Tag Archives: racism

Vietnam, The Draft, Resistance And Racism

This is the first part of a discussion triggered by The Girl in the Kent State Photo.

At a demonstration against the Vietnam war at Kent State University (Ohio) in 1970, four students were shot and killed by the US National Guard

From Corky Evans, Winlaw, BC

I was raised in a white, middle class town. It was an enclave of Oakland, California called Piedmont. It was made into a legal entity (I figure) by rich white people who did not want to pay taxes to Oakland. Working people were their servants and gardeners or their employees in business “downtown.” Some people there were so rich that when my part of town played baseball against them the newspaper reported the game as “The Serfs Against the Squires.”

I went to church, a progressive church also full of white people. I said those words every day that you are taught to say about America in school. I hid under my desk for air-raid drills in case Russia started a war and bombed our town. I wanted to grow up to be Don Larsen and pitch a perfect game in the World Series. 

When I was sixteen my mother married a guy from Tucson, Arizona and we moved. I went to a much poorer school with so many students they had to run two shifts. The first shift started at 6:30 and the second shift ended at 6:30. I had good friends. I dated girls, worked pumping gas and selling plants and washing dishes in a cowboy bar. My girlfriend’s father was a General in the Airforce at a base outside of town. I went to church Sunday mornings.

I think I was privileged, for sure. We had money as a family and I had my own money from working various jobs. But I also think it was a completely normal American upbringing. I was not a student. I made a deal with the Dean of Boys at my high school. The deal was that if I agreed to withdraw my name from the election for Student Body President he would assure that I could graduate.

When I was about 17 I went back to Oakland for the summer to stay with my dad and work. My dad had a friend staying with him that I had known all my life. His name was John. John was a war hero from WWII. He was also a College professor and a person with serious depression and other troubles that my family felt had come from his time at war. John was staying with us while he attended a Veterans Hospital for treatment of mental illness. I liked the guy. We slept in the same room, as did my step-brother Andy. 

One night when nobody else was at home John wanted to strike up a conversation. He said “So, Corky, what do you think you would like to do when you grow up?” I said “I think I would like to be a jet pilot like my girlfriend’s father in the Air Force.” John’s face turned dark like I had never seen and he said “That’s a good idea. Then you could kill people from 10.000 feet and never have to watch them bleed.”

I went home to Arizona and got a call from Andy saying that John had shot himself in the garage. I think I had heard of Viet Nam by then but I had never thought about it and had no idea where it was or what was going on. But John had got me started thinking about war. The closest connection I had to the military was when a friend of mine got a girl pregnant who was underage. A judge told him he could go to jail or enlist in the Army. 

Then stuff began to unravel. Thanks to my deal with the Dean I graduated. I was allowed to go to a small college in Oregon only if I agreed to attend summer school and passed some courses. I was elected Class President. I smoked some grass. I began to learn about Viet Nam. It occurred to me that maybe the stuff I had grown up to believe was maybe not the whole story. I dropped out by Christmas. 

Over the course of the next few years much of my family fell apart. My older brother was arrested at demonstrations from San Francisco to New York. He was given electro-shock and never worked again. My step-brother Andy and I went to a demonstration at the Oakland Induction Center with thousands of other people. He was arrested and wound up in solitary confinement for singing in jail. My step-sister Cesca married a black man and moved into a white neighborhood. They both had good jobs at the time. Her for the phone company and him as a foreman in a factory. They were arrested for armed robbery and held in jail just long enough to lose their jobs and their house.

My dad was in the Air Force in WWII and again in the Korean War. Then he went to Law School on a program called the GI Bill and became a Public Defender. He believed in the justice system. He believed in his job. When Andy went to prison my dad tried to visit him in prison. The Guards refused him entry even though he had worked there interviewing clients for years. He flipped out. It broke his heart and his faith in his life’s work. He began to look for ways to leave the country.

I told my dad I was going to mail my draft card back to the government. And accept prosecution.  He said “then you will go to prison and get raped, you won’t like that so you will take heroin to feel better. Then when the war is over they will let you out and nobody will recognize you as the person you once were.” He gave me and Andy his truck and he told us to go to Canada. We got as far as Oregon and while we were there Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for office again. Andy and I were young. We imagined that Johnson was the bad guy and now the war would end. We turned around and went back to Oakland.

I was called up for physical by the Draft. I went to the induction center and passed all the tests. They sent us, with a Sargent to mind us, to lunch at a diner across the street. I climbed out of a window from the Men’s Room and ran. 

