A Fifty-Year-Old Letter Written in Pencil

From Garry Bolnick, New York:

Thanks so much for writing this book and preserving the realities that can so easily be glossed over by the ravages of time and selective political memories. I was fortunate enough to record my experience in a long letter I wrote to my girlfriend (now my wife) on May 7, 1971. Amazingly she kept the letter all these years. Although it was written in pencil it survived. Rereading the letter along with your book caused those memories to come flooding back . Here are my thoughts:

As a recently retired attorney, I now reflectively can trace my political awareness, activism and ideology to the events of May 1971 so brilliantly described in your book.

For me it really started at Woodstock in August of 1969. A young naïve high school kid, I was simply agog at the beauty of the masses that had gathered there. It seemed like everyone was singing songs and speaking of peace and love. With almost a half a million young people all striving for peace in our time, I was sure things were going to get better quickly. Of course they didn’t. So when we heard about a massive gathering for peace in Washington I thought that same Woodstock nation would show up to directly confront the purveyors of the war and help end it. So my roommate and I hitchhiked to Washington. When we arrived, the sun shone over the Washington and Lincoln monuments down along the Tidal Basin, lighting up all the tents set up in West Potomac Park. With all the peace signs, pot-smoking, and the Beach Boys singing, I was sure this was going to be Woodstock part 2.

That beautiful commune of peace was interrupted at 7 am [Sunday, May 2] when a loud voice over a megaphone demanded that we leave or be arrested.

Our Stony Brook, N.Y., contingent was going to have a meeting at George Washington University, where I met a friend who offered me and several others a place to crash. [On Monday, May 3] about 300 kids in our contingent made our way over to Dupont Circle, to hook up with others from New York City, Long Island and Colorado. The Circle was awash with fully armed and helmeted riot police (the CDU — Civil Disturbance Unit). No longer was this Woodstock 2, it was a nightmarish-ly scary police state.

The police were running people over with their motor scooters and at least one Harley Davidson. I saw three kids lying on the ground surrounded by the CDU. Our medic (I recall that each contingent had at least one medic) was too frightened to get past the cops to help the bleeding kids. I decided that I would take the medic’s first aid kit to the downed students. I asked the cop if I could help but they didn’t answer so I slowly walked with the first aid kit toward the scene. My attempt was met with a lead-filled billy club across my legs. More angry then hurt I turned back to the cop who had just assaulted me and said, “If you won’t let me help them, then you help them!”, and I slid the kit across the pavement toward the scene. The cop took a running start and kicked the kit, sending its contents sprawling. Then a UHaul truck showed up and opened its back door, releasing about fifty billy-club-swinging cops, which caused the crowd to scatter.

It was absolute tear-gas-filled mayhem. Separated from our contingent, my roommate and I were just trying to figure out how to get to a nearby church which was said to offer sanctuary to us demonstrators. We were walking on the sidewalk, basically window shopping, when I got grabbed from behind. “Come with me,” the skinny cop said. “What did I do?” I naively asked. Without emotion or sarcasm the cop stated, “Walking on Public Property.”

We were taken in a tear-gassed paddy wagon to a barbed-wire-ringed athletic field outside the DC Stadium. Maybe this would be the Woodstock 2 I craved — there was certainly enough mud and lack of toilet facilities, food and water. But no version of Woodstock had throngs of military police armed with submachine guns, rifles and gas canisters.

Inside the perimeter I did meet Abbie Hoffman, whose face was completely bandaged and was using the name John. Dr. Benjamin Spock was a comforting presence who freely spoke to anyone who asked. I witnessed the wedding of a couple who, on the way to their nuptials, had asked a cop for the quickest way out of town — only to be arrested. They were married right there by a minister who himself had been arrested. In my letter I called that the most beautiful wedding I had ever seen. When [congresswoman] Bella Abzug appeared in the compound, followed by congressmen from Massachusetts, Michigan, California and Rhode Island, I felt it was just a matter of time before we could be released. Everyone was mad, and everyone said our detention was illegal. But no one could get us released. It was at this point that I realized how little power, even big time politicians had against Nixon and [Attorney General John] Mitchell and the “Machine.”

I was however encouraged by the goodwill of the local DC residents, who threw food and provisions over the barbed wire fence,. I met and had nice conversations with a lot of like-thinking people including a 73 year old grandmother, a 71 year old retired gentleman, a congressman’s aide, the chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary committee, 2 twelve year olds and an assortment of doctors, lawyers and other professionals. We all shared the desire for peace, and agreed on the brutal truth that we were in a US concentration camp.

When the temperature began to drop “the powers that be” decided they didn’t want the bad press of thousands of kids freezing to death, so they transported us in tear-gas-filled buses to the Coliseum, where we were given blankets but no food (apparently some food was distributed but I ever saw it).

Rumors about our impending release spread quickly in the Coliseum. We were informed that [Chief DC] Judge [Harold] Greene ordered the government to show cause why we were arrested by 8pm Tuesday, and if they didn’t we’d be released. We were told that if we didn’t bail ourselves out and thus have a record very few of us wanted, we would be forced go through with it anyway. To prevent this threatened mass processing, we locked arms and started chanting OM.

It was left to the National Guard to do the forced processing. They refused. 8 pm came and went. We heard nothing. Some people had had enough [of confinement] and began to submit to processing. As an 18 year old one of my fondest memories of my time inside the Coliseum was when several of the young women climbed on their boyfriends’ shoulders, removed their tops and teased the National Guardsmen who circled the arena. In addition to the taunting, the women placed flowers in their rifles as the guardsmen tried to remain stoic and at attention.

10 o’clock also came and went as did 11 and midnight. Finally at 2:20 am the order came down. After 40 hours of illegal detention, on illegal charges without even citing an arresting officer or offering lawyers or a phone call, they set the terms for our release. We would have to be processed but our records would be destroyed in 90 days [if no evidence of a crime could be found]. Exhausted, my roommate and I decided we would get processed and get out of Dodge.

Jars of Vaseline were distributed to us. We rubbed the Vaseline on our fingertips so any attempt to fingerprint us would yield just a smudge. On advice of the seasoned protesters who had been arrested with us, I gave a phony name, combed my hair in front of my face for the mug shot, smudged my fingerprints and got released.

As we exited our 2 days of incarceration, and civic education, the cops handed each of us a bar of soap. To them we weren’t Americans seeking redress for our grievances but dirty hippies who deserved to be abused.

Mayday changed my life and who I was. When I re-read the 50-year-old letter I wrote in May 1971, I can feel the outrage. I wrote, “I’ve lost all faith in my government and Country” and “We accomplished nothing in Washington other than enlightenment — This time. Next time the revolution begins.”

Soon Watergate came, and Nixon resigned in disgrace and John Mitchell and several others went to jail . By 1975 the Vietnam war was over. To a degree the system did work.

I no longer believe that we accomplished nothing in Washington. I now believe we accomplished quite a lot.

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