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Recreate 68……..Why?

September 22, 2007

About a year ago John Buttney returned to Colorado for a visit after a long absence. I had a chance to see him again, was glad to do so, something made possible through the organizing skills of our mutual friend Jay Jurie, now in Florida.

Although his name might not ring too many bells today, 40 years ago a lot of people in Colorado – both in the public and in the intelligence agencies – knew the name of John Buttney. He and his companero, Bruce Goldberg, were leaders of the Boulder Chapter of Students For A Democratic Society – SDS. Both graduate students in philosophy -Buttney told me he had been greatly influenced by French philosophers like Merlo Ponte – they were, to my mind, among the best and the brightest radical organizers to work in Colorado, at least in the last forty years that I have been here. They were excellent, powerful speakers, fearless and principled and their influence extended far beyond the Boulder campus, as they were invited to talk all over the state to mountain and plain, urban and rural areas. First class rabble rousers in the best and most wholesome sense of the term.

Buttney and Goldberg led the anti-war movement on the Boulder campus in the late 1960s. Wasn’t that a time! During their most active years, the student newspaper – The Colorado Daily – was transformed into one of the best, most interesting radical-left wing sources of news In the country. The old issues, archived at the Norlin Library, remain a gold mine of social movement history and could easily be the raw data for someone’s Master’s or even PhD Thesis. Among other things, Buttney and Goldberg and their colleagues unearthed the University’s then-connections to the nation’s intelligence agencies, Defense Department contracts, etc – exposing the degree to which the University of Colorado connected to that `thing’ we’re still fighting – the military industrial complex. I would expect that CU as well as other universities and colleges in Colorado are even more tied into the system now than they were then.

When it was all over – and it ended rather abruptly for both of them – Buttney left Colorado and settled in California. Whatever he’s done, he’s essentially been an organizer of peoples’ movements all his life, doing what he can to fight the system. Goldberg went on to teach. We were together for a brief moment at Red Rocks Community College in Golden. He went on to be the executive director (or something akin to that) of the Colorado Federation of Teachers, was `discovered’ by the American Fedieration of Teachers powerful (and rightwing) president Al Shanker for whom he worked as an advisor for several decades. I have heard that he retired, writes and spends a lot of time playing the piano, something he was very good at and greatly enjoyed.

New Kind of Colorado Pioneers

I knew Buttney and Goldberg somewhat.What might be called their `radical careers’ were starting to fade at about the time I arrived in Boulder in 1969. The demonstrations at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago which had so badly deteriorated into a police riot, had passed. Our paths crossed long enough for them to have had a significant influence me, on a return Peace Corps Volunteer and staff member from Tunisia starting graduate school. The movement that they had helped spawn would continue. The traditions of building a class conscious, politically aware militant student movement – against the war in Vietnam, for civil rights lived on long after they had left the campus. I got to know the Buttney’s – both John and June – somewhat better than Bruce, and then sometime in the mid 1970s they were all gone, like so many other radicals that have made their mark in Colorado at one time or another, scattered to the winds, leaving little traces. But then, as an old friend John McBride commented to me recently – good radical organizers are rarely seen or heard –they are not so concerned about media, but about going about the thankless task of building social movements. And as for `credit’ – forget it. Just as well they’re not interested as they rarely get it, a tendency that has turned some bitter in their later years. `Just think of how rich I could have been if I had gone into business rather than..’.as their voices tail off. And yet the organizers are the great sowers of seeds of social justice and peace. I wish they could get credit. Only a sustained peace and justice movement can keep their memory – and their accomplishments alive. Not easy.

There were many other fine and talented people from that era – it was NOT only the Buttney’s and Bruce Goldberg – but to my mind they were the movement’s heart and soul – and although I have never expressed it publicly, to them I owe a great debt of gratitude – their example taught me – to a considerable degree – how to think and act politically. I remember an exchange with Goldberg not long before he left Colorado `We might be powerless, but damn, we’re well informed!’ We all went our different ways politically for a while as well, but that is of little import. There is a whole generation of labor and civil rights organizers, Marxist (remember that old word) formations that cut their teeth in the student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and whether they know it or not, or acknowledge or not they built on the heritage of Buttney and Goldberg., a new kind of Colorado pioneeers

Actually it turns out that even before I arrived in Boulder one sunny day in late August of 1969, that Buttney and Goldberg had had something of a parting of the ways. Buttney’s political evolution had led him to the Weatherman faction of SDS. Goldberg, who had – at least at the time – more common sense – passed. That had to have created some distance between the old friends. Although one of the most significant radical student movements of American history – not just the 1960s – SDS was not able to maintain its internal political cohesiveness for long and soon spawned a number of left wing, revolutionary groups, among them a number of Maoist formations (Revolutionary Union, October League, Progressive Labor Party among them) and the Weathermen. I am convinced that the movement which Buttney and Goldberg helped shepard into life those days created the environment, the seeds for what would follow – the movement to close Rocky Flats – one of the great social and peace movements of Colorado history. But someone else will have to explore the precise links. Movements like Rocky Flats don’t just pop out of nowhere.

