(The Desecration of the Violet Crown)
by Ray Reece
(This essay was printed in 1991 as a chapter in the book that is named below, published by Eakin Press. The editor of the volume, the late Daryl Janes, had asked his contributors to write brief memoirs explaining how they came to be radicalized in the 1960’s. I scrupulously adhered to Daryl’s charge, only to discover, when the book was released, that I was virtually the only contributor who had.)
Perfect, I thought, when I first heard the title of this book—No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the ’60s. A brave title, cheeky and defiant, just the way we activists of the period like to remember what we did in those years. We are saying in No Apologies that we are proud of the roles we played in the global turbulence of the ’60s and ’70s. We are proud that we roared “Hell no!” to U.S. imperialism in Vietnam. That we battled the cops on picket lines and persuaded young men to refuse the draft. That we marched as allies of blacks and Hispanics, of women and gays and exploited workers in their pursuit of equity and justice. That we fought the madness of nuclear weapons and power plants, of mowed-down forests and poisoned seas and kindred assaults on planet Earth.
We believe, with other American radicals of the time, that we prevailed in the epochal struggles we joined in Texas—particularly in Austin, where most of us lived. We helped accomplish the civil rights victories of the middle ’60s. We helped shut down, in 1973, the Frankenstein war in Vietnam. We raised the awareness of a somnolent public regarding threats to the biosphere. We confronted, in short, the historic challenges to our generation, and we won.
Or did we?
I was a partisan in most of those wars, and I have discovered that I owe an apology after all. I have some regrets. Not with regard to the wars I fought, but rather to one I didn’t fight—or fought too late—because of my obsession with the larger wars. A child of Austin in the ’60s and ’70s, I fought too late for Austin herself, the city of the violet crown, and she was effectively destroyed. The crown, as I saw it, was ravaged beyond redemption, and with it the garden of my sweetest dreams.
Thus my essay for No Apologies takes the form of a cautionary tale, a song of grief and paradox, as well as an account of my adventures in the great rebellions of the ’60s and ’70s. It is the story of a rebel blindsided on his local turf by the very forces of greed and oppression that he was helping to vanquish elsewhere. It is also the story of a city of fools—bourgeois, self-absorbed, American fools—who betrayed their birthright and bartered their realm for a few lousy coins and a night at the corporate imperialists’ ball.
When I arrived in Austin in the summer of 1966, I wasn’t really a radical yet, indeed was scarcely even a liberal. Just six years before, as a freshman at TCU in Fort Worth, my hometown, I had supported Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy for president. I was both a fraternity boy and a spit-shined cadet in the Army ROTC. Not until the end of my junior year had I started to awaken to racial injustice and social and political oppression in the United States. I ran for president of the student body on a civil rights ticket in 1962, shocking my fraternity brothers, who relieved me of my office of chapter vice-president. I shocked them further in my senior year—along with my parents—by walking on picket lines at segregated restaurants and movie theaters in Fort Worth.
At best, by the time of President Kennedy’s murder in November 1963, I was a neophyte, late-blooming liberal, mainly on the issue of racial equality. I was seeking to refine my new values as a graduate student in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I had moved leftward, but not so far as to make me question the rapidly escalating U.S. military build-up in Vietnam. On the contrary, in 1965, when I graduated from Chicago with a master’s degree in English, I was prepared to go to Vietnam, which is where I was headed as an Army lieutenant.
I had been commissioned in 1963, but had taken a deferment from active duty in order to pursue my graduate studies. I had also married the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi at TCU. The marriage had foundered while we lived in Chicago, and it was my desire to end the suffering that prompted my willingness to fight in Vietnam—a desperate gambit, mercifully failed. I flunked the Army physical for combat pilots, due to a hearing problem that later cleared up, and so was consigned to the Retired Reserve in Fort Worth. I petitioned for divorce and returned to Chicago to teach composition in a ghetto junior college—where, coincidentally, I first encountered the Black Panther Party. Then, in the summer of 1966, freshly divorced and full of ideas for novels and short stories, I moved to Austin to share a house with a friend from Chicago and a future wife who had left her job as an airline hostess to teach in an Austin high school.
Not only, therefore, was I not yet a radical when I first came to Austin—certainly not a radical activist—I had decided to forego politics of any kind. I wanted a break from angst and discord. I sought a retreat from the urban hustle and vitriol, the bourgeois selfishness and alienation of cities like Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth. I wanted to write and study the arts and philosophy. I wanted peace, and I wanted love, and Austin offered a profusion of both in 1966.
It was simply the most alluring place I had ever seen. My friend from Chicago, himself a philosopher, told me the Austin climate and terrain reminded him of sites on the Aegean coast, where the ancient gods of Greece had dwelled. I determined on my own account, in the poet’s way, that Austin was a woman—sensuous and soft and beautiful—and I fell profoundly in love with her. I swam her pure waters at Barton Springs and loafed at Lake Travis on fabulous shelves of limestone, absorbing the sun and breathing perfumes of juniper, jasmine, and honeysuckle. The only crowds were those of birds, who chirped and gurgled with the same exuberance I was feeling. I shared that exuberance with the people I met. We gathered at Scholz’s, the historic beer garden, and filled the sultry summer air with passionate debates and loud celebrations of our ideas for further advances in civilization. We danced at parties spontaneously conceived and swam at midnight in Barton Springs, the lock on the gate be damned. We were a mob of excited pilgrims who had found each other, unexpectedly, in a town we regarded as an accidental mecca.
