|Download PDF of this full issue: v51n2.pdf (30.7 MB)|
Memories of Dewey Canyon III
By Barry Romo as told to Jeff Machota
Part 2 of an interview with Barry Romo conducted by Jeff Machota on March 6, 2021.
JM: Jeff Machota - Interviewer
BR: Barry Romo
JM: After the Winter Soldier Investigation, did your role in VVAW increase? What happened next?
BR: I go home. I hang out with all the people at Valley Junior College, and the anti-war people. I got a call asking me to become California Coordinator of VVAW.
JM: You said yes, then?
BR: I said yes and asked Mark Hartford to be co-coordinator with me. I couldn't do it alone. I asked the Ashtons as well, old friends from the anti-war Democratic Party. They said they would; because you had to do things like set up phone trees and stuff like that.
Dewey Canyon III was brought up at Winter Soldier. And the fact that there was going to be a demo afterwards. Then they flew me to New York City. We held a national meeting. It may not have been the first national meeting, but it was the first real national meeting with people from all over. We voted on the Objectives, like the Panther's Ten Point Program.
JM: Was it called Dewey Canyon III at that point or was it just a national demo?
BR: It wasn't, not yet. Then, we talked about having this demonstration, throwing our medals away.
JM: So first you came up with the Objectives, then you talked about a big demo?
BR: Yeah. Most of the people were feminists at this point, myself included. Then some people's egos started to show. Oh, lets call it … I don't know; okay names. So, we argued for a while and one of us, said "During the WSI, one of the Marines brought up that Operation Dewey Canyon II was an illegal invasion of Laos." We thought that was pretty important for the American people to hear. Someone said "Why don't we call it Dewey Canyon III and that way we can bring up we're the legal occupation of congress land and bring up the illegal invasion of Laos?" So, we did! We also plotted out a bunch of stuff, throwing our medals away, stuff like that.
JM: At this point, was Al Hubbard running the show?
BR: Jan Barry, John Kerry, Scott Moore; but all of them after Hubbard.
JM: So after the meeting, you go back to California. Then you start organizing for the event there?
BR: Yes, but New York members had to welcome me on my first trip to New York. So, we drank until I passed out. We walked the streets looking for furniture. We tried to steal a bed that was in the trash, that we pushed.
JM: This was for office furniture, for the office?
BR: For individual people's apartments. Damato and I became best friends.
JM: So that was your first trip to New York then, when you went to that meeting?
BR: Yes. I flew back home. The National Office told me to sign up as many people as I could. We were going to have tons of money, including the Playboy jet, to fly out of Los Angeles.
JM: That's what they were telling you, you are going to be flown—have people fly out in the Playboy jet?
BR: Yeah, and we were going to have so much money, we could fly anybody. We didn't go for a train, like we did in 1976. Then, like a week beforehand, or less, they called me up and said that the Playboy jet had fallen through and they didn't have money. They could only send nineteen people, maybe less from Los Angeles. I had to call up and talk to people and say I'm sorry. I promised you that you could go. Some people gave me their medals. So, when I threw my medals away, I threw their medals away also. A lot of us did that.
JM: So, the contingent was still pretty big, but it would have been much bigger.
BR: It would have been; Oh god yes! It could have been at least 70, 80, 100 people.
JM: How many ended up going. You said like 20 or so only?
BR: Yes. With one from the Bay Area, who was a guy I met up there. He ended up being crazy and not even a vet. He stole my fatigue jacket.
JM: How was the airplane ride out there? That must have been a riot.
BR: It was great! We had so many vets together and we were all anti-war. That was back when there were 747s. We flew into Baltimore; and then from Baltimore to DC, just outside Arlington Cemetery. The VVAW leadership had a flag up. We refused to register while the flag was flying.
JM: The VVAW National Office had an American flag at the registration area?
BR: It wasn't flying upside down. Then they turned it upside down.
JM: So, right off the bat, California was bringing a different flavor to VVAW?
JM: What do you attribute that to? Was the California delegation younger, more recent vets? Or was it the work that had been done already?
BR: We were more radical than other people. Maybe not Hubbard, but certainly more than Kerry.
JM: Why do you think that was?
BR: We were doing GI work. Other people weren't doing stuff like that. We were working in coalition politics, from Democratic Party, ACLU and stuff like that, and Panther support.
JM: Once you were there, after this incident, what activities did you participate in over the weekend?
BR: We were there one night, and that was registration. We slept there.
JM: Where you slept, was that at Anacostia Flats, or was that at the Mall?
BR: That was at Anacostia Flats. They refused to let us go into Arlington Cemetery. Then, we marched and chanted to the area where we were going to sleep.
JM: You marched to the Mall then?
JM: That was not supported by the National Office at the time? Was it rank and file?
BR: We were supposed to march there.
JM: Did you participate in the Supreme Court demo?
BR: I was arrested along with another 125 VVAW people.
JM: That was not part of the initial plan, was it?
BR: No. Totally spontaneous. Because the Supreme Court, actually the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, said we couldn't sleep. He was a Nixon appointee.
