04 January 2011

Ray Reece : The Hard Landing of a Radical in Austin, 1967

Image from McMaster University Digital Collection.

Desecration of the Violet Crown:
The hard landing of a radical in Austin, 1967

By Ray Reece / The Rag Blog / January 4, 2011

A few months ago, editor Thorne Dreyer invited us Rag Blogsters to submit sketches of our adventures in the political movements of the 60's and 70's. I offer herewith an excerpt from “Almost No Apologies: The Desecration of the Violet Crown,” an essay of mine that was published in No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the ‘60s, a book released by Eakin Press in 1991 as a tribute to the late Michael Eakin, co-founder of the Austin Sun in 1974 and former editor of the UT/Austin Daily Texan. My essay concerns not only my political radicalization in the 1960’s but also my take on the destruction of Austin in the 1980’s by a corporate “development” boom that continues to ravage the city and its environs today.

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, Ché 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.

LBJ shows his scar. Political cartoon by David Levine / New York Review of Books.

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 coming 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.

Summer of Love, 1967. Photo by Robert Altman / summeroflove.org.

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.

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 in Austin, 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 anti­war 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.

[Ray Reece is affiliated with the World Coalition for Local and Regional Self-Reliance. He is a former columnist for The Budapest Sun and author of The Sun Betrayed: A Report on the Corporate Seizure of U.S. Solar Energy Development, among other published works. His most recent book is Abigail in Gangland, a novel. He is a former resident of Austin currently based in Cagli, Italy. The entire essay from which this article was excerpted can be found on Ray's website.]

The Rag Blog

Only a few posts now show on a page, due to Blogger pagination changes beyond our control.

Please click on 'Older Posts' to continue reading The Rag Blog.