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As the American-made catastrophe in Vietnam was accelerating in the mid-1960s, I was arrested with 37 other students and one professor for occupying the Ann Arbor draft board in a militant, non-violent sit-in. I’d just returned to school from the Merchant Marines and attended the first-ever teach-in against the war. I’d heard Paul Potter, then president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), end a talk on the necessity of agitation by issuing a challenge that echoes in my head to this day: “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.” I was twenty years old, and I signed up on the spot.
I still have my battered SDS membership card emblazoned with the lovely opening line from the Port Huron Statement: We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. I had the Statement in my pocket when I occupied the draft board, my first act of civil disobedience.
Fifty years on, the Statement can be read in a thousand ways, but for me its vitality lies in its self-description: “an agenda for a generation”—taking “generation” at its broadest and most generous: production and reproduction, development and genesis. In that sense it’s much more a call-to-arms than a manifesto, more provocation than program, more opening than point of arrival. The Port Huron Statement was and is an invitation to create.
• • •
I’d grown up in prosperity and privilege—at least modest comfort—sleeping the deep American sleep of denial, a kind of willful, anesthetized ignorance about anything that might exist beyond our neatly trimmed hedges. But then I was housed at the University of Michigan, the black freedom movement was beckoning, war was looming, and the Port Huron Statement was providing necessary insight and analysis. I opened my eyes and awoke to a world in flames.
The war clarified everything. The United States stood on the wrong side of an exploding world revolution; the hopes and dreams of people everywhere—for independence and self-determination, for dignity and justice—were being contested in every corner of every continent, and the United States was the command center of the counter-revolution.
“Which side are you on?” began a traditional freedom song. I joined the movement —the struggle for civil rights and peace for starters—and soon thought of myself as an internationalist who wanted to end this war and ultimately the system that made war and racism inevitable.
When I was arrested that first time, the war was broadly accepted. Seventy percent of Americans supported the U.S. invasion, and even on campus we were massively outnumbered. So we got busy and invented a thousand different ways to organize and educate. “Vietnam Summer” was a concerted effort to knock on every door in working-class neighborhoods across America and meet people face-to-face to engage in a dialogue about peace. I worked in Detroit for two summers; these front-door encounters were the most difficult and exhilarating thing I’d ever done. The more I tried to teach others, the more I learned—about Vietnam and white supremacy, about the consequences of war and empire, about politics and possibility, and about myself. By 1968 a majority of the American people had come to oppose the war, and we were certain that our efforts and our sacrifices had paid off.
Whatever the decade of the ’60s was, it remains prelude to the necessary changes and fundamental upheavals just ahead.
The black freedom movement was another key to building opposition to the war. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had issued a statement saying that “No Black man should go 10,000 miles away to fight for a so-called freedom he doesn’t enjoy in Mississippi,” and Muhammad Ali had resisted the draft, proclaiming, “I won’t fight in the white man’s army.” When Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the war as illegal and immoral, and with great anguish denounced the government and called on America to get on the right side of the world revolution, the country shook to its core.
The last straw was veterans returning home and telling the plain, unvarnished truth about all they had seen and been asked to do, exposing the reality of aggression and officially sanctioned terror. They joined the peace movement in droves, injecting renewed urgency and militancy. The United States had been defeated militarily, and the government found itself isolated in the world and in profound conflict with its own people. It seemed certain the war would end.
At the end of March 1968, when President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, we were ecstatic: a million deaths, true and terrible, but at last it would end.
We didn’t stay happy for long. Five days after Johnson’s announcement, King was assassinated; a couple of months later, Robert Kennedy was murdered; and a few months further along the new administration expanded and extended the war indefinitely. (“Let’s not make the mistakes of 1968,” an older comrade cautioned at an organizing meeting recently for the planned NATO/G8 protests in Chicago. “Remember Tom Hayden and Company got Nixon elected.” Far-fetched, of course, but that easy belief—agitation is the generator of all reaction—is never without friends.)
And so the war did not end: six thousand people were murdered in Southeast Asia every week, and there was no end in sight. The political class remained unresponsive to the wide expression of popular will. We had tried everything, but nothing worked—we could not find a way to stop the war. The peace movement splintered: some people (including one of my brothers) joined the Democratic Party in order to build a peace wing within it; others took off to Europe or Africa; one of my brothers deserted the army and fled; some built rural communes to escape the madness; others went into the factories in the industrial heartland to build a workers’ party. I and a few others created the Weather Underground, a clandestine force that would, we hoped, survive the impending—we were sure—American fascism, and that could fight the war-makers by illegal means. Each choice carried its own contradictions, but none of us can claim much, for none of us ended the war.
• • •
Steven Colbert, the faux right-wing host of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, once had a bit that began with a clip of then–presidential candidate Barack Obama saying, “Can’t we just get over the ’60s?” Cut to Colbert: “No Senator, we can’t just get over the ’60s,” he scolds angrily. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
“The ’60s,” thoroughly commodified and sold back to us as myth and symbol, has been, at least until now, a brake on activists fed on the delusion that the decade was a golden age that would never return. But no one actually lives by decades—no one said on December 31, 1969, “Oh, shit, it’s almost over!” It was neither as brilliant and thrilling as some would have it, nor the devil’s own workshop, as others insist. Whatever it was, it remains prelude to the necessary changes and fundamental upheavals just ahead. We’re still living, still of this generation, and all the self-appointed board members of “The ’60s, Inc.” looking nostalgically at a ship that’s left the shore are missing the point.
Like the Port Huron Statement, the early activities of the Occupy movement are more invitation and opening than point of arrival—a search for the new by actors becoming self-conscious subjects in history and inventing ways to resist and overturn established power structures. More than a single campaign, Occupy is a movement-in-the-making. In this time of rising expectations and new beginnings, as well as fear both manufactured and real, it is even more pressing that we live out the urgency embodied in the Statement’s closing words: If we appear to seek the unattainable . . . we do so to avoid the unimaginable.
Bill Ayers is retired distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of several books, including Teaching Toward Freedom, Fugitive Days, Teaching the Taboo, and To Teach. He was a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society and a founding member of the Weather Underground.
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