JM: Was it Warren Burger?
BR: Yes. He thought we were the French Revolution coming to guillotine them. That's in the book Brethren, by the Washington Post guy. It was written afterwards. All the other Supreme Court Justices were mad and said we could sleep there. So, now the stuff was in turmoil, including the Black NAACP justice, Thurgood Marshall. They were embarrassed that Burger would presume to do something like this. Then they started bringing busses up to arrest us.
It was one of the cops or one of the vets; I think it was one of us, came and said they had been told we were going to be violent and therefore should be treated with no respect. So we said, you know what. They are saying we are violent. So, let's dance. So, we did a can-can with the California delegation and other vets.
Sure enough, we got away without getting beat up. Because of dancing vets. That picture made the front pages of over 200 newspapers the next day.
JM: What was the arrest for. Was it for not dispersing, for being there?
BR: Yeah. For not dispersing.
JM: How long did they keep you in jail for then?
BR: A couple of hours. That's all. Then, either the ACLU or the Lawyers Guild asked to have the charges dropped. It was a ten dollar fine, which they paid. Then, the DC prosecutors appealed it and the appellate court sided with us and dropped the charges! When people were getting arrested, one of the Marine vets looked down and saw a cop whose life he had saved in Vietnam was there to arrest him. He ran down, in front of all of us, and told his buddy "Hey, … you know we are right. You know this war is wrong. Arrest me." The cop had a mental breakdown.
JM: Did you go lobby then?
BR: I never lobbied, but we had people that did lobby. So, we did everything.
JM: The night that you were sleeping on the Mall, Ron Dellums came out?
BR: Tons of Congressmen; Kennedy came to the Massachusetts delegation. Ron Dellums came to ours. Bella Abzug did. Shirley Chisolm came there. All the Congressmen came there. Dellums came and stayed with us. He said that he wasn't going to get any publicity, but if the cops arrested us, he was going to get arrested too.
JM: So, were you guys prepared to get arrested that night?
BR: The National Office said they wanted us to sleep. Mike Oliver said "We took speed in Vietnam (I didn't of course) and so we'll take speed. We got to be able to stay here until we can throw our medals away on Friday, because that's the most important thing. We want you to stay awake." The California delegation sent a Jewish vet from Los Angeles [Sam Schorr], whose parents had been in the CP. He went up there and said "We're not going to take any drugs." (That was the California position). "We didn't have to have permits in Vietnam and we will be damned if the Congress that sent us overseas will make us now."
We voted. We had more votes to sleep. We did sleep. The cops walked through. They said "We're not going to fuck with you. We are waiting for Mayday. We're going to fuck those motherfuckers up."
JM: That was what the cops were saying?
JM: Were you actually able to sleep that night?
BR: Yeah. For ten minutes and then woke up and then went to sleep. It was sort of like Vietnam. We were so fucking happy when we voted to break the law!
JM: So nobody left? The people who voted to stay awake; they didn't leave then; they stayed too?
BR: They stayed. If you are going to vote, then you should follow our democracy, the majority rule. If we vote to sleep, then everybody stays here and supports defying the ruling.
JM: How about the returning of the medals? How did that all go down? What do you remember from that?
BR: The night before, they called a National Office meeting. All the Coordinators and the national officers held a meeting. John Kerry gave a speech saying; "We shouldn't throw our medals away." He said that was too Left, that we had to show respect for them. Therefore, we should collect our medals in a body bag. That way we could still show that the medals were meaningless, but show respect for other people, as well. I said No.
JM: So he wanted to return the medals; he just wanted to do it in a different way? He wanted to just collect them and deliver them?
BR: Yeah. But, not throw them away. I said that we had to throw them away. We had to prove that the Napoleonic statement about "I could get people to die for a piece of tin and ribbon" was false. Napolean had marshals that had started out as privates and worked their way up to be the highest-ranking people. On top of that, he had great food for his men, and he gave medals to people who were super brave and honorable in combat. So, he came up, I think, with the first medals like that; for everyone, not just for officers.
So, I brought up that and the fact that we had to tear at masculinity and turn our backs on medals being worth peoples' lives. This would prove to the world that medals were not worth lives.
JM: How did that vote go down?
BR: I can't remember, but I think it was big.
JM: The next day was the return of the medals?
JM: Any specific memories that you have of that day?
BR: The ones you've seen in Only The Beginning.
JM: How long did it go on? Because all the video coverage is only the same couple of minutes over and over.
BR: It went on for hours and hours. I think twelve or fifteen hundred people. Every group doubled in size. When we started out, we had like twenty people from California. By the end, we had forty or fifty, maybe even more vets, including active duty people, who joined.
JM: Where did they come from?
BR: Television and radio coverage.
JM: They weren't from California, they just showed up?
BR: No. They were from California.
JM: They flew out there and joined in then?
BR: No. They were on active duty at bases near DC.
JM: So there were a bunch of active duty people who joined up at the event?
