I returned recently from an immersion into how my past intersects with my present. My trip began in Chicago, included an anti war symposium in St.Paul Minnesota and culminated in Washington D.C. where I celebrated the 45th anniversary of Mayday, the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Here are my impressions:
Best Food – Chicago: Duck soup at Lula Cafe.
Worst Food – Minnesota: Pork, pork, bacon, pork, gluten, gluten, pork, pork, bacon, pork, gluten, bacon. (Sorry gang, I know you tried).
Most Useful Item Packed – a shower cap.
Most Bizarre Moment – when I asked a female TSA screener why she was patting me down and she replied it was because I was wearing baggy pants. I mean, really? I thought my jeans were tight. Is everything on my body sagging? Jeez!
Chicago – Two dinners: one with Bernardine and Billy, who still retain their passionate commitment to just causes that made them Movement superstars and at the same time reviled. Another with Micki Leaner. I first met Micki when she was the only African-American legal assistant at the 1969 Chicago Conspiracy Trial. I hadn’t seen her for 47 years, but our deep connection from back in the day made our reunion one of those “I haven’t seen you for decades but we might as well have never parted” reunions.
Locating, with Nancy Kurshan, that part of Lincoln Park where the Yippies tried to sleep during that infamous last week in August of 1968, before we were forced out by cops and gas. I found the tree under which I saw Allan Ginsberg ohmmmming until tear gas chased him along with me, my late husband Stew Albert and perhaps 3,000 others. I tromped up the hill where the garbage trucks with barbed wire covering their front spewed that gas prohibited, I heard later, for use in Vietnam. Lincoln Park made me tear up, a response I could identify by that telltale lump in my throat and the upsurge of excess water in my eyes. It was a transitory release. My tears arose not from breathing actual gas but from my memory of the joy I took in fighting back.
Minneapolis/St. Paul – The Vietnam Anti-War Symposium: organized at Macalaster College by Karin Aguilar-St. Juan, co-editor of The People Make the Peace( http://justworldbooks.com/the-people-make-the-peace/ ), a compendium of essays in which I, along with eight others, write from the perspective of having visited the former North Vietnam while the war still raged then returned to a united country in 2013 to help celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords.
Twenty Macalester students introduced themselves by name followed by “My preferred gender pronouns are she, her, hers” or “he, him, his. No “they, them, theirs” in this group. This was my first encounter with real-time usage of PGP. As a writer, I resisted accepting such a change simply because I hate rhetoric. But the relaxed and natural way these students expressed their gender preference got to me. I tried it out, “My name is Judy Gumbo and my preferred gender pronoun is “she, her hers.” I wonder: is this new nomenclature the cutting edge of a revolution, one which knocks out gender privilege, stereotyping and legitimizes gender flexibility for everyone? If yes, my by now grumpy generation better let down our defenses and get over it!
On the Symposium’s last night, four Southeast Asian-American students spoke – a Hmong, a Cambodian, a Laotian and a Vietnamese, two women and two men, one a rap artist, another a poet, one a filmmaker, one born in a refugee camp after her pregnant mother was carried across a border by Red Cross volunteers. “Keep Running, Keep Moving,” was the title of the rap artist’s poem Refugee Mentality. All students had family members shot by North Vietnamese soldiers or stories of relatives killed, lost, disappeared or drowned.
I found these young people hard to take. Theirs is a reality I have chosen to ignore as incongruent with the heroic image of Vietnamese freedom fighters I once idolized. Our guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels that we visited in 2013 had declared “Nobody won. We lost 3 million people.” He was right. War affects all sides, not just the side you take. For these second generation children of refugees, leaving Vietnam was like a holocaust in that their parents still refuse to talk about it. I felt exposed, guilty in some way for not seeing their experience as authentic as that of my heroes.
At the symposium’s end, I had a private conversation with Anh-Thu Pham, a radical activist daughter of Vietnamese refugees. We talked about Grand Juries. This vigorous young woman is today under subpoena for having once worked with an anti-war committee. Today she works with Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition. “I go from invisible to invincible, “she explained. I told her I too had been subpoenaed , and that I saw in her that same courage I had called on when I faced a Grand Jury after Mayday. You will come through this just fine, I told her. Thank you, the woman warrior replied. As I recall we hugged.
Washington D.C. – The Mayday Reunion
I encountered shock without the awe when I first walked inside the Hotel Harrington, site of our Mayday Reunion, one block west of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building in Washington D.C. Compared to the uber-plastic, unmemorable Embassy Suites in St.Paul, with its not one but two 2 high def TVs, this place felt like a different planet: plaster peeled from the ceiling of a storage closet, water leaked underneath my bathroom sink, and my beige and brown polyester bedspread might easily have been purchased around the time Mayday took over D.C. streets.