During a demonstration at the Induction Center I was witness to an assault on a Police Officer. Hundreds of Police were there and when dawn broke they charged the people. Andy and I had spent the night in a church with a group of people who thought they were pacifists. (Maybe I did, too.) Then we went and sat with a group of people who wanted to block the building and remain non-violent. When the police charged they broke heads with clubs as they moved through that group sitting in front of the building. I moved. And then helped people turn over cars to make a barricade. And the demonstration turned into a riot.

Maybe an hour later I was in an intersection with a crowd of people when the Highway Patrol cops charged the demonstrators. I did not have time to escape the area so I stepped behind a pillar outside a store. As the cops went past me a black woman in a hospital worker’s uniform walked beside the pillar and out onto the street. She looked to me like she was on her way home after a graveyard shift at the hospital. Her arms were full of grocery bags and she couldn’t see over them to realize what she was walking into. Maybe 40 cops were charging across the intersection. All the demonstrators had run so there was nobody for the police to confront as they moved through the crossing. Until they got to the pillar I was hiding behind. At exactly that moment the woman with the grocery bags stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the cops. They clubbed her against the plate glass window she was passing. Her bags ripped open and she fell forward, oranges and milk bottles spilling out onto the sidewalk. When she hit the ground they picked her up so they could club her again. This time she fell over a city garbage can that toppled and spilled its waste. A heavy steel conical lid came off the garbage can and bounced on the pavement as the cops went past, still clubbing the woman. 

I was that white kid raised in safety and ignorance. I was drawn forward in the wake of this outrage but had no response. As I watched in horror a young black man, my age, ran past me, grabbed the garbage can lid, spun like a discuss thrower, and threw it at the cop who was now beating the woman in front of him. The guy who threw the lid just kept spinning as he let go, and kept on running back around the corner he had come from. The lid hit the cop at the base of his helmet. I know it hit the helmet from the sound of the clash, a sound I can still hear. The cop went down. The 39 other cops turned around and saw: me.

The intersection where this happened was on the edge of the black community in West Oakland. I spun around and ran. I was young and fast and not weighted down with flack jackets and clubs and helmets. I outran the cops and kept going until I crossed into the white and wealthier part of town. When I slowed down I understood what privilege was, I think for the first time in my life.  My step-brother Andy got out of prison on bail. At dinner he told us what had happened to him. When his mom and my dad expressed sympathy he said “Oh, my charges are nothing. My cellmate is in real trouble.” My dad asked what his cellmate was charged with and Andy said “Assault with intent to kill. A police officer. With a garbage can lid.” I asked Andy what the guy looked like. He said, “White, young, thin.” Then I told my story. My dad asked Andy who the guy’s lawyer was and Andy said “Bob Truehaft.” And my dad got up from the table and called that lawyer to tell him what we had discussed. Then he came back and said to me, “You go and see him tomorrow.”

Bob Truehaft was the first real Communist I had ever met. His office was above the Army/Navy store downtown. The only reading material in the waiting room was the Workers World. When I got into his office he said, essentially, “What do you want?” I said I didn’t want anything. I had just come to tell him what I had seen. He asked me where I had been and I told him the street and the time. He got up and took a big stack of photographs off of his filing cabinet and shuffled through them until he found the one he needed. He showed me the picture, taken I guess by the cops from above the parking garage across the street. He said “Is that you?” I said “Yes.” And then he repeated, in a sort of angry voice “So what do you want? You are here telling me this person in this picture, who is obviously breaking the law, is you. You didn’t come here to say that unless you want something from me.”

So I got kind of pissed off and said I came there to tell what I knew. I had been taught that the truth was important. He said “This is America. Nothing is free so what is your price?” I got up to leave and then he calmed down and talked to me and I told him what I knew.

A few weeks later I sat in the hall at the Courthouse with 6 Highway Patrolmen, all of us waiting to be called in to testify. The cops were openly building a common story to give a testimony. They testified and then I was called. I was asked if the guy in the dock was the guy I saw throw the garbage can lid. I said no. I was asked how I knew for sure and I said “because he isn’t black.”

The District Attorney got up and said “You say your name is Evans. Who is your father.” I told them my father was Phil Evans. The District Attorney then said to the Judge “I move that this witness’s testimony be stricken on the grounds that we all know his father and his father would have taught his sons to lie.”

The accused was found not guilty and as we walked out of the building I realized that his crime was he looked a lot like me. The cops had just run far enough to find somebody that they could imagine was the person they saw after the can lid hit their compatriot.

Bob Truehaft stopped me on the street. He said “Thank you.” And then he said “come and see me tomorrow.”

