[Marxism] Fake News, 1969: My Slightly Infamous Role in the Harvard Antiwar Protests

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 21 06:25:46 MDT 2019


The New Yorker, April 7, 2019 issue
Fake News, 1969: My Slightly Infamous Role in the Harvard Antiwar Protests
By David Sipress

Fifty years ago, on the night of April 8, 1969, a group of antiwar 
Harvard students, led by members of S.D.S., the Students for a 
Democratic Society, marched to the home of Harvard’s president, Nathan 
Pusey, and tacked a list of demands to his front door. The demands 
ranged from the abolition of R.O.T.C. on campus to lower rents for 
university-owned apartments in the city of Cambridge. The next morning, 
April 9th, thirty supporters of the demands entered University Hall, an 
administration building in Harvard Yard, and forcibly ejected 
administrators and staff. A photo of the protesters bodily carrying one 
dean out of the building made the front page of nearly every national 
newspaper. Once the occupiers had taken over the building, they chained 
the doors shut. The Boston Globe reported that by evening there were 
more than five hundred people inside University Hall, determined to 
support and protect those inside.

In the spring of 1969, I was a graduate student in the Harvard 
Soviet-studies department. Along with many others, I watched the 
occupation from the steps of Widener Library, where I regularly studied 
in the stacks. I agonized over whether to join the protest. At times, I 
would mill around the edges of the crowd that had gathered outside 
University Hall, now and then holding up a sign that someone handed me. 
But the moment I sensed that something bad might be about to happen to 
the protesters, I gave back the sign and retreated to the library steps, 
only to rejoin the protest a while later, when it became clear that 
there was nothing to worry about, then back to the library when I again 
sensed trouble. This back-and-forth dance of mine went on for hours. The 
reason for it was fear. I wanted to participate, but I was afraid that 
if trouble started and I got arrested and thrown out of school I would 
automatically forfeit my precious student deferment, which, as I saw it, 
was the only thing standing between me and an early death in the jungles 
of Vietnam.

It is ironic—you might say, moronic—that, less than two months later, I 
voluntarily gave up that deferment, dropping out of grad school in a 
moment of monumentally short-sighted pique fuelled by my long-simmering 
desire to change the direction of my life and become a cartoonist before 
it was “too late.” (Only a twenty-two-year-old could think that 
twenty-two was almost too late.) I also yearned to join the wild party 
going on all around me in Cambridge, where everyone but me seemed to be 
blissfully losing his way—enjoying free time, free love, and the free 
tabs of acid on offer every weekend on the Cambridge Common.

But all of that, including a frightening but brief encounter with the 
Selective Service System, was still in my future in the early evening of 
April 9th, as I gave up the struggle and slunk away from the 
still-raging demonstration, leaving Harvard Yard by the only gate open 
to the street. Rumor had it that anyone who remained would be arrested 
for trespassing.

I returned to the Cambridge apartment on Green Street that I shared with 
a constantly shifting cast of five to ten roommates. Some were students, 
others were dropouts—with one or two, I never found out exactly who they 
were or what they did. Two roommates were members of S.D.S., including a 
friend from my high-school days whom I will call Bruce, a tall, lanky, 
baby-faced Harvard dropout who made a living dealing pot.

Between the partying, the endless comings and goings, the competing 
stereos, and a band called the Dead Skin that rehearsed day and night in 
the building directly across from my room, the noise in the apartment 
was relentless, which was why I mostly studied in Widener Library and 
slept at my girlfriend’s place when I could. She lived across the 
street, next door to a building where members of the then famous Jim 
Kweskin Jug Band lived at the time.

On the nights that I slept in my own bed, I would slap on headphones and 
lull myself to sleep by listening over and over to the hypnotic, poetic, 
wonderfully cryptic album “Astral Weeks.” (Once, while tripping, I 
became thoroughly convinced that the tune “Cyprus Avenue” was a secret 
message from Van Morrison to me, David Sipress.) Back then, I would tell 
anyone who would listen that “Astral Weeks” was the greatest rock album 
ever made. I’m still slightly obsessed with it today.

Much later, long after I left Green Street, I found out that Van the Man 
had been living right across the street from me that whole time, in the 
same building as the Jug Band.

After I got home from the demonstration, I watched a little of the 
coverage on the tiny portable television that we kept on the kitchen 
table. After a typical dinner of Rice-A-Roni and a bowl of Grape-Nuts 
for dessert, I decided that I was too jazzed from all I’d seen and heard 
that day to study. To calm myself, I smoked a joint, read for a while, 
and got into bed, eventually falling asleep, as usual, to “Astral Weeks” 
playing in my headphones.

