just about to go and talk to the cops. At that point, we became aware of the Hell’s Angels behind the cops. That intersection is where three streets come together, so I remember it as being a complex arrangement, with both cops and angels in the intersection. It seems to me that the angels were to the side of the cops, a line across the street they were not blocking and that is why I was able to see them so well.
I saw about twenty Hell’s Angels on motorcycles, but it was hard to see the whole picture, as short as I am, even sticking my nose between the people in front. We all began asking each other what on earth are they doing here? I asked Gale what he thought they were going to do. He looked worried. He was strong and athletic, but small, definitely no match for a Hell’s Angel in a fight. He said, “I don’t know, maybe they’re going to attack us.”
Then, all of a sudden, they were no longer on motorcycles. They were on foot and they began to charge the line. By that time, I think we may have been linking arms or something, but my memory is clouded by fear. I do know that, as they ran at us, I had a horrible flashback to my childhood, when I was one of the tiniest kids in elementary school and the older boys used to play Red Rover, Red Rover in the playground before school started. It is a children’s game wherein two hand-holding lines alternately send individuals to run to the opposing line facing them, heave themselves on it and try to break through the hands. Being only in the second grade and a real dummy in these kinds of matters, I thought it looked like fun and I would like to play. One day I went and got in the line, too. That was when I realized that the smallest, weakest point in the line is where the runner is going to hit. My tenure in the Red Rover game had lasted about two minutes before I saw a huge sixth grade boy charging directly at me and managed to break the grip of the children on either side of me and run like hell before I got my arm broken.
As I took this little one-second stroll down memory lane, I was holding arms with the people on either side of me at the march. When the sudden charge took place, it seemed to me that it was coming directly at me, with only one line of people between me and it. I chickened out immediately, snatching my arms free, turning around and diving straight back into the people behind me, who could not see exactly what was happening. Gale was right behind me. I did not get hurt and I do not believe I hurt anyone I dived into but I cannot say the same for the people who had been in front of me. I could hear screams and shuffles behind me as I turned and I learned later that people got hit and knocked over and punched.
Gale and I headed backwards into the march until we hit the point where the density prevented us from going any further. I turned around and what I saw was a lot of confusion and scuffling that included protesters, police and angels. It was impossible to say exactly what was going on. We assumed the cops were getting the angels off the protesters, rather than joining them in the attack. My next memory is standing in the march and seeing an ambulance. We were later told that one of the police had sustained a broken leg in the melee.
This particular action has held particular meaning for me because it was the cause of the first time I ever spoke to a non-departmental political group on campus. Soon after this march Cowan was leading a VDC meeting–maybe a work group, maybe a general meeting. It was in a space I remember as being a small room, or a hallway somewhere. People were crowded closely together. When Cowan asked for suggestions as to where to go from here, there was a very uncharacteristic reluctance on anyone’s part to speak. People seemed to be strangely devoid of ideas, possibly still in some kind of shock.
Since I knew the person leading the meeting, nobody else seemed to want to speak and I had actually been able to formulate a thought, I thought “what the hell” and stood up to say my piece. What I had to say was, “I am very concerned about the officer whose leg was broken and I’m very grateful to him for trying to protect me. The first thing I would like to see, whatever else we decide to do, is thank the Oakland Police Department for protecting us and send flowers to the injured cop, could we pass the hat for that?”
This offering was met with a stunned silence. Everyone, including Cowan, stared at me dumbfounded for a few seconds before erupting into savage protest. Forget any kind of order, people were yelling, “Bullshit, they were doing their job.” “Flowers! what is this, Sunday School?” “They should have stopped them before they got there.” “He don’t need no stinkin’ flowers!” etc. Cowan favored me with a look of supreme scorn and I knew this tale would be passed around the department with raucous derision, so I sat down and shut up.