Along with the older Communist Party USA (to which I belonged for some time), these groups would, with a number of radical Chicano, Native American and Black organizations whose social roots emerged from their particular historical situations, all found some modest base in Colorado, until for one reason or another, sooner or later they simply withered on the vine, collapsed or in many cases, got absorbed into the Democratic Party. There were also `radical spiritual’ groups – followers of the Guru Maharaji, the Hari Krishna’s and others. It is easy for some of us more stoned-secular types to berate such spiritual movements but keep in mind that there are some very powerful figures in Colorado today who came out of these circles as well and in their own ways they challenged the bankrupt values of the day, if only in encouraging people to drop out and follow a spiritual rather than a material path. Later some of them, like the founder of Horizon milk products, Mark Retzloff, would prove they could be first class materialists as well. During those years, 1960s through 1989, there were also anarchist groups in Colorado but their followings tended to be rather small. Their star would rise a bit later.

He used to take acid and now he loves God…but he still has that look in his eyes. (a line from a Jim Ringer song)

I think a `where are they now?’ book would be a kick. Although I’d bet most of them retain the core values developed and agitated for in earlier times, few remain politically active. Others became obscenely rich. Many simply got burnt out, disillusioned, tired or frustrated that building social movements is a far more difficult task than it first appeared. The knowledge that `the revolution is NOT here’ is pretty depressing for true believers (and even skeptical believers) and if it is not about to happen, why put so much energy into it? Social movements are hard enough to build and even more difficult to sustain and nurture it seems. Human relations were not particularly good either. Neil Dobrow, who used to be an organizer for the Socialist Workers’ Party and is now associated with the Jewish Identity movement here in Colorado (and has become quite religious) related how it was personal vindictiveness within his own movement in part that pushed him out of the left. I could relate on a certain level.

Back to Buttney’s story, which is essentially the story of the Days of Rage in Chicago in 1969…The Weatherman believed that the United States – then, despite the costs of the Vietnam War – still not only the richest country in the world at that time, but the richest country in the world ever until then – was ripe for revolution and armed struggle. Locked in their ideologies, they misread even the most obvious signs: Americans wanted to end the war in Vietnam, have civil rights extended to all, but revolution was far from their mind. And in the decades that followed, the right, having had their complaceny seriously disturbed by the radical upsurge, would plan their revenge which they have been implementing step by step for a quarter of a century. But such things as evaluating the political balance of forces meant little to the Weathermen, and besides, they seemed incapable of so doing. Courage they never lacked, but something else rather elementary was missing: an analysis and a political sense for where the American people were at, not just in the universities. No one more misread the political landscape of the time as they did.

Having either read too much Mao, or having fallen in love with Che – this, mind you, decades before the Motorcycle Diaries – and somehow forgetting that Peking, Hanoi or Havana are not Denver or Cleveland to say nothing of the People’s Republic of Boulder, the Weathermen and women saw their role as igniting that revolution and picked Chicago as the focal point for what they hoped would be the beginning of a sustained armed struggle against the state. At the very least they surmised, their efforts would heighten the contradictions within the powers that be. Part of the plan – their hunch – is that the state of the nation was such – that when the Weatherman ignited the armed struggle that it would stimulate nothing short of a general uprising and that they would be joined in their effort by radical Black, Chicano and Native American groups, the more radicalized wings of the labor and peace movements. And so they went to Chicago and John Buttney went with them.

Of course history suggests rather strongly that none of what the Weatherman thought would happen, did happen. They found themselves isolated and in very small numbers in Chicago. Their radical minority comrades did not show up nor did the labor or peace movements. They were there all alone, a couple of hundred of them facing a gazillion angry Chicago policmen. The Weathermen had let their intentions be known rather openly and the city’s police were waiting for them. Chicago’s Mayor Daly, during the best of times never the great democrat, would be damned if the Weathermen would start their general uprising in `his’ city. From what I can tell, the Weatherman had no strategy, no tactics for dealing with the confrontation other than `getting it on’. The results were predictable to pretty much everyone in the country except themselves. The Weatherman got the fight they wanted, mostly with the Chicago Police who had not until that time read much Gandhi or Martin Luther King . It wasn’t much of a fight at that – armed and trained Chicago policemen whipped into a frenzy by an angry reactionary mayor fighting kids wearing motorcycle helmets with an occasional baseball bat. The demonstrators got the shit kicked out them. It was ugly. The scene did embarrass the United States before the world to have their youth mercilessly beaten by the Chicago police before tv cameras, suggesting, yet again in the 1960s that all that glittered was not gold in the US of A.

Who wants to romanticize or recreate that?

