Thursday, October 27, 2016

Remembering The Real Tom Hayden In This Fantastically Craptastic Election Year

1968: Tom Hayden plans strategy with Chicago 7 Co-Defendant David 
Dellinger while George Wolkind makes friends at the University of Delaware.
As a young political activist weaned in the crucible of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Tom Hayden was George Wolkind's inspiration, but not the Tom Hayden of the wild and willfully distorted popular imagination. 
"Tom had a romantic faith.  He was a romantic revolutionary committed to nonviolence, something that I was as well," Wolkind remembers in the wake of the passing this week at age 76 of the radical activist turned progressive politician.  "He believed in America, he had a spiritual connection with the American people." 
The Tom Hayden of Wolkind's acquaintance does not fit comfortably with our grainy black-and-white newsreel memories of the Sixties, of bomb throwing, flag burning
and long-haired hippies screaming at and spitting on returning Vietnam veterans.  This is because the real Tom Hayden, who was a contributor to the Declaration of Independence of the day -- the seminal Port Huron Statement -- was rather understated for a supposed firebrand.  And experienced beyond his then young years.   
The line that can be drawn between Hayden's advocacy for civil rights and against war some 50 years ago as a Students for a Democratic Society leader to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives matter is straight and true. And profoundly relevant in this fantastically craptastic presidential election year.
Wolkind first met Tom Hayden in 1967 at a regional SDS meeting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  The Michigan grad, then a wizened 27, was a principal participant in the meeting to organize SDS chapters on college campuses.  Wolkind, a wet-behind-the-ears 20, was the nominal leader of the fledgling chapter at the University of Delaware in Newark, where he was a student. The afternoon's activity was not raising collective consciousnesses, but touch football.   
"Tom was crazy about baseball and football," Wolkind said.  "He was the quarterback, of course."   
Wolkind blocked for Hayden and scored a touchdown on a long pass toward the end of a pickup game against self-declared anarchists.  And brought back to Newark Hayden's admonition that a grassroots movement cannot succeed if it's not a participatory democracy. 
He put those principles into practice at Hullihen Hall, the University of Delaware administration building, which he and a couple hundred students took over in sympathy with three students who had been expelled (and their draft boards notified by the school in a notably malicious touch) after they walked off a Reserve Officers Training Corp drill field in protest over the war and ROTC being mandatory for underclassmen.    
"Are we really going to shut Hullihen down?  My idea was to force a confrontation," Wolkind recalls. "I asked myself, 'What would Tom Hayden do?' So we put it to a vote.  How many people wanted to shut the building down and how many wanted to just keep demonstrating?  The vote was overwhelming to continue to allow people to come in and go out." 
Wolkind himself was later arrested by Bill Brierly, Newark's legendary police chief, at the university's Student Center on obscenity charges (photo, upper right) while handing out fliers for a campus appearance by Hosea Williams, the civil rights leader, with the headline Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, a phrase attributed to poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and shouted out by lead singer Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane in concerts and radio interviews. 
The Port Huron Statement was the foundation document of Students for a Democratic Society.  By the standards of today's superheated rhetoric, it doesn't seem radical at all, but then SDS was not radical, at least not at first.  Nor was Wolkind.  And SDS wasn't a product of the so-called Sixties counterculture; the organization predated it.   
The war in the Big Muddy escalated and then escalated some more.  Nearly 200 Americans a week were dying.  Public opinion was slowly turning against the Johnson administration.  Efforts by Hayden and other SDS leaders to force the U.S. to negotiate a settlement went nowhere, while a massive march on the Pentagon in October 1967, where Wolkind had been arrested for the first time, moved public opinion but not the White House.
Attitudes hardened and then hardened some more.  There were violent demonstrations on college campus, culminating with the murder of four antiwar protesters at Kent State.  Cathy Wilkerson, a Washington, D.C.-based SDS activist who advised the University of Delaware chapter, helped form the ultra-radical Weather Underground Organization and in 1970 escaped an explosion in a nail bomb-making factory in the sub-basement of her father's Greenwich Village townhouse that took three lives.  She avoided capture for 10 years.
"The student movement grew up.  We weren't students anymore," Wolkind says.  "Armed struggle soon became the final straw.  The movement basically threw Tom Hayden out, and the Weathermen were born out of this."   
Meanwhile, the Delaware campus returned to the state of political somnolence that still characterizes it today. 
Tom Hayden was used to if never completely inured to charges that he was a sellout.  "The Left eats its own people," Wolkind explains. "It eats its own people and spits them out more times than anybody."   
Those charges were deeply unfair, of course, unless you consider a decades-long career in mainstream politics as a California state legislator who tirelessly promoted an agenda advocating economic parity, racial justice and solar energy to be selling out.  But that was nothing compared to the weeks before Hayden's death when the sellout chorus succumbed to collective apoplexy.   
In July, Hayden attended a rather different Democratic National Convention than the 1968 bloodbath in Chicago that led to his indictment as one of the Chicago 7 (and eventual exoneration). Looking uncomfortably at the world his generation had inherited, to paraphrase the opening line of the Port Huron Statement, Hayden told delegates who were gathering in Philadelphia to nominate Hillary Clinton that she was his unequivocal choice.   
There is "one fundamental reason for my doing so," Hayden explained.  "It has to do with race.  My life since 1960 has been committed to the causes of African Americans, the Chicano movement, the labor movement and freedom struggles in Vietnam, Cuba and Latin America. . . . 
"What would cause me to turn my back on all those people who have shaped who I am?  And I have been so tied to the women's movement that I cannot imagine scoffing at the chance to vote for a woman president.  When I understood that the overwhelming consensus from those communities was for Hillary, that was the decisive factor for me."

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