Bob Dole and Jack Kemp were going to be the keynote speakers at a CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President) dinner at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in downtown Buffalo. Reelect Nixon so he can continue to wind down the war. Right.
An SDS leaflet that I got from my friend Lenore put it this way: "Nixon Winding Down The War??? Nixon's Vietnamization program parades a pull-out of American troops and their replacement by South Vietnamese regulars. This patently racist maneuver, using yellow skins to secure their profits instead of whites, is but a smoke-screen to obscure the continuation and indeed, escalation, of America's imperialist war in Indo-China. It must be revealed for what it is: FRAUD!!!!"
Vietnamization meant bombing the Vietnamese people, all the people, not just soldiers. It meant destroying three old civilizations—not only Vietnam, but Cambodia and Laos, as well.
When I heard about the demonstration that was planned for outside the "Stalin-Hitler"—as some of us called that pile of brick—to protest what would be going on inside, I knew that was one demonstration I had to miss. I was sick and tired of marching down Main Street, gathering in Niagara Square...So what if Dole or any other of the CREEPs heard a chant or read a protest sign? I was sick and tired of being on the outside, looking in.
My housemate Harry agreed with me. "Let's go down early and do a little recon."
"Case the joint!"
"Yeah. Maybe we can get in through the kitchen or..."
On our way downtown, we talked wildly about all sorts of highly unlikely strategies. We knew we would do whatever we could. We'd take advantage of any opportunity, no matter how crazy.
"I've got no ID or anything," I said. "If I get arrested, I'm Emma Goldman. Who will you be?"
"Who else?" Harry smiled and shook the hair away from his eyes. "Alexander Berkman."
Inside the hotel, in the lobby of the enemy's camp, people were hurrying and scurrying about. The scene appeared to be one of chaos, but I'm sure everyone knew exactly what they were doing, where they were going. Everyone, that is, except Harry and me. We had no clear idea about anything, but to double our potential, we split up.
Almost immediately, I ran into someone I knew—a guy who was a cameraman for one of the local TV stations. He told me that before the one-hundred-dollar-a-plate dinner, there was going to be a press conference. He suggested I try to get into it.
"How?" I asked.
"Get yourself a notebook or something and say you're from The Spectrum. I don't know, man, you gotta be creative if you wanna be subversive. I gotta run."
What an idea! I was wearing my dark blue SUNY Buffalo T-shirt and my jeans. I could certainly pass for a Spectrum reporter.
I spotted another familiar face in the crowded lobby. It belonged to one of the left-wing lawyers who'd been defending draft resisters and other antiwar activists. I caught him right before he stepped into an elevator. He was more than willing to part with a pen, some paper, and a manila folder. "I don't know if it will work," he said, after I explained what I wanted to do, "but good luck. And, here. Just in case..." He handed me his card with his phone numbers—office and home.
Once again, I spotted my cameraman pal. I waved the folder over my head. He was rushing off somewhere with the rest of his crew, but took a second to point toward the room where the press conference was to be held. I joined the group of reporters waiting to get in.
Someone was standing by the door asking, "What paper are you from?" and checking off the answers on his clip board. When I said I was Emma Goldman from the U.B. student paper, The Spectrum, he said he didn't have that on his list, but agreed there must have been some mix-up. He gave me a pass to the dinner and let me through.
Once inside the room, I took a seat, opened my folder on my lap, and started jotting down notes. I was in the second row of metal folding chairs, just a few feet away from Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. There were TV cameras, microphones, lights. Expectation. We were instructed in the protocol and, finally, the conference began. I raised my hand. Dole nodded directly at me.
"In the fifties, when he was in the Senate," I said, "President Nixon went on record in favor of using nuclear weapons in Indochina. Is he in favor of using them now, in Vietnam?"
"No," Senator Dole said.
He looked shocked for a split second. Then he moved on quickly to the next questioner.
The conference was brief. As everyone was getting ready to leave, I went up to another of the people in charge. I explained to her that I'd misplaced the pass the guy at the door had given me. She said, "No problem," and gave me another. On my way out of the room, I spotted Harry and handed it to him.
