Threats to the established order in 1968 provoked a counter offensive in 1969 and the new president Richard Nixon was the person to lead it. Everybody remembers Nixon the bad guy, and in a moment you’ll see why. But it also true that Nixon was the last Republican president to accept FDR’s New Deal. He put through big new initiatives for environmental and consumer protection, argued for a minimum annual income and supported an expansion of Social Security and health care. He even supported unions, because white workers were part of what he called “the silent minority” part of his “Southern Strategy” to bring discontented white southerners and white workers into the Republic Party. Sound familiar to those reading this in 2016?
“As we renew our commitment to the general well-being of the working man,” Nixon said, “we also reaffirm our faith in sound collective bargaining. In an increasingly complex society, one in which so many elements depend so heavily on one another, the process of collective bargaining must be strong and effective and exercised with self-restraint on all sides.”
I felt out of it in quiet, remote Vermont. In the Fall I left Bennington after two years of teaching and headed to California, which seemed like the epicenter of the future of any movements for change. The success of the Black Panther’s community organizing and its militant stance of self-protection in Oakland, California, had put it in the vanguard of the increasingly militant national movement of young people.
The counter-culture was also centered in California. The ban on LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs hadn’t stopped the growth of users. A counter-culture whose members increasingly identified themselves by growing long hair and beards and dressing in tie dyed and old-fashioned clothes, who smoked dope and refused to participate in the war effort. In California some young people were taking Tim Leary’s advice to “Turn on, tune in and drop out” to live in open land rural communes.
I couldn’t find work in the Bay Area, but I got a job with Pacifica’s Los Angeles station KPFK. It was a good place to cover the last days of the New Left as it failed to stop the war in Vietnam or go beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to bring relief to African-American communities. Nixon’s major campaign promise had been to end the war. In May he started withdrawing troops from Vietnam, but not enough to end draft calls and he expanded the bombing of North Vietnam.
Violence against the war increased. Between the middle of 1968 and the middle of 1969, one hundred and twenty bombings took place on or around college campuses in connection with the war in Vietnam.
Nixon understood opposition to the war came largely from students and on March 22 he promised “to reassert in the face of student protest, the first principles of academic freedom.” He only visited one college campus during his first year in office, Beadle College in South Dakota, where he said regarding student protests, “We have the power to strike back if need be, and to prevail. The nation has survived other attempts at insurrection. We can survive this.”
Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, had similar ideas. In an off-the-cuff response to a question at a meeting of the Council of California Growers Reagan said, ”If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” He later said the comment was only a figure of speech and denied that he would welcome a bloodbath “on campus or anywhere else.”
Early in 1969, University of California, Berkeley, students took over a vacant square block near campus, up the street from Telegraph Avenue, where the university planned to put up a new building. They planted trees. bushes and some grass, put in a vegetable garden, benches and chairs and held public gatherings. They called it “People’s Park.” As historian-participant Todd Gitlin described it, “Work on the Park was joy, not a job. Local longhairs tamped down sod next to students, housewives, neighbors, parents. Fraternity boys mixed with freaks; professors shopped for shrubs . . . Beneath all the divisions of straight versus hip and student versus nonstudent, People’s Park . . . touched some deep hunger for a common life.”
On May 15th, 1969, Reagan, over the advice of the UC Chancellor, ordered troops to clear the park. The police raid was savage. When it was over, authorities bulldozed the park to the ground and put up a fence. “People Park ended the movement, really,” student leader Stew Alpert said, “The repression was so brutal.”
Later that week, police shot and killed student James Rector who was protesting the closing of the park. Police fired heavy gauge buckshot, each pellet the size of a 38 caliber bullet, directly into students sitting on a roof. Reagan was unapologetic. “It’s very naive to assume that you should send anyone into that kind of conflict with a fly swatter.”
In New York City, despite new legislation that made Gay bars legal in 1969, police raided a bar on Sheridan Square called the Stonewall that catered to African-American and Hispanic Gay men. This time, the men resisted. More than 2000 protesters took on 200 cops with stones and bottles, shouting “Gay Power.” Police beat several of the men when they took them into police custody. Stonewall was the beginning of the modern LGTB movement in America.
Black Panther chapters opened across the country, two dozen of them by the end of 1969. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations under a program called COINTELPRO. By the end of the year police had killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749.
A group of radicals called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI exposed COINTELPRO when they broke into FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 and stole hundreds of secret files, including details about COINTRELPRO.