The vast majority of those present, all males as far as I could tell, thought I was some kind of an airhead ditz for making such a suggestion. But, there were also male and female voices defending me. I figured this guy, this injured police officer, who knows what his political beliefs are, was indeed protecting us because that was his job, but he chose a dangerous job and then he did it in spite of the danger. Not every cop would have and I had certainly seen cops who were not doing their job as I understood their job to be. I like it when people tell me they appreciate me doing my job. He probably would, too. I would not have wanted to facedown the Hell’s Angels to protect a bunch of people whose political beliefs I did not agree with. It was only common decency to thank him.
In addition, I felt that there was value in showing people outside the movement that we were not always negative and polarizing, that we could be peaceful in fighting for peace, as well as compassionate. I also imagined that a dynamite letter to the police could be composed, weaving in the first amendment, the fact that we were breaking no laws, only exercising our rights, that we were non-violent and that we were proud of our local police department that they treated us in a way that recognized these factors. Such a letter could diplomatically highlight the difference between the actions of the police on this occasion and their actions at the Sproul Hall sit-in. It was a golden opportunity to depolarize the situation a bit. I would have been delighted to participate in the writing of such a letter, but I was never able to present these arguments supporting it.
Anything further I might have had to say was shouted down and Cowan proceeded to ignore me until he could cut loose on me later in the Gifford Room, but people were now raising their hands with enthusiasm. I had, if nothing else, single-handedly un-dammed the idea block, or something. The formerly tongue-tied radicals were now falling all over each other to come up with a plan for the future.
I had been soundly reprimanded for trying to inject a little humanity into the proceedings and it was a long time before I opened my mouth in such a setting again. At the time, I was embarrassed, but now I am rather proud of myself and feel the story speaks to my integrity rather than my naivete, even though my naivete famously led me into being the scapegoat for department activists later, during the People’s Park controversy. When I later dropped out, it was because my vision of peace, as expressed at this meeting, was in such great conflict with the vision of peace that came to characterize some factions of the antiwar movement in the end.
In later years, many people went back and forth about the Hell’s Angels and I guess they were so foolishly invited to be security at the Altamont rock concert because they were trying to convince people that they were really, philosophically, hippies. But, I never could make the switch from seeing them charging at me with evil intent and then seeing them held up as lost boys we should try to incorporate into our movement or free souls like us under the skin. I could not even do that, like a good hippie, on an individual basis. I met a proud biker years later in southern Humboldt and was even in a band with him for a while but the one I met, in fact, ended up cornering me one day and threatening me with violence if I continued to encourage his wife, who had five children at that point, to go with me to get our tubal ligations together. I never found a reason to change my opinion of bikers.
Now they’re bombing us
It was after I had been involved in a number of marches and actions organized by the VDC, all of which were never free, for me at least, from some threat of danger, that there was an event that did shake me to the core and cause me to seriously question whether I had the courage to continue in my personal antiwar efforts. That was the day that I just missed getting bombed.
Gale’s apartment was located on the second floor of a house located on the north side of the street in the middle of the block on Channing Way, west of Fulton Street. Around the corner on Fulton Street was the house containing the VDC office on the ground floor. It was just possible to see that house looking diagonally across the intersection of Fulton and Channing from Gale’s living room window. On those occasions when I found a little free time to help out with the clerical work for the VDC, I often left directly from the office and went to Gale’s. We were almost, but not quite, living together at that time.
On one such occasion, we were in his bedroom sleeping when we were awakened by an incredibly loud noise. We ran into the living room and looked out the window towards the VDC office. We saw smoke and people running away from the building, but we could not see the building clearly. Gale ran outside and asked one of the people that had run out what had happened and was told that a bomb had just gone off in the office. Nobody was hurt, he was told, but the back of the office was damaged. When Gale came back with his report, I went into a state very close to hysterics. I had left the office earlier in the evening, maybe three hours before that, after being in the back of the building working, probably typing or stuffing envelopes. If Gale’s information was correct, the bomb went off in the same room where I had been sitting.
