All Power to Imagine Nation!: A Personal Account of Transformation
The historical setting for my transformation was the National Student Strike in May 1970. While the strike may have ended and the colleges and nearly all of the students went back to business-as-usual with the fall term, I did not. My path led me to the Boston chapter of the Black Panther Party where my partner, Sally Michael, a philosophy professor at Northeastern who had gone out on strike with the students, and I began to help organize for the upcoming Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention. Mainstream history has largely forgotten (or intentionally erased) the tumultuous events of 1970, and in particular the Student Strike, and the Panthers Convention, held the first week of September in Philadelphia.
In the oncoming months and years I had tried to make sense (or non-sense) of what had happened to me. As a writer I thought I ought to be able to do just that. I could only frame the experience briefly in an allegory: It was as if I had surfed the wave of history to the shore of some future country where the always hoped-for Utopia actually existed—at least in my new state of consciousness. There were many others there, and we all bore witness to each other that indeed we had changed, and committed ourselves to helping others ride the next wave, so to speak. (“Wave” parlance—new wave, next wave—had become common vernacular at that time to describe these changes.)
Then something strange happened. The incoming waves began to pull back into the tide some of us who had made it safely to shore, and our shared vision. And then more, and still more, until there was just a few of us left. In lived reality it took the form of someone saying, “Well, I guess I’ll go back to school, get a degree, and try to change the system from within.” As the years rolled on they became “New Age capitalists”, and the term Yippie, which stood for the Youth International Party, evolved (or devolved) to Yuppie, the acronym for Young Urban Professionals. Former Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin was the most visible example taking up residence in New York City as a venture capitalist on Wall Street.
The spark that had kindled in me those many years ago still burns brightly in me to this day. I have a thing I do when people ask me about what it was like “back then.” I tell them “back then” is actually in the future, and I’m a time traveler come back to tell them that wave is still cresting, and you can catch it if you try.
In May of 1970 I was transformed from “observer” to “participant” during the National Student Strike. A junior at Northeastern University in Boston, I came from the suburbs of northern New Jersey, a nearly all-white, middle-class community. I had no political consciousness at the time, except for hip culture that involved music, and experimenting with reefer and psychedelic drugs. My first demonstration was the original Earth Day, April 22, on the Boston Common. What I remember from that day is Abbie Hoffman’s challenge at the end of his speech. He asked us how many were willing to “rock the cradle” of Liberty. Nearly all hands shot up. Then he switched it around: “How many were willing to cradle a rock?” Nearly all hands (including mine) went down. But it got me thinking, and two weeks later, the spark caught fire in me.
As a reporter for the school paper, Northeastern News, I had covered the May Day rally in New Haven for the Black Panthers on trial. It was there I put down my pen and picked up, well, a tear gas canister—to toss back at the police who had thrown it during the second night of the rally.
On Monday, May 4, the report of the massacre at Kent State triggered the call for a nationwide student strike. I returned to Boston and filed my story, “The Middle Ground is Dissolving: Get off the Fence—or Get Shot Off,” and jumped to the streets and began organizing, writing daily reports, running them off on the “liberated” mimeograph machine, and handing them out around campus.
To say the students were “on strike” and the university “shut down” was actually the furthest thing from the truth. For the first time, everything was humming along on a kind of ecstatic energy, and everyone was making use of their talents in some kind of creative collaboration, having somehow been released from whatever fears or phobias may have been holding them back. I had a friend who, although conversant and engaging one-on-one, was almost painfully shy in groups, or at parties. Imagine my surprise to find him at the microphone in the Quad addressing a crowd of a thousand gathered how he had changed from a republican to a radical, nearly overnight. If the students murdered at Kent State, and a week later at Jackson State, caused a seismic shift in his politics, it was the collective, liberated energy of the strike that gave him permission to come out of his shell and profoundly transform his personality. An English major and lover of Yeats, the closing lines of “Easter, 1916” was the refrain that kept singing and ringing through me:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Hemenway Street, a block from Northeastern’s central Quad, is a typical tree-lined Back Bay street with rows of brownstones on either side. Primarily rental apartments, the first block from Forsyth Way to Gainesboro Street also houses student dorms. The buildings are elevated walk-ups, usually a half dozen steps and a wide landing. Perfect for hanging out on warm spring nights. During the strike there was a party-like atmosphere, sing-a-longs and dancing, strumming guitars and bongos, the fragrance of reefer and patchouli.
