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1. ON THE BARRICADES IN MADISON
1989 Madison Reunion
“Would you believe my little sister and my Mormon grandmother were both visited by the FBI looking for me after the bomb blast?” I said as I laughed with the other grownup radicals sitting around our table in the reception hall. I felt triumphant with two hundred leaders of the sixties liberation struggles at our 20-years-later college/movement reunion organized by a core of activists from the Days of Rage at the University of Wisconsin. “Frieda,” I said to my former college roommate, “we are true survivors of the youth movement.” My eyes roamed the room searching the faces of the 60’s street fighters. Two tables away sat Helen, once a hippie-freak without a bra and tie dyed bell bottoms, now a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. Next to her sat Gail, a peacenik physician with a familiar-looking, hand carved wooden peace symbol around her neck. There was crazy Peter, a long hair who carried the anarchist flag, now an environmental science teacher.But then I thought of Robert Fassnacht. Several hundred people fell quiet as all eyes riveted on Karl Armstrong walking to the podium. Before his wild brown hair reached his shoulders, now his balding head marked the passage of time. The weekend had been confirmation of all that was right about our battle. Everyone here had work or a lifestyle related to values expressed in our college years. But now the ex-prisoner, ex- bomber whose truck of dynamite had killed Robert Fassnacht spoke.
“I want to apologize for what I did. It was wrong.”No one moved. No one spoke. Then, a ripple of clapping grew thunderous.
August 23, 1970
What was that? It was 3a.m. on Sunday, August 23, 1970, and I sat up in bed, dazed, blinking at the glass fragments piercing the sheet. Had there been an explosion? Then I felt air flowing over my head and shoulders. There was a star shaped hole in the window over my head.Alone, I sat there and wondered if Madison had been attacked by nuclear weapons. I was reminded of all the childhood drills in my elementary school, when we marched into the school halls and crouched, covering our heads with our hands, or hid under our desks.
The inch-thick wooden desktops would protect us from radiant holocaust. Our teachers seemed to think so. “Help me,” I croaked, running outside onto Bassett Street. Dozens of other people who lived in the student ghetto were also out in the dark, walking toward the university. A girl I didn’t know turned to me in the crowd. “It’s got to be Sterling.” We soon knew the blast had come from Sterling Hall, the building that housed the Army Math Research Center (AMRC), the focal point of the campus antiwar movement.Sterling, bombed? All right! But I felt a mixture of horror and glee from the pit of my stomach as we approached the police cars and barricades. Lights whirred over emergency vehicles, blue white blue white blue white, and I smelled acrid smoke. I stood there in the crowd for an hour, watching, then shuffled home, hoping to find a friend.
The following day I learned that Robert Fassnacht, a physicist, had been killed in the blast. Poor guy, I thought. But everyone knew the research in those labs was funded by the military. Why was he experimenting at 3 a.m. on a Sunday night?
“We walked up the rise behind the Washington Monument to the sight of thousands of people already gathered. It was at that moment the sense that this was to be a remarkable, historic event claimed us. The remainder of the day was marked by exquisite courtesy and kindness. It was like the millennial dream of peace and brotherhood which later in the day was perfectly enunciated by M.L. King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.”
Alys Miles Hale, my mother
August 28, 1963
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe and abolitionist Harriet Tubman were two of my mother’s heroines, so it seemed natural that Mom and Dad would go with other civil rights activists to hear Dr Martin Luther King speak at the March on Washington. It was August, 1963. I was thirteen and thrilled to hear the details.