The reference to mecca is a crucial one. I learned from friends that the Austin area, particularly its springs and hills to the west, had been revered as sacred ground by Indian tribes who had worshiped there as early as 10,000 B.C. And one winter morning I saw it myself. I made the long trek up the broad stone steps of Mount Bonnell and gazed in awe at the hills that stretched to the western horizon. I was with friends, including my lover. We stared disbelieving at the panorama of dark green forest that embraced the hills, the solemn peaks above limestone cliffs on either side of the Colorado River. It was primal forest in the city limits, completely unspoiled by human hand. And we saw in the light of the morning sun the aura that the writer O. Henry had seen, that the Lipan Apache and Tonkawa natives had seen: a violet crown upon the slopes, a purple radiance shimmering there in the pollen-heavy branches of the juniper trees. We were struck silent, as though in a cathedral suddenly filled with the presence of God. Maybe it’s true, I speculated. Maybe this place is guarded by a force that won’t permit its destruction by man. Maybe the people who own this land have a pact with God, if only implicit, to keep it sacred for eternity.
I suppose I could argue, looking back, that Austin and I were stripped of our innocence at exactly the same time: August 9, 1966, at 11 in the morning. I was writing in my treetop study, perhaps ten blocks from the University of Texas, when I heard a distant popping sound, again and again, like ladyfingers exploding in the street. I tried to ignore it, until the phone rang and a friend informed me that a maniac was shooting people from the UT Tower. I jumped on my bike and pedaled to the scene of what would prove to be a massacre—sixteen dead, including the sniper, a deranged ex-Marine and Eagle Scout named Charles Whitman. By the time I arrived, the streets and walks around the Tower had cleared of people, except for a body stranded on a mall and men behind vehicles with high-powered rifles in their hands. There may have been a hundred such men. They had been “deputized” by the Austin police, and they were firing volley after volley at the unseen sniper with weapons they had purchased for hunting game. They were clearly enjoying themselves.
The Whitman massacre in Austin, Texas, was only the second random mass murder in U.S. history. It followed the killing of nine Chicago nurses by Richard Speck in 1965. And by itself, the awful eruption of violence I had seen was not the catalyst in my looming turn to radical politics. It wasn’t the spur to my decision to fight a protracted if chronic war against the dark side of the American Dream, particularly the darkness that had settled by then on Southeast Asia, where two million people would eventually die. Rather the massacre I had witnessed shattered the assumptions I had made regarding the sanctity of the poet’s life. It alerted me to something so unspeakably wrong with my society that I could never relax again in the role of sheltered, self-centered artist cum dilettante. I can only wish, in retrospect, that I had been keen enough of mind to direct my sense of social malaise as much toward the imminent rape of Austin as I did toward the rape of Vietnam.
At the end of August, my friend from Chicago moved back to that city to resume his work as a doctoral student at the university. His name was Jim Bennett, and his departure may have hastened my subsequent launch into politics. He had been a mentor in my development as an intelIectual, as a poet and seeker of the life of the mind. It was Jim who had drawn me to Austin, along with Genie, my future wife, and we had engaged throughout the summer in frequent dialogues—some of them lasting ten and twelve hours—on subjects ranging from Plato and Kant and Wittgenstein to modernist art and architecture. Jim was not attracted to politics. He thought it vulgar and self-demeaning, especially when chanting mobs filled the streets, as they did so often in the U.S. movement against the war in Vietnam. Had he not left Austin that simmering summer, it is conceivable that my enlistment against the war would have been delayed and perhaps averted altogether. When I did make my turn to activism, particularly during a hot-headed period I spent in New York, my friendship with Jim was strained to the point of complete alienation—though we later reconciled, older and wiser.
Through the fall and winter of 1966, I continued to write my stories and explore the city that had stolen my heart. I was still oblivious, by and large, to the growing clamor of opposition to the war in Vietnam. By the early summer of 1967—the Summer of Love and “Sergeant Pepper”—I had enrolled for the fall semester in the UT English Department, planning to work on a Ph.D. I had also made friends with two Austin characters, in particular, who were going to have an enormous influence on my evolution as a political being. One was Mark Parsons, a gentle giant from far west Texas who introduced me to Bob Dylan’s music, the magic of cannabis and a passionate reverence for living things—especially nonhuman living things—that I had never encountered before. The second character was Ran Moran, a native Texan who had lived for years in New York City and there had become a fervently committed Marxist revolutionary, a fellow traveler with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.
It was Ran’s influence that moved me first. He was in Austin for just a few months to abet the efforts of the SWP in an organizing drive against the Vietnam War, and he caught me, frankly, in his eloquent web. I found myself sitting beneath the live oaks at Scholz’s beer garden, listening to Ran discuss the prospects for world revolution against the tyranny of the capitalist state. He cited the teachings not only of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, but of Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh, Benito Juarez, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X. He drew a graphic parallel between the exploitation of U.S. workers by the ruling class—especially workers who were black and Hispanic—and the exploitation of Third World nations like Mexico, Bolivia, and Vietnam. He portrayed American fighting men as corporate pawns in a war for new markets in Southeast Asia. Since half of those soldiers were black and Hispanic, the capitalist rulers in effect were using the domestic victims of a racist America to slaughter and subjugate millions of foreign nonwhite victims. Meanwhile, the rulers themselves and their privileged sons relaxed in the comfort of corporate boardrooms and country estates.
