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Man the barricades

32 years apart, GOP conventions have two things in common: Protesters and a lousy president


Second of two parts.

"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.

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