JM: Were there many non-vets at this event or was it all vets?
BR: Very small number, except people's girlfriends and wives who were there.
JM:: Was the returning of the medals the culmination of the event?
BR: That was it. We left and went from there. We were just filled with PTSD and Joy! I mean throwing our medals away was one of the most amazing things for me to do, personally, in terms of atoning and shit, and saying "No Longer."
So then, we went to the DC airport and one of the managers came and said "Well, you can't leave now. (I just thought we could fly, and others thought the same) "You can't leave until tomorrow, not from here but from Baltimore."
JM: Who was telling you that?
BR: The head of the airlines. Whichever airlines. We said fuck that. We just got through sleeping on the Mall. We can sleep in your waiting area. (I had rowdy vets backing me up from California). The guy says "Oh no, let me check with Baltimore." So, they drove us to Baltimore. We got on a plane there, instantly. Because we had just made the pages of the papers by sleeping in DC. Sleeping there would have been nothing to us.
So, a 747 back. They had a bar on the second floor of the airplane. We went up there and it was all the business class people drinking their brains out. The whole group of us went upstairs. The business people said "Whatever you want to drink, we will buy your drinks." We made jokes about people and they said "We support you." In fact, they collected money and bought us free drinks. That was pretty intense.
We get off at LA and we are just higher than a kite, from drinking, no sleep, PTSD, and happiness. The delegation (not me, I had no energy left) can-can'd off the plane.
The local press was all impressed with so many people being from San Bernardino and LA.
JM: So, this is still just April. What about the rest of 1971? What else did you do with VVAW, locally or nationally?
BR: VVAW quadruples in size. After all that coverage, everybody wanted to join. Our generation were TV kids, not radio kids. We knew the power of the press and also the written press. I had been a paperboy, like you. We knew how to play upon the press. We didn't feel like the press was our enemy. Even though, of course, a lot of times they didn't cover us. Especially as time went on.
People held local Winter Soldier Investigations, all over. In California, we held a gigantic one at Pacifica, at KPFK in LA, which was a gigantic leftie event.
JM: So how many of those do you think happened across the country?
BR: At least ten or fifteen.
JM: Since there was no national VVAW newspaper yet, did those just get covered in the local press?
JM: For the rest of 1971, did you go to any more of the national demos, like Operation Peace on Earth, or was that more of a regional demo?
BR: Those were more regional.
JM: So, you stayed organizing in California for the rest of the year?
JM: And you were still a Regional Coordinator then?
JM: As 1971 is ending, what thoughts did you have on where the anti-war movement was going, where you were going, where VVAW was going, in general?
BR: We had people refusing to go to Vietnam, in a revolt that we haven't seen in centuries. Plus the anti-war movement was just getting bigger and bigger, holding bigger demos. Every DC, LA, San Francisco, and New York anti-war regional or national demo brought out twice as many people. We always had speakers. We had a ton of money.
JM: The national, or the regional or chapters?
BR: National. I've never been good at collecting money.
JM: I've seen you passing the bucket at events, Barry.
BR: But, that's now!
JM: Any closing comments? Why is what happened in 1971 important to talk about today?
BR: People before us, wouldn't criticize until they got old. Like Japanese vets from the Nanking massacre or American vets from World War II. Like Band of Brothers. There were scenes in there where they shot prisoners, scenes where they sent silver home, stealing Nazi stuff. We knew that by testifying to war crimes, we couldn't just hide by the medals we got. Our grandkids would know that we lied. By bringing up racism; I mean the Klan was still super strong in the South.
In one the local areas, we were giving a speech to the local ACLU. Afterwards, everybody wanted to talk about Kerry. It was ok. He did a great job! His speech "How do you ask the last person to die in Vietnam."
JM: You weren't in there when he did that, were you?
BR: Not in there, but I heard about it afterwards. I wish I was. There were a bunch of our VVAW people in there.
We had such a reactionary, racist Congressman (Pettis), Republican, evil person, non-vet. So, most of the vets didn't feel it was worth it to lobby him. But other vets went to Senators and stuff.
We were giving that speech to the ACLU. Before us, Chukia Lawton, the wife of Gary Lawton, was asking the ACLU to back her husband who had been arrested and framed on killing two white cops. Afterwards, we went oh, my god, fuck us! And the ACLU was mostly white.
JM: Was that when you first heard of the Gary Lawton case?
BR: I had gone, prior to that, to civil rights demos, in Riverside, and heard him speak. Friends pointed him out as being the Mayor of the Black part of Riverside. Seeing his wife say that he was being framed. We had already worked on other anti-racist stuff. So then, we hooked up with her and started going to the trial and pre-trials and stuff. Gary Lawton's case ended up becoming a major focus of my time and VVAW's.
Barry Romo is a long-time leader of VVAW. Jeff Machota is a member of VVAW's National Staff.
Barry Romo at Dewey Canyon III, April, 1971.
Barry Romo (3rd from left) with VVAW doing the can-can
on the steps of the Supreme Court at Dewey Canyon III, April, 1971.