"Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land/and don't criticize/What you can't understand/Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command."
-- Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changing"
Some things don't change. From the temporal podium of August 2004, I can view myself dimly, striding onto the University of Florida's Plaza of the Americas in 1970, leading a protest against the Vietnam War. With a little squinting, I can see back to my first moments of social consciousness in 1963, my early protest marches, arriving in Gainesville, Fla., in 1966, the months leading up to the summer of 1970.
That fall, I moved to Atlanta, a little shotgun apartment on Linwood Avenue, and I split my time between writing high school sports stories for the Marietta Daily Journal and organizing Southern contingents to the national antiwar marches.
I handed off my banner after a few months, burned out, and didn't resurrect myself as an activist until 1973, to shout dissent at the federal government's jackbooted inquisition of Florida's most famous protesters, the Gainesville 8. That band of brothers was a group of veterans falsely accused of plotting to disrupt the 1972 GOP Convention in Miami.
My rejoining "the movement" was, I suppose, inevitable. At 17, I was infected with social consciousness. It has occasionally gone dormant, but there is no vaccine, no cure.
When I was in high school in Miami, I fell in with a bad crowd: artists. Beatniks and aspiring Kerouacian on-the-roaders, we hung out at coffeehouses and sang folk songs. My pals had the revolutionary idea that black people were their brothers. Miami in the early 1960s was a far cry from the politically bleak banana republic of today. It was OK to be liberal. No one would bomb your car. That would change in a few years.
On some of what is now the trendiest real estate in Miami's Coconut Grove, an old, two-story frame building once stood. The second floor was an auditorium, and in April 1963, I went with some of my artist friends to watch a Pete Seeger concert there. The whole evening was about the Civil Rights Movement. We sang "We Shall Overcome." We sang it a second and third time.
"We'll be fighting in the street/With our children at our feet/And the morals when they worship will be gone."
-- The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again"
My closest friend at the University of Florida was Jim Fine. Years before, he had been arrested for having a small amount of marijuana and was placed on probation. In 1969, Fine and the Veterans for Peace began recruiting sailors from naval bases in Jacksonville to attend rallies. Hundreds came. They knew what the war was all about, just as the grunt soldiers are increasingly wise to what Bush is up to in Iraq.
One day, Fine's door came crashing down and federal agents came tumbling in. They claimed Fine was hosting sex and drug parties to lure the sailors. He was tossed in jail for violating his probation. In court, Fine's lawyer shattered the testimony of a woman who was the federal agents' key witness. It came out that the woman was a prostitute and that the agents were holding her child hostage to force her testimony. The conservative judge pointed a finger at the agents and proclaimed: "I will not have my court used for political reprisals." It was rare, sweet victory.
Fine now lives in San Francisco, where he retired as a trolley car driver. "An incredible time," he says. "I still find it hard to believe the government could do what they did, not only to me but to thousands around the nation."
Ken Megill, my faculty adviser, a philosophy don who was denied tenure because of his antiwar sentiments, once told me, "The good thing about Gainesville was that people were racist but they admitted they were racist. They were repressive, and they said they were repressive. At least there was a form of honesty."
Those who care about such things often cite the student demonstration at University of California at Berkeley's Sproul Hall on Sept. 30, 1964, as the beginning of the mass student movement.
In 1967, Gainesville saw its first large student protest -- not over the war or Civil Rights, but over the banning of a humor magazine, the Charlatan, and the repressive university administration's persecution of a coed, Pamme Brewer, who had posed (discretely) nude in the publication.
I joined a couple of hundred other students who, more or less accidentally, "seized" the university's administration building, Tigert Hall, after the paranoid university president, Stephen O'Connell, and his aides bolted when they saw a scruffy band of demonstrations and hippies on their doorstep.
We spent the night in Tigert, drank a lot of wine, and I jokingly told a TV reporter that Gainesville was the "Berkeley of the South." The nickname, first coined by a psychology professor named Marshall Jones, stuck.
In the next year, the UF administration waged a war against ideas coming onto campus. Repeatedly, students were arrested or charged under the student conduct code for distributing literature, posting leaflets and selling magazines and books.
I still have a Jan. 14, 1969, Florida Alligator with a front-page photo of me shoving a petition into President O'Connell's hands. Even at a sleepy Southern college, the hundreds of names on the petitions -- students and faculty angered that ideas were being banned in the one place ideas should be sacred, a university -- augured the coming mass demonstrations of the next year.
I was quoted by the Alligator: "We feel that this selective law enforcement is the type of behavior that precipitated democratic student rebellions at campuses such as Berkeley (and) Columbia."
"All individuals involved in New Left extremist activities should be considered dangerous. ... Could result in prejudice to national defense interests ... this most dangerous and volatile individual.
... Completely neutralize subject without delay, consider any possible counterintelligence techniques or pretext operations."
-- FBI documents on decorated Vietnam veteran Scott Camil, 1972, released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Gainesville 8 was Florida's contribution to the annals of national political persecution. Decorated ex-Marine Scott Camil and seven other members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War were indicted on federal charges of plotting violent disruptions of the 1972 Republican Convention on Miami Beach.
The defendants were acquitted in 1973. A middle-class, largely conservative and educated jury took less than four hours to free the seven Vietnam veterans and one friend.
"We never should have been indicted," Camil told me recently. Camil's house west of Gainesville has a decor that's decidedly different -- dozens of fish tanks with exotic finned critters, and federal firearms permits for exotic weapons that prove he has never been convicted of a felony.
Two years after the acquittal, Camil was set up on a drug bust, and shot in the back by one federal agent while another held the veteran on the floor. Camil was acquitted of those charges, too. "The attacks of the government against me became positive reinforcement," he says. "Like the government was saying, 'You're doing a good job, Scott.'"
Camil now takes his daughter to soccer games and raises his fish. He's wired nowadays, engaged via computers in an endless series of humanitarian and human rights projects. He's traveled to Latin America and the Middle East. "I've cried a lot in those places at what I've seen."
He's also been back to Vietnam, to Dai Loc, a village he helped destroy and where his outfit killed 200 people, mostly women and children. "That really kicked my ass. It amazed me how the people treated us. They didn't hate us."
Camil's testimony at the Winter Soldiers Hearing in 1971 -- an event recently made re-famous because John Kerry also testified -- became the subject of legend and song, Graham Nash's "O! Camil."
A Marine sergeant who earned two Purple Hearts, Camil says he believed he was doing the right thing when he went to war. He was even picked by the military to speak to college students about the war. "The government didn't like it when I would tell the truth, that it was our job to kill women and children. All that mattered was the number of people we killed."
Camil says he became a radical because "it was the duty of Vietnam vets to tell the truth about Vietnam, and the government wasn't going to allow that."
The Gainesville 8 trial was a charade. The defense exposed a conspiracy by government undercover agents to inject talk of violence into the veterans' meetings, and that became the basis for allegations of a conspiracy.
A few years later, Camil got his FBI files. Much was deleted -- for "national security" reasons. But enough was there to show that the government was committed to "neutralizing" him with dirty tricks and framing him with bogus arrests. Perhaps "neutralizing" meant something much darker, such as the bullet in the back that was Camil's gift from a grateful nation.
In 1992, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore came stumping to Gainesville, campaign officials sought out a veterans group to augment Secret Service security. They called Camil. "We put 50 guys out there protecting Clinton," he says. "Just a few years ago, I was a national security threat. How things have changed."
Maybe. Maybe not.
Senior Editor John F. Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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