Ran’s analysis touched me deeply. It gave me a coherent, systematic framework in which to place my own indignation at racial oppression in the United States. It added the element of class oppression, thus to make me a budding Marxist. And finally, inexorably, his arguments drove my anger to the point where I was ready to join the revolution. Or thought I was. My friend Moran awoke me one morning with a predawn phone call, breathlessly urgent, to insist that I join a hurried demonstration at Central Texas College in Killeen. This was a campus that had just been established across the highway from Fort Hood, a major Army training base. Ran and his comrades had somehow discovered that Lyndon Johnson, the president, was due to address the student body at 10 a.m. He informed me that I had to come, indeed in my car, since he and the others needed a ride. And quick, he said—the campus was 70 miles north. “Shit,” I groused to my ladyfriend. This would mean losing a morning of pay at the book wholesaler where I worked part-time. It could mean something worse, I feared, but Genie suggested I do it anyway. So I did. And I was correct in my intuition of pending disaster.
Six of us raced in my old blue Falcon up 1-35 to Killeen. We reached the campus at about 9:30 and there observed, from the safety of the car, a massive contingent of uniformed soldiers milling around in anticipation of the president’s speech. Obviously, the brass at Fort Hood had mobilized the troops and sent them over to welcome Mr. Johnson to Central Texas. I had not expected this. Neither had Ran and the other cadres, all of whom, save the accountant, were frumpy intellectuals with facial hair. I questioned the wisdom of pressing on. Ran just smiled, his brown eyes fierce through rimless glasses, and climbed from the car with a hand-painted sign: “U.S. Troops Out of Vietnam!” The others followed, each with a message certain to inflame. I was given my own crude sign, and I had little choice, it seemed to me, except to march forth to my first demonstration against the war.
It lasted as long as it took our party to reach the perimeter of the crowd. The first of the soldiers to spot us corning let out a whoop of immense displeasure. This attracted an instant mob of other soldiers, half of them black and Hispanic, of course, who set upon us with curses and fists. I was struck on the side of the face, my glasses dislodged, my sign ripped away and torn to shreds. I retreated at once, having lost sight of my comrades, and staggered to the car on legs that threatened to buckle with terror—a nasty feeling that I would experience many times in the years to come. I gasped and trembled as I waited in the car, thanking God I wasn’t dead.
Soon I was joined by two of the other demonstrators. One was bleeding at the corner of his mouth, the second nursing a swollen cheek. They told me the others had been arrested. Then we noticed a pack of soldiers headed noisily and very rapidly in our direction. We rolled up the windows in the August heat, and I prayed for deliverance as I hit the ignition. The Falcon often failed to start. But today she sang, and we broke away to the open road as one of the soldiers bounced a rock off the trunk of the car. We were back in Austin by noon, with Ran and the others back by four—I don’t recall how or in what condition, except that no one was permanently maimed.
Thus had I been christened by GI fists into the maelstrom of the antiwar movement: I was a radical, though I had no card, and though it would be another two months before I challenged authority again. Not long after the aborted demonstration, in fact, Ran moved back to New York City—suggesting I come to visit him there—while I accompanied my friend Mark Parsons on a five-day foray into the rugged Devil’s River country, 300 miles west of Austin. Mark was employed as an archaeologist by the Texas Memorial Museum. He had invited me to come have a look at an ancient Indian pictograph site, and I had agreed, thinking I could use a vacation prior to the start of my doctoral program at the university. The trip was to prove as formative an experience, in its quiet way, as the hours I had spent in Marxist tutelage with Ran Moran.
During our drive through the stunning wilds of the Texas Trans-Pecos, and then as we pored over Indian paintings on the walls of caves and rock shelters, Mark explained a cosmology to me—a view of the world in its universe—that he had derived in part from his studies of primitive Texas Indian cultures. It was based primarily on the notion that Earth and her systems of natural life are unified and sacrosanct. Her sky and seasons, her soil and water, plants and trees, her fish, her insects, birds and animals all are united in a provident whole. It is this whole, an organic totality of interlocked parts, that constitutes existence itself—the ground of being and consciousness. The whole of Earth is therefore inviolable. No one part can be torn from the whole and deemed more perfect than another part. The humblest beetle on a blade of grass is no less valuable than the human being who crushes that beetle.
There are laws, moreover, that govern this arrangement—natural laws that must be obeyed on penalty of death, including the death of the planetary whole. The ancient Texas Indian cultures understood and obeyed these laws. For thousands of years, they lived in a state of unity and peace with the natural world. Indeed, they worshiped as gods the natural systems that sustained their lives—the sun and rain, the moon and wind, the corn and bison and boulders of flint. They took from the earth no more than they needed for simple subsistence, and when they took, they prayed in thanksgiving and hope for renewal of what had been lost.
As Mark explained these things to me, it became clear that he believed them as profoundly as the ancient Indians had. He shared a spiritual bond with the Indians that was almost alarming in its intensity. He was angry and sick with grief at what the Europeans had done to them, at the brute extermination of tribe after tribe of deeply reverent Indian souls. He viewed the rise of the modern techno-industrial state—with its sprawling cities and automobiles, its asphalt deserts and obsessive consumption and carbon-spewing infrastructure—as a gross compounding of the massive crime against the Indians themselves. He viewed this pillage as a reckless violation of the laws of nature and therefore of God, a violation born of hubris, of men so consumed with crude self-interest and egotism that they are willing to torture the planet to achieve their ends. Mark confessed more than once to me his somber conviction that the human race was doomed to perish for its modern crimes. “The sooner the better,” I believe I heard him say.
