Vietnam: The Power of Protest, a conference held May 1 and 2 in Washington D.C. could just as easily have been called Vietnam: The Power of Memory. Reminiscences create bonding. Since Stew’s and David’s deaths I rely on dear friends for comfort; to this day I prefer the company of folks I’ve known for decades since they remember so I don’t have to explain myself. The conference made my personal political, it gave our collective past a higher purpose in the present. Tom Hayden said it best: we, the peace movement, must restore our narrative and by so doing overcome America’s refusal to admit the Vietnam War was wrong and we were right.
OBSERVATIONS AND RECOLLECTIONS
RANDY ROSS AND I READ FROM MME. BINH’S MEMOIR
The short segment we read was given a place of honor worthy of Mme Binh: second to last on the final night of the conference’s cultural program. I walked up to a podium of polished oak, past a pulpit from which Dr. Martin Luther King had once preached, in an elegant old church in central Washington. In my excitement, the applause after my name is mentioned barely registers, rather the noise of clapping I hear devolves into a blip on the radar screen of my subconscious. I focus my attention on the task at hand: doing right by Mme. BInh, a leader at the the Paris Peace Talks and my personal hero back in the day. My job? To use Mme. Binh’s own words to convey her gratitude to us, her American and international friends, for helping shorten the war and bring about peace.
The previous day, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, scene of so many anti-war demonstrations, I called up in my imagination crowds who lined both sides of the reflecting pool. Next day in the church, as I uttered Mme. Binh’s words, I had one of those experiences that can lose itself in the telling. I swear I felt a presence hovering over pews filled with silver-haired women and grey bearded men, veterans of both war and peace movements; a visitation if you will from those who are gone: Stew, David, my friend Xuan Oanh, Anita, Abbie, Jerry, Phil, even Super Joel, to say nothing of the 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese conscripted into that ghostly army that is our legacy of the American War in Vietnam. At the finale, Holly Near, her band Emma’s Revolution, presenters and audience linked arms and belted out, “We are gentle angry people, singing, singing for our lives. ” I sang. I cried. How could I not?
The sustained and hearty applause Randy and I received when we finished is a testament to our success in conveying Mme. Binh’s message. Randy and I had aced it. But had I also heard the audience clap when I first approached the podium? I’ve always been a sucker for approval. To have name recognition that merited applause feels like an echo of a past so distant and so heady I am blown away. I had to ask my friend Noreen if she too heard clapping after Amy Goodman announced my name.
“Of course,” Noreen replies, her soft voice hiding a skepticism that likely masked her incredulity, “Have you forgotten who you are?”
I had. Ageing and the intervening deaths of two beloved husbands have filled me with enough self- doubt to last a lifetime. As Vietnam: The Power of Protest ended, I made a vow: no matter what future obstacles and hard times I may encounter, I will re-invigorate that part of me that is the unsinkable Judy Gumbo, a Yippie and an activist worthy of applause. If I take any lesson from this conference it is that each us must remember who we are. And continue to make our contribution, each in her or his own way.
As I took the hour BART ride home from the airport I remembered how, on my way out, I had experienced a bizarre sensation, so strong, so dominant of the moment that I didn’t have to remind myself to be mindful of it. I’d call it happiness, except happiness is not exact; it was more a sensation from my pre-deaths past, a heady Judy Gumbo excitement I recognized: the absence of worry. I was heading off into an adventure with a joy embedded in my body that was decades old. The sensation lasted the entire conference. Still and all, when I came home to California, to my empty house with no one left with whom to talk about my triumphs, a lump rose up in my throat and I burst into tears.
(Ron Dellums and Cora Weiss)
HONORING OUR ELDERS: At the opening of the conference, Dan Ellsberg, Dick Fernandez, Judith Lerner, Staugton Lynd, Dave McReynolds, Marcus Raskin, George Regas, Arthur Waskow and Cora Weiss, all now 80 years or older, were honored. My Congresswoman, Barbara Lee, received a standing ovation for her remarks. I remember thinking that to recognize the leadership, courage and commitment of these ageing but still engaged radicals was a perfect way to start.
WE’RE STILL HERE: At the end of the conference, Holly Near sang one of my favorite songs of hers: “We’re still here, choosing love over fear, when the lines are drawn we’re still here.” Just like the octogenarian honorees. I had the opportunity to tell Holly Near that when I first heard her sing that song at a performance in Berkeley, it inspired me so much I bought the CD, something I rarely do. Holly smiled, looked straight at me and thanked me for allowing her to hear Mme. Binh’s words. Yet another miraculous Judy Gumbo moment.
