Notes from the underground
The full transcript from our "Freedom Fighters" roundtable.
TOC: Did your participation lead to any personal or professional harassment, difficulty or consequences?
Katz: Au contraire.
Schultz: Where do you want to begin?
James: I think for me, it’s affected me both ways. There is a photograph of me trying to tip over a paddy wagon. When they had the Democratic Convention here the last time, I did 37 interviews after they ran it in USA Today. So I’ve gotten a lot of attention off of 1968. That and my history with SDS and Rising Up Angry—I’ll just use the police in my neighborhood as an example. There are police who like me and joke about it. There are still cops who won’t come near my place because I was one of those guys. And I get along with the commanders and I get along with the younger cops. There’s a bunch of old-line guys who still hold grudges.
Kurshan: In June of ’68, before the convention, the police on the Lower East Side of Manhattan broke into our apartment and confiscated three ounces of marijuana and arrested Jerry. And I wasn’t home. So then I got a call from the police and they said “Come down to the station. Jerry’s been arrested.” Went down to the station. Jerry saw me coming in and said, “Go away; go away; they’re going to arrest you.” They arrested me and they interrogated me. And I think that they were trying to get me to say that Jerry was selling drugs, which he wasn’t. And after awhile, when they realized I wasn’t, they dropped the charges and let me go. So that was one thing.
Then, there was an article about me in the Long Island newspaper, because my family lived on Long Island. This was state repression, but it’s so scary. The FBI came to my parents’ house and my parents wouldn’t talk to them (my parents are old-world Communists). But then my parents got a letter in the mail, a postcard. And I’m going to read this to you because when you sent this question, I dragged this out. Letter to my parents sent in 1970 now, a couple years later.
“There’s no limit to this deceit, degeneracy and immorality of the kike.” That’s number one. Number Two: “The Jew has been a cancer contaminating every country in the world.” Three: “Your daughter is a true”—I don’t know what the hell this is; oh—“a dropping of the tribe—a Commie whore.” Four: “The article printed by Newsday about your sick family will be accepted for what it is—garbage.” Five: “Here’s hoping that all of you liberal swine join the late, unlamented bomb maker”—and that was Teddy Gold, the Weatherman who was killed in the townhouse—“A.S.A.P.”
Katz: I don’t know for other people; I mean, I think I probably have the longest arrest record of anyone here, since the older Daley really hated me. The longest arrest record—17 arrests in that period of time. But in the end, I think it also made me who I was. And it gave me every skill as an organizer, as an intellectual, as a writer—who left school because I believed there was a revolution. Michael recruited me as a young kid in my sophomore year.
James: Yeah, I recruited her right out of Northwestern.
Katz: I became a writer, I became a filmmaker. I did Harold Washington’s campaign. The start of my business was all built on the skills that I found in 1968. And I would say Don would say the same thing. The entire experience—transformative of who I was—personally, as a woman, intellectually. For me, the ’60s were from Lake Shore Drive, a little fluff-headed model to a woman who could think, write, act, organize and start a revolution.
Kurshan: I agree with that, but I also think that the other side of the coin is some of us lucked out better than others.
Katz: We are the lucky ones.
Peck: Yeah, there are people who died or who are wandering around—
Kurshan: There are Black Panthers who are still in prison now.
Peck: There are people who are in prison, there are people who are acid casualties; it’s not just a picnic.
James: The people who went to prison and stuff, some of them, I mean, that was just their life pattern. And they did good work in prison.
Peck: The last night of the convention, we’re sitting in the Seed office and suddenly, the windows are shattered by gunfire. And because we were “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” after all this sunk in, we went to the door and the only car in the street was a police car. So, put two and together, it seemed that the police had shot out our windows, because we were around the corner from the police station. And so, because we liked our landlord who rented to us, we had to call the police to file an insurance claim. So they said, “well, who do you think shot out your windows?” And we said, “well, you did.”
There was a lot of censorship around the underground press; there was COINTELPRO [covert government counter intelligence program] around the movement. There were all these kinds of things. And it probably took me a little later, once I decided that I could live with the bourgeois nature of having a career; I probably got a little late start. But I’m with the other folks. What I learned and what I like to think of as the spontaneity and the adventure that Michael touched on, or the openness and the other cultures that we’ve talked about really was absolutely formative in who I am. I work around the world, tinkering with stuff. I also learned how to put out a paper with no resources. And I’ve been involved in teaching publishing and working as a consultant with a lot of different countries doing that. I didn’t know that I was learning a trade while I was trying to topple the world but it worked out pretty well.
Rose: So you were trying to topple the world.
Peck: Oh, no, I never said I wasn’t trying to topple—let me be very clear about that, I never said that. But my paradigm was different than yours. My paradigm was, for lack of a better phrase, kind of surreal. I was trying to create wonder. Now, after ’68, that was going to change.
James: I want to go on record—I always felt I had a foot in both camps.
Peck: I think you do.
James: I was into the cultural stuff; I was in the revolution stuff. I like ’em all. We’re all like that.
Rose: It’s been nothing but positive for me. I learned more about political organizing. I had a very successful career as a political consultant. I was made into somewhat of a media character. I got a lot of jobs and things out of it. And for the occasional contract I didn’t get or the occasional job I might have missed—’cause I’ve always been in business for myself—it was negligible. And the people who wrote nasty letters were exactly the ones I wanted to write nasty letters.
Katz: I think Nancy’s point is well-taken. We are the lucky ones; we are the white ones. We had a lot of friends who died and we had a lot of friends who went crazy.
Schultz: In academic life, I know there are many academics from ’68 who were with SDS and so forth who did have a lot of trouble. I, personally—well, this contrast is very important because at Columbia, it played in my favor. And also, strangely, in some ways—in my apartment, my studio was broken into, always my studio, papers thrown around, torn, upside down, etc., nothing stolen. Strange notes left in my typewriter, which just makes you very angry. And files and elements of stuff—particularly around the jury story of the conspiracy trial, which upended the verdict of the trial.
It validated thinking on your feet, and being able to change perceptions and even policy right in the middle of something happening if you saw that it was necessary or you were required to do so. And of not cutting and running—one of the things that I think just took the authorities completely by surprise—that’s what they tell me—that the protestors, under threat of death, did not cut and run. They were still there in the streets; they kept coming back to the streets.
James: I just remember that during the Democratic Convention, we went up to the Armory to try to talk to the troops. And remember, the black GIs and maybe some white guys too, from the National Guard in Fort Hood, Texas, refused to come up here for that. There was a rebellion. And I was just going to make the connection to the now.