"Just act like you belong," I whispered into his ear. "If anybody asks, you're a reporter."
We handed over our passes (no one asked us anything), filed into the main ballroom (no one gave us a second look), and sat down at the press table along with the real reporters, a bunch of middle-aged men. They were all perfectly friendly, intent on enjoying the roast beef dinner.
The new potatoes looked good and the peas were probably cooked to perfection, but I couldn't eat. Maybe the Persephone myth had had too much influence on me. I didn't take even a sip of water. I passed my plate to Harry who happily indulged his two-hundred-dollar appetite.
I looked around. Chandeliers. White tablecloths. Shining crystal. Well-dressed, rich people. All here to support Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War. My life felt like a loaded gun. I was a bomb about to explode across the floor.
Don't ask me everything "Mr. Banality of Evil," Robert Dole, said. I only know, after he had the nerve to say something about American ideals, I lost it. "American ideals?" I shouted. I left my place at the table, walked to the center of the room in direct line opposite the speaker, and addressing everyone, continued. "America is based on genocide. Its entire history is genocide! And all of you here tonight supporting Nixon are perpetuating this horrible history. Your individual names won't be remembered, but the evil that you're supporting in Vietnam most definitely will!"
A thousand pairs of eyes were turned on me. I saw the whitened knuckles of hundreds of hands gripping knives. I saw long, polished fingernails whose fingers curled around the delicate stems of the glasses their hands could easily throw. Before any of the sharp cutlery or potentially dangerous glassware was hurled in my direction, though, two guards lifted me by my elbows and unceremoniously ejected me from the room.
I had succeeded in interrupting Dole. Maybe I'd shaken things up a tiny bit. I couldn't know if the results of my action would be significant or not, but...
I was in another state. I didn't realize exactly what I had done, exactly what I was doing. On my way home, I passed faces that blurred, heard familiar chants that blended. I myself was on automatic, a pilotless plane.
I opened the front door of my friend Win's house. Sure enough, it was packed with people. A post-demonstration get-together. I spotted Win in the living room. Some Che Guevara look-alike had him pinned up against the wall by the fireplace. "Sandy!" It took him a minute to extricate himself. "Where've you been?"
"You did it!" He embraced me, pressed me tightly to his chest.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"We're all proud of you."
Was I the newest, latest, conquering hero? I looked at Win, his slightly flushed face, and felt suddenly exhausted. Harry came thundering down the stairs. "Sandy!" It seemed mine was the name on everybody's lips. He grabbed a hold of me like we hadn't seen each other in ages. "After you left, they asked me why you did it, did I have any idea. I gave them your name and mine." His eyes twinkled. "I think one of them got it. Then, about fifteen minutes later when Kemp started talking, I gave them a repeat of your performance. I don't know exactly what I said. But you were great!"
"It's amazing we didn't get arrested, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Go figure. But where did you disappear? We've all been..."
"I just kept walking. It was the weirdest thing. All those people. The knives and glasses. I was sure I was dead, cut into a thousand pieces. There was such hatred, such pure hatred. I couldn't believe it."
"Darling," said Win, "you'd better believe it. That's what fuels the fire."
Terry returned from wherever she had been. She hugged both Harry and me simultaneously. "You two..." She was beaming.
"But we didn't really..." I was having trouble. Only as I spoke, did I begin to understand. "Their hatred is so strong against anyone who dares disagree with them, challenge them in any way. Standing in front of them those few seconds, that minute, I saw...We can't change them, their views. There's no reasoning with them. It's awful."
"That," said Win, "is what power is all about."
Over Win's shoulder, I saw Arlene approaching. It had been a while since I'd last run into her. The Peace Bridgers had gone low profile since December. Or maybe they'd broken up. Arlene was probably part of some other group now—breaking into Selective Service offices, destroying draft records, leaving eloquent statements behind. But who knew?
"I thought you didn't want to risk being arrested," she said.
