Jack Newfield in DC — A Mess of a Vietnam Protest


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

August 19, 1965, Vol. X, No. 44

Some Things Unite Them, Some Things Divide Them

By Jack Newfield

WASHINGTON D.C. On Sunday, August 8, in front of the White House, a young man, wearing a “Support the National Liberation Front” button, began to chant: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many children did you kill today?” A few paces behind him walked a college sophomore wearing the button of a pacifist organization, CNVA, and carrying a picket sign that read: “What can war breed, but endless war? — John Milton.”

Between the two demonstrators there was an unspoken tension that seemed to dominate the Assembly of Unrepresented People held in Washington the weekend before last. All the contradictions and polarities within the new radical movement crystallized during the four picnic-like days of the assembly. The assembly, convened by 32 individuals associated with pacifist, religious, student, and civil rights organizations, was climaxed by the arrest on August 9 of 350 demonstrators who sought to “declare peace with the people of Vietnam.”

There was tension between mindless militancy and reflective radicalism, between black and white, between those who came to bear religious witness and those who came to build a political movement with the Vietnamese war as the focus. There was tension, too between freedom and authoritarianism.

There was a subtle tension also between Mississippi and Vietnam, between the saintly and the unstable, between “community” and “movement,” and especially between those who love the oppressed and those who hate the oppressor.

About 2000 people attended the assembly, although there were never more than 1000 present at any time. The New York Times described the participants as “shaggy and unkempt.” But behind this almost militant shagginess was a human story of damage. Many of the people in Washington were really the first victims of the new student movement. There were a number of those front-line, full-time, community organizers who have been so damaged by conflict with society that they are now non-functional — in the movement and in society. These victims, their health broken by frustration, rootlessness, poverty, personal hangups, and beatings, all converged on Washington for the assembly.

Most of those who came to Washington were not especially shaggy. They came mostly from the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), from religious groups like the Catholic Worker and the Quaker movements, as well as from the pro-Vietcong May 2nd Movement and the pro-Soviet W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs.

Judging from the workshops and the Quaker-style debates over demonstration tactics, it appeared that the Camus-Gandhi-oriented members of the new left were more influential in setting the tone of the affair than the hyper-militants and the authoritarians. The ultra-left participants were forced to perform in an atmosphere that was democratic and non-violent. Some of them seemed to have been affected by it. Certain Socialist critics, like Tom Kahn of the League for Industrial Democracy, who was critical of the assembly, always seem to fear that, inevitably, it will be the authoritarians who will influence the democratic.

But since the assembly was convened by people — individuals, rather than by organizations — it lacked organizational support and resources. It was opposed by liberal groups like the NAACP and the League for Industrial Democracy. There was much chaos, the goals were unrealistic, few of the “unrepresented” — the poor — were there, and the whole thing was generally ineffective. But, above all, it was incestuous. Most of the participants seemed to be veteran peace and civil rights activists. The assembly appeared to draw few new people. The occasional displays of irrational militancy probably would have alienated most of them anyway, unless they were already totally convinced that American policy in Vietnam was evil. The militants left no room for the uncommitted, such as liberals and middle-class people…

The climax of the assembly took place on Monday, the last day of the affair, when 350 demonstrators tried to convene their assembly on the steps of the Capitol. In doing so they confronted the Washington police.

When the line of march reached Third Street on the way to the Capitol, two members of the American Nazi Party hurled two cans of red paint at the front line of the marchers — Staughton Lynd, David Dellinger, and Robert and Donna Parris. The paint splattered about 50 protestors and newsmen. Later the Nazis were jailed and fined $10. The non-violent marchers received fines of $25 and $50, and some were held on as much as $2,500 bail…

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]