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Standing On Our Children's Shoulders
By Diane Ford
Fifty years ago, VVAW was called upon by Martin Luther King, Jr. to help fight racism in Watts, Los Angeles. The union of anti-war veterans and The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was powerful stuff. The community demanded an end to the deadly practice by local police of pulling the wrong people, from the wrong beds, at the wrong addresses with no recourse. Combining the strength and resources of multiple peace organizations terrified President Nixon. By written accounts documented by historians like Gerald Nicosia, the president feared that these leaders would ultimately create a coup, storm the White House and pull them all from their beds. To lay these efforts down, Nixon called upon expensive public resources to stop the efforts of anti-war leaders and the demonstrations they organized in places like Miami, San Clemente and yes, Watts. This is exactly like the illegal actions of the current administration—using public resources for political purposes against peaceful protesters— in places like Portland and Minneapolis today. George Floyd's life matters. Black lives matter. VVAW's half century of grassroots efforts matter. And you can be damned sure, if you pay attention, that history matters, too.
In the early 1970s, as a naïve, anti-war beach bunny from Huntington Beach, California, I fell in love with Willie Hager, one of the West Coast VVAW leaders that Nixon was so worried about. This union, in itself, matters nothing to the world. It is blowing in the wind. But what does matter is the education I received in his company and that of other VVAW combat veterans.
Willie keeps a room in LA, and one night, we leave a party of VVAW anti-war leaders at his house to see the movie Deliverance. When we return, we park down the street, resting in the van as we often do, Willie's back against the driver's side door, my back against his chest, staring up at the street lamp like a moon. In our own time, we make our way into the house. Willie unlocks the door and turns on the lights as I rush past him to answer the ringing phone. Wrong number; we're used to that. I look in Willie's direction and see that his sweet, almost loving expression is gone. At his feet, a small, aquarium planter is overturned with dark earth leading across the furniture and carpet to the front door. A note on the table says: "We're all busted, they're taking us to LA County. Please work on a bondsman."
Something was definitely happening to the veterans around me that went beyond the paranoia of the day. On side trips as far away as San Diego or Monterey, the police pull us over, ripping the van apart at the seams, looking for—for what? How do they know what vehicles we are driving, where we are going, and the routes we will take to get there? VVAW is on the top ten list of subversive groups in America, but I'm sure that says more about them than us. I hang out with the West Coast inner circle, don't I? We eat meals together, rally together, party together. Scott Camil from the east, one of the Gainesville 8, has camped on our couch, playing Holly Near music late into the night; he is so committed to ending the war that I don't think he ever sleeps. In San Francisco, we all crowded onto Jack and Lydia McCloskey's couch, listening to Joan Baez's new album, Come from the Shadows, reading and re-reading the liner notes which describe Scott Camil as a "man with a face like a Puerto Rican Angel, and a body count of 390."
VVAW is not a flock of angels, true, and they're pretty damned angry. And I'm getting frustrated, too. What am I missing here? Are all of these vets quietly plotting armed revolution only on the days I'm not around? There are some people who say that a peace movement like this, however much it raises consciousness, cannot succeed because it, too, pits one side against another. But others see the byproduct (the joining together of diverse people and causes working toward a common goal) as key.
So, when Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference invites VVAW to join in an anti-police brutality march in Watts, we are honored and psyched. Willie's van holds seven people, two in the front and five in the back. We're cheerful as we drive through the streets of LA to the church where we will be meeting. Along the way, we see a VVAW guy on the side of the road, looking strangely nervous, his antique MG sports car apparently broken down. Willie stops to help, which causes a delay of about a half an hour to the march. When we finally arrive, there are police cars everywhere, but I figure that they're there to ensure a peaceful protest.
But that is not it at all.