It was a twelve hour ride from Columbus, Ohio on the little bus with straight hard seats and folding chairs in the aisles for overflow passengers. My parents were the only white people on board. Mom had worked with a civil rights group to get a fair housing bill passed by the Ohio State Legislature. The bill made it illegal to keep blacks from buying or renting housing in white neighborhoods. Through the NAACP, they made a reservation on the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth’s bus. “We must help the Negroes get jobs and better housing,” Mom explained to my sisters and I. “We’ll go on a school bus with food and two canteens of water.”Forty years later, in 2002, the local newspaper in West Lafayette, Indiana interviewed my parents. “It was the high point of my life. My children are sick of hearing about it. I don’t cry much, but it was unbelievable,” Mom told the reporter. “ I don’t want to say it was a religious experience, but it was so quiet as we all listened to this man. He moved everyone.” Dad recounted, “When he started and said ‘I have a dream,’ and talked about what he hoped would happen, his dreams for America, it was moving, believe me. After serving in World War II, I’m not easily moved by events, but this was moving. You could have heard a pin drop.”
Heady, inspiring stuff for a thirteen-year-old. As the child of these two, how could I not be an activist?Four years after the March on Washington, I was watching the 6:00 news. My mother was cooking dinner while as usual, my father and I sat in front of the television, following world events and preparing to discuss them over the evening meal. On our little boxy, black and white TV, there was a big antiwar demonstration with students carrying crosses. I said to Dad “That’s where I want to go to school. Look at that! All those people are against the war in Vietnam!” “Is the University of Wisconsin a good school, Dad?”
Mom and Dad wanted me to go a good college but didn’t pressure me much about it. We spent a lot of time sorting through The College Handbook: “ Too far away. Too expensive. Not good enough.”In the late 1960s, high school in Columbus was one grayish grind, day after day of increasing alienation and growing anticipation of leaving home for a more political, sophisticated world where I would find my place. But I was nonetheless a teenage girl, too. Longing to be popular, I ached for the fashionable prep school clothes my classmates wore, a new matching skirt and sweater for each day of the week, and hated my liberal academic parents for denying me what I wanted. Because my father was a political science professor at Ohio State University, I begged to attend the private university high school offered to professors’ children for a minimal fee. There, it was cool to express discontent by wearing protest buttons and Joan Baez-style sandals. I despaired at my parent’s constant answer,
“We don’t have enough money.”Feeling hollow and defeated, I stopped talking at school. Playing the violin became my sole emotional outlet, but even the music could not calm all my anger. So I routinely hit my stand with my bow, shedding horsehair all over the rug. I clung to the belief that nothing could be worse, so life would likely get better.
I sought meaning in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and nothingness and existentialism–red meat for a discontented teenager. My father gave me mind-boggling and confusing books, too. The Communist Manifesto and Quotations from Chairman Mao. (although years later he argued that I gave Mao’s Red Book to him)What planet had these two parents of mine come from? After the Second World War, six months after my birth in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1950, they left Zion, their pioneer Mormon community, so Dad could attend graduate school at Columbia University where he studied political theory. It was in Shanks Village, a large housing facility of converted army barracks (sprayed pink, green or yellow) for World War II veterans attending universities in Rockland County, New York, where the seeds of my life long quest for communal living took root.
Shanks was remarkable not only for the community-run carpool, food co-op, nursery school, newspaper and theater, but for being a fully integrated community where families of all races and backgrounds lived, worked and played together. I was never surprised as a young girl when I saw people with different color skins. But Shanks life also had its pioneer hardships–the barracks weren’t insulated, had no storm windows, ice had to be brought in to keep the leaky refrigerators cold, and electric fuses often blew when too many appliances were used. All laundry was hung out to dry. (now, of course, with climate change, it’s politically correct to sun-dry laundry) I can vividly remember the monstrous brown space heater that had to be filled several times a day from an outdoor oil tank.The government paid a married student ninety dollars a month, and thirty dollars for each child. No one had much, which helped foster a strong resourceful network of friends and neighbors. With money from the GI Bill, (Mom and Dad were both veterans) my mother found cheap, used furniture and household goods, and Dad used scrap boards and bricks to make bookshelves and empty orange crates from the market for end-tables by the couch and beds. An old army barrack was a great place for a kid to beâ€”Dad drilled holes in the ceiling for a swing above my bed and Mom taught me to draw and paint on the walls. My younger sister and I took baths in the kitchen sink since there wasn’t a tub and my father used a 3x3x 6 foot closet for a study. The PhD closet. I can still hear the sound of the black typewriter keys clacking away night after night as Mom put me to bed.
