Forty-five years it’s been! In October 1967, I was 18 years old and beginning my third year at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, organizing students to participate in the first militant demonstration on the East Coast against the Vietnam war. At the Pentagon.

Singer-songwriter Phil Ochs — my hero, and a major artistic force within the antiwar movement — was scheduled to perform at Stony Brook the night of the big march. Many students were saying they wouldn’t go on the march because they wanted to stay and hear Phil’s concert. I and other members of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society wrote letters asking Phil to change the date. No answer. In desperation — oh, how it cut my heart out — we organized a boycott of his records.

Then, of course, his manager (his brother, Mich­ael) was quick to respond. “Go ahead, attack the heavies in the movement if it makes you feel better,” he wrote in an open letter printed in Statesman, the official student paper. But they did move up the date to October 20, the evening before the march. Phil was interviewed on WUSB radio, Kenny Brom­berg’s show. “Who’s this creep Mitchel Cohen who’s telling everyone to boycott my records?” Phil raged.

October 21. The huge anti-war demonstration in Wash­ing­ton D.C. swept past the Lincoln Memorial and over the Memorial bridge into Virginia, wave after wave of anti-war warriors crashing against the walls of the Pentagon. Abbie Hoffman and dozens of anti-warriors dressed in sackcloths played trumpets and encircled the world’s biggest “edifice complex” trying to raze Jericho’s walls and levitate the building.

One-hundred-thousand people — some carrying signs depicting their town’s opposition to the war against Vietnam, their unions, churches, campuses — inched up to the line of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder pointing their rifles at our chests, their unsheathed bayonets glinting in the after­noon sun like a thousand points of fright.

I remember it as vividly as the infamous sunrises over the Woodstock music festival in 1969, the Bread and Puppet festivals in Vermont years later, and the incredible sunsets in New York City the week following 9-11: The man carrying the hand-made sign: “Lyndon Johnson pull out, like your father should have.” The chants, “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The young woman who in a moment of artistry danced in-and-out of the line of soldiers as thousands of voices sang “join us,” inserting flowers into the barrels of their rifles. Soon, a dozen people joined her. “Flower Power,” East Coast style!

As the afternoon wore on, word of a “sit-in” spread like wildfire through the enormous crowd, and hundreds began climbing ropes tied to a parapet overlooking a set of huge doors, just beyond the soldiers’ reach. The sit-in was blocking one of the en­trances. The Pentagon was no longer unassailable! Yea, and in high school gym I couldn’t climb the ropes to save my life. Oh well. Try anyway.

I’d man­aged to drag myself up a few yards when a hand grabbed one of my legs. I panicked, tried to kick it away without losing my grip, but it wouldn’t let go.

“Uh-oh, this is it, they’re going to arrest me,” I thought, my first arrest. I kicked frantically, tried to get away. Finally, in panic, I looked down and saw my father yanking me back and my mother scream­ing: “Where do you think you’re going?”

“What are you doing here?” They came to protest too. “How did you find me? I’ve gotta join the sit-in, all my friends are up there.”

Indeed, my friends from Stony Brook SDS were already up on the ledge. Even a professor from Stony Brook, Mike Zweig, was sitting-in.

“You have to let me go. I helped organize the buses!” I shouted, as though that compelling point would clinch the argument.

The frustrated and embarrassed tears al­ready’d begun spilling down my cheeks. “No way. You’re exhausted, get down right now.”

Photo by Marc Riboud. A girl, Jan Rose Kasmir, stands inches from the soldiers’ bayonets, still sheathed at this location. She was a 17-year-old high-school student in 1967 who’d bounced from foster home to foster home in the nearby Maryland suburbs, according to iconicphotos. The soldiers lobbed tear gas into the crowds trying to force their way into the building. Six hundred eighty-one protesters were arrested, and dozens were beaten as they were pushed off the Pentagon’s steps. In 2004, Riboud reunited with Kasmir when the latter was protesting the Iraq War in London.


My parents were right about one thing: I was ex­hausted, racing around on an adrenaline high having not slept for three days. SDS and the Or­ganization for Progressive Thought had been selling bus tickets around the clock door-to-door in the dormitories, caf­eterias and TV lounges at Stony Brook. We brought seven bus-loads of pro­testers to the Penta­gon — ar­ound 300 people. My brother Robert, who had just entered Stony Brook a month before, and I were among the handful responsible for selling tickets, planning bus arrangements and making sure the driv­ers wouldn’t strand us en route as happened to bus loads from other campuses. There would be time enough later for sleep. I simply had to be up there! And now my parents (how did they ever find me?) were yanking me back.

My father had been a Corporal in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific in World War 2, and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for heroism by Frank­lin Delano Roosevelt, after a plane had crashed on the Philippine island where he was stationed. The plane was on fire and dad was the only one to run towards the plane after hearing cries from inside it. He grabbed two 50-pound fire ex­tin­guish­ers, strapped them to his back, and sprayed the gas tank and wings, ripping the door off its hinges and carrying out to safe­ty half-a-dozen people.

Dad always spoke out against the atom bomb and the Vietnam war. “You’ll go over my dead body,” he famously exploded one night at supper at our apartment in the Marlboro Projects in Gravesend, Brooklyn — as though I had any thoughts at all to go into the military. (In fact, I was in the process of resisting the draft at the time.) Now, at the Pentagon, he offered a compromise: “You’re not going up there, understand? But they’re going to need food and blankets. Let’s start making a collection.”

