Power and privilege in a small southern city
When our anti-war demo was stifled by the Secret Service, we got even. But did we triumph over the system or just use our advantaged, college-kid status to embarrass some working class cops?
All the campus radicals sat in one room. There were three of us. It was 1972—the Vietnam War was raging and Richard 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 that called for a demonstration.
Susan, Jason and I were students at a private, 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 really smart.
But it was Jason who was the natural leader. 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.
Sprawling on plush carpet in a girls’ dorm lounge, the three of us hashed out ideas for our demo. Jason started by telling us he had gotten a call from Gary Thomas, the city Police Attorney, who heard we were planning a demonstration. Jason thought Gary was a pretty cool guy because he had once been in Gary’s office and was impressed by the quote by Camus he had hanging on the wall. Anyway, 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.
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 we were supporting in South Vietnam. Each piece of wire would have a tag attached explaining what it symbolized. 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 the downtown streets 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 pieces either, and began to confiscate them, claiming they were dangerous weapons that we might presumably use to assassinate the 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 do it.”
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.
The Police Chief
“We want our property back, please,” Jason told the lady at the counter. “We have receipts.”
“I’ll get someone,” said the woman. She walked to the back of the large room full of office workers 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 demanded with a twangy southern drawl.
“An officer confiscated our property at the demonstration and we want to reclaim it,” explained 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 angry. “If y’all don’t leave right now, I will have y’all arrested,” he said flatly.
His voice had a tone of finality. He was not messing around. This was a man who was used to having his commands obeyed.
Jason was really worked up now. “This is America,” he repeated. “We’re Americans and we have our rights.” Tears began streaming down his face, smearing his clown white. Turning to the office workers, he shouted, “how can you people work here—can’t you see what’s going on?” As Jason continued to rave, I looked out at row after row of middle-aged, beehive-haired ladies who sat frozen in front of typewriters, staring in stunned bewilderment.
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. Finally, Jason calmed down and turned to us. “Let’s see if the mayor’s in,” he said.
It turned out that Jason knew the mayor—he was a part-time speech professor at the university and sometimes had dinner with Jason’s family. We straggled into his office with our ripped 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. He 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.”
Susan and I 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 nervousness 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 fifteen white officers in the rookie class and maybe one black guy. They were young—really just kids like us. The discussion quickly turned to the war. Talking to them was frustrating because most seemed to be parroting platitudes rather than thinking critically about what they were saying. 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 the middle of 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 for him.
When we left, one of the more receptive rookie cops followed us all the way down to the parking garage, still continuing the discussion. For a minute I thought he might climb in Jason’s VW and go home with us. But finally he shook our hands and we parted amicably, feeling good about the day’s events. At least there had been some communication which, after all, was the reason for our street action in the first place.
Looking back, I wonder how we appeared to the police chief, the mayor and rookies. 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, snot-nosed college kids.
The rookies, on the other hand, seemed to be mostly 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 entitled attitude.
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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