It was the evening of Saturday, May 9. I was sitting on the front steps with friends, chilling out from a day’s work…or play. I had made a poster, “All Power to Imagine Nation!” and was passing it around. A rainbow graced the top. A jagged lightning bolt was the exclamation point. It was early in the evening, so nothing was particularly happening yet. It was mellow—I had a few tokes from a joint that someone passed around. I had no idea I was about to spontaneously combust:
Out of nowhere came a police cruiser and a patrol wagon, lights flashing and sirens wailing to a stop. Five blue meanies exploded from the doors, hands on their nightsticks, eyes sparkling with bloodlust.
I sprang up from the steps like a jack-in-the-box and began whooping and howling in an unknown tongue, then dancing and whirling around them, beckoning my friends to join me, knowing they would—they couldn’t resist—as we formed a circle, yelping and chanting—scarves, bandanas, beads, and bangles, twirling and clanging—a dance drawn deeply from our collective unconscious, a ritual to ward off danger and darkness.
The police froze.
There is no other word to describe their action, or better, their lack of it: their immediate, profound immobility. This only emboldened our fervor, and part of me detached, even as I kept dancing, and observed our motley band weaving our magic on the police.
They stood stunned. I remember their eyes blinking—such odd behavior for policemen—as if they could not believe what they were seeing, and were trying to blink back the other reality they were familiar with—getting jacked to bust some draft-dodging college hippies, re-arrange the geography of their faces, dump them off at City Hospital to give the interns hands-on experience as they wrote up the lot of them for Assault and Battery of a Police Officer. That would give their pinko lawyers something to chew on.
They stopped blinking.
They had circled the logic of their own experience, and like some variation of Occam’s razor, concluded that, however strange and bizarre it appeared, this was, in fact, happening. No way, as they shook out their cornflakes for breakfast that morning, tousled the hair of little Joey or Mary, and bent over the kitchen table to kiss the good wife good-bye, could they have believed they would find themselves participating in an ancient form of sacred theater whipped up in the moment by some college kids. No Sirrie, Bob. Tony the Tiger had not prepared them for this.
Slowly, they hitched the nightsticks in their holsters, and, as if in a trance, turned toward the wagon and cruiser, as we parted the circle to let them leave.
Then the party began. “The streets are ours!” Power to the people!” we chanted. What a victory—what celebration! It was short-lived.
The next day word arrived from the Mayor’s office. A curfew would be imposed and the street cleared—forcibly, if necessary, if there was another block party. The consensus was not to yield. A call went out to other schools to come to Hemenway St. and party in solidarity. The party took on the atmosphere of Mardi gras, hundreds taking over the first two blocks, up to Symphony Road. Police cruisers blocked off either end, the sirens and lights a sinister counterpoint to the festive celebration. They were taking pictures, and writing in their notebooks.
The following morning came the ultimatum. It wasn’t from the Mayor’s office. The Police Commissioner imposed a curfew. There would be peace in the streets at sundown, or he’d send in the TPF, Boston’s armed and armored riot squad, the Tactical Police Force.
What some of us were beginning to fear in private we now began to share: another “Kent State” was in the making. One of the strike coordinators called the mayor’s office and asked for a meeting. He expressed our fear of a bloodbath, or worse. The mayor couldn’t meet us, we were told, but he’d send an aide. We were given an address and apartment number on lower Commonwealth Ave. We were to be there by two in the afternoon. Beside the strike coordinator and myself there were two others: a teaching assistant, and a woman from the SDS chapter.
The person who opened the door appeared to be our age. I was expecting someone older and more “official” looking. Except for his white shirt and rumpled black trousers he looked quite unofficial. He introduced himself as Barney Frank, and welcomed us into the apartment where we followed him into the living room. I kept wondering about the apartment. Why weren’t we meeting at City Hall? I lived a block away at 186. Something was wrong. The four of us sat on the couch, and he in an easy chair across from us. We expressed our fears bluntly: tonight someone—or a number of people would die. We had no control over who decided to show up, but we thought we could keep the people—and the peace—to a reasonable level.
Barney sighed, and said there was nothing the Mayor could do—his hands were tied. I fought an urge to giggle. I imagined the police chief tying up the mayor’s hands. “It’s for your own good, your honor.”