When it rained, I raced outside in my underwear to splash with all the Shanks kids, or jumped into a plastic pool with ten other children in the common yard. Mom showed colored slides of this community to us until the day I came home with modern children who demanded television and video.People tell me my Dad was the resident expert on politics and government. In 1952, when Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson for president, Dad said the country had survived a lot of bad and mediocre presidents and would continue to do so as long as the balance of power established by our Constitution was maintained. By the time George Bush was elected in 2000, Dad was too old to understand that we almost lost it. The balance, that is.
In 1956, Mom cried when we drove away from her beloved Shanks Village to my Dad’s new university job in Austin, Texas, home state of the future burning bush.
My mother was the one who bore the brunt of my restless longings and daily, violent outbursts fueled by my isolation from my peers. I knew from an early age that being a professor’s wife did not fulfill her intelligence. She made it crystal clear. From the kitchen stove, jabbing a pan of sauce with a spoon, she complained to me: “I should have finished my graduate degree. If only I had become an anthropologist or historian.” The sad refrain’s lost career would change from year to year. But the if-only longing and bitterness remained constant.I was so full of youthful, anxious pain, I hated seeing hers. Mom had watched her own mother experience the Mormon Church’s enforcement of female inferiority and discrimination. My college educated grandmother who wrote, acted and taught school, struggled with Mormon dogma–church law made her quit teaching as soon as she married my grandpa. She eventually left the Latter Day Saints, but lost her mind to depression in a culture that treated gifted women like mental patients. In the end, it was easier just to forget, and float around her neighborhood of thirty years in her lacy white nightgown like a lost dandelion puff. I know it wasn’t Alzheimer’s disease. It was grief, plain and simple. And the teenage me sure didn’t want to end up like Mom or grandma.
As it turned out, a few Mormons, Mom and I included, needed and wanted change. But she looked stuck and I was shedding my skin. The protesters I saw on TV presented me with what felt like my very last chance: college and rebellion.The greatest psychic in the world could not have seen how great my mother’s suffering would become as America went to war with itself.
By the end of my senior year in high school, I was sure that more time in this part of the Midwest would kill me or drive me to suicide. My alienation was so intense that I refused to apply to Ohio State University, but was rejected by all the private eastern schools I longed to attend, despite a 3.7 average. Hope began when I opened the acceptance letter from the University of Wisconsin: I was in!My excitement temporarily deflated when Dad was hired at Purdue University, which meant uprooting and re-adjusting for three months in West Lafayette, Indiana, before the fall semester of college. “God, why wasn’t it somewhere in the East or at least Chicago,” I muttered everyday all summer long, dreaming of the Madison campus. After our family’s move to Indiana, I met Frank, a long, lanky perennially stoned Purdue freshman who was transferring to Wisconsin for his sophomore year. He introduced me to acid rock, marijuana, and rebellion. I no longer wanted to be a virgin, so one evening sitting in the haze of pot smoke and candles at his student apartment I made a feeble attempt to seduce him by putting my head in his lap. But Frank continued to talk excitedly about the upcoming Democratic Convention in Chicago, his eyes widening at the thought of the planned protest demonstration through the streets and into the hall.
“All the big, important radicals will be there, Kendall. Everyone who’s down on the system, SDS–you know, Students for A Democratic Society.”
“Hey, maybe I’ll go too,” I exclaimed. “I wonder if my parents would let me?” Obedient Kendall, virginity intact, contemplated asking parental permission to overturn the American political system.He laughed. “Don’t ask. Just go. Come with me.”
I made a face, and sighed, “I’ve never done anything they didn’t know about.”“What do you mean? They don’t know you are here with me, do they?” He turned over the Jimi Hendrix record.
