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Trial of the Chicago 7
Comments from a Child of the Era

October 24, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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Last night I watched The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. It got me remembering the era. I was born in 1955, so I was 13 years old when the events occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I was 14 when the trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale took place.

Plenty of people are alive today who were alive during the trial, but for most people it is just a bit of 60s history. The movie was excellent, but except perhaps in its portrayal of the jury, it does show what was going on in the minds of ordinary people. It is true that young people were increasingly turning against the Vietnam War, and the draft. But most people still supported the War, and the political establishment.

In 1968 I was not yet one of those young people who had turned against the war. I had been born on a Marine Corps base. My mother, who left her miserable life on a white tenant farm, dropping out of high school, to get a job as a typist towards the end of the Great Depression, had been a Woman Marine during World War II. After the war, as a civilian, she married my father, who had graduated from high school and remained in the Corps. He had joined the Corps long before the war and had been at the Battles of Guadalcanal and Tarawa. My mother's ego had been highly tied to his status in the corps, which ended in 1960 when he had to retire when he failed to get a promotion. My mother wanted me to become a Marine Corps general, by way of Annapolis. That meant doing well in school. I had attended Catholic schools until 1968, when I got a scholarship to attend a private school.

I remember distinctly that I still supported the Vietnam War in 1969. There were so many layers of ignorance and prejudice in my life it took some time and effort to strip them off. Because I liked science and reading satire and science fiction, by 1968 I was clear I was not a Roman Catholic. When I went to my new school I was rabidly prejudiced against Jews, but I quickly found the Jewish students at my new school were smart and nice and generally of better character than my Catholic friends. Of course I knew about the civil rights protests, and though there were no black Americans at my school (or females either), soon intellectually I figured my overtly racist mother was wrong on that score as well.

By the time I was 15 I had turned against the War and racism. I can think of no one thing that caused that. It was in the air, seeing protest on TV. Looking at the pro-war and anti-war arguments, it came down to this: American troops were in the Vietnamese house. They had not invaded us. If they had shot at our warships off their coast, well what were our warships doing there? I did not like communism, but I was beginning to appreciate the flaws of capitalism, which I saw compounded by racism.

During my childhood I saw black people, but I never met one. Like Joe Biden, I first was able to talk to black people when I worked as a lifeguard at a public swimming pool, in Jacksonville during the summer before I went off to college. The pool was in a white neighborhood, but most of the clients were black. The lifeguards were white except for one, whose name escapes me, but I remember he had already been to Florida A&M for a year. We did not talk about politics, just practical, lifeguard things.

By 1972, the year I left home, it was hard to find a young man who supported the draft or the war in Vietnam. To this day I remain anti-draft. I have never registered. I have foregone the privileges of those who register. Yet I have not felt I could tell any younger man that he should give up on college or graduate school because the federal loans required for it depend on draft status. The draft is evil, pure unadulterated, blood-stained evil. If I could I would abolish it, for every nation of the world. But with the Slow-Motion Apocalypse sweeping us along, I predict civilization will collapse before the draft is ended, in the U.S.

For practical purposes the Vietnam War draft ended in December 1972, which is why I suffered no significant immediate penalty when I failed to register. In 1980 Jimmy Carter re-instated the draft registration requirement, which is one of many reasons I don't buy that he was some sort of nice Democratic Party President. He was, at best, a slight improvement on Richard Nixon.

As a child I knew about race riots, and the protests for civil rights. In 1968 when I heard about the riots outside of the Chicago Democratic National Convention I had to wonder why white people were rioting. By 1972 I ended up volunteering for the George McGovern for President campaign. His loss deeply disappointed me and made me even more cynical about American government and politics. Then, when the draft ended, the air went out of the movement. Each passing year the anti-establishment, left-of-Democrat movement seemed to get smaller. Little whirlpools of mostly college students organized by mostly older organizers left over from the sixties sprang up around issued like Apartheid or the civil wars in Central America, but never really amounted to much.

My experience as a right-wing child helps me understand the white male working class (non-college) people who support Donald Trump. Many of them are sons of men who supported Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan. Reaching them, pulling tens of millions of them out of the mire they live in, is not so easy. They are greatly familiar with their own lack of opportunity in America. The competition for good jobs has intensified in my lifetime. There is a class system and caste system that has greatly limited social mobility in working class, and even lower-middle class, white families. It is easy to blame women (particularly Hillary Clinton) and people of color for the lack of opportunity, instead of capitalism and the class system. Donald Trump is the master of their wounded male egos.

My mother wanted me to be a Marine Corps general. On the whole, I think I owe my radicalization more to studying than to events like the Chicago Seven trial. I studied because that was the best way not to get thrashed in the Meyers household. My mother had no idea what I studied, she did not care as long as I brought home A's on my report cards. Public libraries, poorly stocked as they were, opened up worlds to me my mother could not dream of. In high school I was assigned to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was a real eye opener. In college I majored in Political Science.

I doubtless still have implicit biases that were implanted in my youth. The last major biases to fall, for me, were the myth of male superiority and homophobia. In college it became very clear to me that women were as smart and competent as men. It bruised my ego a bit, but I got over it. Homophobia only dissolved gradually as I met more and more queers over time. And learned that many of my intellectual heroes were queer.

So here is to learning. Hopefully, learning the truth, learning to be kind, learning when to fight and when to hold the line and when to retreat, learning that when things are complex you might want to learn more about them before leaping to a conclusion. And learning that almost everything is complex.

Please, get out and vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and other good people who are running for office. And stay as safe as you can during this Slow Motion Apocalypse.

Oh, and I need to say a nice thing about my mother and father, lest you get the wrong impression. There was always food on the table, three times a day, and they always made sure I got to school. They worked hard and they grew up during the Great Depression, so my childhood was certainly much easier than theirs had been.

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