All the campus radicals sat in one room. There were three of us. It was 1971—the Vietnam War was raging and Dick Nixon was in the White House. We were having a meeting because Jason heard Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was coming to town to give a speech, and of course an event like that called for a demonstration.
Susan, Jason and I were students at an exclusive, very conservative university in a small southern city. Susan was quiet and shy; she rarely spoke. If you could get her to talk though, you could tell she was real smart. But it was Jason who was the natural leader of the group. Bright, mischievous and stubborn, he was the most passionately idealistic person I had ever met. He was a philosophy major and his dad was a religion professor at the university.
Jason told us he had gotten a call from Gary Thomas, the city police attorney, who said he heard we were planning a demonstration. We found this a little disturbing because no one else was supposed to know. We joked that it was easy to keep tabs on all the rabble-rousers in town when there were only three of us. Gary told Jason that all our rights would be protected at our demo. He said we could stand anywhere and chant any slogans we wanted during Agnew's speech.
Jason thought Gary was a pretty cool guy. He had been in Gary's office once and was impressed that he had a quote by Camus hanging on the wall. But we all wondered if Gary hadn't called to tell us about our rights so much as to get information about what we were planning to do.
Our demo planning meeting took place in an elegant lounge at the girl's dorm. We sprawled on the plush carpet, hashing out ideas. The focus of our demonstration would be the Vietnam War, of course. We wanted to pass out physical symbols that would make the War real to people. We decided to print play money that would represent tax dollars being wasted on the War. Jason came up with the idea of handing out small pieces of barbed wire to represent the concentration camps in South Vietnam (our ally). Each piece of wire would have a tag attached explaining its meaning. To publicize the demo, Susan would put up posters around campus, while Jason and I would use our programs on the university radio station to reach the wider community.
The day Spiro Agnew came to town was sunny and warm. The police had blocked off some streets downtown for the event. Thousands of people gathered to hear the vice president speak, but only about twenty-five showed up for our demonstration. Jason had painted his face with clown white makeup and was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt. He was a bizarre sight with his tall, thin body and tangled waist-length hair.
Our rights promised by the police attorney were nowhere in evidence now that the U.S. Secret Service was in charge. We were relegated to the very back of the crowd. A blue circle of very stern looking city police officers all but surrounded us, separating us from everyone else. Men in dark suits and dark sunglasses stood nearby, talking furtively into their sleeves. Sharpshooters peered down at us from the roofs of buildings.
Within a few minutes the police collected all our play money. They didn't like our barbed wire idea either, and began to confiscate the pieces of wire, claiming they were dangerous weapons that we might presumably use to assassinate the honorable vice president. While Jason was handing over his handful of barbed wire to a short pot-bellied officer he suddenly had an idea. "Wait a minute," he said, "this is my property. I want a receipt."
The cop gave Jason a look of disgust. Everyone held their breath and watched as Jason stood there defiantly, his lanky frame towering over the angry policeman. The cop's jaw clenched, and for a moment I thought there might be violence. Then he took a deep breath and pulled out a pad of paper. "What's your name," he asked.
"Thomas Jefferson, sir," said Jason. Again, there was a tense pause. The cop glanced up at the sky for a long moment; whether looking to God for patience or the snipers for vengeance, I could not tell. Then he began to write: "Seven pieces of barbwire belonging to Thomas Jefferson."
Immediately everyone grabbed a single piece from our stock of barbed wire and lined up to turn it in to the cop. For the next twenty minutes the cop wrote property receipts for the likes of Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix and Porky Pig.
The tension continued with the police. Our chants were drowned out by the crowd and the PA system. Then we were told we couldn't chant anymore. Our signs were confiscated. A rumor circulated among the demonstrators that the cops were preparing to make arrests, and when a signal was given they would charge, billy clubs swinging.
But no arrests were made and the speech finally ended. The crowd began to disperse, the cops got on their big blue bus, and even the rooftop snipers vanished. We stood around chatting, feeling vaguely dissatisfied and screwed over.
I fingered the property receipt in my pocket. "I think we should reclaim our barbed wire," I joked. We all laughed. Then Jason got a mischievous gleam in his eye. "You want to? Let's go."
So Susan and I piled into Jason's Volkswagen Beetle and we headed for police headquarters in the City Hall building a few blocks away.
"We want our property back, please," Jason told the lady at the counter. "We have receipts."
"I'll get someone," said the woman. She went to a desk near the back of the office and picked up a phone.
After about five minutes the chief of police showed up. He was a small wiry man with a red leathery face. "What's the problem here?" he said with a heavy North Carolinian drawl.
"An officer confiscated our property at the demonstration and we want to claim it," said Jason.
"I'm sorry I can't do that," said the chief. "Now I'm gonna ask y'all to leave." He hated Jason. You could see it in his face.
"Why?" cried Jason in a loud voice. Susan and I looked on awkwardly.
"I don't have time for this." The chief's face was getting redder.
