Vietnam Power of Protest Conference: Have You Forgotten Who You Are?

Sign for MarchVietnam: 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

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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.  

Washington Monument

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?

Conference room

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. Thave 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.

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(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.

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(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.

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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.

Judy One and Judy Two

(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)

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(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.

 

Reunion

So far being in DC feels like a reunion.  Beyond high school but not as fraught as the emotional purging that goes on at Vietnam Vet reunions. Noreen, Carole, Michael and I, former organizers of the Mayday Tribe, reminisce. . We look up old Mayday posters on line. We talk about the present: will Hillary make it?  If not her, then what?  We’re older, heavier, some among us in worse health.  The three recount an incident of which I have no recollection.

Here’s the story:  At least 30 of us are camped out in a large farmhouse in Allamuchy, New Jersey. It’s after Mayday, perhaps November of 1971. We are the remnants of the anti-war movement, of an organizion called PCPJ- the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice. By now we are aware that the majority of Americans want the war to be over. But the anti-war movement is in flux; trying to come up with our next step. Should we get involved in the 1972 elections? Work for local candidates? Or gear up and go to San Diego to confront the war mongering Republicans? Jerry Rubin is in Allamuchy, as am I, Stew, the attorney Arthur Kinoy, his wife Barbara Webster, Carole, Michael and Noreen. I come downstairs into the farmhouse living room. People are sleeping on mattresses, the sofa, on the floor like a gaggle of puppies, as was our wont back in the day when we had no money for hotels. I’m up at 6 a.m. I nudge the women. I roll them over. To wake them up.  Their grunts, complaints and general chaos wakes the men up too. At six a.m. in a rural New Jersey farmhouse with thirty people formerly asleep in a dark wood paneled living room. 

“You were so militant, “Noreen says. “You were on fire.” 

“I chalked it up to pot,” is Michael’s explanation.

Why did I do this? Here’s how Carole sees it: 6 a.m. was the only time of day the women’s caucus could meet. Women were a faction: meetings of the whole were considered more important. No one wanted to get up; all of us had been up to 3 a.m. the night before. But I had Stalinist discipline; if you schedule a meeting you make it happen. The liberation of women was that important. I was the true-believer who took responsibility for waking people up. Still, not a single woman followed me up the dark wood stairs at 6:00 a.m. to talk about the women’s movement.

 Carole’s is the political explanation; my own is more personal.  I act better when I’m with someone who helps reign in my fire, who keeps me on an even keel, who moderates my passions. This incident occurred after I broke up with Stew. Did my rage at him now burn with such ferocity that I interpreted something he may have said through the lens of women’s liberation? Innocent remark or sexist insult, deliberate or unintended; any words emerging from Stew’s lips I considered suspect. Such was my self-righteousness: Stew could do no right and I could do no wrong. I could justify waking people up by generalizing my personal anger to the situation of every woman present; others needed to be free much as me. 

” Do you forgive me? ” I ask Noreen, Michael and Carole. I’m joking with a hint of serious. This is one of those occurrences Stew and I would label a breadcrumb sin; getting woken up at 6 am has no long term ill-effect, but none the less is painful enough that the memory lingers. Noreen and Michael take the humor further saying they’ve been silently holding the incident against me for years. Carole recalls saying fuck that shit, turning over and going back to sleep. This must be one among very few occasions when no-one paid attention to me, is Noreen’s expert opinion.  I like to think my 1960s self was more appealing than this funny yet trivial incident implies. Still, I’m glad to hear this story even if it despoils my image of the invincible Judy Gumbo? 

To Travel On My Own

Tomorrow I travel to Washington D.C. Our nation’s capital. To be part of a conference: “Vietnam, the Power of Protest” www.lessonsofvietnam.com. I’ve been looking forward to it – I get to read to the assembled multitudes portions of the memoir of my 1960s hero Mme. Binh, she of the famous LiveLikker t-shirt – more on that in another post) but at the same time I felt sad much of today. I could not explain it to myself until my friend Ellen pointed out that this was the first time I would travel on my own since David died. The Intrepid Judy Gumbo of 1960s fame would ride off into the sunset by herself in Lindequist, her trusty blue VW bug (yet another story) ready to take on each and every challenge. To set out for adventure by yourself was the liberated women’s thing to do. But in 2015, with two dead husbands, two friends with possible cancer diagnoses, plus my many widow and one widower friend still writhing in the agony of grief (myself included) plus another friend whose husband decided he wanted a divorce after 37 years, it’s a different Judy Gumbo who will hit the road this time. How different am I now from that independent woman who graced the cover of the Berkeley Tribe in 1970 resplendent in her karate gi, air-punching any enemy in her path? I do know this: whatever the conference holds, I feel most like Judy Gumbo in her present incarnation when I’m surrounded by people I’ve known for decades. Why is that, I wonder?

Yes, I plan to blog about the conference. I will keep you posted.