On the final night of our sojourn there, we left the wood-fired warmth of our cabin and walked to the rim of the Devil’s River canyon. We had no moonlight, as I recall, but the sky was clear and the stars so bright that we could see to the canyon floor, perhaps a thousand feet below. There was the shimmering thread of silver, the river itself, that had carved this gorge from mountains of stone. How long had it taken? Five million years? Ten million? I turned to Mark to ask him about it, but he was staring across the canyon at something private and far away. I had to look up to study his face, for he was six and a half feet tall. He seemed even taller to me that night. His face could well have been sculpted of granite, except for his hair and shaggy black beard. They trembled and shook in the blustery wind that howled through the walls of the ancient ravine.
It would take years, unfortunately, for me to connect what I had learned at the Devil’s River with what I had felt on Mount Bonnell, when I first witnessed the violet crown. I had been changed by both experiences. I had been radicalized by them no less than by the teachings of Ran Moran. But once I returned to Austin that fall, I was so swept up in the quickening tide of the anti¬war movement, on top of my work at the university, that I wasn’t able to assimilate the meaning of what I had learned at the canyon with Mark. I failed, therefore, to apply that lesson to the task of fighting the approaching devastation of my own community. I failed to notice the approaching devastation. It never occurred to me, amidst my growing political vigilance, to investigate the structure of political power in Austin itself or to ask hard questions regarding the future of the Hill Country—a lapse I find appalling in retrospect.
For the first few weeks of the fall semester of 1967, I tried to be a dutiful graduate student. I immersed myself in the courses I was taking, passed my doctoral qualifying exam, and started teaching a pair of courses in freshman composition and literature. But the worm of politics, in the form of the antiwar movement, had burrowed too deeply into my brain by then. Each day’s news of the U.S. carnage in Vietnam rekindled my anger and resolve to act, to confront the monster head-on. I frequented lectures and began to read widely on war-related subjects. I started meeting with antiwar activists, particularly a group of university students who were having trouble recruiting faculty to serve as “advisers” to their organization. Since I was technically a faculty member, I was able to help the students obtain the sanction of the university. And with the students I expressed my contempt for the mumbling hordes of UT faculty—about 6,000, as I recall—who cowered from action or even words against the war. At the time, I didn’t know how very intense my contempt would get.
As the weeks progressed, my classroom lectures in comp and lit began to sound like lessons in radical political economy. I shared with my students what I was learning from the books I was reading and discussions I was having with other activists against the war. I reviewed the history of U.S. imperialism, not excluding the theft of Texas from Mexico. I reviewed the history of the Vietnam conflict, pointing out that Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, as president of the United States, had betrayed a promise the U.S. had made to Ho Chi Minh in 1954, thus effectively starting the war. I blasted the American ruling class for pressing the war through its bought politicians and monopoly control of the popular media. I challenged the males among my students to go to Canada or even to jail, rather than be drafted to murder peasants in Vietnam. All of this to paltry effect. Most of my students were the goofy and privileged, sun-tanned progeny of Texas ranchers and drugstore tycoons. They were unmoved, or rather were annoyed by my fulminations against the war. One of them, a sorority pledge who clasped her books like armor plate against her bosom, confided to me after class one day her genuine fear that I was going to be assassinated.
Still, with 40,000 students at the university, plus thousands of liberals elsewhere in town, there were enough free thinkers about to swell attendance at rallies and meetings as the fall wore on. Among those rallies was one at which I nervously assumed the leadership role—my first experience as a rabble rouser in mass confrontation with the ruling elite. It happened in late October, I think. The occasion was a visit to the UT campus by Army General H. K. Johnson, who may have been the Pentagon chief of staff. He wore four stars, in any case, and he had presided over quite enough killing in Vietnam to be a legitimate target of protest.
General Johnson was scheduled to speak at 8 p.m. in the Union Ballroom, part of the old Student Union Building. For two or three days before the speech, a group of cadres including myself had distributed thousands of inflammatory leaflets, urging people to assemble on the mall outside the Union at 7. Cleverly, we thought, we had kept secret our actual intentions regarding disturbance of the general’s peace. We had said only that those at the raily would have a chance to spring a surprise, like the Vietcong were doing so often to U.S. commanders in Vietnam.
A thousand people showed up on the mall, drawn in part by the folksy music of a popular local balladeer. I was the orator, the people’s general, standing atop the Union steps with no loudspeaker save my own mortal lungs. I exercised them for half an hour. I felt, as I spoke, a curious mixture of triumph and terror, haranguing a crowd three times the size that I had expected. I preached and reasoned and dealt with hecklers. I grew so hoarse I feared my voice would fail completely. But the crowd was magnificent, a thousand people chanting in unison: “HKJ! HKJ! How many kids have you killed today?”
