Revolutionary Transformation and the Eros Effect
The Eros Effect1 is a theory developed by radical historian and philosopher George Katsiaficas. In his essay, “The Intersection of Biography and Hisory,”2 Katsiaficas writes:
“My own project begins with a very simple proposition: millions of ordinary people, acting together, can profoundly change the basic facts of social life. …In these moments of the eros effect, love ties exist between people that are some of the most exhilarating feelings imaginable. I am not talking simply about sexual ties when I say love ties. Love has many forms—love of parents for their children and vice versa, love for brothers, sisters and other family members, love for a significant other, and most socially love for one’s fellow human beings.
In moments of the eros effect, previously dominant values and norms suddenly are replaced. Competition gives way to cooperation; hierarchy to equality; power to truth. During the Vietnam war, for example, many Americans’ patriotism was superseded by solidarity with the people of Vietnam; in place of racism, many white Americans insisted a Vietnamese life was worth the same as an American (defying the continual media barrage to the contrary).
Furthermore, in the actions of the activated millions, the aspirations and visions of the movement are revealed in their real lived meaning—more than statements of leaders, organizations, or parties, the actions of millions of people lead the way.
A Personal Account of Revolutionary Transformation
From May 1 to May 14, 1970, and beyond, I was, in the poet W.B. Yeats’ words, “transformed utterly.” I had undergone an existential, political, moral and spiritual transformation. To continue Mr. Yeats’ words, “A terrible beauty is born” (had been born in me.) The lines are from Yeats’ poem “Easter 1916” his poetic rendering and his attempt to come to terms with his conflicting emotions during the Easter 1916 Revolutionary Rising against the British, and its aftermath where the leaders of the failed attempt were executed. If Mr. Yeats would forever remain on the cusp of personal transformation—an observer and not a full participant—it is clear the figures he lovingly and “with a cold eye” bears witness to, did experience that utter transformation which George Katsiaficas would codify over a half century later in his theory of the Eros Effect.
The historical setting for my transformation was the National Student Strike of May 1970, and its aftermath. 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 make sense out of and chronicle 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.
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 2011 I began a novel titled “1970”—an alternate history of that year in which a band of activists led by the Black Panthers bring revolution to the U.S. While researching that time period I came across George Katsiaficas’ essay on the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention3 and his theory of the Eros Effect. As organizer and participant of the RPCC, Katsiaficas’s account and interpretation of the event matched mine. Finally, after four decades, I had a name for the “terrible beauty” of my transformation: the Eros Effect.
In the summer of 2011, I began a correspondence with Mr. Katsiaficas. We discovered to our mutual surprise we lived in just a few miles from each other. It was like finding a long-lost brother; and so began an enriching friendship.
This essay-memoir traces the timeline of my life in the spring of 1970, from my growing awareness of the political realities of that time, and the process that sparked my transformation from passive observer to conscious activist, and my moment of “spontaneous combustion” in the crucible of the Eros Effect.
The Police Riot During the 1970 Student Strike at Northeastern University
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, an 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, 1970 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 stringer 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 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 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, they also house 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 a party-like atmosphere pervaded: sing-a-longs and dancing to strumming guitars and bongos, the fragrance of reefer and patchouli.
It was Saturday, May 9. I was sitting on the front steps of a dorm 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 evening; nothing was happening yet. Someone lit a joint and passed it around. We were mellow. I had no idea I was about to spontaneously combust:
Out of nowhere—flashing lights and sirens wailing—a police cruiser and patrol wagon skidded to a stop. Five policemen exploded from the doors, fists gripping nightsticks, eyes sparkling with bloodlust.
I sprang from the steps—whooping and howling in an unknown tongue—dancing and whirling around the police, beckoning my friends to join me—and they did—as we formed a circle, yelping and chanting—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.
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 street. Police cruisers blocked off either end, a sinister counterpoint to the festive celebration. They were taking pictures, and writing in their notebooks.
The following morning came the ultimatum. 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 Massacre” 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 representative from the SDS chapter.
The person who opened the door introduced himself as Barney Frank, the mayor’s aide. We followed him into the living room. Why weren’t we meeting at City Hall? Something was wrong. We 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,” Barney replied. He looked at his watch, then back at us, as if to say the meeting was over. Had five minutes passed?
“The blood will be on his hands—and yours,” the strike coordinator said.
“I’m really sorry,” said Barney Frank, the mayor’s aide.
“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, two hundred and twenty odd dollars. We crossed the street to cut through the Prudential Center and over to Northeastern. “Hey wait,” I said. “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.
The Tactical Police Force kept their word, uttering a martial chant as they turned into Hemenway Street. 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 hobbling away on crutches—what was he thinking, coming here, knowing the danger! I heard his head crack under a nightstick. He crumpled to the pavement, blood spilling out from the top of his skull, as he screamed, “The Pigs got me!” I pressed my hand to his head to staunch the bleeding; 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. 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 random apartment doors, brutally beating the occupants.
No one was killed, but more than a few were severely injured and hospitalized.
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.
Today and Beyond — Something to Be Done
I woke up this morning and put on my shoes
Went to the window to look for some clues
Everybody just standing around waiting for some kind of news
Ain’t gonna go back, ain’t gonna go back, ain’t gonna go back no more
I’m going all the way today
—Ned Landin, “Something to be Done”
What I’ve learned in the intervening years is that spontaneity has its own genius. The key is to maintain a state of attunement with self, community, and global village, to be present with time and history-in-the-making, and be flexible in one’s tactics in raising consciousness and making revolution.
The internet, and all the forms of social media have given us collective power beyond our imagining—truly Power to the People—beyond even, I believe, the reaches of the State to subdue it.
Whether it is a street vendor setting himself on fire in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring, or the Canadian anti-consumerist, pro-environment magazine Adbusters calling for the occupation of Wall Street that seeded hundreds of “Occupy Camps” around the nation; or a twenty-something subcontractor dropping an information bomb that blew away the shroud of secrecy surrounding the National Security Agency, there will always be something to be done—for the planet, for the people, for ourselves.
Richard Cambridge’s work has appeared in The Paterson Literary Review, Nantucket Journal, Asheville Poetry Review, and other publications. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Pulsa—A Book of Books (Hanover Press), a one-man play, The Cigarette Papers—A Memoir of Addiction (Fern Hill Press), and the CD One Shot News—Poetry of Conscience (Earthshine Productions.) He is the recipient of the Cambridge Peace and Justice award for his art and activism.
He is fellow emeritus of the Black Earth Institute, and recent guest editor of About Place, 1963—2013: A Civil Rights Retrospective. He curates the Poets’ Theatre in Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA. He has an MFA in Fiction from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.
3 “The Case of the Black Panther Party and the Revolutionary Peoples Constitutional Convention” reprinted with permission in About Place Journal, Volume II, Issue IV: 1963-2013