Interview with Vivian Rothstein
Student Activist, United States
Q: What was life like for you in the '50s, as you grew up?
Rothstein: I was born in New York and I grew up in Los Angeles, in Studio City. My parents split up when I was born and my mother wanted to get as far away from my father as she could and still stay in the United States, so we ended up in Los Angeles.
Most of my mother's friends were German-Jewish refugees from World War II, and so most of the people that she socialized with were from Germany. My mother had a very small family. She lost most of her relatives in the war. She just had one sister and one brother, and I have two cousins, but there was really almost nobody left in my family.
We lived in a house in the Valley that was owned by my uncle. He gave it to my mother to use while we were growing up. My mother worked when I was growing up, and that was a bit unusual for the '50's. I had a really nice childhood actually. It was a little weird in that I grew up with a single mother who was German and my mother made up all kinds of stories about why my father wasn't there. There weren't very many divorced families, and actually my parents weren't divorced. They just weren't living together. And so it was a little odd. There were these stories about how my father was working in New York and was going to come back, and of course he never did.
Q: Was the Holocaust part of your psychic landscape?
Rothstein: Yeah, there was a sense that they could come and get us at any time, and who "they" was --who the people we had to worry about were -- was undefined. I mean maybe the Nazi's or maybe the Russians... I got really confused about it, but there was always this sense that people could turn against you at any minute. My family was middle class German. They felt very German. They felt very assimilated in Germany, and it was a real shock to them that their whole culture turned against them. They left with this feeling that it could happen at any moment, so don't ever get too complacent. But, on the other hand, they really loved America because America had taken them in, and they never wanted to criticize the government.
Q: Did you have an anti-authoritarian impulse?
Rothstein: There was a feeling of not really being a part of mainstream America. A feeling of being a little bit different, secretly.
My mother was a bookkeeper; she worked in a dress shop that was owned by two Swiss brothers. They hired German refugees only, and they all worked really hard for him. Once a year they would have a sale, just for the employees, of seconds and things. Everyone would be in a warehouse trying on clothes, and almost every woman had a number on her arm. It was this thing you just knew: this little group of people all had numbers, they had all gone through this experience that nobody wanted to talk about. I mean, you were here, but it was a little fragile. So I don't think it was anti- authoritarianism. I actually think my family respected authority almost too much, but there was this feeling of not quite being a part of the society. I have an older sister, seven years older, who took a different road. She wanted to be very American and very connected to American society. She went to the prom. She did all that stuff to be more mainstream.
Q: What was high school like for you?
Rothstein: Well, I went to Hollywood High School and it was a real odd collection of people. There are no kids who live in Hollywood, so it drew kids from all over Los Angeles. It was a real multicultural student body. There were a lot of sororities and fraternities but I wasn't a part of that. I was part of this little group of people who were a bit more bohemian, although we didn't use that word. We hung out at the bookstore and bought New Directions books, and pretended that we understood them. A lot of the kids were in the drama department... we didn't quite fit in. Smart kids most of us, but with something a little odd. A number of my friends grew up with single parents. My best friend was Japanese-American. Her parents had come from Japan right after the war. Another's father was a refugee from France. It was a funny collection of kids.
Q: Did the beat scene hold any interest for you?
Rothstein: No... I graduated in '63 so I really didn't know much about it but... one thing I remember from high school is that you had to pay a certain amount of money to become part of the student association. I had a friend, a scrawny little kid who was really smart, who wanted to go to Harvard... we knew he had to get elected student body president to get into Harvard, but he refused to pay the twenty dollars to join the student government . We ran a campaign for him and he won and he got into Harvard. We all stood out on the beach at Marina Del Ray and watched his plane take off when he went to college. We just did it to rub the officials' faces in their stupid rules. That was... I don't know, a little bit rebellious I guess, but we all got good grades.
Q: Did teen culture -- music, rock and roll, that sort of thing, have any appeal for you?
Rothstein: KFWB,the local radio station played... I don't know if you'd call it rock music at the time, but they played the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley... I used to sleep with a transistor radio. I knew all the words to the songs. My mother always said that my brain was filled up with all the words to these songs and that I wouldn't be able to remember anything from school, but what the hell... it was sort of pre-rock.
Q: What was the sexual scene like for you in high school?