Before Willie even turns off the van, every door opens at once, except mine. One cop pulls people out of the back and two grab Willie in the driver's seat, hissing for him to get out his "operator's license." Willie reaches for his pocket; they react like he is reaching for a gun. I think it is their sirens screaming as they pull him all the way out of the van by his legs, toss his body against the side of a police car and smash his face against the fender. And when they spread eagle his legs—the legs of a decorated combat Marine—kicking them apart until he falls face first on the ground, I fly out of the van. I am white, educated and dressed in a long granny dress and glasses, hanging out with vets who have seen a lot more than I have. This is not lost on a few of the cops around me.
"Are you with him?" the cop holding my arms finally asks, motioning in Willie's direction with his head. His tone is gentle; does he want me to say no?
Well, their handcuffs are as cold as their toilet seats, and my eyes cinder hot, as I watch officers terrorize the very same people they are charged to protect. All we did was pull up to a church for a demonstration; we hadn't even gotten out of the van. Yet, here I am, under arrest at Firestone Jail, watching police officers belittle a pregnant young woman with talk of watermelons and chicken. I watch as they throw the contents of my purse over a long table, and say how my boyfriend will miss "fucking me" while I'm in jail. "And by the way are there any dirty pictures of you in the purse that we can take home for later?" As a female officer quietly, even apologetically, searches me in front of these men, I begin to sing:
I could be your daughter,
I could be your wife.
I could be your daughter…
But that is a song I never finish.
Arrested at 3pm Saturday, the sun rises on Sunday and we're not yet released. All night we ride the freeways in a full-sized police bus. The two female protesters, me and a woman named Denise, are separated from the men by a locked cage behind the driver. Denise doesn't say much to me, but I don't despair; from where I sit, I can see Willie, Alfredo and the others, chained at the legs and hands, but still breathing, even after being maced in their cells. Many hours later, the bus pulls up to the Sybil Brand Institute for Women. The woman across the aisle peeks at me through the wire mesh and says: "What did you do to deserve the murdering jail?"
"The murdering jail? We went to an anti-police brutality march in Watts yesterday; the charge was loitering but we never got out of the van."
"Holy Jesus," she tells me. "They is teaching you a lesson, honey. They is saying, 'Don't fuck with me now,' that's what it is."
Somehow, I am not getting the message they are trying to send.
The bus parks close to the prisoner intake doors, and Willie and the others watch as the driver handcuffs me to Denise and someone drags us, bound together, inside the murdering jail. When the door slams behind us, I hear someone cry out—but it's probably just the bus starting up, as it heads to LA County Jail to dispose of the others. Once inside Sybil Brand, I am alone, moving in fear and awe through the booking system, as they strip me of my granny dress and pigtail ribbons and bend me over for yet another flashlight search, toss me in a shower, spray my hair and body with anti-lousing chemicals, and throw me into a holding cell with a bunch of women with holes in their arms and not much else to sustain them.
The next morning, the toast has green jello on it, and my ponytail ribbons are laid out with my dress in a wrinkled heap. And I realize that by marching against unnecessary and criminal police violence, I have come face to face with the same violence myself.
"Get dressed," they shout at me. "Bus leaves in three minutes for the courthouse." They never do anything quietly in jail. I dress quickly, mechanically, completely undone, and board the bus and am told I'll be in court all day for my arraignment. Is that possible? It's Monday! How can they hold us for more than two days if we're not guilty of anything? The woman next to me laughs a jaded laugh and asks what I'm in for. I tell her the story; she jumps up onto her seat and tells the whole bus.
Some prisoners, hearing what I had come to Watts to protest broke into cheers of "right on" and "way to go, girl!" For a moment, I'm a working class hero but I don't feel like one. Then the door busts open and a cop shouts: "Is Diane Ford on this bus?" Removed from the vehicle, I am brought back inside. By then, two of us remain in custody: me, possibly to tweak Willie, and Bill Unger, a vet with long beautiful blond hair and a very bad attitude.
