Sunday, November 14, 2010
Issues and Answers
Across five states, we were spread as thin as Depression stew. Was that part of the grand design? After a few months of living in and at poverty, most of us were vulnerable to any notion that we’d been co-opted--hoodwinked, into a loosely organized army of rebellious idealists, fanned out over some of the most dangerous turf the country had to offer. Surely the FBI and Selective Service System must be having a good, long laugh over this. After all, what kind of community organizers could we be if we couldn’t even organize ourselves?
Some sort of newsletter or magazine to inform and inspire would be ideal. The transitory nature of the program made previous attempts at a regional publication difficult, if not doomed to failure. Yet, with our new cache of materials from NASA, an electronic stencil cutter, and a high-speed duplicating machine, we kicked around the idea from time to time. The catalyst came with news from Marshall, Texas where the entire VISTA project was suddenly ousted because of a publication. It was a local offering, aimed at empowering the black community. It didn’t help that the VISTA sponsored newsletter had the look and sound of the radical press. Words like “struggle” and “revolution,” found their way into community news items. Terms like “establishment” and “white power structure” amplified every fear fantasy the God-fearing townsfolk could muster. Clenched fists don’t play well in rural Texas. Perhaps if the VISTAs from neighboring communities or even states had been effectively organized, the Marshall project may have been saved. It was yet another example of well-intended volunteers trying to make change in a community with draconian institutions and ultimately being left hung out to dry. Months of delicate networking, coalition building, and trust, evaporated overnight. Promises, friendships, emboldened community organizers, all shown the door.
During an informal gathering at our Communications Center soon afterward, the conversation quickly turned to resurrecting The Issue. This now defunct monthly periodical once gave VISTAs all over the Southwest region a forum to share their stories, vent, write poetry, and unbraid the knots in their heads about the work they were doing. Some of the VISTA projects in more remote areas tried to initiate alternative publications. The idea was sound, but the cost usually prohibitive. When the Southwest regional office in Austin agreed to give us contact information, Larry, David, and I went to work. Within a week we produced a modest, revised, version of The Issue then waited for the response. I was struck with how easy it was to scan and then duplicate the Office of Economic Opportunity’s “All Postage Fees Paid “logo. A little press type and some cover stock gave our initial copy of The Issue an appropriate, if not professional, look. Within days, we began to hear from VISTAs scattered throughout the region. In came their ideas, complaints, poetry, and opinions. Letters with art work, drawings with poetry, journal entries, sketches, an errant joint or two, a recipe, a photo, a five-dollar bill. With each additional Issue, we published both regional and national news. Isolated VISTAs from Arkansas to New Mexico, Oklahoma to Louisiana suddenly had an audience and a forum. They wasted no time using it.
While the Rosewood St. Communications Center wasn’t quite the floor of the New York Times, it felt like Grand Central a day or two before publication deadlines. Specific roles emerged. Larry handled editorials and newsy items, as well as assistance with the layout and printing. David helped with all things technical, made decisions about paper, cover stock, and tended to the machines. I was the poetry editor. That meant that I solicited, read, selected and ultimately edited all the poetry published. I also obtained graphics, did the layout, and readied the final copy. Everybody stapled.
Our version of The Issue would be different. It would be by, for, and about the VISTAs in the Southwest region. That message got through and within a few months, two concerns generated the strongest feedback. Not surprisingly, the VISTAs of the Southwest region were grappling with the same questions we in Houston spent many nights debating: Are we being set up for failure by our government? Shouldn’t we be increasing our efforts to organize the middle class?
A contingent of VISTAs from Oklahoma likened their treatment to the “bait and switch” techniques used by car salesmen. Writing about a committee that sought their involvement and feedback for revamped training sessions, they warned the region that these committees could suddenly appear and disappear. In parenthesis after the text of their letter, Larry noted a similar experience with the State Training Board in Texas.
The Oklahoma letter as it originally appeared, complete with ink drawing.