Never Recovered

Although they survived for another ten years or so, mostly underground, the Weathermen never recovered. Some small factions survived even into the early 1980s and continued their armed actions against the state, becoming more and more isolated with each bombing they committed and more and more bitter at the American people for not supporting the revolution. Then the whole thing just collapsed. The Weathermen had misjudged – by a long shot – the mood, the political temperature of the nation and even of those they considered their closest allies. The Days of Rage were a complete failure. The movements for peace and social justice did not grow or deepen as a result. They, the Weathermen, were alone, isolated and discredited. Buttney was charged with all kinds of felonies. I don’t remember if the charges came from the Days of Rage or from the activities here in Colorado. He had played his hand, honestly with much courage actually, and lost. As I recall, I don’t think he had to do prison time and he was able to get off on most of the charges against him, but penned in on all sides – prohibited by law from even stepping foot on the C.U. Campus – before long he left Colorado.

In the end, the Weathermen got the whole picture wrong, had no idea of how to create the chemistry for social change – not an easy thing mind you in any case. For those of us cutting our teeth in radical politics of the time, they became something, if you like, of an `anti-model’. They talked tough, very radical stuff, but as a movement had little substance, a narrow political base and when they failed did not blame themselves but the American people. The fact that their base was so narrow suggests that even at the time many people could already see through them. They are of course, today, easy targets to kick around. That said, to this day I respect their courage, don’t doubt their commitment – literally their willingness to die for their beliefs. That’s strong stuff, one doesn’t see much of it these days, or hardly. But theirs was too much of the politics of moral outrage, uncontrolled moral outrage with little analysis. What’s left of their heritage is a decent and generally sympathetic video available from Netflix (where I got it) or Blockboster: Weathermen.

Thanks Margie, Alex

Shortly thereafter I made a friend, companera, one Margie Stewart, a rare white woman who knew how to work with people of color like few I have known. We’re still friends and always will be. She used to speak of the need for `controlled rage’. Without the rage – or simply call it anger – anger at injustice, at the way power works as we get to understand it – there is no radical politics or not very much. Without the control, there is no direction, no connection to the broader society. Funny how a phrase can guide one’s thinking. It still does. Thanks Margie.

Life should have humbled some of us in the left more than it has.

What have we built?

We’v got a few progressive magazines like the Nation, the Progressive, etc. Circulation remains rather stagnant. There is one left-liberal think tank (Institute for Policy Studies) battling a host of right wing heavily financed institutions. A few peace groups have proven to have staying power like the indominable American Friends Service Committee, a few civil rights groups that vascillate between conservative policies and their old activist roots (come alive in Jena). Here in Colorado we’ve KGNU and nationally of course, saving the day five days a week, Amy Goodman and Democracy Now. Something, but not much. Oh yes, and then we have a new crop of left millionaires and foundations who think that their money buys them the right to speak for social movements – or buys the social movements or political parties outright.Why not?

Where are the lasting social movements, progressive institutions and parties that will be here when we are gone? How affective have we been at building connections between the social forces that can bring a George Bush and his neo-con entourage to its knees. We’re still trying to figure out how to do that, fumbling along. You’d think with the economy coming unglued, the health and education systems in shambles, the rich getting disgustingly rich and the poor pathetically poorer that the chemistry is there for an upsurge. And yet it hasn’t quite happened has it? Lately there has been an interesting debate in the left as to why the peace movement against the war in Iraq is so small although 70% of the people of this country are against the war.

Alex Cockburn, gadfly extraordinaire, reflected upon this in a recent piece that greatly annoyed a lot of people in the peace movement and the left. He seems to specialize in that. I for one appreciate the fact that he has simply, once again, forced us to think about the situation that we are in. Phyllis Bennis felt a need to respond and did. In the end, i am less concerned with Cockburn’s analysis (although as usual parts of it are brilliant) and Bennis’ critique (a bit too defensive even if some of the points are well taken) tha the conclusion I draw from it: how do we grow as a movement. How do expand our base, become more inclusive, connect to the broader population of this country to activate them , without which we’re in for more wars, and an even greater erosion of our civil rights than before. How do we evaluate which `old structures’ are worth salvaging, what new ones need to be built? How to build them? Thanks Alex for rubbing our nose in our own shit again. Really. As the ad goes – thanks, we needed that. It certainly got me and a few of my burnt out leftie friends here in Denver thinking.

Don’t know the answers. Really.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Just doing my bit to explore how we might proceed. I just don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to `re-create 68’. The folks working with the group `re-create 68’ here in Colorado have gotten themselves into something of a hole, mostly of their own making from what I can glean. They ought to look homeward to understand their shrinking base and influence rather than blaming their situation on a few of us who are, frankly too old and burnt out to represent some kind of organizational threat to them. And they should learn from history – our common history. But I doubt they will.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. mklonsky permalink
    April 18, 2018 7:50 pm

    Nice piece. Thanks Rob.


  1. John Buttney – Rest In Peace – 1938-2020 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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