Then, at 7:30 exactly, having divulged our secret plan, I led a contingent of about 300 into the Union Ballroom, where we occupied the front nine rows with our militia of ragtag rebel volunteers. We waited in silence as the room filled up with people very different from us—lots of suits and Rolex watches and bouffant hair. We were a picture of planned decorum. We spoke not a word, nor popped our gum, nor groaned nor giggled nor displayed any signs. When the general arrived and took the lectern in his uniform, his chest aglitter with medals and stars, we sat stone silent in the first nine rows while those behind us clapped and cheered, the louder, it seemed, as they became aware of our silence. The general was vexed to be so far from his admirers, but he smiled nonetheless as he started his speech. We let him posture for about five minutes, watching him warm to his defense of imperialist evil in Vietnam. Finally, when he got to the part about America’s honor— “We must honor our commitment to freedom and democracy in Southeast Asia,” he said—I stood from my seat in the first row and headed right toward the center aisle. That was the signal to the rebel troops, who rose as one in perfect silence and filed out the doors at the back of the room. We were booed and hissed, of course, but the taunts we received weren’t nearly so loud as the statement we made with our empty chairs. And the general knew it. He had to look at those empty chairs for the rest of his speech—perhaps indeed for the rest of his life.
This was a potent experience for me, as it was, I suspect, for many of the other cadres that night. The victory we had scored was a modest one, but it was enough to deepen my thirst for further action against the war. It also deepened a sense of ambivalence I was feeling toward my doctoral studies. I grew impatient with the courses I was taking, particularly a graduate linguistics course conducted by a man who made no secret of his disdain for the “thugs and morons” in the antiwar movement. One day in November, I was sitting in this man’s class while a large demonstration against the war was being held on the mall outside. The professor had informed us two days earlier that anyone absent from class that day would have to repent with an extra paper—a fascist maneuver to keep us from attending the demonstration.
I looked at the army of angry rebels out on the mall, which included many of my Austin friends. I looked at their signs, their flags held high, and strained to hear their spirited chants against the latest U.S. atrocity in Vietnam. Then I looked at the man who stood in front of the class. He was a pompous senior professor, all full of himself in his hound’s tooth sport coat, lifting his voice in solemn conviction regarding a point of Chaucerian syntax. And I realized that the man was sick. He was ignoring a world calamity—a raging cancer of brutality and death that threatened America no less than Vietnam—in order to split syntactic hairs with regard to the work of a sixteenth ¬century English poet. He was displaying a form of psychosis, a depth of alienation from social reality that struck me as lethal even to himself and his scholarly colleagues. I decided, therefore, that I would bid the professor adieu at the end of the term, along with the entirety of his profession. Why should I risk my own mental health for the sake of a pedigree that might just take me in the wrong direction?
At about the time I made my decision, a radical friend turned me on to a paper called The National Guardian. It was published in New York City and billed itself as an “Independent Radical Newsweekly.” I was thumbing through it one day and noticed that the paper was seeking what it called an “editorial worker”—someone to join the “New York collective” for a weekly wage of forty dollars. A lamp of excitement snapped on in my brain. I’d always wanted to experience New York, and this could take me to the heart of the action against the war. I phoned the paper, got a positive response, and then discussed it with my ladyfriend. She urged me to go, despite the uncertainties that such a move would bring to our relationship. A subsequent call to Ran Moran assured me a place to crash in Manhattan.
So, on the first of February 1968, I boarded a plane for New York City, where I would spend the next five years. During that time, the heathens would gather and sharpen their blades for the desecration of the violet crown—for the wanton slashing of Austin’s beautiful face and breast—and I wouldn’t know a thing about it. I stupidly assumed that she would be waiting for my return, as innocent, mythic, and sacred as ever.
New York was my radical graduate school. It was also the site, with Washington, D.C., of the fiercest battles I was to experience in the antiwar movement. I commenced my studies in a creaky old building on East Fourth Street that housed the insolent National Guardian, its name to be shortened soon to The Guardian. There, as a radical scribe and hungry new cadre from the provinces, I met and comported with many of the leaders of the national crusade against U.S. imperialism, including Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn, of SDS, who would later establish the Weather Underground. I met Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who founded the Yippies. I met Bobby Seale, of the Black Panther Party, and Stokely Carmichael, the articulate black nationalist, and Marge Piercy, a feminist poet and pioneer leader of the women’s movement, which arose in New York.
I met these people in an atmosphere of turbulence and confrontation that filled the whole of 1968 with what I thought was the promise of revolution. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the student uprising at Columbia University, the founding of Hoffman’s Youth International Party, the worker-student revolt in France, the bloody Days of Rage at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago—all seemed harbingers of the imminent collapse of a violently oppressive corporate state.
It couldn’t happen soon enough to suit Sam Melville, the most gravely intense of the radicals I met in New York City. Sam was a middle-aged civil engineer who had quit his job, a lucrative one, to work as a menial in the Guardian collective. He was tall and balding and quiet, a puzzle, really, to most of the other staffers at the paper. I was one of the two or three who got to know him. And he told me one day in early April, following the murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, that King’s assassination had brought him more pain than he could endure. He asked me, in effect, to get as serious about fighting “the Nazis” as he was. He asked me to help him bomb some buildings and other property claimed by the U.S. ruling class.