My first impression was so wrong I am ashamed. The Harrington’s staff turned out to be flexible and extraordinarily helpful; they went so far as to open their storage closet for us (the one with peeling plaster) so we organizers could set up the Reunion meeting room however we chose. Eddie, the Harrington’s sympathetic catering manager (and friend of Noreen’s) gave us such a deal on delicious ribs, salmon, vegan kabobs plus dessert we made our budget. People triumphed over profit. If I had to guess, the Harrington has not been remodeled since the 1970s. What better location to transport us back to 1971 and the largest mass arrest in U.S. history?
I am truly grateful to Noreen and Carole for ensuring all logistics went swimmingly. The three of us, plus our New York organizer Michael Drobenare, had hoped for a total of 40 or 5o people; 60-65 arrived the first night and 35 stayed for the entire reunion. Our gathering was endorsed by Veterans for Peace. Generous donors gave enough so we could pay our bills. We created a community. Considering that we organizers put the entire reunion together in 2 and a half months, I say we aced it.
Meeting the daughters and sons of refugees had sharpened my empathy for children of “the other side,” still, I was delighted we could open the Reunion with a message from Mme. Binh, former foreign minister of the PRG and at age 90, the only living signer of the Paris Peace Accords. Lady Borton arrived from Hanoi to read Mme. Binh’s message, behind Lady a giant poster of the front cover of Mme. Binh’s memoir hung on the wall. Mme. Binh thanked us specifically for helping stop the Vietnam War, then warned of escalation of a new war in the South China Sea. Vu Le Thai Huang, Minister Counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy spoke, behind him a “Women’s April 10 March to the Pentagon” poster was on display. Huang’s brief statement included an admission he had not yet been born when Mayday took the streets.
Like many of my friends, I worry that our social contract appears to be crumbling, that violence, racism, misogyny and hatred have become the order of the day. Can the Mayday slogan, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government” be as meaningful to activists today as it was to us 45 years ago?
Rennie Davis’s keynote gave me a clue. I have known Rennie for decades, I met him first at the Conspiracy Trial in 1969, worked with him on Mayday, then spent time with him in Vietnam in 2013 and again at the Macalester College symposium. Rennie is a dedicated, charismatic optimist whose brain can lead him into futuristic tangents I find difficult to grasp. I need not have worried.
“When I stepped out to speak to everyone who came to be arrested 45 years ago today, ” Rennie later wrote on Facebook, “I felt tongue-tied and speechless. 100,000 people were ready to block roads and bridges to “stop’ the war in Vietnam. Historians called it the most impactful anti-war moment in history shaking the White House to the core and creating the conditions for the Paris Peace Accords two years later. Mayday, 1971 is barely an historical footnote now but there’s a treasure chest of experience in Washington today to support a new generation that wants to change the world again.”
I agree. Our job is to support, not lead. When I want to understand the role of history in present time, I turn to Malcolm X, to what is by now my dog-eared thin black volume Malcolm X on Afro-American History, “That’s why I say it is so important for you and me to spend time today learning something about the past,” Malcolm says, “so we can better understand the present, analyze it and then do something about it.”
Reunion Day Two: began with 50 minutes of compelling, black and white footage shot and edited by the Videofreex Mayday Video Collective. * As we organizers had hoped, the spirit, speeches, effective use of civil disobedience caught on tape inspired all 35 of us to sit in a circle afterwards and share our Mayday stories. Just like at Mayday, when the intensity of protest shattered time, two and a half hours rushed by in what felt to me like fifteen minutes. And everyone who wanted to had an opportunity to talk.
Before I left Berkeley for my road trip, I had interviewed Dan Ellsberg. I wanted him to have a presence at the reunion, to open the afternoon session. Interview is not quite the right word, Dan loves Mayday; he spoke so eloquently and so astutely about the dangers of escalating war, I asked only a single question during his entire 20 minute rap. (For the complete video go to videos on my website, www.yippiegirl.com).
After Dan, two VVAW members. Tim Butz and Jack Mallory, used humor and sensitivity to tell us how their dedication to Mayday helps them to this day to live with PTSD. At the point at which conversation got a little tense, (it’s remembered politics, how could it not?) we broke for ice cream sundaes. The sugar rush pushed me through the final presentation by legal investigator Sheila O’Donnell and old-time lawyer Phil Hirschkop. Our reunion ended at 6:30 p.m., downstairs in the bar with free hors d’oeuvres provided by our friends at the funkily perfect Harrington Hotel.
Many of you have asked me for my impressions of the Reunion. I think it was outstanding; it combined nostalgia with renewing friendships for the future; it reaffirmed my confidence that my older, grayer. wiser generation remains true to our ideals. Everyone had their own Mayday, in 1971 and 2016. This was mine.
* “Mayday 1971″ is known officially as the”Mayday Video Collective”. Videofreex was one of the 8 or so affiliated groups during production, hosted the edit in May 1971 in their Prince Street studio for a dozen or so Collective members. A partly restored copy was screened at the reunion.
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