I hate crowds. I've always hated crowds. That's why, in the late sixties and early seventies when I was involved in the antiwar movement, I had a serious problem: I could not look forward to going to demonstrations.
I'll never forget the first big protest march I took part in. It blew me away.
It was 1968. George Wallace had set up his own anti-liberal American Independent Party so he could run for president. How could anyone consider nominating such a racist...! But if the times had changed, he had changed with them. He was no longer running as a racist, a segregationist; he was running as an anti-Communist. And he had come to New York City to campaign.
We (a coalition of various peace groups) had a permit from the city to march. We had a route laid out for us. (I can't say exactly how many of us there were; our estimates and the official estimates varied, but no one argued for less than eight thousand.) Once we were assembled, however, the cops cordoned us off.
Police barricades were set up everywhere, including right where I happened to be standing. The crowd swelled and pushed. There was no escaping. I found myself pinned up against one of those wooden crowd-control barriers, with nothing to protect me from New York's Finest.
The cops were mounted on horseback, ready to charge. The rifles they were pointing had fixed bayonets. I stood there, speechless. This was not a reality I had ever imagined myself a part of. This was a scene straight out of Dr. Zhivago. You know the one: The people march for "Bread and Brotherhood" and are mowed down as so much chaff in front of Yuri's disbelieving eyes.
I thought of all I'd learned and wanted to believe about nonviolent practice. I did my best to establish eye contact with the cop opposite me. I kept willing him to put down his weapon. I tried to tell him I loved him.
I was eighteen years old, unarmed and unathletic, and I'm sure I looked as soft and nonthreatening as I felt. He could have beaten me, hands down, at arm wrestling. He could have caught me running. No contest. Didn't he have a younger sister or daughter? He looked old enough to be my father. Couldn't he see that brute force was wrong, that he was on the wrong side?
I wanted to reason with him, to engage him in a meaningful conversation. I had two questions I was burning to ask him: (1) If your opponent, antagonist, enemy-whatever you want to call them-isn't using physical force, just an argument, what does it say about you if your only defense is to kill or maim them? (2) What does it say about your cause?
How could these cops, these men, face us? How could they go home afterwards and face their families, their friends? How could they face themselves?
Before the demonstration broke up, I witnessed several other demonstrators-mostly skinny guys with long hair, and a few women-being led away, bloodied, by cops. The cops seemed to enjoy twisting their arms behind their backs and bullying them forward with their clubs. Though they had already subdued them, they continued hurting their victims, causing them more pain.
I was lucky. I managed to get myself home in one piece. My only additional interaction with the cops was a verbal one.
As I was making my way to the subway-along with my friend Nina, whom I had happily run into-a gang of young cops approached. One of them taunted me, asking if I was a boy or a girl.
"If you have to ask," I said, "you'd better get your eyes examined." (I was not the least bit androgynous. If I was wearing a bra, it would have been a size thirty-six C, and the rest of me was in good old-fashioned zaftig proportion.)
Not to be shown up in the wit department, another cop asked Nina if she believed in free love. She didn't miss a beat. "Do you think I should pay for it?" she shot back. We ran away before they could ask-or do-anything else.
The next major protest was going to be in Chicago, at the Democratic National Convention. Everyone I knew was planning to go, trying to talk me into going. But no way was I going to go. No way was I going to press my luck.
I was scared. I admitted it. But I didn't believe I was a coward. I'd never had much confidence in my physical self, that kind of bravery. My strength, my coordination, my speed were never in my muscles. Like I said, I was no athlete. My body was not to be a weapon for or against any war. Whatever strength I had was in my mind. I didn't want to get my skull bashed in just to prove how bad the bad guys were.
Also, I didn't believe that the only place for an honorable man-or woman-was jail. When I lived at the CNVA (Committee for Nonviolent Action) in Voluntown, Connecticut, the political commune where I baked bread and did some draft counseling, everyone who'd ever been arrested for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience enjoyed sharing their story. And, of course, anyone who'd actually served time in prison for such an offense was a hero. I, however, had to admit that the thought of being imprisoned or of getting arrested-just the thought of some cop, even briefly, having power over my body-made me crazy.
The only way I could be good to anyone, to any cause, was as a free agent. The thought of having handcuffs around my wrists, of being pushed, forced to march in some direction not of my own choosing.... The idea of anyone being able to force me to do anything! I couldn't take it. Couldn't stand it. When push came to shove in reality, outside of our nonviolent-civil-disobedience training sessions, I knew I would never be able to go limp.
History coursed through me. Other people had gone passively, not believing what would be done to them. It wasn't that I expected another Holocaust every minute. I just didn't want to risk being in their hands for a second. Putting myself in that position would reduce my struggle for world peace and social justice to my own immediate personal struggle.
Still, in spite of my misgivings, I did attend many demonstrations. Sometimes I'd think of all the people who'd had no choices, whose bodies didn't belong wherever it was they'd wound up-above or below the ground. I knew that too often the wisest, kindest, noblest individual voices were drowned out or turned a deaf ear to. If someone shouts "Peace" or "Love" and no one listens.... It made me think of Horton Hears a Who. Sometimes we have to put all our voices together. If the orchestra of war is playing loud, we need a large chorus singing for peace. A solo will not do.
It's still hard to believe, isn't it? More bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Vietnam than were dropped by all sides in World War Two. I don't understand it now and I sure as hell didn't understand it then. But if a New York City cop could have been ready to run me through with a bayonet, I guess Nixon and Agnew could have found reason enough to bomb hell out of Indochina.
So, in the early seventies, when I was a student at UB (State University of New York at Buffalo), I did my share of demonstrating. I marched with lots of other UB students and all sorts of pissed-off Buffalonians.
We'd march downtown, many of us with our arms linked in solidarity, chanting antiwar slogans. "The people united will never be defeated!" is the one I remember best. We chanted it in Spanish, too.
We'd usually rally at Niagara Square in front of the city hall. Every time I saw Buffalo's city hall, I was impressed by how much it looked like the Daily Planet building in Superman. I'd point out the resemblance to anyone within range. It wasn't the kind of thing most people noticed. But it was appropriate: What was our rallying about if not "Truth, Justice, and the American Way"?
Anyhow, people who protest together can't help becoming acquainted, and after several marches and rallies, I started to feel almost comfortable. More and more of my fellow and sister protesters' faces (if not their names) had become familiar ones. And before too long, the crowds were transformed; they had become my community.
Causes Peggy Landsman Supports
Green Peace, Pro Literacy Worldwide, International Planned Parenthood, Doctors without Borders, National Jewish Health