If The Issue did anything, it provided volunteers in the field with an outlet for their ideas and emotions. It’s appearance in their mailboxes every month said, we know you are out there and what you are trying to do, while seemingly impossible, matters. That rough little collection of news, reprints, poetry, letters, and illustrations, said you are not alone. It said, tell us what you need, and don’t give up; don’t ever give up.
In December of 1969, after mailing out one of our first editions of The Issue, we received a letter forwarded to us via regional headquarters in Austin.
This is a personal statement of gratitude for you efforts in preparing
As one who was inappropriately accused of having produced “that VISTA
paper” in Marshall, Texas, I can say with sincerity that The Issue is a real
…(It) is not published by others for VISTA but …with a real involvement
of VISTAS in the field. This is what gives it its unique stance in…OEO
literature and what calls for its continuation.
Your editorial comments re the misuse of VISTA have expanded the scope
of my thought about my work.
…keep up the good work; you have my utmost support.
Karl was particularly thankful for our re-publication of selected articles from major publications like the Washington Post, New York Times, or the local press. We gave all authors credit, but I don’t believe we ever asked for permission. It wouldn’t have mattered. The information mattered, nothing else. This kind of feedback kept us going. Within the next few months a clear dialogue emerged on what turned out to be the hottest of all hot topics: organizing the middle class.
“VISTA exists to co-opt us; it’s another way our racist, imperialistic, government can channel potential revolutionaries.”
“You knew your resources would be limited and these communities were dangerous before you signed up, didn’t you?”
All our social gatherings usually began with this conversation. Knee deep in this quagmire, the emphasis of our work was beginning to shift. The realization of our condition, white Middle Class college graduates, miles from home, economically marginalized, distrusted by and alienated from our communities became our paralysis. Obsessed with this unexpected existential dilemma, we began to engage a new enemy in the war on poverty: ourselves.
When Jose Arcaya, one of the few Latino VISTAs on the project submitted an article that was subsequently published in Volume 3 of The Issue, the conversation took on a personal tone that escalated to accusatory. Entitled “While in VISTA,” Arcaya lamented the cynical, fatalistic, tone invading the discussions among Houston’s Volunteers. In essence he called for the “few measly, middle-class, white Volunteers …in strife-ridden, incredibly alien…hostile communities” to stop intellectualizing our way out of the task we originally volunteered to do—work with poor people at their own pace and level.” The article went on to acknowledge and even agree with some of the opinions and concerns about Volunteers being tokens of a patronizing federal government trying to channel young dissidents away from potential revolutionary activities. Arcaya recognized, too, that VISTA was concerned only with the symptoms of poverty and had no interest in dealing with the real causes. But it was the last paragraph that enraged many on the Houston project. Arcaya wrote:
If VISTAs don’t do anything else during their year, they ought to at least
immerse themselves in the poverty experience. They ought to use the year
to be taught by poor people the meaning of poverty, not to fortify some college
SDS prejudice about the causes of poverty. They ought to arm themselves with
enough gut and intellectual experiences from the ghetto that when they resume their
non-VISTA lives they can propose realistic, concrete solutions to poverty. The
Revolution won’t do the poor much good if they die by bullets instead of by hunger
Hugh and Sue Grady bristled with anger. Former SDS organizers at Fordham University, they were one of the few married couples on the project. The Gradys assumed Jose’s article was a personal attack and therefore did what most politically active radicals would do; they called a meeting, an emergency meeting, at their modest apartment.
I didn’t know what to expect, but assumed the role of a journalist on assignment. Besides, I was eager to get a glance at the Grady apartment because I’d heard conflicting stories about the décor. Some said if the Houston Police ever looked inside anyone within 50 feet of the place would be arrested. Sure enough, entering the small flat in North Houston, I came face to face with a large portrait of Chairman Mao taped to the living room wall. To the left, Che Guevara stared back at me, to the right the unruly mane of the king of beasts himself, Karl Marx, dominated the wall. Revolutionary graphics detailing various marches, political texts, and portraits of lesser-known leaders covered every inch of that apartment. A bookcase of brick and pine contained everything from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to a first edition of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. A hardcover copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice dangled off a stained, peeling coffee table no doubt obtained from the nearby Goodwill. Across the room, facing inward and away from daytime sun stood a tall, rough-hewn oak cabinet. Inside two elegant glass doors, on all three shelves sat Shakespeare: every play and a good two-dozen volumes of criticism.