When I went to see him he said “Why aren’t you drafted yet?” And I told him about escaping from the Induction Center and I said I did not know what would happen next. He said “So now I will tell you what we will do for you. My law partner, Malcolm Bernstein is the best draft lawyer in America. He is in Viet Nam right now with Tom Hayden. As soon as he comes back we will become your lawyers and try and keep you out of the war.” So, as it turned out, he was right, everything in America does have a price.

The first thing we tried was an application to be a Conscientious Objector, based on my 18 years or so as a Christian. I built a portfolio of people who would say that I was a Christian and believed that “thou shall not kill.” I was advised that in order to have your Draft Board believe you it was best to bring a Minister to the hearing to speak on your behalf. My Draft Board was back in Tucson so I made an appointment and traveled, for the last time in my life, back to Arizona. I went to see Reverend Barr, the Minister of the church I had belonged to when I lived there. I actually thought he would help me. When I made my request he said “No I won’t help you. If you won’t go kill gooks for Christ you are forbidden to ever enter this church again.”

The Draft Board members said they were sure I was a Communist and I was raised by Communists and rejected my appeal and pronounced me 1A, the designation for those at the top of the Draft list.

A few months before that trip to Arizona I had met a woman. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and the people at the church I had been raised in as a boy decided to have a Retreat to talk about the issue of race in America. I got hired to wash dishes by the cook at the camp they were meeting at. They had a guest speaker.  She was a woman in her twenties who was studying Black History at Oakland City College. After I finished the dishes I went up to the meeting house to hear the presentation and discussion. It was going very badly. The church folks were wealthy white people whose only contact with black people was as workers in their homes or businesses. The woman trying to communicate the history of racism in America was trying to use facts as information. People like those in the room don’t believe in facts if they contradict their cultural beliefs. I found myself intervening to try and help the woman explain her position. I had been raised among such people. I knew who they were and what they might be willing to consider.

The next day the woman offered to drive me back to the city and I met her kids. We saw each other a few times. It looked like there was a chance for some romance happening. Essentially, she said “Your ignorance is in our way. Take these 5 or 10 books home and read them and then come back.” When I got off the airplane coming back from Tucson I had no idea where to go or how to live. I was pretty sure I was going to war. I phoned the woman with the books from the airport. I told her I had read the books. She came and got me.

She said “I belong to a group called Whites Against Racism, WAR for short. We are good at organizing and we know what has to be done but we aren’t good at speaking. Here’s the deal, you join the group and talk for us in public. We will tell you what to say and you say it in such a way that people will listen. In exchange, I will marry you and you will become the step-father of two children and become Draft Exempt.”

I agreed to the deal and moved into her apartment in Berkeley. Her apartment was registered in somebody else’s name. She was sort of in hiding. She had been married to a black guy and her daughters were mixed race. After her marriage ended she and her daughters lived in a house in East Oakland.  Some people painted swastikas on her house and said if her children lived in that house they would burn it down. And then they did. With Molotov Cocktails through the window while the family slept inside. They got out before the house collapsed. 

When the police came they only showed her pictures of black people. When she said Black people don’t threaten to burn out black people, the cops said she must have friends who are Leftists. She ran. From the people who had burned down her house and from the police who now suspected her of being a troublemaker. And lived in apartment rented by a friend.

We started to fall in love. At which point we called off the marriage deal. It seemed foolish to get married to solve a political problem and then not know if we were really married or not. And my dad said “You can do anything you want with your own life. But not with kids’ lives. You marry her for real or you move out.” Which seemed like good advice.

The year I turned 21 and my dad turned 50 I got married and he and his wife left the country. I never saw him again.

Then the good Communist lawyer guy figured out that now I really was the step-father of two kids and filed for an exemption with the Draft Board. At that time you could make more money on welfare with two kids than you made as a private in the Army. America didn’t want soldiers’ families on welfare so two kids was enough to get a deferral.

Then People’s Park happened. When we got married a weird aunt gave us a tree for a wedding present. A tree is a strange thing to give people who live in a tenement. We stuck it out on the fire escape and looked for somewhere to plant it. Pretty soon we heard that some people were making a park out of a dirt parking lot near us in Berkeley. So we took the tree there and planted it. Then we got captured by the fun of making something beautiful out of something ugly. We went every weekend when we weren’t at work and planted grass and bushes and built stuff for kids to play on.

Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California at the time and he wanted to be President. He realized that if he came down hard enough on the people in Berkeley that were building this illegal park he could be famous all over the country. One night we were drinking wine with a friend who had been drafted and was about to go overseas. It came on the radio that 10 or 20 busloads of cops from towns all over Northern California had arrived to take back the park. I went. 

Standing in the park with maybe 50 other people, after midnight, I picked up a rock. Then I looked out at the assembled police firepower around us and realized, “they WANT me to throw this rock. If I do, all of these people are at risk.” And I dropped the rock and picked up the rakes and shovels and hoes and took them to the seminary across the street to hide them. Many others did too, and when we were outside the perimeter and the cops and their contractors began to put up a fence around People’s Park.

The next day the city went crazy. One of the cops with a deer rifle killed a guy sitting on a rooftop watching the riot. Then the National Guard came and surrounded the block we lived on with barbed wire. They used tear gas from helicopters. One of our kids said “Mommy, the sky’s on fire.” We had a pistol under the mattress. It wasn’t ours and we had no ammunition. But for the first time in my life I realized that my Draft Board had been right about one thing: I was no pacifist.

So we left. We came to Canada in a pickup truck and lied at the Border and said we were on vacation. War resisters in Vancouver taught us how to apply to stay. We borrowed money and put it in a bank account in Oakland to make it look like we had $1000. I found an employer who would write me a letter and say I could have a job. We went back across the Border and got haircuts and came across and lied again, saying we were coming to take this job and wished to immigrate. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister. He had told his Border Guards to be kind to young people at the Border. They knew we were lying. We had no real money of our own. We did not speak French. We had no College or University degrees. They let us in. They let us in and they let us stay. The kids are grown up now and I haven’t lived with their mother for a long time. But we are all still here.

This is supposed to be “about” the Kent State killings by the National Guard so many years ago. I do not think I was touched by the event like would have been expected. By the time that happened I had lost my sense that any of us could survive the violence unleased in America. It took Neil Young to make me pay attention.

Ohio, by Crosby Stills and Nash (1970) Written by Neil Young

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio….
More on the Kent State photo at https://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/68976-the-girl-in-the-kent-state-photo

The Opposite of Racism

Brennan King (far right), night game, Seattle, 1964.

The opposite of racism is not tolerance or passive acceptance. I was given an example of this as an adolescent, even though it was years later that it became clear to me.

Junior High School, Fullerton, California, 1959. A packed classroom, of thirty students. There are a dozen of us white kids, and we all sit in the front of the classroom. Behind us sit all the Latino kids, recently arrived from Mexico. Many of their fathers work at the Hunt’s Ketchup factory at the edge of town. The Latino kids are respectful, quiet and attentive. But from the teacher’s perspective, they are invisible. Her attention is all to the white dozen in the front, and the rest are ignored. The Latino kids never raise their hands to ask a question, and are never called upon to answer one. 

As a keen seventh-grader I thrived on that extra attention, and this bizarre racial arrangement barely registered in my consciousness.  Now fast-forward to Seattle, Washington in 1963, when both I and America were waking up to the issues of race. My high school, in Seattle’s South End, hosted an eclectic population of white, black, Japanese, Filipino and Jewish students, so the issues of race and ethnic differences were front and center. I played football, and our team was mostly composed of black kids. Our team’s locker room became a fascinating social laboratory, where traditional roles were reversed: we white kids got the shittiest lockers, had to wait until the black kids had finished showering before we got to, and we were the butt of (mostly mild) taunts and jokes. 

This was a totally new experience for both groups. In the midst of the chaotic and fast-paced lives of seventeen-year olds, this locker room lab offered three invaluable life lessons. The black kids saw how they could play a more dominant role in American social life. We white kids got a small taste of what racism is like, even though it was mostly in jest.  And all of us saw that we could work, and play, together. 

Our head football coach, a white guy, was merely a cipher. We all respected and followed Brennan King, the affable black assistant coach. After winning an important playoff game, Brennan invited us dozen or so varsity players to supper at his favorite haunt, a popular jazz restaurant in Seattle’s black neighborhood on Jackson Street.  We had no idea what to expect as we filed in to the spacious basement venue. As soon as the last of us got in the door, the entire restaurant crowd stood up and applauded. 

The current website of that same highschool in Seattle offers text in five different languages.

When we moved to Canada, one of the jobs I had was with the Saskatchewan Indian Agriculture Program. Three of us worked out of a small rural office in Fort Qu’Appelle; a Cree, an Egyptian, and myself, the honky.   We took great pleasure in gently upsetting everyone’s established racial stereotypes. 

The opposite of racism is not passive acceptance. It is reaching out. It is active engagement.