I declined, suggesting he think very hard about that. He said he had. He said he was tired of all the talk and wasted newsprint over at The Guardian. He and his girlfriend dropped out of sight, and soon there were bombs exploding at night in the fanciest buildings on Wall Street. A year or so later, Sam was arrested and ultimately convicted and sent to Attica, the penitentiary in upstate New York where the inmates rebelled in 1971. Sam was a leader of that rebellion, the only Anglo among 49 prisoners killed by the cops when they stormed the prison for Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
By the fall of 1968, I had moved from Manhattan to the Bronx and taken a job as an English teacher at Lehman College—a cover, by design, for political work. I had also married my Austin ladyfriend, Genie, who in turn had secured a job at The Guardian. For the next two years, I committed myself to fighting the war in Vietnam without looking back or pausing for breath. I helped form a group of students and teachers at Lehman College that became a kind of Bronx flying wedge. We went as a team to demonstrations all over New York, including one at Union Square in Manhattan that erupted in battle with a phalanx of cops and left a number of cadres wounded. We also traveled to Washington, D.C., where a militant faction of demonstrators attempted to crash the doors of the Justice Department. I remember bright orange flames against clouds of tear gas, but nothing was dismantled, and the revolution didn’t come that night.
Indeed, we bolted far closer to authentic revolution when we seized Lehman College and shut it down in the spring of 1969—a six-week strike that was triggered by the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. We actually controlled and administered the campus, offering classes in liberation politics, publishing a newspaper, even running a simple cafeteria. Our strike attracted media attention, which brought us the support of radical students from other colleges around New York. At one of our rallies, I listened to a speech by a firebrand named Daryl Janes, a Brooklyn College student whom I would encounter again in Texas, his native state.
The strike itself was a union classic, a grueling marathon of midnight strategy meetings, tense negotiations, paranoia and grit. Those of us on the strike committee developed a spirit of solidarity that bound us closer than most blood brothers and sisters are bound. It felt ennobling. It was proof of the richness of our cause, of the venerable struggle for socialist fraternity that we had studied and pursued together. Finally, too, we won the strike. The Lehman administrators granted our demands, which induded a letter from the college president to the White House, imploring the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. Not a student was punished, not a teacher fired. We had won, and I had reached the peak of my career as a soldier in the war against the war in Vietnam—though the Bronx flying wedge would continue fighting lesser actions for another two years.
When I returned to Austin in the fall of 1973, the war was over, Nixon was gagging on Watergate, and I was planning to resume my life as an Austin poet and pilgrim at mecca. Genie and I had separated two years earlier, due in part to the liberties and pressures engendered by the women’s liberation movement. I was traveling with a former student activist from Lehman College who had grown enamored of Austin herself. She had been there twice before, and she had fallen as I had fallen for the green-breasted city of the violet crown, the Texas oasis of spring-fed rivers and earnest, friendly, intelligent people.
We were delighted, when we arrived, to find the place teeming with busy veterans of the Austin struggle against the war, whom we embraced as compatriots. They were planting organic gardens, building neighborhood food co-ops, and dancing to a fused rock-country music at a socialist joint where bikers hung out. Meanwhile, the sacred hills to the west of town appeared intact, resplendent above the Colorado River, and I believed that I had returned to God’s backyard. I thought that I could relax for a while from the rigors and bloodletting of politics. I had paid some pretty stiff dues, and I wanted a furlough, Austin¬style.
But it wasn’t to be. Within a few days of my arrival, I had been dragged by old Austin friends and political cadres into a battle for the soul of the city. It was a crisis, pure and simple, though I wouldn’t fathom its full implications for years to come, after the city had been brought to ruin. The immediate challenge was a bond referendum to determine whether Austin would become a partner in the massive South Texas Nuclear Project—a techno-monster that was being promoted by Houston Lighting and Power Company. The election was set for November 17, just six weeks after my return, and I was recruited to join a campaign against the nuke that had been under way for several months. Among the leaders of that campaign were Michael Eakin—the radical editor of the UT Daily Texan, whose name I recognized from reports I had read of Austin actions against the war in Vietnam—and Ed Wendler, Sr, a hell-raising lawyer who was later to become, inexplicably, a real estate lobbyist. Other leaders included activists Joe Riddell, Hunter Ellinger and Sinclair Black, an architect with a rare concern for the health of the natural environment.
Since I had been absent the entire period in which this crisis had built in Austin, I had to scramble to piece together an understanding of what it was about. I gathered the pieces from Michael Eakin’s Texan editorials and talks with friends over beer at Scholz’s. The picture I developed was ugly and macabre, involving betrayals of Austin’s future by two groups of people who should have fought harder than anyone else to preserve the city of the violet crown. One of those groups comprised the scions of some of Austin’s most prominent families, while the other was a band of Austin liberals who had chosen betrayal in exchange for money and political gain.
The family scions were heirs and in-laws of Austin gentry who had built the city and directed its affairs for five generations. The scions were rich, but not rich enough. They were chafing at the limits on their wealth imposed by a city they had come to regard as a boring, embarrassing college town—pretty, perhaps, but overlooked by the booming forces of commercial growth that were pumping billions into such cities as Dallas, Atlanta, and Houston. Thus had the scions effectively decided, in league with the bankers and the real estate men, to offer their city for rape and plunder in the 1970s. They had decided that the Hill Country land their families had owned and proudly maintained since the 1850s, keeping it much as the Indians had kept it for thousands of years before them, was now fair game for any aggressive real estate marauder with a few million dollars in cash on hand.