Hugh Grady, twisting the ends of his wispy red moustache offered wine. Hugh was originally from Savannah, Georgia. Southern radicals held particular fascination for me. Rather chunky, Hugh reminded me of a Georgia planter. He spoke slowly, eliciting each syllable with the confidence and resolve of an aristocrat. Yet his politics were left of left.
“Ah wonder what makes Jose so sure he undahstans mah motivation for comin’ here?”
“Does he really think we’re… what did he call us, homespun Marxist-Leninists? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Sue Grady emerged from the kitchen and set a plate of corn chips on the large wooden spool that once held electrical cable but now functioned as a coffee table. She had the look of a New England librarian. Her long auburn hair was usually pulled straight back and tied; its thickness complimented her strong face and delicate mouth. Her vocabulary could be challenging, but tonight her anger made every sentence understandable.
“I think he’s got power issues,” she said. But if some asshole is going to insult me, I’d wish he’d have the cahones to do it to my face.”
“Ah don’t quite know what to make of it,” Hugh said. Red wine had trickled unnoticed and imprinted the front of his white T-shirt with three distinct droplets. “Doesn’t he know we’re about organizin’ the poor? Doesn’t he undastan’ a fuckin’ thing about oppressive governments?”
About a dozen VISTAS from inner city Houston showed up that night. After reading Jose’s article together the general consensus was that we could function as a project with individuals using whatever strategies felt most comfortable. As long as we were after the same goals, each other’s means justified the same ends. Nobody said anything but there were many in attendance at the Grady’s that evening who lost a little sleep wondering if anyone on the project was working undercover. We knew this was a governmental protocol. We had been to universities where not every student in the room was a student. A disquieting malaise, like the jaws of an enormous, vice began closing in. First came the desperate on the street. Fueled by drug addiction, hunger, and rage they twisted one end of the handle. A deceptive, duplicitous, government took hold of the other end. Only the families that we knew, the faces we encountered daily, could help us slip this grip. They seldom questioned our motivation. The poor are among the most generous people I have met.
My poem “Miguel” as it appeared in The Issue
Six months earlier, a Houston VISTA originally from the East coast had a carload of friends drop by on their way out to Los Angeles. They had been to the Woodstock Festival, and gave us an eyewitness account.
“It was fantastic, so many people enjoying the music together, sharing food, getting high, living and loving the moment. It’s gonna happen every summer from now on, man.”
To hear them talk, it seemed as if that scene would be reproduced all over the country. Someone on the project had saved enough to buy the first album of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, so we had some idea of what took place. The consensus was that young people had actually figured out how to live their values. That thousands of people could come together and peacefully enjoy their music, protect the land and each other, and change the image that often plagued their counter-culture. To hear them talk, it seemed it would only be a short time before Houston saw such a gathering of the tribes. Some from this Woodstock army tried to convince us we might be wasting our time trying to effect change with the poor. Again, they reminded us we needed to take a hard look at the government that was supposedly sponsoring our presence.
When the time came for these folks to move on, one guy in the group made a last ditch attempt to convince his friend to leave VISTA and find a job in the film industry with him.
“So how many lives did you save today,” he chided. “It’s not like that,” she tearfully replied. “It takes time to get people to trust us; go on, make a movie, I’m not ready to leave.”
His summer was very different from ours, but it jolted me into wondering if I was going to exit this year a different person. With the exception of friends who were married or had children, I expected others I knew to be willing to lay their bodies on the line for what they believed. That’s why I have always detested the term draft dodger or evader. I considered myself a resister. Similarly, if my country granted me the right to dissent, I gladly would serve its best interests. The V in VISTA was for Volunteer. The war at home, in my mind, was a higher priority than the one in Asia. I know now, the truth of that sentiment.
