Tear Gassed in DC: The March on Washington 1969

It hearkens to an earlier day, but is all about the people in power socking it to those who have the audacity to defy them

by Robert M. Herzog

“Walk, walk, walk,” people chanted as the tear gas first exploded. You wanted to run, get away from it, but that only increased inhalation and made it worse for everybody.

We ended up bunched along the same tiers where Martin Luther King had proclaimed he had a dream a long time ago, only now we were surrounded by opaque smoke that narrowed my world down to the next step in front of me, the next breath, I’d lost the big picture, it devolved into little frames, short takes:

— where we’d just been, in front of the Justice Department. We’d gotten close, close enough that we thought we could see behind the windows and the walls, see the men standing there, watching us. They were the ones with the secrets, they were the ones who knew, they were the fathers willing to sacrifice their sons, and the sons of others, many sons, for what they knew they knew that the rest of us didn’t. They were the biggest fools in America, and they were going to get me killed.

They’d started by killing Jack and Martin and Bobby, before them the kids in Mississippi, after them the kids of Kent State, now Janis and Jimmy and Jim. They knew how to kill, but our secret was we knew how to live, and they hated us for that, more than they hated burning flags and brassieres, tossing medals and chanting taunts, their tired sered hands abraded their empty dicks, they hated us for embracing love and ignoring their policy, for making love a policy, it wasn’t real world, it wasn’t Nixon-like, it wasn’t Kissingerish, it wasn’t Westmoreland of us to be so naive, they thought, so foolish, so indifferent to the threat of the international bogyeman red, some scrabble of Vietnams that would in their architectural fantasies build to a house that would crash and devour us, somehow, we’d have to take their word for it, all our fathers’ words.

Only we didn’t.

— We looked at the closed windows of the tight lipped men in their narrow-lapeled suits and could barely see into them beyond our own reflections, one-way mirrors of America’s hopes. They stood in silence behind their insulated windows, they looked at each other and confirmed their confidence, they knew better: one way or another they would see us die. They were as confident they could whip us as they were they could take out Ho and the VC, more so, this was the home front, they’d deport us if they could, never mind whose sons we were, who were our mothers, mothers and sons embracing was bad for the war spirit, taut-tipped braless girls bad for the battle morale, they weren’t looking for another perspective, and as we screamed the whole world is watching they turned their backs and went to lunch.

— Thinking it a triumph, then, we got up close to the building, not realizing we were herded there by the cops, who then hit the front of the line with tear gas and as we turned away launched gas canisters over our heads behind the crowd, while closing off all the side streets, so that the only way out was through a blinding sea of gas, with people dropping all around, to be picked up by strangers and carried out, looking for one of the few medics, who’d also been gassed to shit and forced to move their vans out of the area. The people who’d been at demonstrations before had plastic bags filled with wet cotton balls, and we passed them out to everybody else — put them over your eyes, breathe through a bandanna, shirt, scarf, whatever. We linked arms, and walked through the clouds of smoke that hung in the air like a threat of storms, chanting “walk walk walk” until we got past the rear guard firing range into clean air. We sat some more, got up, wet some more cotton balls, and turned around.

— Dupont Circle at night, illuminated by harsh white beams of spotlights shining towards its center. In the middle were hundreds of demonstrators, effectively surrounded and cut off by a ring of cops around the circle, looking for a way out, while carrying their message. A red cross volunteer dressed in a white doctor’s robe moved out to talk to the front of the police line, somebody trying to be in charge. Behind them, hundreds of cops in riot gear, bulky black jackets, bodies obscured by the translucent blue shields they held in front of them, the lights reflecting off shields and the visors that covered their faces, in their other hands holding dark nightsticks like conductors before the band. The doctor talking, gesticulating, the cop in shades, face immobile, the lights wandering around like hawks surveying a nursery. The line stayed implacable, faceless behind their plastic masks and riot shields, no longer people but instruments of the state, happy to give themselves up to it, no longer seeing the other side of the street as fellow citizens, fellow humans, but worked into the socialized frenzy that throughout history could separate us from them and allow for unspeakably inhumane acts to be perpetrated without hesitation or remorse. In that way, they were free.

The crowd, restless, scared, hopped up, not knowing or hearing; the doctor with his hands up in the air, the cop raising his arm, shouts and cries from the marchers who as one rushed forward towards Connecticut Avenue, the cops moving forward, the doctor lost to sight, all sticks raised, shouts and yells and then striking, kids bashed, carried off by a bunch of cops, heads bleeding, lying down like the non-violent methodologists taught — they weren’t the hitting back types, that was the point, but one too subtle for the cops — only to be carried off, always enough cops to carry them off. There was a blaze of television lights into which people shouted, “the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching,” as if the lights were eyes that might illuminate, somebody, somewhere, but if we were all mere players, the cops didn’t seem to mind the way they were cast.

Finally tendrils of demonstrators broke through to the other side; holding their busted heads and swollen arms and torn shirts, they groaned and cried a symphony of fear, outrage and amazement; they weren’t looking for this, they just wanted someone to pay attention to far away deaths in the name of American hubris, but like a global feedback the false pride had bounced back to Dupont Circle and hit them hard over the head, until the night swallowed up the ones that weren’t carted away or lay on the cement curbs of the circle dazed and hurt and sobbing amidst dark little pools of blood reflecting the streetlights like open wounds in the nation’s soul.

But that was in the first day, before the nights would swallow and separate and distort the crowds and the messages, before we were pushed and picked off like pulled skeet shattered by buckshot, before we got scared and angry and hurt, before we went home and got the message, before we planned to come back, better prepared for it.

— before these visions converted senators and parents, straights and suits, before the bandwagon got filled to overflowing, before Nixon got the bells to ring and declared victory, but not before another thirty thousand had died, and there wasn’t one fucking thing we could do about it. We’ll tell it to our kids, we’d say, maybe they’ll understand.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, Not Our Fathers’ Dreams. In the meantime, if you found this of interest, check out my new book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, which ranks highly on Amazon in Political Commentary and Historical Essays. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

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