The mayor at the time was one of their own, a West Austin millionaire named Roy Butler. He had connived with other Austin business leaders, including Chamber of Commerce brass, to make the city a junior partner in the nuclear project. They were assisted in their connivance by City Manager Dan Davidson, a kind of Rasputin in the mayoral court. Together these men had crudely deduced that Austin would need an enormous reserve of electric power in order to attract the desired level of industrial growth. They sought, in particular, to expand on the base that had been established by the Austin branches of Texas Instruments and IBM. They lusted for more of the obscene wealth that such corporations had siphoned recently from U.S. “defense” spending in Vietnam—one trillion dollars in six bloody years. They wanted the corporate imperialists in town, and they viewed Austin’s share of the nuclear plant as their paramount lure, followed closely by the beauty of the land that they were preparing to decimate.
Even with the money they had available, Mayor Butler and the Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have won the November referendum without the support of turncoat liberals. These were people who had vigorously opposed the war in Vietnam. They called themselves environmentalists. They were respected by other liberals, which explains, of course, why they were so vital to the mayor’s cause. He had lost a nuclear referendum a year earlier, and he needed a margin this time around that could be provided only by defectors from the opposition. Two of those defectors were especially vital. One was Jeff Friedman, a sassy young member of the city council who wanted so badly to run for mayor in 1975 that he agreed to a vow of silence on the nuclear issue in return for a promise of Butler’s support for his own mayoral campaign. The second defector of consequence was Peck Young, a shrewd political strategist and former opponent of the nuclear plant who shocked his friends in the liberal camp by signing on with the pro-nuke side in 1973—evidently for a lot of money.
The ensuing battle was nearly as fierce as the battles that had raged against the war in Vietnam. Michael Eakin set the tone with passionate essays in the Daily Texan, pointing out that the nuclear plant would corrupt Austin’s soul and degrade her body with ticky-tack subdivisions, toxic semi-conductor plants and yokes of asphalt, not to mention the specter of radiation poisoning. Austin will die, he warned, as he blasted Jeff Friedman and the other liberals who had broken faith on the nuclear issue. Meanwhile, a frantic army of volunteers worked around the clock to distribute literature, raise campaign funds, and dispatch speakers against the nuke. Every musician in town, it seemed, was strumming and singing at anti-nuke rallies.
But the other side was busy, too. It could afford a ceaseless barrage of TV spots, threatening voters with blacked-out homes and unemployment, indeed with economic Armageddon, if Austin failed to hitch its wagon to the nuclear star. These lies were repeated again and again in the Austin American-Statesman, the only daily paper in town, its publisher one of the booster elite. As election day neared, Peck Young was stationed in the critical West Austin precincts, there to make sure that every possible pro-nuke voter went to the polls. And they did. Mayor Butler won the election by 733 votes out of 39,000 cast—a margin ascribed by Michael Eakin almost entirely to the roles that were played by Friedman and Young.
Eight years later, in 1981, the voters of Austin reversed themselves. They had grown weary of cost overruns and construction delays that had driven the cost of the nuclear plant from one billion to five billion dollars and counting. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of Austin’s withdrawal from the plant. But it was too late. It was far too late in more ways than one. Not only could the city not find a “buyer” for its share of the plant, the city itself had been swept up in precisely the boom that Mayor Butler and the Chamber of Commerce had worked so hard to stimulate. They had succeeded beyond their dreams and beyond the nightmares of Michael Eakin and pilgrims like me.
Starting in earnest in 1977, the boom was roaring by 1981. It had been fueled by just the things the boosters had advertised: plentiful electric power, cheap labor, inexpensive real estate, sunny climate and picturesque hills and lakes to the west. In addition, the city had cultivated a national mystique as the high-tech hot spot of the 1980s. Corporate money poured into Austin, chased by swarms of Rust Belt refugees looking for work. They came at the rate of 2,000 and 3,000 per month at the peak of the boom, loosing a torrent of residential and commercial construction that would double the size of the built environment by 1986, when the boom leveled off. Land speculators rode in for the kill from Dallas and Little Rock, Houston, Toronto, Los Angeles and Tokyo, scoring millions overnight. They bought and divided, flipped and subdivided the Austin treasure of hills and springs that Mayor Butler and the West Austin scions had posted for sale. The scions grew richer, as they had planned, drawing the curtains in their limousines, while Austin was raped by the real estate Huns, her violet crown snatched off and crushed beneath the treads of the Caterpillars.
Michael Eakin was murdered in Houston in 1979. He died mysteriously, and some of his friends believe he was killed in order to stop a probe he was leading, as a journalist, of corporate subterfuge in the U.S. energy industry. I was a pallbearer at Michael’s funeral. I wept with his family and the scores of pilgrims who had come to love him, both for his sweet, gregarious temper and for his militant rebel’s heart—his role as a leader in wars for the good, especially for Austin, his adopted city. As the years have passed, as Austin has declined, decayed and sprawled toward the faceless metroplexity of Dallas and Houston, I have thought many times of Michael, haunted, in a way, by the strange coincidence that he should have died at virtually the moment his city died. And not long ago, to prepare myself for writing this essay, I trudged alone up the broad stone steps of Mount Bonnell to have another look at the carnage that is left of Michael’s town.
Off to the west, where once the hills were wrapped in a mantle of rich dark green, I saw the scars and croppings of rock inflicted by hundreds of dozer blades. I saw the stiff roads like mesh on the hills, the garish homes of the nouveau riche, the startling silver office boxes heaped on the slopes incongruously, as though left behind by fleeing intruders. I looked at the river far below, where a dozen speedboats tore up and down, roiling the waters that once were as calm as the eye of God.