Another way VISTAs in the Southwest region supported each other was with friendly visits. Big cities like Albuquerque Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock were popular destinations. It was economy travel at its best. Usually a phone call would be enough to set up a trip. It was like having a free place to stay in five states. Granted, the lodging was in the worst neighborhoods these urban centers could offer, but the innkeepers were gracious and felt like old friends.
I was dying to go to New Orleans. The six-hour trip was nothing for five VISTAs and one GSA car. Besides it was a working vacation because collaboration with other VISTAs proved valuable. When the opportunity arose I jumped on the chance. David, Nancy, Kim, Larry and I headed toward New Orleans about 3’oclock one Friday afternoon. We were cleared until Monday. The small towns of East Texas were fascinating to me and when we crossed the border into Louisiana I was intrigued with a huge sign that greeted visitors. “Welcome to Louisiana, The Only State That Refuses to License Chiropractors!”
“Is that good or bad?” I asked. Nobody knew. Was the state proud of this fact or were Chiropractors condemning the state? A few miles down the road we stopped for gas. I kept telling myself, you are in Louisiana, and you talk differently, look differently, and think differently. But then I felt that way in small Northern California towns I’ve driven through. When the good ol’ boy at the gas pump, wearing a small red and white polka dotted cap, smiled hello, I wondered, am I being too harsh? Inside the restroom I glanced at the abundant graffiti. On a condom dispenser, neatly printed, were the words:
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty,
Nigger pussy, good as any!
No, I was not in California. That sense never left me.
Welcome to Louisiana; we’ve got what you need.
One of the films we saw during training involved some New Orleans VISTAs who had organized in a most unusual community dubbed “Gert town.” The poverty and living conditions in this strip of New Orleans ghetto rivaled any shantytown in the world. As with many small pockets of inner city in the “Big Easy” Gert town had it’s own distinct history and story to tell. Originally part of a large plantation, Gerttown became a maze of mostly unpaved streets and a fertile breeding ground for crime and poverty. Historically, many of the cities main streets stop just short of Gerttown. Yet the area is rich in jazz history having been the home of something dubbed “cutting” a forerunner to a modern day “battle of the bands.”
The VISTAs in Gerttown were excellent hosts. First we walked through the French Quarter, sampling some of the affordable neighborhood seafood places. One bar had an inexpensive Happy Hour that featured oysters on the free spread. Everyone learned how to eat crawfish and “suck the head” properly. Then we spent a little time in Jackson Square and ultimately worked our way down to the Mississippi River. I could hear Ramblin’ Jack Elliot singing in my ear, “Did you ever stand and shiver, just because you were lookin’ at a river.” As night fell, Gerttown assumed another personality. The muddy streets became less evident and the area’s numerous juke joints and nightclubs flashed their harlequin designs. Glowing reminders of Pearl, Jax, and Dixie beer provided more light than any street lamp.
To get the full flavor of Gerttown, one of the New Orleans VISTAS suggested we go to a neighborhood place right across the street. Probably converted from one of the numerous shotgun shacks, the establishment had a small crescent shaped bar and about a dozen small tables scattered throughout. Five of us surrounded one of the tables. Annie, the New Orleans VISTA informed us that things were done a bit differently in Gerttown bars. “You buy a bottle at the bar, then bring it to your table. Don’t worry, they have all sizes.” Two of us retrieved 5 small glasses and a pint of vodka. It was all right to bring in your own mixer, but all alcohol had to be purchased at the bar. We had a drink and took in our surroundings. A live DJ was spinning records and putting out a wall of Motown punctuated by an occasional funky blues. Kim, as she was wont to do, began to feel the music. A few couples danced, many more kept to the task of serious Saturday night drinking. A willowy woman in a short burgundy dress was doing her best to attract the attention of one man at the bar. Occasionally she draped herself over him like an oversize cape. He just hunched his shoulders and she’d back off. This dance continued for about 20 minutes. It seemed to me that she was getting more looks from other women than the object of her affection. Kim and I soon joined the couples dancing. We’d been the only whites in juke joints before, but the atmosphere here was somehow different. These folks all knew one another. This was their turf and we needed to be aware of that. Urgency seemed to define their actions, like an invisible timer ticking. After about half an hour the bartender slipped out from behind the bar and placed a fifth of whiskey on our tiny table.