Those were in the days before the anti-nuclear movement introduced a structure built upon affinity groups, in which one person who is not to get arrested would be designated as doing “support,” and would be responsible for the group’s logistical needs such as food, medical support, bail, and … blankets. We spent the next few hours collecting dozens of blankets and warm clothing for those sitting-in. Afterward, my parents dragged me to the bus back to Stony Brook and made sure I didn’t hop off. They waved good-bye as it pulled away. I crashed out in someone’s (whose?) arms. Vaguely I remember someone kissing me.

Forty-five years ago! Che Guevara had been murdered by the CIA in Bolivia just two weeks before. We — yes, that expansive “we”, meaning moi and one other radical troublemaker at Stony Brook, Spencer Black, who would much later become a noted ecology-minded state legislator in Wisconsin — phoned-in Che’s obituary to the NY Times and billed it to the student government. They were at a loss to account for it when the university administration, which still ran student govern­ment’s finances, reviewed the bills.

A month later, New York City would be rocked by a police riot against antiwar pro­tes­ters. Thous­ands of students descended on a dinner at the Waldorf for the war-makers. Some had gotten jobs in the kitchen. When the country’s elite lifted the lids of their dishes they found pigs’ heads staring back at them, and dozens of waiters and waitresses chanting: “U.S. out of Vietnam!”

Outside, all hell was breaking loose. This was the anti-war movement’s first “street action” on the East Coast. Hundreds of people would begin crossing Park Avenue at the green light, very slowly. We’d be stretched fully across when the light turned red. Everyone linked arms and faced the traffic terrified, intending to block the cars. I closed my eyes, heard the gut-wrenching Screeeeech! When I dared open them I saw an Oldsmobile had skidded to a stop just inches from my stomach.

The police moved in. We snake-danced the wrong way down one-way streets, tying up traffic and making it hard for the police cars to chase us. We were kids, and we were as brazen as we were scared shitless.

Leaving the dinner, Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s car was hit by a molotov cocktail. The cops cracked heads. Willa Kay grabbed my hand — Kay, where are you now? — tearful, gasping for breath: “Mitchel, let’s get out of here!” We raced across Manhattan in search of the bus back to Stony Brook and were amazed to find that everyone was arriving at the same time, relatively unscathed.

A few weeks later I would be one of several Stony Brookers rejecting my draft card at the Smithtown Draft Board. We faced five years in jail. My parents learned about that from WINS radio news. (“Give us 20 minutes, we’ll tell you what your progeny are up to.”)

The anti-war movement was erupting every­where — Anti-draft blockades of induction centers, draft card burnings, military recruiters chased from campus after campus, actions against “defense” contractors and war research. On the West coast, thousands blocked troop trains and munitions factories. Even Bill Clinton, in the one good thing he ever did (although now it appears that he was informing on those movements in Europe for the CIA), took part in anti-war protests.

At Stony Brook, I was speaking publicly for the first time ab­out the war when construction workers attacked our antiwar rally because they thought we had taken down the American flag. (Maintenance workers had lowered it when it began to rain.) One punched me in the stomach, keeling me over. Another worker punched Neal Frumkin, the head of SDS at Stony Brook, and broke his tooth. We went with the Suffolk County police through the construction site looking for them, but they were nowhere to be found.

Fifteen years later, the same worker by co­inci­dence picked me up hitchhiking. He laughed about that incident, that to me had been so traumatic — “Yea, I was an ass,” he said, “glad to see you’re still at it!” As if to make it up to me, he fed me an inside scoop: construction supervisors were submitting falsified reports that covered-up a crack in the main beam in the new Graduate Biology building. “Of course the administration knows about it,” he snarled, “but some­one’s getting a kickback. That building could collapse!”

Time accelerates and compacts. Whole lifetimes are shoe-horned into the space of a few months. The Tet Offensive, LBJ’s abdication, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Paris, Columbia University, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Czech­oslovakia, Chi­cago, Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war pres­idential campaign, the farm workers’ boycott — all within those two semesters, 1967-1968.

The world was spinning madly out of their control, revolutionary movements were being born. We lived “emergency lives” filled with meaning, fear, excitement and desperation. World War 2 was our parents’ war, it had shaped their world but to us it was ancient history. It had ended 23 years earlier, an eternity it seemed. And yet today as I write, twice that time has passed since ’67.

I am old. Young folks today thank me for coming to their protests. So respectful, these young whippersnap … er, Occupyers! My daughter — all grown up and living on the West Coast — can’t believe I was ever young, the things we did.

The decades drop like precious petals, paths to follow. Who would know it then, forty-five years ago, that the demonstration at the Pentagon on October 21, 1967, described so eloquently by Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night, would mark the start of the anti-imperialist resistance as opposed to simply the “anti-war” movement, and baptize a new generation — with great leaps of insight, risk, and imagination — that would shake the entire world?

I wend my way back in my mind to that New Year’s Eve when Kay kissed me and brought me back to her parents’ apartment in Stuy­ve­sant Town. Her father woke up and caught us rolling on the living room carpet, my hands with a mind of their own feverishly trying to disentangle from the twists of cotton and rayon underwear.


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  • Francine Menaker says:

    I was a 17 year-old freshman at Stony Brook in 1967. I remember the Neal Frumkin incident clearly. Those years help shape my political views and my life. I remember a sit-in (overnight) at the library after the Frumkin incident. I also remember being propositioned by a middle-aged, overweight construction worker who thought I would say yes because we “hippie chicks” would do anything. I guess we all have to keep fighting the good fight. thanks for the memories.

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