These were the toys of Austin’s affluent, ubiquitous funseekers. These were the yuppies who lived in the houses and shopped at the malls the Huns had blasted into the hills. These were the people whose expensive tastes and craving for rank had driven the siege of the Austin sanctuary, smashing the trees and defiling the springs, usurping bird and animal groups that had dwelled in the brush for tens and tens of thousands of years. I thought of the Indians who had worshiped here, who had lived so lightly and so respectfully upon the land as to leave not a trace of visible damage after ten millennia. I thought of Mark Parsons that starry night on the rim of the Devil’s River Canyon. I recalled his words about the modern crimes of man against nature and so against God. I stared at the yuppies in their boats again.
Then I turned and looked to the east of Mount Bonnell, toward central Austin, with its sleek new corporate office towers. They concealed the pink granite dome of the state’s majestic, 19th-century capitol. They also concealed what little remained of the pilgrim culture that had been demolished with the demolition of the violet crown. I thought of the pubs and funky cafés, the concert hall arisen from a bunker, the inexpensive rental houses shaded by live oaks, elms and pecans, the cats in the yards and the food co-ops, the street bazaars of homemade crafts, the innocent hum of excited conversation among the pilgrims—all displaced and muted now by the grabbing and yapping of the corporate aggressors who had conquered Austin.
I thought of Michael Eakin again. I heard in my mind his eloquent warnings related to corruption of the city’s soul. I thought with pain about a recent offensive by the corporate elite that was aimed quite literally at Austin’s soul. I thought about the battle that was underway for Barton Springs, the huge and splendid, stone-lined pool of gushing pure water in Zilker Park, not two miles from downtown Austin, where the pilgrims and I had stolen our wildstar midnight swims. This assault by the corporate greedheads promised to be the coup de grace of their invasion of the Hill Country. They were engaged in a methodical campaign to foil an ordinance that would shield Barton Springs and the aquifer that feeds it—a limestone reservoir stretching underground to San Antonio—from the lethal effects of the thousands of homes and countless acres of roads, malls, parking lots and golf courses planned for construction atop the aquifer. This war, too, the corporate elite was finally winning, against a courageous but overpowered remnant of the pilgrim culture. Already, in the summer of 1991, Barton Springs had been forcibly closed nearly 40 days because of pollution from prior development on its watershed. The Springs, the terrestrial soul of Austin, had been corrupted—its destruction foretold—just as Michael Eakin had feared.
And so on my perch atop Mount Bonnell, with the ruins of Austin spread all around, I pondered an irony that stirred in my thoughts along with grief over what had been lost. The irony hinged on common parlance, on such clichés as “radical extremist” and “revolution,” as opposed to “conservative” and “rule of law.” People like Michael Eakin and me—indeed like most of the left-wing activists I have known—are frequently labeled radical extremists, seeking to effect a revolution. We are so labeled by people who subscribe to conservative values practiced under the rule of law. And I had to laugh as I looked once more at the wreckage of hills and springs to the west, as I thought of the wreckage of a tiny nation called Vietnam, as I mourned the corruption and strangulation of the pilgrim culture in a town called Austin, where I had learned love and respect for life. Who, I wondered, are the radical extremists and who the conservatives in America today? Who had murdered two million peasants in Vietnam, trying to impose a revolution based on the values of a profit-maddened corporate society 10,000 miles away? Who had imposed the same revolution on the pilgrims of Austin in the last 20 years? Who had trampled on the rule of law handed down by God in order to destroy the violet crown?
It wasn’t Michael Eakin and me.
Nonetheless, as I said at the outset, I owe an apology for the way I behaved in the ’60s and ’70s especially during that five-year period in which I was gone from Austin to New York. I made a mistake that arose precisely, and perversely, from my enculturation as a child of America in the second half of the 20th century. I played directly into the hands of a corporate class that rules America partly by weakening its people’s bonds and sense of devotion to local turf—in my case Austin in 1968. Like other Americans since World War II, I was reared to believe above all in the Holy Trinity of cars, highways and beckoning frontiers. I was taught that freedom in America is the freedom to leave for another town, another job, another scene whenever I wished.
I was not taught, conversely, to understand freedom in a more compelling sense of the term. I was not taught to understand freedom as the power to protect and determine the future of the place where I was, to value that place in every detail making it special, making it home—the ground of my being and that of my neighbors and ancestors. I was not taught to guard my home from the depredations of external forces, like land speculators and invading corporations. And that, of course, is exactly the way the invaders want it. They come to stay, to secure a colony for the corporation, sucking out profits at any cost to the local turf and social order, while the locals themselves abandon their turf in pursuit of visions of something better somewhere else. This psychology of self over place is so important to the corporate elite that it has evolved an entire culture based on the myth of personal freedom and mobility.
I proved my own allegiance to that myth when I left Austin for New York City in 1968. I fired not a shot against the Vietnam War on the streets of New York that I couldn’t have fired on the streets of Austin. I moved to New York on a personal whim, a self-serving itch to be someplace where the action was hotter, the other radicals more sophisticated and perhaps more given to dramatic risk and confrontation. And while I was gone, the stage was set for the conquest of Austin by the same corporations and benighted mentality of profit over people, land, and love that were laying waste to Vietnam.
I’m not saying that I could have stopped or even slowed the butchery of Austin by the corporate elite. I’m not saying that I could have stopped the desecration of the violet crown. I’m just saying I wasn’t here to try. And I’m sorry. I will regret it to the end of my days.