RECOLLECTIONS: 1972 Republican Convention
By William Shelton
Our vacation was over and it was back to politics.
About two weeks later, George, Ralph and I loaded ourselves into George's van and began a three-day drive to Miami Beach to participate in the festivities surrounding the Republican National Convention. We would be joining nearly five thousand other street delegates, including a large VVAW contingent. Linda hadn't been able to get any more time off from work, so Janet came up to stay with her while we were gone.
As we neared Miami, we saw cars, vans, trucks, all filled with long-hairs, apparently headed in the same direction. There were hundreds of others hitchhiking. We crammed as many as we could into the van.
Things got off to a rapid start. Shortly after we arrived at Flamingo Park, where we had created a "liberated zone," six members of the American Nazi Party seized the stage. The crowd, filled with hippies, yippies, zippies and other assorted malcontents from American society, was angry. Our space had been defiled.
Security at the park fell to VVAW. We quickly cordoned off the stage, cleared a pathway to the entrance of the park and ejected the Nazis in a somewhat less than gentle fashion.
"Can you imagine that. Either they're idiots, want to become martyrs, or both," a young woman cried out.
"They don't know how close they came," a brother shot back.
On Monday, we marched on a high school where members of the Florida National Guard were housed. Three thousand men had been called out to provide security for the other side. Many of the protesters wanted to trash the place. VVAW wanted dialogue, so we linked arms and placed ourselves between the school and the crowd. We protected the protectors.
While speeches were being made, a guardsman tossed a note down to us, which was read to the crowd:
"We just want you to know that there are brothers in here too."
At least some of the Guardsmen didn't want to confront us in the streets.
On Tuesday, we marched from the park to the Fontainbleau Hotel, the Republican party's convention headquarters. We were led by Ron Kovic, a Marine who was paralyzed from the waist down, and two other wheelchair-bound vets. Twelve hundred veterans, marching in formation, followed in total silence. A single banner identified us as Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Though we had not sought permission for this march, the police immediately blocked traffic and coordinated our route. It was ninety-eight degrees. People lined the streets, applauding as we went by. As we marched, jugs of water began appearing, handed to us by people along the way. They were quickly drained, handed back, refilled, and passed on again. Not a word was said. None were needed.
Elderly men and women stared down at us from the balconies of their apartments. And we marched. Solemnly marched. As we neared our destination, a Miami Beach police community relations officer was spotted wearing a VVAW button. And we marched.
We rounded the final corner, broke ranks and gathered in a circle at the entrance to the hotel grounds. Florida state troopers in riot gear stood four deep, guarding the gate. Ron was handed a megaphone.
"We're tired of a government that has lied to us, that sent us off to a war and forgot about us when we came home."
It began to rain, but nobody moved. Kovic's words cut through us like a whip.
"You have lied to us too long, you have burned too many babies. You may have taken our bodies, but you haven't taken our minds!"
We roared with approval. Earlier some of the brothers had talked about rushing the hotel. Had Kovic given the word, nothing could have stopped us.
The next night we rioted. Not all of the brothers were in agreement, but most of us took to the streets anyway.
"You're playing into the government's hands," one shouted.
Another replied, "Hell, man, this is a night the country's gonna remember."
We used hit and run tactics, blocking the streets, attempting to keep the delegates from reaching a quorum. The authorities were ready for us. Buses filled with riot police were stationed near the convention center. They descended from the buses and began advancing, driving us back. I saw a rock, picked it up and hurled it with all my might.
We zig zagged from intersection to intersection, blocking traffic, dispersing as the riot squads charged. Clouds of tear gas filled the air. We regrouped as they charged the next intersection, dispersing others who had regrouped while we were being charged. We bounced them back and forth between us.
Phalanxes of state troopers on motorcycles swung through the streets, swinging clubs as they chased demonstrators. I was cut off as we retreated toward Flamingo Park. I dove under some bushes. A trooper dismounted, apparently thinking he saw someone dart around the corner. He was so close I could have reached out and touched his leg. A hand came out of nowhere and grabbed mine. Another demonstrator, a woman I had never seen before nor would ever see again, was sharing my refuge.
Electricity filled the air. As the night wore on, as the paddy wagons were filled and emptied and filled again, we continued. Brothers and sisters greeted each other now with "Revolution in '76."
Twelve hundred people were arrested, but I was not among that number.
William Shelton is an Air Force veteran and a life-time member of VVAW.