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People call for revolution: Pentagon up-tight

In the fall of 1967 more than 100,000 Americans gathered in Washington, D.C. to “March on the Pentagon.” Thousands did more than just march as they surged through police lines and surrounded the Pentagon itself. The response was often brutal; over a thousand were arrested. It was a benchmark event of the sixties, signaling a sea change, as the increasingly militant and broad-based opposition to the war in Vietnam turned from traditional protest towards resistance.

Many words were written about that day. Norman Mailer, who marched with Dwight MacDonald, Noam Chomsky and poet Robert Lowell, wrote an entire book; his Armies of the Night brought critical acclaim and literary awards.

The following interpretive report, written for The Rag but shared with the Washington Free Press, was pounded out as the dust was still settling; the Free Press was hitting the streets fast. Reading it now, I’m struck by how much the approach, the rhetoric, the language were shaped by the times and the medium.

I hope it gives the reader a feel for those times and how the The Rag reported them.

August, 2005

here we begin
People call for revolution: Pentagon up-tight

by Thorne Dreyer
The Rag, October 30, 1967, Volume II, No. 3

Washington—On October 21, 1967, the white left got its shit together.

The gala Pentagon confrontation, long billed as a move from “protest to resistance”, was a dramatic and intense political event. Many had been dubious; few can now deny that a new stage is upon us.

Many feel that the new left has become relevant to the black movement. At a press conference for the establishment media, John Wilson, associate national chairman of SNCC said: “This demonstration proved one thing to white Americans – that this government will whip you too. During this anti-draft week, at Oakland, at Madison, at Brooklyn, at Washington – Black America has gained a new respect for the white left. There are going to be dramatic changes in the movement.”

Certainly the most significant aspect of the confrontation at Washington was the spontaneous way in which the demonstrators began to relate to the soldiers. And the remarkable occurrence of two, possibly three, GIs throwing down their weapons and defecting to the side of the demonstrators.

The Confrontation itself created a dynamic spirit of community. The actual storming of the Pentagon was something few had really expected. So there was no pre-established structure to deal with the situation; people had to use their heads and work together.

There were two main battlefronts. These were the steps and plaza leading to the main entrance to the Pentagon, and a large area to the west, which we have called the “left flank.” Leadership on both fronts was assumed by SDS organizers.

The confrontation went through two distinct phases. The first was a period of strength and vitality. People were on the move. They related to each other in very real ways. There were thousands of people jammed together maybe scared but certainly exalted.

To the left of the center area, and dividing it from the left flank, was a low wall. Tom Bell, an SDS organizer in Washington, climbed up with sound equipment and began addressing the crowd. A U.S. marshal immediately grabbed him and attempted to push him off. Brother Bell wrestled with the officer. He got a grip on the marshal’s billy club and pushed him back: The marshal backed away, surprised by Tom’s resistance to his authority. The crowd cheered and the wall was won.

Some of the demonstrators on the front line wanted to force more violent confrontations with the soldiers. It seemed to many of us that this was suicidal and would prove nothing. One is misreading Che Guevara by concluding that a guerilla fighter confronts a superior military force in positional combat. That just doesn’t make sense.

What had happened so far was in many ways aggressive and real – not the symbolic protest many had feared.

The Pentagon had set up a neat little game for us. We were to be allowed to go to a certain place at which a line would be drawn. If we wanted to be civilly disobedient, we would walk across that line, go limp, and nice cops would drag us off to the “jails” that had been set up nearby. Just like in the South. They were going to let us do our thing and our thing would be the same old liberal bullshit.

We hadn’t played it the way it had been set up for us. We were moving and were in a real position of strength. There were battles, advances, new fronts opening on all sides. People on the left flank dropped ropes off a high wall, shouting, “We need people up here!” and people just started climbing up. They didn’t have any idea what they would face on the other side but they were needed, so they came.

You’ve got to realize there were thousands of people storming the Pentagon, not just a few hundred “Crazies.” Those people were into a new thing. And these were, to a great extent, young kids. The majority were under 25. Many were under 20.

Tom Bell talked to people about sitting down. It seemed that this would put us in a stronger position then. Some demonstrators in the front were baiting the GI s and there was a real danger of people being trampled on the steps in case of panic.

But panic never proved a danger. People just didn’t lose their heads. They had a real sense of acting as a community.

Soon diggers started bringing in food, and joints were in evidence. A real festival atmosphere was in the air. People laughed and hugged.

And they began to talk to the soldiers.

We began to talk to the troops on the mikes. We said we’re on the same side. It’s those generals – those officers that make you come out here and stand in the cold and beat on us when that’s not what you really want to do. Look, they’re fucking with your lives just like they fuck with ours. It’s not you we’re against; it’s those guys in that Pentagon who keep making wars.

Look at us. We’ve got food. Grass—we’d love to turn you on. We’re digging each other. And we’re doing something we believe in. Won’t you join us? WON’T YOU JOIN US?

And an amazing magic was created. Everyone chanted “JOIN US! JOIN US!” And they really meant it. That was why it was so important. It wasn’t just empty rhetoric, as it would become later in the night. We were speaking from a position of power. We knew we had something to offer, something good, and maybe for the first time we realized who the real enemy is.

You know, I think those GI s could feel the sincerity of what was happening. They began to kind of talk among themselves.