"This is America," yelled Jason. "You can't do this. We have rights."
The police chief looked very distressed. "If y'all don't leave right now y'all'll be arrested," he said flatly. His voice had a tone of finality. This was a man who was used to having his commands obeyed.
Jason was really worked up now. Tears began streaming down his face, smearing his clown white. "How can you people work here," Jason shouted to the office workers who sat stunned, watching in horror as the drama unfolded. "How can you work for this fascist institution?" As Jason continued to rave, I looked out at row after row of gray-haired ladies frozen in front of typewriters, their faces filled with uncomprehending disbelief.
Susan and I were both relieved to see Jason finally turn to go. Outside in the hall I could see how enraged he really was. His skinny body shook and his voice cracked as we discussed what to do next. It was the arrogance of Power that had him upset. To Jason every injustice, no matter how small, epitomized all the injustice in the world. In this trivial incident he saw the powerful contemptuously trampling on the rights of the powerless. To him it was the same mentality that kept black people in poverty; the same spirit of superiority and arrogance that led to the war in Vietnam.
But power is a relative thing, especially in a small town. "Let's see if the mayor's in," said Jason finally.
It turned out that Jason knew the mayor. Dr. Williams was a part-time speech professor at the university and sometimes had dinner with Jason's family. We straggled into his office with our colorful T-shirts, patched jeans, and long scraggly hair.
The receptionist was a pretty blonde woman not much older than we were. She wanted to know who was asking to see the mayor. "Do you have an appointment?" she asked abruptly. "No? Well I'll see if he's available." She smiled smugly as she picked up the phone and purred "There's a Jason Brown here to see you Mr. Mayor....Oh!...Yes sir!" Looking a little surprised, she put the phone down and studied us more closely, like we were possible celebrities—rock stars maybe. "He'll be with you in a minute," she said with slightly more deference.
We plopped down in the expensive leather chairs to wait. Susan played nervously with her stringy brown hair, twisting it into little knots. I looked around the reception room, slightly dazed. The dark paneled walls were covered with plaques and pictures of people shaking hands.
After a few minutes we were shown into the inner office. The mayor jumped up from behind his big desk and shook all our hands. "How's your folks doing, Jason?" he asked. Dr. Williams was plump and jovial, with a loud hearty laugh. He and Jason talked about family stuff for a few minutes but finally, when there was a pause, the mayor suddenly got serious and said: "I heard you people caused quite a commotion out there today." We tittered nervously. "So what can I do for you?" he asked.
Jason explained that the police chief refused to return our pieces of barbed wire, and threatened to have us arrested. "I'll take care of it," said the mayor. "I'll just give the police attorney a call. Anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes," said Jason. "Can you stop the war?" We all laughed way too loud, more out of relief than from Jason's lame joke.
A minute later Gary strolled into the office. He was casually dressed and had a big friendly smile. The mayor explained the situation to him. "No problem," said Gary, "I'll get your property back. By the way, I'm teaching a class of rookie officers. They were out there today at your demonstration and seem to think you people are some kind of monsters. How would you like to come talk to them so we can try to get a dialog going? I think it would be good for them." We all shrugged. Why not?
There were about twenty good ol' boys in the rookie class and maybe one black guy. They were young—really just kids like us. The discussion quickly turned to the War. Most of them parroted the usual government justifications—we needed to fight communism, defend freedom, obey our leaders, etc. Trying to get through to most of them was frustrating because they did not seem to be thinking about what they were saying—they were just regurgitating the government line. A couple of them, however, seemed genuinely engaged in the discussion, and I got the impression they were arguing so vehemently in favor of the War because they were having doubts about their own positions. On the other hand, a few of the rookies just sat there silently, glaring at us with evident hate in their eyes.
In the middle of all this the police chief walked into the room. His red face was now white and his shoulders sagged. He handed each of us a piece of barbed wire, and then mumbled an apology in front of the class. "I'm sorry we refused to return your property. It won't happen again." Then he turned and shuffled out of the room with his head down. We all felt a little embarrassed.
When we left, one of the rookie cops followed us out, still continuing the discussion about the War. He followed us all the way out to our car. For a minute I thought he might climb in Jason's Volkswagen and go home with us. But finally he shook our hands and left. We all felt good. There had been some communication which, after all, had been our goal from the beginning.
Looking back, I wonder how we appeared to the rookies, the police chief and the mayor. Our rebellion must have seemed somewhat comical. There was never any real danger because, in reality, the Power we were fighting accepted us and embraced us as affluent, privileged, snotty-nosed college kids. The rookies, on the other hand, seemed to be mostly simple working class types—I can imagine them living in trailer parks on the outskirts of town before they got their cop jobs. I wonder if some of the animosity we felt from them had less to do with the Vietnam War and more to do with our superior attitudes.
By April 1973, all U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Later that year, Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to federal income tax evasion charges and resigned as vice president of the United States.
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