AFTER NIXON ANNOUNCED the invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, masses of students at all the respectable colleges in America went out on strike. Santa Monica City College, however, was not a respectable college, so while protests were escalating around the country, often into violence, and many campuses were effectively shutting down, at SMCC a few activists set up a table next to the lawn with fliers and stickers urging people, unsuccessfully, to stay out of class. I mean, they had to do something; it was embarrassing. Everybody at SMCC had an inferiority complex; in California, if you were with it in 1970, you were at Berkeley, or Santa Cruz, or San Francisco State, where there was turbulence and the feel of revolution in the air, where people were changing and growing and discovering and radicalizing their little faces off, or Sonoma State if you wanted to get mellow, or UCLA or plenty of other places if you just wanted to go to a good school with smart people. But SMCC? It wasn’t even a real college, it was a two-year junior college. (It had been called “Santa Monica Junior College,” then they’d changed “Junior” to “City,” and later they would get rid of “City.” Real social climbers, these people.) Its image was of a school for dumb white kids with good tans, for surfers trying to learn a job skill. So the student body couldn’t sit out the strike entirely, it would just confirm our reputation as losers.
Still, I was hoping it would peter out because I had no conviction for this. Chanting “on strike, shut it down”? Hollering at the school’s administrators, whoever they might be? Raising students’ consciousness to see the connection between SMCC and napalm? I was always absolutely against the war, and totally in favor of protesting it, but I never really got why we were supposed to target the schools we attended. Which put me in a bind, because for college students in those years, protesting the Vietnam War meant protesting your college. I wasn’t in favor of the strike, but I couldn’t bring myself to go against it, either, because that would have meant siding with Nixon and the war’s supporters, and because at age 19 I couldn’t think clearly enough and wasn’t brave enough to reach a conclusion and make a decision that could 1) put me on the side of my nemeses, the conservatives, and 2) turn me into an outcast. So I was left with my confusion.
GOD, I HATED that school. It seemed more like a shopping center than a college, sitting on Pico Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, wedged in between blocks of convenience stores, ice cream parlors, pet shops, burrito stands and traffic. In the middle of campus was a broad lawn where hardly anyone ever sat, and it was flanked by low-rise, peach-colored, plain modern buildings, which were flanked by bungalows, which were flanked by parking lots. The place had as much character and atmosphere as a Jack in the Box.
I was there for two years, and I remember exactly one class session, in economics, that I found interesting, the lecturer being a good one. How interesting that class was during the rest of the semester, I can’t say, because I hardly ever showed up. I cut classes like crazy. I dropped or was dropped out of so many courses that I lost my student draft deferment. (I wasn’t worried; anybody who wanted could beat the draft, which I did.) I had no business being in college; I didn’t know what I wanted to study, couldn’t concentrate in class, couldn’t read the books at home. I was there because I was afraid to outrage my father by quitting, and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I’d been the same sort of student in high school (except in literature and history), which I barely graduated, so I didn’t have the grades to get into a regular four-year college, only a two-year junior college, whose admission requirements were that you be a current California resident and be alive for at least 18 years. SMCC cost $6 a semester, it was close to home, so what the hell. When I did show up, I walked around campus feeling like that character on the bridge in the painting “The Scream.” I didn’t talk to or even look at anybody. When I did go to class, I sat in the back and daydreamed.
AS FOR THE student strike across America, it didn’t peter out. Nixon invaded Cambodia on a Thursday, and on Monday the National Guard killed four students at Kent State. Even at SMCC, things started to heat up. Meanwhile, my confusion about whether or not to strike classes became acute, turning into a feeling of paralysis. Loitering at the strike table, feeding my confusion all the more, I saw an old acquaintance from high school named Freddy checking out the material. Freddy had been one of those unassuming, unathletic boys whom the late ‘60s turned into a star: He’d become one of the kings of our high school’s dope-smoking scene. He smoked marijuana and hashish all the time, and developed a doper’s laughing eyes and anarchic sense of humor. He also sold dope, but never became a profiteer; he had a good soul. (Hamilton High School, in middle-to-upper-middle-class, heavily Jewish West L.A., had a very active dope scene, mainly grass and hash, when we were there. In 1968 or 1969 a survey found it to have the highest proportion of dope smokers of any high school in the city. The day this made the news, we walked around campus chanting, in imitation of UCLA basketball fans, “We’re number one, we’re number one…”)
Freddy, who at SMCC still looked like your friendly neighborhood dope dealer with his thin beard and granny glasses, never struck me as a political type, but he told me he’d stopped going to class. I don’t know, I said, and started describing my angst, and he said, C’mon, let’s go for a walk. We went into the campus’ new amphitheater, which was empty, sat high up in the bleachers and Freddy lit up a joint, passed it to me, and he began trying to convince me to join the strike. It didn’t matter about college, he said, forget that shit, the point is that something’s happening, it’s getting bigger, and everybody’s gotta do his part, and then it’ll keep on getting bigger, and it’ll spread to outside the colleges, into business and all that shit, and little by little the straight people will join, and then Nixon won’t be able to run his fucking war anymore, get it?
Freddy was high as a kite, fairly ecstatic, which was normal for him. But this was my first time ever getting loaded on campus, high school or college, and I was now a different person. Freddy didn’t convince me, he converted me, he baptized me. I was imbued. I’d crossed over, become radicalized. The air was charged. Finally, I felt free. And I guess I was in the mood for a fight, because from there I went into my Psychology 1 class, which I especially hated because of the professor, whose name I can’t remember but who sticks in my mind as a slightly stockier, balder version of Ray Walston playing a comically pompous, ill-tempered prof.