Meanwhile numerous campfires had been started. Originally it was just draft cards burning. First one, then a few, and then everywhere, in all directions, hundreds of draft card torches. Dozens of little bonfires were created all over the Pentagon lawn. Guys ran out of draft cards to they threw on paper and then they took down the rope fences that were supposed to have kept them out and burned the wooden supports. The ropes were used to scale walls. As it grew darker and colder, many huddled around the fires, telling stories, talking strategy and singing.

One was excited by the romantic vision of this beautiful revolutionary army, occupying the lawn of the Pentagon.

And the soldiers just had to stand there at attention and watch all of this. When the first one defected to our side the reaction was overwhelming. We yelled and cheered and it shook the whole place and people chanted “We Love You” and “We Are All Brothers” – which I would have thought maudlin shit if it hadn’t been that we really felt it.

Marshall Bloom came up to me and said, “Hey, a guy just bummed a cigarette from a soldier. Those guys are really trying.” Thompson Bradley, a professor at Swarthmore, was on the left flank. He said some of the soldiers would whisper, “We’re sorry,” or “We hit you because we were ordered to.”

The second phase of the demonstration was pretty much a bad scene. And I’m not sure why. For one thing, they kept changing the troops. Whenever we’d really start talking to guys, they’d move them out. Maybe they finally brought in their “crack” troops. Lots of people left. It got dark and cold. But this is most important: there was a tactical vacuum. We were in a box.

Suddenly we were defensive and scared. We sang “We Are Not Afraid.” Earlier we did not have to sing it. There was no communication with the troops now. We chanted “Join Us!” and “We Love You” and it was meaningless rhetoric. People kept bringing more and more food and we gorged ourselves and that food became really obscene. We started bickering and began to sing “We Shall Overcome” and were right back in that liberal bag.

There were a few people who were totally committed to getting their scalps torn open, and a few who thought it would be tactically best to leave, and a hell of a lot who were scared shitless, but just didn’t know what to do. There were lots of young kids who had really been moved by the spirit of the thing and weren’t about to leave if leaving meant defeat. And at that point I guess it would have.

The cops began to get really brutal, moving into the group in a wedge and smashing heads with billy clubs. These beautiful little hippie chicks had tears streaming down their faces, but they weren’t about to move. These kids were really brave. And I began to resent the”super-militants” who created so much pressure to stay. Because that was nothing but goddam bourgeois politics. At this point we had moved from confrontation right back to symbolic protest.

People have to come to terms with what violence means. It’s not something to groove on and cleanse your soul with. Using violence in a situation where you do not have the instruments of violence or at least an equal strategic position is insane. It is poor guerrilla strategy and it is likely to get you killed.

Earlier in the afternoon we were in a good strategic situation. We took them by surprise, we had massive numbers, we were confidant. It is quite possible that, after we had gained all we were going to, we should have had a massive victory march out of that place. Sure, this is second-guessing. I didn’t figure it that way then, and I’m not sure now that it would have been better. But I do feel very strongly that we took two steps forward and one step back.

Before I finish this, I think I should say something about the left flank simply because it didn’t follow exactly the same pattern. I wasn’t over there at all but I talked to Eric Mann, an SDS community organizer from Newark, who apparently assumed the major leadership role on that side. He said they also went through two phases, and that things became static and they reverted to old, symbolic tactics.

But he said the people on his side pretty well understood what was happening and that most of them didn’t want to be arrested. “These people transcended civil disobedience,” Mann said. “Who the fuck wants to go to jail? There’s nothing politically serious about going to jail.” But they managed to escape the dissension and fear that came to the other side. They got the people involved in what was happening, and they tried to get real political discussion going over the bullhorn. They discussed the tactics of the troops and how to deal with them.

According to Eric, there wasn’t as much really positive relating to the soldiers, but on the other hand, there was very little baiting. “We just made our grievances clear. We did not bother the troops if they didn’t bother us. Whenever someone in the back threw something into the line of troops, we would talk to him about the fact that he was taking risks for the people in front.”

Now I don’t want to give you wrong ideas about what happened. Soldiers beat people. Brutally. Much, probably most, of the beating came from the Federal marshals, but the GI’s did a lot, too. And it certainly wasn’t all love and flowers from our side. There were people who baited the soldiers, threw objects at them.

But there were two reasons I emphasize the other so much. First, it was such an overwhelming spirit, such a moving thing. Second, it reflected the real changes that are going on in the movement. People are getting less defensive about where they’re at. They feel they have something really important to offer.

And there is a growing realization that the movement must speak for America, not against it. That it’s those fuckers in the Pentagon, and those social institutions that enslave us, that we must fight. And we have to see those soldiers as brothers who are being victimized.

That doesn’t mean we lie down and get clubbed and bayoneted moaning “I Love You.” Maybe it means we don’t create these kinds of confrontations yet. Maybe it means we move into the communities and start talking to people as people. Maybe it means we start creating real draft resistance unions in communities – not social service organizations that help middle class kids figure out how to get bigger and better deferments.

Maybe it means we finally have the makings for a second American revolution – but unless we’re just playing out our guilt with a lemming-like desire to purge our souls of our country’s sins by getting our guts shot out, we had better stop this moral witness crap and get down to the business of making the revolution.

First 12 issues of The Rag are available online.