Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories–Marge Piercy and the Anti-Rusk Demo, 1967

Chapter 12: Marge Piercy and the Anti-Rusk Demo, 1967(i)
On the Sunday evening after the march on the Pentagon, I had also talked with Dave about the demonstration. He hadn’t appeared surprised that the U.S. government had been able to control the demonstrators, despite the mass bravery and militancy. During the next few days, however, news of the government’s brutality in relation to the people who had sat-in, and its harsh treatment of those it had arrested, began to filter through the jails and to the outside world. And a new spirit of militancy and resistance, generated by the Pentagon confrontation, impacted heavily on the New York SDS Regional Office. So Dave volunteered our apartment for an SDS regional meeting to plan a militant street demonstration, patterned after the Pentagon demonstration, in front of New York City’s Hilton Hotel, in midtown Manhattan.

The Pentagon confrontation had persuaded New York SDS Regional Office people like Jeff, Sutheim, Gottlieb, Halliwell and Marge Piercy that large numbers of people in New York City were ready for much more militant street activity in their street demonstrations against the Viet Nam War, comparable to the tactics used by European student groups such as German SDS. Mark and Ted also had been persuaded, by the apparent success of the Pentagon demonstration in radicalizing more people and “upping” the level of anti-war militancy, that Columbia SDS and the New York SDS Regional Office should try to organize an anti-war demo in Manhattan that embodied the new post-Pentagon confrontation spirit of resistance and militancy.

On November 14, 1967, LBJ’s Secretary of State—Dean Rusk—was scheduled to speak at the Hilton Hotel on W. 53rd St. and 6th Ave. at a meeting of the Foreign Policy Association, an elite group of ruling-class corporate-types. By November 1967, Rusk was seen by most anti-war people as a war criminal and a leading apologist for crimes against humanity in Viet Nam.

What the SDS Regional Office hoped to do was to mobilize thousands of anti-war people who had moved “from protest to resistance” in front of New York’s Hilton Hotel to confront Rusk and his Foreign Policy Association colleagues with militant opposition to their crimes and their right to rule over us.

Sutheim, Marge Piercy and some North American Congress on Latin America [NACLA] movement researchers had put together packets of revealing literature on Rusk and the Foreign Policy Association. A militant confrontation on November 14, 1967 would also provide a chance to spread this information to a wide audience and to raise anti-imperialist consciousness around New York City.

SDS chapters on all the New York City area college campuses were contacted by the NY SDS Regional Office and, on the last weekend in October 1967, one or two people from each chapter—plus about 9 people from Columbia SDS and New York SDS Regional Office circles—showed up at my W. 94th St. apartment to plan the November 1967 anti-Rusk demo. About 25 people attended this planning meeting.

Among the SDS activists attending this meeting was a 31-year-old woman who looked younger, although she was among the few women at the meeting who still used lipstick. Her name was Marge Piercy. Her novel, Vida, would later contain a fictionalized version of how Movement people planned this 1967 anti-Rusk demonstration.

Marge had attended the University of Michigan and a university in the Chicago metropolitan area in the 1950s; and she had also written Beat poetry during that decade. And during most of the 1960s she was married to her second husband: a white middle-class man.

At the anti-Rusk demo planning meeting, Marge sat on the chair in the apartment that was right next to the telephone. She appeared content to just sit and listen during the whole meeting, without making any strategic suggestions of her own. Other activists at the meeting included Gottlieb, Naomi, Joe and Dave, from the SDS Regional Office and—from Columbia SDS—Mark, Ted and me. Gottlieb, Ted, Mark and Dave pretty much determined the political direction of the meeting. Various suggestions were made as to what the most effective and non-violently militant way to confront Secretary of State Rusk would be.

The meeting consensus was that we would try to move into the street in front of the Hilton Hotel as ruling-class limousines drove up to the Foreign Policy Association gathering, and then retreat onto the sidewalk whenever the police attempted to clear us from the streets. A few people were assigned to examine whether it would be possible to non-violently confront Rusk with demonstrators inside the Hilton Hotel. SDS people with bullhorns would be in the street outside the Hilton Hotel, encouraging the anti-Rusk demonstrators to use “mobile tactics” to block traffic in the streets around the hotel.

Over the next few weeks, SDS/MDS Regional Office people worked hard to mobilize people for the November 14, 1967 anti-Rusk demo. But, as the memory of the Pentagon confrontation receded, fewer anti-war people around the City appeared eager to attempt to non-violently charge the Hilton Hotel to confront Rusk and the Foreign Policy Association Establishment-types about war crimes in Viet Nam. The pacifist Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee was only willing to hold its usual innocuous, non-confrontational, legalistic, non-militant anti-war demonstration between police barricades, in a street across from the Hilton.

A few people, including me, made separate visits to the Hilton Hotel to check out how easy it might be to sneak inside with anti-war protesters. But after examining the Hilton’s layout, nobody thought it possible to get inside the hotel for any length of time, without first being stopped by hotel security guards. There were too few street entrances to the Hilton Hotel for anti-war demonstrators to be able to sneak into the place.

As news of what was being planned for the anti-Rusk demo spread among Columbia SDS activists and grad school theoretical “heavies,” people at Columbia started to feel lukewarm about what was being planned, and little mobilizing effort was made on Columbia’s campus to recruit large numbers of students for this off-campus demo. Al, a heavily cerebral Columbia grad student from Boston, was becoming increasingly influential with praxis-axis people on the Columbia SDS steering committee because of his ability to mask his anti-action, right-opportunist political line in Marxist jargon. He was among the Columbia SDS “heavies” who ridiculed the New York SDS Regional Office’s strategy for the anti-Rusk demo.

Because Mark remained enthusiastic about the proposed “wild in the streets” tactics—even after others started to feel lukewarm about how effective the whole demo would be—Mark continued to develop an image within Columbia SDS leadership circles of being “irresponsible,” a “wild man” and a “hippie anarchist.” As November 14th approached, Ted, like Mark, planned to carry a bullhorn on the streets outside the Hilton. But, unlike Mark, Ted had come to feel that the New York Regional Office’s anti-Rusk demo strategy was too adventuristic in its conception. And Ted expected the demonstration to make little impact in New York City.

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