The lecture hall was shaped like an amphitheater, too, there were about 40 students in there, and as usual I sat in the back, by myself. The professor, wearing his regular tan sports coat and tie, starts lecturing and at some point a student raises his hand, and the professor took the question, as he often did, by saying, “What’s your problem?” He wasn’t mean, he was just patronizing in a way he probably thought was cute. Or maybe he’d thought it was cute once, and now he just did it out of habit. The student got a little flustered, but he got his question out, the professor answered and went on lecturing, a couple more students asked questions, the professor again broadcast his impatience in taking them, again the questioners swallowed it, and this just went on. Nobody objected, they continued scribbling or flipping pages or staring into space. Normally I would have been staring into space, too, but I was really stoned, and thus hyper-aware of what was going on, and I couldn’t take it. I was scared, but I raised my hand, the professor recognized me, and I asked, very audibly, “Why are you always belittling people?”
The whole class turned around to look up at me, then they looked back down at the professor as he began denying that he was belittling anyone. “Yes you are,” I said, “people ask you a question and you say ‘what’s your problem’ and that’s belittling people.” The professor kept denying, kept defending himself – and then other students in the class started opening their mouths. A hippie sitting near me made the hippie point that it was all a matter of opinion, which only agitated the professor more. It was us against him, everyone talking at once, and soon the professor, who looked very small down there in the pit of the lecture hall, was pointing up at me, his whole self seeming to vibrate, his face screwed up in a rage, and he shouted at me, “Sit down!” Which surprised me – I wasn’t aware that I was standing up. I sat down, the fight dissipated and soon the class ended. On the way out, a couple of students congratulated me, and a few others smiled at me. Everybody was aware of my presence. I’d become class hero for a day to some, and class celeb for a day to the rest. Not bad! Well, between this and my radicalization an hour and a half earlier, it was clear I wouldn’t be attending any more classes for awhile. I was on strike.
WHAT DID YOU do in a student strike? You joined one of the strike committees. A big thing in those days was “relating to the community,” which meant the poor blacks and Chicanos of Santa Monica and Venice, and that always had huge appeal for me, so I joined that committee. I spent an afternoon in Venice swapping very ambitious ideas with the black guy who headed a local “grassroots organization,” and that was the last we ever heard from each other. Another time I took a ride with the white chairwoman of our committee to get some leaflets made, and she told me proudly, “I can only really be myself around black people.” The highlight of my “work” was attending a service at a large black church in L.A. and hearing the gospel choir sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” long known as the “Negro national anthem.” If there were a musical equivalent to hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech up close at the March on Washington, that would have been it.
In his book “The Sixties,” Todd Gitlin wrote that in the 1970 nationwide student strike, 30 ROTC buildings – the military Reserve Officers’ Training Corps sites on campuses, which had long been the focus of protests – got torched or bombed. At 26 colleges, violence occurred between police and student demonstrators. At 21 colleges in 16 states, the National Guard was called in. Back at SMCC, the climax of the strike was a march by about 100 of us along the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard, stopping for red lights, to City Hall, where we demanded that the mayor send a letter to the White House in which he would demand an end to the war in Southeast Asia, to repression on campus and to several other things. The mayor came out, heard from our leaders, accepted our written demands, smiled and went back inside. (This was when Santa Monica was still a pretty conservative town, shortly before the hordes of cool people arrived.) We marched back to campus for our closing rally, where one of our leaders read the statement from the mayor’s office, which said the mayor had sent a letter to the White House saying that we striking SMCC students demanded an end to the war, repression, etc. We cheered our victory, and the rally broke up. (It went unnoticed, or anyway unmentioned, that the mayor himself hadn’t demanded a thing from the White House, he’d just passed along our message. Whatever.)
SOMETHING ELSE I did during the strike, in response to the call by the leadership, was to try to convince other students to join. I thought I might still have a little pull in my Psychology 1 class, so I walked in one afternoon while it was in session, and took a stance in the middle of the aisle next to the rows of students. There were more empty seats than before; evidently the strike had had some effect. I’d made a tactical error, though – by this time, all the students had made up their minds one way or the other, and anybody who was still in class wasn’t going to come out now. Again, everyone was aware of my presence, including the professor.
“Yes?” he called out to me.
“I want to ask people here if they want to join the strike, if they want …”
“Leave this class right now.”
“I just want to ask them …”
“Leave this class, immediately.”
“If they want me to leave, I’ll leave.”
“I said leave this class!”
“If they want me to leave, I’ll leave!”
Then what seemed like all the students in the front rows turned around in their seats, and they were glaring at me. “Leave!” they yelled.
That had a disarming effect on me, but still I managed to say, with some defiance, “All right, I’ll leave!” and strode back up the aisle and out the door.
Summer was coming, so the strike couldn’t go on much longer. (Certainly not at SMCC, where you could smell the waves.) It didn’t stop the war, of course, but the antiwar strike of 1970 was still a memorable experience for all who participated. Toward the end, a new demand was raised by striking students at all the colleges: that they not be penalized for missing classes and tests, and be given credit for having passed those subjects. Most if not all the colleges agreed, including SMCC. For me, then, the big protest turned out, even academically, to have been worth the effort.