"No, you misunderstood. I didn't want to plan to be arrested. This was a spontaneous action." I looked over to where Harry and Terry had been standing, but they were gone.
"Well, it was pretty good." Arlene shook her head. "I bet they never expected that kind of thing from the reporters."
"No," I agreed. "They certainly didn't."
"It must have blown their minds when Harry got up, too."
"Two in a row!" Win said. Then he went off to talk with some other people.
"In the future," Arlene said, "if anyone else does anything like what you did, I'm sure they'll get arrested."
"You're probably right." I was just beginning to realize how incredibly lucky we'd been.
Mark and Donna joined us. "Good demonstration inside and out," Mark said.
"Yeah. Great!" added Donna.
"You can't keep the ghosts of good anarchists down," John said, coming up and throwing an arm around my shoulders.
Mark made a fist. "The fuckers'll probably have to start paying for tighter security now."
I shook myself free of John's arm. "Have you guys heard from Dennis?" Dennis had been a member of the Peace Bridge Builders who, it turned out, had been living underground. He had been AWOL from the army, and the FBI had finally caught him. He was now in the stockade at Fort Dix.
"Wait till we tell you," said Donna. "They only allow the prisoners to read military manuals or the Bible." She took a deep breath. "It seems the Bible has gotten to him. He said when he's released he's going to become some kind of monk or something."
Mark grinned and pulled Donna tight. "He said the first thing he'll do is give us his blessing." Before his arrest, Dennis and Donna had been an item.
"You two are together?" I hadn't realized. They nodded happily.
Wine bottle in hand, a grin on his face, Win rejoined us. We all found glasses and he filled them. "Well," he said, "confusion to the enemy."
Next morning, Harry and I stumbled into the kitchen at the same time. First thing we saw was the article from the Buffalo Evening News that Win had taped onto the refrigerator door. He had scrawled "Anarchists Return!" across the top.
"There were peace demonstrators outside, a pair of hecklers inside,..." the article began.
"Hecklers!" Harry and I turned to each other. "So that's what we are!"
We were surprised by the mistakes in the article. The writer had switched us around. He said Emma had interrupted Kemp. It had been Dole. But it didn't matter. They were both defending Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War, his decision to blockade and mine North Vietnamese harbors.
The night the mining of Haiphong harbor had been announced, a whole bunch of us had gotten together. We'd sat talking for hours. Some people discussed getaway plans to Canada. Things had gotten completely out of control. Once again we feared we were on the brink of World War Three. That's why we'd had to do something, why we couldn't let the CREEPs eat their dinner in peace.
I drank a glass of orange juice and realized I wasn't ready to face the day. I told Harry I'd catch him later and climbed the stairs back up to my room.
I felt awful! I zipped up my sleeping bag as high as it would go and wriggled myself as deep down into it as I could. I opened my eyes and took in the dark.
If I'd been born a boy, who knows? Instead of this sleeping bag, my body might be zipped up inside a body bag. Somewhere. In some hellhole in Vietnam. Or, if I'd been born in the Old Country, in 1945, just five years earlier than I'd been born in the New World, New York, my body could have spent its last moments in an oven dedicated to cremating Jews.
I couldn't shake the horror from myself.
I lay awhile, breathing in the silence.
Then I heard the music. It was lovely. Terry playing her flute.
There was beauty all around. Always. Everywhere. Mozart/Most Art. But sometimes that just made things worse.
I burrowed deeper and deeper into my sleeping bag, body bag, oven of depression until...It struck me. What individualism versus collectivism was really about: How can you be happy when you know everyone else isn't? Can you be happy in spite of it? You certainly can't be happy because of it. Maybe that's what's meant by "counting your blessings."
This Hungarian guy I'd met, whose family had emigrated in '56, told me there's a Hungarian saying: "One of my eyes is crying; one of my eyes is smiling."
I got up.
Causes Peggy Landsman Supports
Green Peace, Pro Literacy Worldwide, International Planned Parenthood, Doctors without Borders, National Jewish Health