Rothstein: In high school, everybody knew the girls who were sleeping around... it was pretty treacherous for a woman. In college it was different because of birth control. That made a world of difference for women because you could have a relationship without worrying about getting pregnant. Not that you didn't worry about getting pregnant... everybody worried and everybody did get pregnant at one time or another, but it was a huge difference. You had control over your life. You were more of a free agent. It was a profound change. Just the idea of having sex before you were married was pretty rebellious at the time.
Q: Did you have an urge for rebellion?
Rothstein: Well, I chose Berkeley because I knew that there was this political and social dynamism there. I wanted to get away from home, but I also wanted to throw myself into an environment like that. I don't know if I thought myself as a rebel. I was looking for something. I wanted to enter the world. I came from this funny little subculture, this isolated refugee community. I didn't have much contact with mainstream America. Now I'd say I was looking for a way to belong to some dynamic, to break out from the provincialism of my family and also the depression in my family. There's profound depression in the refugee community. People were desperate.
Q: You had a summer job with a collection agency...
Rothstein: Well, I had to work. I worked every summer and I also had jobs after school. The summer before I went to Berkeley a friend helped me get a job with his father. His father and his uncle ran this company in downtown LA and I thought I was going to be a secretary or clerical person. It turned out to be a collection agency... these two men, pretending they were attorneys, basically tried to extort money from low income black and brown people who had signed contracts -- mostly with door to door salesmen. They signed these contracts and didn't realize they were legally binding. In many cases, they didn't even speak English.
This collection company would buy the contracts from the sales companies and send out dunning notices. I sent out red postcards saying, "we're going to garnish your wages, we're going to take away your car..." Then a stream of very poor people came in, mostly men, crushed, not knowing how much money they owed or why they owed it. They were just terrified of losing everything... and these two guys weren't even lawyers. They were just masquerading as lawyers.
The interesting thing for me is that the son of the owner of the company was someone I really looked up to. I thought he was a real liberal, intellectual kid; he was going to Reed. I would have given anything to go to Reed; he was going to Reed on the backs of these families in L.A. that were being destroyed and terrified. I don't even know if these contracts were legal. Since that time there have been reforms and I think you have 24 hours to get out of anything you sign. I had to do it because I needed the job. I had to work for these two slovenly guys; I really hated it.
The last week I was there I screwed up all their files... I just mixed them all up. I don't know... I'm sure they recovered.
Q: Was Berkeley what you had hoped it would be?
Rothstein: Yeah, it was really exciting. I lived in a co-op. You had to participate in running the co-op in exchange for reduced room and board. I was there on a scholarship and I had to make money.
My first job there was as a tutor for a blind girl from Texas. That was an eye opener because she hated black people. She'd been blind from birth so she'd never been able to see a black person, but she hated Negroes. I would spend hours trying to talk with her about it but it was ingrained in her. I had to make money, so I worked with her... I wanted to help her and it was a good job. Then I had a job tutoring kids in Oakland through the UC tutorial project. That was my first real contact with the low-income black community, working with kids. There was a big Latino population in my high school, but there was a very tiny black community. Los Angeles was and still is very segregated. So I didn't have a lot of contact with them previously.
It meant being in touch with a group in America that wasn't allowed in and I felt fundamentally that I wasn't allowed in either. It was a sense of camaraderie or brotherhood... I never thought there was a community in America like that... the more I learned about inequality in this country, the more shocked I was. I felt somewhat betrayed.
Q: Was there anything about the University system bothered you?
Rothstein: Well, yeah, many of us who went to Berkeley were the first generation in our family to go to college and we were a big deal in our families. We'd all gotten really good grades in high school but once we got to college, we were nobodies. There were, I don't know, twenty-, thirty-thousand kids in the school... and nobody knew us. Nobody talked to us. We had no counselor. I felt I was part of this massive community in which I was unimportant and I started looking for a place to belong... some portion of that community that I could get closer to... and that's how I got drawn into the civil rights movement.
Q: Tell me about that.
Rothstein: Well, it started off slowly. There were demonstrations against Lucky's -- a market in Berkeley -- and demonstrations against Sambo's, a restaurant chain. At both of these sites, the protest had to do with not hiring black people for jobs in the front of the stores. At Sambo's the black people could only work in the kitchen or as dishwashers. I don't even think they could work as chefs. Lucky's was similar I think. Lucky's was right on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and Sambo's was in Oakland. (The name Sambo's is a bizarre thing. It's from a story about this little black kid who runs around and, I mean, it's a funny little racist image. But we didn't say anything about that.)