Next thing I knew, Buffalo Springfield was exploding inside my brain: 
“There’s something happening here / what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I 
ripped off my headphones. A grinning Bruce was standing by my turntable, 
one hand on the volume knob, the other raised in a triumphant fist above 
his head. It was just after dawn. He jumped on my bed and started 
breathlessly filling me in. “Around three o’clock, a massive number of 
pigs showed up,” he said, “all in helmets with visors and carrying billy 
clubs and cans of Mace. It was Chicago all over again. They hauled 
people away from outside the building and then went after the guys 
inside. That’s when I ran.”

He had barely escaped arrest, but many others hadn’t been so lucky. A 
roommate who had stuck it out with Bruce was one of more than a hundred 
protesters arrested for trespassing. Several people were even charged 
with assault and battery. In the coming days, most of the charges were 
dropped, but a number of protesters were tried and convicted, and 
ordered to pay fines. Two of the occupiers were sentenced to nine months 
in jail. Twenty-six Harvard students were expelled.

Watching the morning news with Bruce and my other roommates in the 
kitchen—eating Grape-Nuts again, for breakfast this time—I tried to keep 
the guilt over my own inaction at bay by reassuring myself that I’d made 
a sensible decision to avoid arrest, expulsion, and the Army. Mostly, 
though, I felt angry. We all felt angry. How could the university invite 
in the cops and their Gestapo tactics? How could they condone beating 
and arresting peaceful demonstrators? Things at Harvard had to change. 
Things in the country had to change.

And things did begin to change—at least at Harvard. There were further 
demonstrations, several mass meetings, and a successful student strike, 
all leading to real changes in the university’s R.O.T.C. policy, as well 
some progress in the way Harvard did business and conducted itself in 
the community. That was the thing about those turbulent years: during 
the late sixties and early seventies, you felt angry and afraid much of 
the time—but never hopeless. It seemed inevitable that things would get 
better, that the marches, the protests, the bravery of those who risked 
beatings and arrest would inevitably get results.

Sadly, these days, living in Trumpland, I’m finding it increasingly 
difficult to find that kind of hope.

Thank goodness there are others more optimistic than I am, people 
willing to engage in civil disobedience like the occupiers of University 
Hall fifty years ago. True to form, I have limited my involvement to 
marching, writing letters, giving money, and, of course, drawing 
political cartoons—none of which is particularly risky. But I suppose 
that even these modest activities indicate that I still have a bit of hope.

The morning after the occupation, I returned to Harvard Yard to see what 
was going on, and to try to work in the library, but when I got there 
the Yard was still closed. A crew from a Boston TV station stood in 
front of one of the locked gates. Spotting my work shirt, my tatty blue 
jeans, my engineer boots, and my massive Jewfro, a female reporter with 
a blond hair helmet approached and asked if I had been part of the 
demonstration.

“Sort of” was my honest reply.

She wondered if she could ask me a few questions, and I agreed. She 
stuck a microphone in my face, and, after a few preliminary questions, 
the interview went like this:

She said, “We heard that radicals from S.D.S. engaged in acts of 
violence during the protest in Harvard Yard yesterday. What do you know 
about what went on in there?”

At this point, the camera shifted away from the reporter to the now 
peaceful scene beyond the locked gate, where it remained while I gave my 
reply.

“That’s not what I heard,” I said. “If it’s true, I’d have to say that 
I’m totally against the use of violence, including by S.D.S. But, from 
what I heard, the only real violence was done by the police. I hear it 
was awful in there.”

Then I ended the interview, suddenly uncomfortable, and worried that I 
might have said too much.

That night, my roommates and I again sat around in the kitchen watching 
the news, hoping for updates on the protest. Suddenly, there I was, my 
explosive hair taking up two-thirds of our minuscule screen.

“We heard that radicals from S.D.S. engaged in acts of violence during 
the protest yesterday,” the correspondent said. “What do you know about 
what went on in there?”

As the camera moved to take in Harvard Yard, we all listened to my reply:

“ . . . I heard. . . . I’d have to say that I’m totally against the use 
of violence . . . by S.D.S. . . . I hear it was awful in there.”

“What the fuck?” I shouted.

Everyone glared at me, looking like they wanted to kill me. I babbled 
and pleaded, trying to explain that my words had been totally twisted, 
my true meaning reversed. Giving me the finger, Bruce told me that 
whatever I said or didn’t say, I was an asshole for talking to the media 
when I hadn’t even had the guts to join the protest.

I was eventually able to convince my roommates and a few close friends 
that I’d been misquoted. But, for months afterward, total strangers 
would stop me on Mass Ave. or in Harvard Square and furiously berate me 
for my cowardly, bald-faced, fascistic, anti-revolutionary lies about 
the occupation of University Hall. What could I say—that it was 
complicated? That things aren’t always what they seem? Mostly I wound up 
mumbling that I was sorry and then hurrying away, looking for all the 
world like someone guilty as charged.

David Sipress’s first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker in 1998.Read more »



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