“A welcome gift from this gentleman,” he said. A well-dressed black man in his 40s with a broad grin and an apparent appetite for whiskey soon joined us. Mr. Alexander proved to be a thorough gentleman. He danced with the women and told a few stories, before moving on to other friends at other tables. As the evening wore on, we wore out, still feeling the effects of the long drive. Annie set our unfinished bottle on the table of a friend and after nodding thanks, we walked back across the street. Thoroughly tired and slightly buzzed we crashed on the living room floor. About 2 o’clock in the morning we all awoke with a start. Annie ran in and shouted, “don’t put the lights on.” She proceeded to peep outside through the closed blinds. We took turns looking soon after. The small bar had emptied into the street. A chaotic haze of noise and movement enveloped the scene. All I saw were frenzied, shadowy figures. Police lights and sirens followed. An hour later it was dead quiet. Annie had slipped out to a neighbor’s place and returned by 3:30 with a full report. When she began with, “You remember that woman in burgundy at the bar,” I knew what was coming. Jealousy came armed here. Fortunately nobody died. An angry woman had pulled a gun or a knife; people hit the floor. Most took off before the police disarmed her and took her downtown for disorderly conduct. Saturday night had again surrendered to Sunday morning in Gerttown.
The relationship of violence to change lurked behind most political discussions by the end of my year. Just as the Civil Rights movement had given rise to more aggressive leadership, so too did the anti-war movement grapple with the pace and methodology to reach its goals. The Black Panther Party left no doubt where they stood. Marching into the California State Capitol building with guns was both a photo op and a declaration of war. Stokley Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown had ties to SNCC, (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) but their rhetoric left no doubt that non-violence was no longer a guiding principle. So too had white radicals upped the ante after Chicago 1968. With the Jefferson Airplane singing “Up against the wall motherfucker,” and the Beatles multiple versions of “Revolution” confusion reigned. People were fed up with tear gas and billy clubs being a regular part of their First Amendment expression. The war in Vietnam was escalating with new fronts in Laos and Cambodia a real possibility. Political assassination was becoming the preferred tactic to deal with the growing Black Panther Party. Activists of all stripes were wrestling with the question of violence as a viable tool to seek retribution and achieve change.
Against this background, Abbie Hoffman made an appearance in Houston. One of the notorious Chicago Seven, Hoffman easily attracted attention everywhere he went. In Texas, Abbie Hoffman was like an organic farmer at a pesticide salesman’s convention. If one person could epitomize everything that was wrong with the youth of America in the eyes of President Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” Hoffman was the one. He was radical youth incarnate. While Rice University students battled with their administration over Hoffman’s right to free speech on the campus, he addressed an enthusiastic group off campus. My housemates and I attended. The audience contained sympathizers, undercover cops, the morbidly curious, and a handful of folks too stoned to be anything other than wasted at the time. Hoffman had recently published Steal This Book and after encouraging those in attendance to do the deed, he launched into tirade against those officials blocking his appearance on the Rice campus.
“Let’s go down there now and take that building over,” he shouted. “If you want to see who is prepared to act on their beliefs and force these corporate motherfuckers to stop stealing your education, then let’s go down there right now.”
He was making converts by the second. Even the stoners were wider-awake. By midnight the frothy mob moved in the direction of the university. We went home. I didn’t lose any sleep over making that decision, but sleep nevertheless came reluctantly. Dr. King was gone. The war in Vietnam showed no signs of winding down. My generation was losing patience and now the Klan was on my trail. I longed for the luxury of college to sit and sort out my morality with friends. How much was I missing? What else was going on while I’d been stuck in Texas making $6.00 a day? And then the final thought to be fingered like jagged rock: What if I never get out of Texas?