(L to R: Me, Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, Noreen Banks, and Frank O’Brien)
BONDING AND FORGIVENESS: Watching the intensity of a reunion between Bernardine Dohrn and Mark Rudd as they clung to each other as if on a lifeboat, whispering and staring into each other’s eyes. I think the former Weather people have been flayed by history, blamed and excoriated by both left and right for the extremism of their actions which many claim “destroyed” the movement. For my part, even their most misguided actions, whether or not I condone them, grew in my opinion out of pure and idealistic motives inflamed both by the Nixon Administration and by our collective opposition to that vicious and seemingly unstoppable war. Which to my mind makes makes the relentless whipping the Weather people continue to receive at the hands of today’s writers unwarranted and wrong. Tom says we need to reclaim our history. Forgiveness is a place to start.
SELF KNOWLEDGE: With one or two exceptions I watched political disagreements from the past melt as we told and retold stories of our heroic adventures with that familiar passion, intensity and ferocious commitment we always had. What felt new was the tolerance I witnessed among many of my generation for the diversity of each other’s opinions.
MARCHING TO THE MLK MEMORIAL: On our commemorative walk to the MLK memorial a few hundred of us, young and silver-haired marched together past Washington’s Memorial to WW 2. We sang, we chanted No More War, we raised our fingers in what I thought was a well-known “V” peace sign. Yet I saw no expression on the faces of the ten year-olds visiting that memorial , no astonishment, no skepticism, no comprehension, no curiosity, nothing.
(Two Judys re-unite at Vietnam: The Power of Protest after being in Vietnam together in 2013 to help celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords)
(The Mayday Tribe: Michael Drobenare & Rennie Davis, Noreen Banks and Carole Cullum. Mayday 1971 produced the largest number of mass arrests in U.S. history. We blocked Washington’s streets with massive non-violent civil disobedience, our slogan was “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” Vietnam: The Power of Protest took place on Mayday’s 44th anniversary. I’m proud to be a member of the Mayday Tribe.)
MEMORABLE CONVERSATIONS: My conference buddies knew Stew better than David, so Stew stories followed me. Perhaps it was Stew’s blond curls but when 14 year old Rusty Eisenberg met Stew when Stew was 17 or 18, Rusty appeared enamored. Stew (or so I gathered) was saving his romantic urge for Cuba. I bonded with Carol Blue-Hitchens, a woman I had not previously known, in that universal, comforting conversation only widows and widowers have. Neither Christopher or Stew, both men determined optimists, discussed with us the possibility of their approaching deaths. Would it have made a different to our pain had such a conversation happened? Perhaps, but who can say.
My friend Steve Wasserman introduced me to Frances Fitzgerald, an author he has known for decades. I had lived intimately with Frances in 1974, although neither she nor Steve knew of our arrangement. As leaves outside the sunporch of Stew’s and my isolated Catskill cabin turned from springtime green to red to brown, I took on Frances’ best selling book, Fire in the Lake, as a foil for my Ph.D. dissertation, which I typed on a brown IBM Selectric. I argued in the best academic language I could muster against her contention that the Communists in Vietnam had achieved legitimacy by a shift in the Mandate of Heaven from the country’s established rulers was untenable. I said Frances had failed to take into account what I labeled the Will of the People, the aspirations of Vietnamese workers and peasants for a just and equitable society. I titled my thesis “Better Conquer Hearts than Citadels” from a 15th century Vietnamese saying. I had just returned from visiting war-torn North Vietnam. I was inspired.
“It was just a metaphor,” Frances remarked, after I recounted to her the headlines of my Ph.D. story. She then asked to read my thesis.”It’s too poorly written,” the diffident me demurred, fearful that my arguments would not hold up to her expert scrutiny, “but when it’s done I’ll send you a copy of my memoir. ”
I am grateful to have met Frances Fitzgerald, to demystify an abstract adversary of my past, who in real life turns out to be an intelligent older woman whose eyes like lakes still contain that bit of fire. It occurs to me now that Frances Fitzgerald may genuinely be interested in what I had to say forty years ago. Perhaps I will find time to convert all 327 pages of my thesis from hard copy to a PDF and send it to her. What an appropriate encounter for a conference filled with reunions and forgiveness. “Thank you for helping me get a Ph.D,” is what I told her. “I couldn’t have done it without you. ”
POST SCRIPT: No drought (of water that is) in DC. I had to re-learn to flush the toilet after every pee or my friends would look at me funny.