He had a point. But it looked like Frank didn’t want to sleep with me, so I left, pondering protest instead of sex, I saw myself participating in the biggest organized confrontation I could imagine. I had been on picket lines with my parents to protest segregated housing in Columbus, and the March on Washington was family legend. I thought about Chicago for days, but my father wasn’t too excited about my attending and I wasn’t ready to plot against him. Instead, Dad and I watched the 1968 Convention on TV. Lines of cops in black jackets and white helmets advanced in unison toward the protestors, then charged, batons battering anyone they could reach. Nightsticks swung randomly, rhythmically onto skulls, and I could lip-read their curses. Four uniforms threw a woman bodily through the air into the back of a paddy wagon. The cameras closed in as people held their hands to faces streaming with blood and tears I screamed, “Look at those cops, Dad. Look!”My body was shaking as I paced back and forth. “They’re clubbing those people! That could be Frank! And the Students for a Democratic Society. My God, I don’t believe it. Why? Why?” Angrily I asked, “This is a democracy isn’t it? Why can’t they protest?” I knew we had a right to voice opinion without being brutalized.
My stunned father was speechless. Walter Cronkite’s urgent voice sounded as if he believed we were living in a police state.Even though I knew next to nothing about SDS, I knew a lot about Vietnam, and the history of US involvement, and had been persuaded by my father that the war was unjust because the US had blatantly violated formal agreements. Now in Chicago, two hours away from my bedroom, young people just like myself, angry at makers of US foreign policy and the inequality in American society, were being beaten, their skulls cracked by a bunch of cops following the mayor’s orders. I was furious. That night I closed my eyes but still heard and saw the sounds and images of bodies being dragged through the streets, of tear gas and screams. And a neighbor’s bumper sticker, “America, Love It or Leave It”.
I had not died, I had not committed suicide, and I was finally escaping to college. As my Dad and I drove into the Gary, Indiana, smog towards Madison, I was rattled by my mother’s last frightened, sad expression. There were no words of support, encouragement, or even good luck, just simply her deep sorrow and lingering words:“Once they leave, they never come back.”
And she was right. I never did come back; not because I didn’t want to, but because the movement, the energies of change that were shaking America, propelled me into a new world she did not, could not, and would not understand. This same movement engulfed my total being and turned me inside out, rendering me unrecognizable. It was transformation by fire.My mother and I lost each other in America’s second civil war, connected only by the go between efforts of my father, who suffered silently between us. I had no compassion for my frightened, anxious mother who directed blame at me instead of Richard Nixon for the darkness in America. Trapped in suburban despair, she criticized almost every action and decision I was to make for the next fifteen years. Consciously or unconsciously, she saw her lost opportunities embodied in me, and I had walked out the door into the larger world. I was physically free, but I was carrying some big, heavy suitcases of guilt and resentment when I arrived on campus in Madison.
Naomi. My brilliant, crazy, wild new friend. Naomi drew me out of a long, deep, depression into joy and freedom. In Madison, she drew me from our dorm room into as many parties as we could find. She wore old blue jeans and moccasins, and her thick, stringy hair hung down like a curtain as she fired up the next joint, which was frequently. Fearless, she led me in and out of the student union, up and down streets in student neighborhoods, stoned with pleasure, frolicking, laughing, dancing, rolling on floors. The University of Wisconsin was far from the cozy, cloistered college campuses back east that I thought I wanted. On the Madison campus there were two choices: You either drank beer with the fraternities and sororities or smoked dope with hippies and radicals. The healing water of beautiful Lake Mendota gave all 40,000 students our common bond: we swam, canoed, sailed, and skated. In the winter, some of us demonstrators even escaped from tear gas onto the frozen lake.My new life was joyful, but first semester classes were a terrible disappointment, dull repetitions of high school memorization and regurgitation. Where were the encounters with authentic political and social movements, the changes that were roiling America? So I found intellectual stimulation from meeting people at parties and demonstrations. I threw myself into what I thought of as a movement that would force us to re-examine everything we had ever been taught.