I read in the paper the following morning that a handful of students were arrested for creating a disturbance. Abbie Hoffman somehow managed to slip away.
“I wonder where he went, or where he slept last night,” I asked.
“That’s what always seems to happen, these guys think they are the voice of the people, the soul of the oppressed; wonder how long he’d last in the Fifth Ward?”
We were all feeling the tension these kinds of conversations spawned. Wanting to effect change in our assigned communities at a faster rate, wanting to be in touch with the larger issues going on in the country, and grappling with the inner turmoil that was tying our personal sense of ethics in knots. If he did noting else, Hoffman’s visit to my world gave me the impetus to explore the limits of my conscience. After that evening, I pulled back. I revisited the writers and thinkers whose ideas resonated deeply and stoutly within my mind. My draft board had rejected my claim for an occupational deferment so it was time to take the next step. I set aside any anger about the inequities in the Selective Service System to focus on my own belief system. I would spend the next week writing my statement of conscientious objection. This phase of my battle with Local Board #82 would continue for the next four years. But I couldn’t see that in the spring of 1970. All I could do was deconstruct my moral consciousness; find the depth of my own religious beliefs, my own concept of God, and my own political compass.
At first I relied on my knowledge of humanism. From the poetry of Kenneth Patchen to the texts of Gandhi and Dr. King. In time, all the beautifully turned phrases became echoes in an empty classroom. I turned to my senses and found time spent listening to music or riding my horse, or simply walking around looking deep into people’s faces helped my ideas about the sacredness of human life crystallize. When I set aside to write the statement the task became effortless. Yet, there was never a moment, from my initial introspection until the last sheet of my essay sprang free of the typewriter, that I expected it would ever influence a member of my board. To be sure, they would probably read every word. I imagined the thoughts drifting through their brains at the time. I could almost hear their snickers, see their physical discomfort. This would be just one more semi-eloquent, bundle of half-truths penned by a coward who never thought about what it took to keep this country free. My Eagle Scout distinction would be a momentary flare up of static in the military march soundtrack of their lives. I knew then that my statement of conscientious objection was for me and me alone.
Even though my Conscientious Objector’s statement looked less like an intelligent essay and more like answers to required questions, it came from my soul. My attempt to inform my reader about what influenced these beliefs was both intellectual and experiential. I wrote:
When I was 19, my mother became critically ill with cancer. She lived eight months knowing, as did my entire family, that she would soon die. Being my first intimate experience with death, this period of my life had a tremendous influence on my religious beliefs. Often, in her last few months, my mother and I spoke of life, death, God, and man’s relationship to other men. After her death, my religious beliefs became more firmly entrenched and now manifest themselves in my writing. Set against a background of increasing social change, the violence of war and racial strife, I became further resolved to act against the suffering of mankind, in the only way I could: non- violently.
I wrote about the sacredness of human life, quoted the Bible and Koran, and concluded with the statement:
To be sure, I have been influenced by the great thinkers of non-violence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, however, my increased interest in poetry led me to my most profound influence, the American poet Kenneth Patchen. Patchen’s works encompass the totality of my religious beliefs.
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone,
Force cannot be overthrown by force,
To hate any man is to despair of every man,
Evil breeds evil—the rest is a lie:
There is only one power that can save the world—
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
My draft board might be smirking, they might be pissed off, or they might actually be thinking about something I wrote. I knew then that whatever they thought was irrelevant. When that statement, with all its Registered Letter tags and stickers left my hands, I took my stance. I have never been more certain of any ethical belief and never more proud of my ability to be honest.
Shortly before his death in 1989, a pensive Abbie Hoffman, in trying to summarize the ‘60s said:
… in the nineteen-sixties, apartheid was driven out of America. Legal segregation - Jim Crow - ended. We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight in a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. Now, it doesn't matter who sits in the Oval Office. But the big battles that were won in that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse. We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, and headstrong - and we were right. I regret nothing
I don’t think he saw Iraq coming.