…that was not the kind of procession you just walked up and “joined”. Not without paying some very heavy dues: an arm gone here, a leg there, paralysis, a face full of lumpy scar tissue…all staring straight ahead as the long silent column moved between rows of hotel porches full of tight lipped Senior Citizens, through the heart of Miami Beach.
The silence of the march was contagious, almost threatening. There were hundres of spectators, but nobody said a word. I walked beside the column for ten blocks, and the only sounds I remember hearing were the soft thump of boot leather on hot asphalt and the occasional rattling of an open canteen top.
For my money, the best writing in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 is his description of the Vietnam Veterans Against The War march to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach during the Republican National Convention.
The Fontainebleau was already walled off from the street by five hundred heavily armed cops when the front ranks of the Last Patrol arrived, still marching in total silence. Several hours earlier, a noisy mob of Yippie/Zippie/SDS “non-delegates” had shown up in front of the Fontainebleau and been met with jeers and curses from GOP delegates and other partisan spectators massed behind the police lines….But now there was no jeering. Even the cops seemed deflated. They watched nervously from behind their face-shields as the VVAW platoon leaders, still using hand signals, funneled the column into a tight semicircle that blocked all three northbound lanes of Collins Avenue. During earlier demonstrations—at least six in the past three days—the police had poked people with riot sticks to make sure at least one lane of the street stayed open for the local traffic, and on the one occasion when mere prodding didn’t work, they had charged the demonstrators and cleared the street completely.
But not now. For the first and only time during the whole convention, the cops were clearly off balance. The Vets could have closed all six lanes of Collins Avenue if they’d wanted to, and nobody would have argued. I have been covering anti-war demonstrations with depressing regularity since the winter of 1964, in cities all over the country, and I have never seen cops so intimidated by demonstrators as they were in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel on that hot Tuesday afternoon in Miami Beach.
There’s a certain mythology about the Vietnam War—that it was liberals and anti-war protesters who looked down on veterans, despised them and spat on them (an urban legend). In fact, conservatives were as conflicted—if not more so—about how to respond to Vietnam veterans. Here were men who had “done their service”, many of them drafted, but did not win the war. Even worse, many of them came back and protested against the war. Were they patriotic heroes? Or un-American losers?
…The only Vet speaker who managed to make himself plainly understood above the chopper noise was an ex-Marine Sergeant from San Diego named Ron Kovic, who spoke from a wheelchair because his legs are permanently paralyzed.
I would like to have a transcript or at least a tape of what Kovic said that day, because his words lashed the crowd like a wire whip. If Kovic had been allowed to speak from the convention hall podium, in front of network TV cameras, Nixon wouldn’t have had the balls to show up and accept the nomination.
No…I suspect that’s wishful thinking. Nothing in the realm of human possibility could have prevented Richard Nixon from accepting that nomination. If God himself had showed up in Miami and denounced Nixon from the podium, hired gunsels from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President would have quickly had him arrested for disturbing the peace.
Crossposted at: http://masscommons.wordpress.com/