I began to shake and sob, “If I don’t get busted, I’m going to get bombed.” In a misguided effort to make me see that no one had gotten hurt, Gale tried to make me look out the window again, but I was sobbing about what might have happened, or might yet happen, not what did happen. Any fool can see, I thought, that if it happened once it could very easily happen again. It was many hours and several glasses of wine later before I stopped shaking completely.
My memories of that day consist only of being in the office working before the bomb and my hysteria in Gale’s apartment after it. If there was talk about it on campus, which there surely must have been, my memory of it has been masked either by the emotional state it generated in me or by the proliferation of other stressful events that were taking place. It seems to me in retrospect almost dreamlike, having no context either before or after. I can remember no one mentioning it or explaining it and no talk of any investigation into who did it. I think it is possible that it scared me so badly that I just was incapable of processing any war-related input for some time after that. It was only when I began research for this book that I learned anything more about it than what I, myself, had witnessed.
David Goines, a leader of the FSM, provides this description, which has helped me believe my own memory:
At 1:30 in the morning of April 9, 1966, we were startled by the sound of an explosion. It sounded distant, but big. In seconds, the phone rang and it was Pam Mellin asking if we had heard that the VDC headquarters had been bombed. Jesus H. Christ. We jumped into Leo’s car and went over to 2407 Fulton where the headquarters were, and the street was full of fire engines and ambulances and cops. Red lights flashing all over the place and the whole front of the building was just plain gone.
All the VDC leaders had been having a meeting in the living room. They had just adjourned, and gotten up and walked together into the kitchen to get some eats and the room followed them out. One minute earlier and everyone would have been jam. That would have changed things a lot.. . .
The VDC bombing occurred one day after the Oakland Tribune printed an article about the VDC fund raiser in UC’s Harmon gymnasium which was represented as a drugged out wild sex orgy. The Jefferson Airplane had played, and many people were stoned on acid, which was still legal, but the only concrete evidence of an actual orgy was one used condom on the floor of the balcony.19
There are some minor discrepancies between Goines’ account here and what I remember, but I hasten to stipulate that none of them matter, except in a court of law, and Goines’ account is surely the most accurate. I do not remember it being so late at night. Would I have been doing volunteer work three hours before 1 a.m.? Well, maybe, unusual but possible. If the front of the building was gone, could the bomb have gone off in the back of the building? Who knows, I could never bring myself to look at the damage and Gale or his frantic informants might have gotten it wrong and what matters here is that I thought it had gone off where I had been working. As for the article about the dance that may have inspired the bombing, I am pretty sure that this was not the same dance that Governor Reagan is talking about in Berkeley in the Sixties as a drugged-out orgy because Jefferson Airplane did not play at that dance. There must have been two so-called drugged-out orgies at Harmon Gym that inspired blowback and chances are good I went to the Jefferson Airplane one as well. I will leave it to historians to deal with these problems, since what is important here is that I was close enough to the VDC bombing in time and space that it scared the bejesus out of me. That’s the way it was with me. I was caught between this incredible fear and the feeling that I was obligated to continue my antiwar activities, that if I had any integrity and any claim to a social conscience, it was something I had to do. But, it was getting heavier and heavier and scarier and scarier all the time.
When I have told my VDC bombing story to people over the years, I have sometimes been called paranoid. Gale mentioned that possibility that night, causing me to scream at him, “Paranoia! You jackass, I just missed getting blown up!” Nevertheless, I have been working on this question of paranoia in general for many long years. Did I overreact? Was I paranoid? Or was it a reasonable fear, based on what had happened to me up to that point? All I can say is that whatever that feeling was that built-up in me, that fear that they were going to get me sooner or later, that if I were not put into a mental institution (my fear ever since Florida), I would get busted or killed, was in no way diminished by the bombing of the VDC office and only increased with subsequent events. I do feel compelled, however, to point out that paranoia is a word describing unreasonable fear. Its application to me depends entirely on whether my fear was reasonable or not.
© Jentri Anders, 2016
Footnotes are located in the blog entry entitled “Footnotes to Chapter Six.”