Just like in the movies, as I reverse through the system, I face a gate at the end of the ride. Beyond it, I can see Willie following my progress with red, blazing eyes. Slowly, I walked toward him through the gate; to the man who had lost three fathers to war; who had turned down an appointment to Annapolis to become a Marine; and who had endured two combat tours in Vietnam backed by an honorable discharge. Once through the gate, afraid I might teeter, topple and upset him, Willie rushes me with those arms of his, spinning me around and around so many times, there is no time to cry. He holds me so tightly that, wrapped in those all-inclusive arms, I think this might all go away.
"Fuck," I say weakly, but we are way beyond profanity.
We walk to Willie's van and take the back streets to LA County Jail to get Bill Unger. We arrive there just as the police release Unger into the marble-floored release area. But the anger and frustration of two days of false incarceration rises to his hands and Unger flips the bird at a group of officers. Within seconds he is trashed, his long hair used as a handle to slam his head against the cold, hard floor.
As Nicosia wrote: "Unger had been badly beaten at a demonstration in Watts; and before he was released from…LAPD lockup downtown, he was worked over again, this time by a police judo expert twice his size, who shoved his head against the cement floor. The beatings exacerbated Unger's concussion from the battle of Khe Sanh, and he began having epileptic seizures."
We help Unger from the floor, his eyes on fire with rage and pain. I look into them, and know that right there, on the bloodied, marble floor of LA County Jail, I am probably witnessing the birth of a revolutionary. Unger is trashed, we are trashed, and obviously the authorities feel trashed. Once again the desires and needs of the people of Watts are lost in the scuffle.
Escorted to the county line by a patrol car creeping along behind us, I realize that the authorities really can decide if we'll make it home that night. With Unger in the back, Willie drives silently forward as I hug the passenger window, looking over the suburban Southern California jungle of car lots, shopping malls and industrial smokestacks. And I wonder, "Who is orchestrating all this? Who feels it is so important to silence us? Who has authorized the throwing of all of these public funds at us? Are we really that important in the scheme of things?"
As a peaceful person working to end an unjust war, I had already been gassed in Miami; watched Trotskyites hit our tires with bottles and sticks; faced scores of rifles aimed directly at me by National Guardsmen; endured searches of my home, cars and body by police; ignored vehicles parked discreetly across from our house manned by stalkers I didn't know; and lived with a bugged phone that never worked.
Why do some authorities continue to believe that by attacking and imprisoning opposition, that they will somehow contain it and we will back down? Bill Unger's epilepsy progressed from petite to grand mal; Willie and the others continued a lifelong relationship with protest; and I was turned from a Valentine princess and Nixonette into a skeptic for life. Like the senseless death of George Floyd and others in recent times, those events in Watts fifty years ago showed me bullying and racism in action. It showed me that where there is smoke there is not always fire. Just because someone is arrested for something, there could be other forces at work and they could be innocent. And witnessing the day-to-day lives of combat veterans in VVAW left me truly in awe of their stamina and commitment.
Scared, saddened, and a little too humbled by yet another reality, I rested my head on Willie's shoulder on that long drive home and finally understood, at least in part, some of his sadness and disillusionment.
In my life, change has proven to be more a process than a single event. We are all lucky enough to stand on somebody's shoulders; that is history. With the death and aftermath of the loss of George Floyd and others, combined with massive, heartfelt protests all across the world, true change is in the air. Each day, I learn more from my children than I've ever learned before about race, gender, war and more. Sometimes it feels like I am back in social change kindergarten. This is because they are starting from a place where inclusion is second-nature to them, not something they learned in a book or on the streets. They live integrated lives. They are already integrated. And to me, that is a hell of a start toward change. It has got to mean that as a people, as a species, in some ways anyway, we are almost there. There is something new in the air.
Diane Ford is the mother of two 20-something women who have a lot to say about everything. There is much to learn from them, and history as well. Walking beside VVAW during the anti-war movement changed me forever, it shaped my entire world. This was hard to see at the beginning but I see it now and am grateful for it all. The best parts of my life have been spent as a mother, a singer-songwriter and a wife in places like Alaska, California and the Midwest. And when all is said and done, I still believe love, not violence, will bring us all home.