One of the first pamphlets I read was Student as Nigger, an angry, bitter attack on the students’ powerless position in the university. This was just the beginning of an onslaught of flyers, pamphlets, speakers, rallies, student union debates, and sidewalk preachers that stimulated me to insomnia night after night. After tossing for hours, I would calm myself by taking a plastic flute, a cup of warm milk, and a stack of reading material to the laundry room floor. Here I pondered these wondrous concepts until I got sleepy at sunrise. “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” the lyrics sang to me with joy and hope. The new astrology promised that now was the last of the dark ages, the end of a Pisces-cycle era of war, divisions, and patriarchy. And the birth of a new era. My era.Second semester. The University of Wisconsin teaching assistants were striking for better working conditions, smaller classes, and higher salaries. I joined the picket line, of course, proudly wearing my red and black RESIST button. This strike took me into the next one, led by black students demanding a Black Studies program. In the bitter cold February of 1969, with a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice under my jean jacket, I closely watched the protesters wearing berets and leather jackets and realized that they wanted nothing to do with white people. As I watched them marching in rhythm, chanting “Black Power!” and terrifying most of the white students, I knew they were right. After all, these were real Black Panthers from Chicago. Malcolm X had come alive! Slogans about guns and armed struggle, echoed through library mall and appeared scrawled on campus buildings, sidewalks, and bathrooms. “Seize the Time!”
“On Strike, Shut It Down, On Strike, Shut It Down!” Our voices reverberated off Bascom Hill, the center of campus. Within days University President Fred Harrington called the governor, who brought in two thousand National Guardsmen armed with machine guns, automatic weapons and grenade launchers.In response to Harrington’s move, 10,000 students rallied, waving signs and chanting.
“Pick up the Gun! Seize the Time! Off the Pig! Off the Pig!”,.“All they want is black teachers and counselors and scholarships!” I yelled furiously at an armed guardsman standing in front of me. His frozen white face didn’t get it.
“Power to the People! Right On!”So new! So exhilarating! I thought everyone was saying “Right Arm!” So I punched my right fist into the air. If only the people I knew at high school could see me now, I thought, surrounded by hundreds of people like me, expressing our rage! Demanding justice! I felt a rush of high-octane energy surge through my body. I was no longer scurrying through locker-filled high school hallways, mouse like and isolated, wearing my protest buttons that no one cared about: “Black = White,” “Eugene McCarthy for President,” “ US Out of Vietnam,” “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty,” buttons that no one noticed or cared about. I was in my true element, with my people.
I threw my fist into the air again, “Power to the People, Right Arm!”Apparently, the days of begging for an equal piece of the pie had ended. Non-violence seemed impotent in the face of armed police and war. As the university and the government escalated tactics, students did too. The Black Panther Party meant business! To them political power came out of the barrel of a gun!
“Pick up the gun!”Was that really me saying those words, a white middle class girl from Columbus? I was frightened and intrigued. Fred Hampton, a militant Black Panther, preached revolution and drew thousands when he spoke at the Memorial Student Union. At twenty-one he was a charismatic leader and an orator, so powerful the auditorium pulsated as he described how the rich and powerful at the top of the hill would be brought down by the poor at the bottom. All chairs emptied for a standing ovation that shook the hall. The same moment that thrilled us rattled the FBI. Hampton was winning allies for the Panthers’ political platform among the white middle class students who responded with anger and rage at his description of racism and class exploitation. A year later, in the winter of 1969, the Chicago police riddled his apartment with 100 bullets. Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep.
Overnight after the murder, all the young white men who considered themselves revolutionaries began wearing black leather jackets and berets. A week later as I sat in an anthropology lecture hall, one of the white SDS leaders and two black militants ran down the aisles, jumped up on the stage, knocked over the professor’s desk and smashed the glass cover to a fire extinguisher. “Avenge Fred Hampton! Black Studies now!” Throwing chairs around, they disappeared as fast as they had come. I pitied the professor as he vanished backstage. Quaking and confused, I sat holding onto the arms of my chair. Those of us sympathetic to the rebellion saw looks of contempt and fear on most people’s faces as they filed out into the sunlight. But that didn’t stop me.
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