So it was the beginning of this growing civil rights movement. I got involved early on. You got a bit of training about how to handle yourself and you were told a bit about what the issues were. Somebody was heading up the demonstration and you needed to take your cue from them. You did a lot of marching and singing. It was an integrated group. I ended up meeting quite a number of young, black people from Oakland...
Q: What was the auto row demonstration?
Rothstein: Auto row is on Van Ness Boulevard in San Francisco -- all the major car dealerships are there. This was also an employment issue about hiring blacks in the showrooms. Salesmen who worked on commission could make a really good salary.
By then there were hundreds of us and we'd gotten training in non-violent civil disobedience. We were all divided into different showrooms. I was in the Chrysler showroom. We slid underneath the cars and just waited to be arrested. It was a big thing... we were dragged out. There wasn't a lot of violence because we went totally went limp and there was no resistance at all. But it was very scary and the police got sick and tired of having to carry us. Nobody would walk and they'd throw us in the back of the paddy wagons. Then we got booked and jammed into the cells. There were just lots and lots of us and we were all really excited and then it sunk in that we were in jail and we weren't sure what was going to happen to us.
Q: What was your family's reaction?
Rothstein: I remember my sister came to court the day we were sentenced and she was weeping in the back of the courtroom. Somebody asked me, "Who is that woman crying?" and I said, "I don't know." For her it was a shameful thing that someone in our family had gotten arrested. How could I have done something like that? ...shamed the family name.
Q: How was this interfering with your schoolwork?
Rothstein: The civil rights effort and the people I met there became the core of my life at Berkeley and it was harder and harder to stay connected to my studies. I was on a scholarship and I was pretty careful about maintaining a B average . I had one class - a dance class -- and the professor gave everybody C's. It didn't matter what you did, you got a C and that bumped me below my three point 0 average. Because of that I lost my scholarship for the next year and that was really crushing. But there was nothing I could do about it. I wasn't getting stellar grades because my mind was really on other things but I was committed to maintaining a three point 0. So that was a big blow for me. I started feeling pretty cynical about the university. It was the civil rights movement and the sense of urgency and community and common mission that was exciting. I had never belonged to anything like that in my life.
Q: What was the result of your being arrested?
Rothstein: The summer after my freshman year was spent in court. There were over 500 people arrested in the auto row demonstrations and we were tried in groups of ten. It took the entire summer. Our lawyer was a black attorney who spoke German. He had spent time in Germany during the war and there were some interesting connections there for me between these two worlds... He knew a bit about what my family had gone through and I was involved in a struggle around his people. It was a wonderful connection for me. I spent most of the summer with him because we were in court pretty much every day. And then we got sentenced -- six months probation, sixty-day suspended sentence. I think that's what it was. I went back to school in September. The free speech movement started in December over the ability of civil rights organizations to recruit students on campus, like me, to participate in these massive demonstrations.
Q: What was the free speech movement?
Rothstein: All these massive civil rights demonstrations were recruiting participants from Berkeley. It was a major disruption and so the university decided to try to stop recruiters. That's how we all heard about the demonstrations -- through these tables set up in front of Sproul Hall. They started closing them off and telling people who were not students that they couldn't be at these tables.
That was how the free speech movement started... over the right of students to be recruited for something outside, in the larger community. Many students were starting to feel so strongly about participating in these demonstrations. They wanted to be able to continue to do that.
Q: Why was it so appealing to the students?
Rothstein: I think people wanted to belong to something... there was no way to get to know other people very well and the best people and the most exciting people and the smartest people were gravitating towards the civil rights movement. I felt these were the people I want to be with. I came to school to learn and there were a thousand kids in my Psych 1A class. That was not a place to get inspired. It was very hard to learn about the world in these huge auditoriums. Where was the excitement? It seemed to be in the civil rights movement. You were valued as a participant. People really wanted you there. My friends and I all gravitated towards this. We started meeting all these interesting people.
Q: What's the stereotype of a '60s activist and what was your experience of that?
Rothstein: Well, I think the assumption is that '60s activists grew up in well-established, middle class WASP families in the suburbs and then something changed... they got disillusioned...