“That’s it?” the woman from SDS practically shouted.
“I’m afraid so,” the mayor’s aide replied. Rather than say the meeting was over, he looked at his watch, then looked back up at us, and waited. Had five minutes passed?
“The blood will be on his hands—and yours,” the strike coordinator said.
“I’m really sorry,” Barney Frank said. He just sat there, waiting for us to leave.
“That’s all you’ve got to say—we came here to hear an apology!” I said.
“They’ll be coming down Westland Ave around 8pm. For what it’s worth.”
“Thanks, Barney. For what it’s worth.” I was thinking of the song with that title by the Buffalo Springfield:
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me that I’ve got to beware
On the walk back to campus we were silent. One would start to say something, hoping another would pick up the ball, start something rolling—an idea, a plan, a tactic—something.
We passed by the Bank of Boston on Boylston Street. I thought of my account there, all two hundred and twenty odd dollars of it. We crossed the street to cut through the Prudential Center and over to Northeastern. “Hey wait,” I said, impulsively. “Hold on while I get my money out of the bank.” “Like, so what” my comrades said with their eyes. “Just wait, I implored.
On the way back with the money in my pocket I was beginning to form a plan. I thought of the other night when, slightly stoned, I had danced a magic circle around the police with my friends. I didn’t think that could be duplicated with hundreds of people, but maybe the reverse could happen: we could split when the police arrived.
“Here’s what we do,” I explained. “I’ve got a few hundred. I’ll buy all the dope I can get my hands on, set up joint-rolling committees, and explain what’s going to go down. We’ll get everyone a little high, and have marshals stationed throughout the gathering with an eye peeled for Western Ave. When the TPF turn the corner, we give the signal, and everyone splits. Can you all round up a few dozen people with some riot experience to make that happen?” Everyone nodded. But the strike coordinator added, “It’s a crazy plan.”
I walked into the Ell Center holding up a bag of weed in one hand, rolling papers in the other. “I need joint rollers,” I announced. “Lots of them.” In an hour we had rolled a few hundred joints, and then I let everyone in on what was about to go down.
I once heard a sage organizer say, “When you sit down to plan a demo, always leave a space in the circle for the Man for he will surely be there. You can count on it. He will write his own part into the play, based on what we’re gonna do. Your part is to keep ahead of that.”
The mayor, Barney Frank, the police commissioner, and the Tactical Police Force of Boston kept their word, the latter actually uttering a martial chant as they turned lock-step into Hemenway street. With their batons blazing, they broke formation, making a wild dash for us.
We were fast too—evaporating into the night—but not all of us fast enough. I was one of the last to leave, and there was a person beside me on crutches—what was he thinking staying here, knowing the danger!—I heard his head crack under the baton as he went down, blood spilling out from the top of his skull, as he gasped, “The Pigs got me!” I pressed my hand onto his head to staunch the bleeding, and someone else came by, and we dragged him out of danger.
But the evening’s horror show wasn’t over. Deeply embedded in the TPF’s collective unconscious their final part was emerging—a spontaneous combustion of Thanatos! None of us—not even, in my opinion, the individual members of the TPF saw it coming. Denied an outlet for their rage, and acting, as it were, with One Mind, they broke down the front doors of the brownstones on either side of the street, and then the apartment doors of many residents, brutally beating them until their bloodlust was satisfied.
No one was killed, and only a few of the participants of the three-night block party were injured. Yet many innocents who had no part in the strike or the nightly block party were severely brutalized. It was not the outcome we had wanted.
The New York Times gave the Boston police riot front-page coverage the next day. For millions of Americans it ripped the mask off the police, and revealed the face of state-sponsored terrorism.
Richard Cambridge‘s poetry, novels, and theatre productions address controversial themes on the American political landscape. His theatre-troupe Singing with the Enemy (co-founded with Cuban-American singer/songwriter Patiño Vazquez) produced Embargo! portraying the fifty-year U.S. blockade of the nation of Cuba, and (with former Black Liberation Army member and political prisoner Kazi Touré) Presente! a dramatic mural about the plight of political prisoners and prisoners of war in the U.S. As an “installation artist” he reclaims and alters private signage to inspire public debate. In 2004 he received the City of Cambridge Peace and Justice award for the contribution of his art and activism.