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We, The People
By RG Cantalupo
The day you wake up to find your phone's been tapped and nondescript men in unmarked cars are outside your front door, you won't be ready.
No one ever is.
My day came on a Sunday, May 14, 1972, two days after we, the Monterey Chapter of VVAW, organized a protest in response to the mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam.
I picked up the phone to call a friend, and heard a suspicious clicking sound. I hung up and tried again. Same click, as if someone was listening in on a "party line."
I put the phone back on the hook and opened the front door. Across the street, sat an unmarked police car. The two men in the front seat looked over and stared.
Later, when I drove to a friend's house, the car followed, or another appeared.
Before the week was over, I saw unmarked cars and men in crew cuts everywhere. I couldn't go to the grocery store or walk on the beach without seeing them. They seemed to monitor and know my every movement.
My home no longer was my domain; my life no longer my own, but the subject of others, to do with as they please.
So how did I become a target of the FBI besides being an active and outspoken leader in the Monterey Chapter—by accident, and by a single photograph.
Two days earlier, we'd blocked the gates of the Monterey Naval Postgraduate School. For a while, we were successful. We closed the streets and the gates surrounding the school by locking arms.
Then the police arrived and chaos erupted. They tried to push us off the streets and away from the gates. We pushed back, or collapsed around them.
One cop kept riding his motorcycle into the crowd kicking and swinging his billy club. He did this one time too many, the crowd parted, then closed around him, and began hitting and jabbing him with signs. He lost his balance and fell. When he grabbed my friend Anthony's leg to arrest him, a bunch of us started pulling from both sides. It became a tug-of-war with Anthony in the middle. I grabbed the cop's billy club to stop him from beating on my friend, and with the constant pulling, it slipped loose and ended up in my hand. He sprawled backwards, and I stood over him, club in hand.
At that moment, the photograph was taken.
The photo appeared on the front page of the Monterey Herald the next day. It showed me standing over him, arm raised, poised to deliver a crushing blow, while he lay on his back flailing like a cockroach. His mirrored sunglasses were broken, the eyepieces catawampus—one, half on one eye, one, reflecting off his forehead.
You can't really make out my face.
My long hair and beard obscure my features. Besides, the shot is from the side, at an angle, my back slightly turned toward the camera. I'm sure there were other photos though, photos where I was clearly visible and recognizable.
But I never delivered the blow that the photo implies. Once Anthony's leg was pulled out of the cop's grasp, (sans half his jean pant leg and one shoe), we ran, dispersed in all directions to escape arrest.
The rest is history; or was.
No one can live like that—not for long.
Shadows and night terrors invade your brain and take over your life. You feel like you're living in a house of mirrors; like a sniper's going to pick you off at any moment or someone's going to break down your door and arrest you in the middle of the night.
Every unknown sound's an intruder prying open a window, or jimmying a door.
You become paranoid, fearful, on hyper-alert.
If you owned an M-16, you'd lock and load and flick the safety off, ready.
So when the semester ended a month later at Monterey Peninsula College, I went underground, I disappeared.
We all did—my closest friends, the three or four others in the VVAW who also believed their phones were tapped. I drove across country in a VW bus with my friend Wayne, another Vietnam vet.
In September, I resurfaced as a transfer student at UC Santa Cruz.
I never participated in another protest, attended another VVAW meeting, or reconnected with anyone from the Monterey chapter.
Over the next forty years, I wrote, published, gave lectures on Vietnam, did crisis intervention on veterans suffering from PTSD, but this is the first time I've written about what it feels like to be "targeted," or that infamous photograph that portrayed a crime I didn't commit and could've framed me with assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer.
There is nothing "free" or democratic about a government that spies on millions of law-abiding citizens or changes laws to suspend or erase the constitution and the Bill of Rights: Lies used to deny people inalienable rights are still lies, no matter what the ruse.
I wasn't a terrorist in 1972, and I'm not one now.
I was a combat veteran with three purple hearts and a Bronze Star for Valor Under Fire.
And I was a Vietnam Veteran Against The War—that war, and the many after it, and this one soon to come—a right I still own, no matter what this government believes.
We, the people, are not dangerous!
A government, not of and for the people, is!
R.G. Cantalupo's (Ross Canton) work has been published in over a hundred literary journals throughout the United States, Canada, and England. His award-winning Vietnam War memoir "The Light Where Shadows End" was serialized in the literary journal "War, Literature and the Arts." He was awarded three purple hearts and a bronze star with a combat V during his tour in 1968-69 with the 25th Infantry Division.