But my experience is that the people who got involved were not mainstream. Their families were not necessarily extremely successful. A huge percentage of the kids in the civil rights movements were Jewish which is really an interesting thing... I don't know why that is... there has always been this troubled and difficult connection between the American Jewish community and the black community. But there was a pulling together, a desire to connect for various reasons.
I just don't think it was Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver kids who went into the movement. I could be wrong, but the people I'm still in touch with didn't have that kind of life.
Q: You traveled across the country to Mississippi... what was that like?
Rothstein: I'd never traveled anyplace. I had never really seen America. I mean, I'd only gone camping with my family. This felt like we were going into a different country really. I went with my boyfriend and we were on a Greyhound bus so it happened gradually. You'd stop at the bus terminal, have something to eat. You're way out in the country. The whole physical sense of the country changed dramatically but the visible poverty that I started to see... particularly down in Louisiana... I had never seen anything like that. We'd see people living on the side of the road in shacks and it got worse and worse as we went further south. Then you'd notice that many of them were black and the blacks were separated... it was this gradual thing.
I don't think I was prepared. It was a lot poorer than anything I'd ever seen. I had learned about racial discrimination but I'd never seen dirt-poor families... people living in shacks. That was really shocking to me. I worked in a very rural area and there had never been a white woman in any of these people's homes before. People wanted to have me in their home overnight. It was really weird. I was special to them as a white person coming to their completely segregated community.
I had never had a personal connection like that with black people or with people who were that poor. Getting to know each other as people was what the whole civil rights movement was about. You couldn't just talk about it, you had to do it. So you had these profound personal transformitive experiences. I remember feeling I had to push myself to do this. When I went back 25 years later, this family still talks about me. It's just incredible. I thought I had this incredible experience, but so did they and that movement was so important to them.
Q: Was it frightening?
Rothstein: Yeah, it was... it was scary. It was the summer after Chaney and Goodman were killed and so we actually knew that this could be a matter of life and death. Then Mrs. Louisa was killed, the woman who was driving to Selma. She was shot. She was driving demonstrators back and forth. There had been a number of deaths but when you're 19 years old, you think you're never going to die. It seemed worrisome but it didn't seem real.
We went down and had an orientation session at Mt. Beuhla, this religious campground, and then we went to Jackson, Mississippi. SNCC and CORE decided to organize a demonstration to challenge an ordinance against parading without a permit. So within a few days of getting there we were in this demonstration with Mississippi police officers with black jacks and dogs... people were getting beaten up... that was the scariest thing I've ever been in... it scared me to death and there was really nothing you could do. You were part of it and you just went along... you just didn't know what was going to happen. That was really scary.
Then we were put in jail and we were segregated. The white women were put in the Heinz County Jail and everyone else - white men, black women and black men -- were put in the country fairgrounds. We were in jail about two weeks. A parade of officials came to see us... they sent a rabbi who told us how bad it was for Jews in Mississippi. Once we were together in the cell, and we didn't feel like we were going to get hurt, it was both boring and exciting. We had grits for breakfast with molasses on it and biscuits and we all got hugely constipated and really sick and then they gave us huge doses of laxatives. It was your classic jail experience. We didn't think we had broken any laws... we thought we were... the innocent and righteous.
Q: Why did SNCC organizers want white college students to get involved?
Rothstein: Well, I think it focused the attention of the whole country on what was happening in Mississippi. All of us had parents and our parents voted. We had access to the press. I think they also wanted the energy and the bodies.
It was a brilliant strategy in retrospect. It broke those separations between black and white, northern and southern, rich and poor because people worked together, lived together.
I think it helped the Mississippi black community to feel it wasn't isolated, that the eyes of the world were on it because we were there helping them and of course it brought our eyes on their situation.
Q: How important was this exposure to the black civil rights struggle for white student activists?
Rothstein: Well, it was... it was life transforming. To be a part of the righteous social movement, fighting for something bigger than yourself... you were just elevated as a human being. You had incredible significance in the world... it was ecstasy. It's really hard to explain it. It was the music and the singing that was used to build courage because everyone was afraid. It just lifted you up.
Q: This is a letter that you wrote from jail...
Rothstein: Thursday, June 17th, 1965. Dear Mom, I'm in jail in Jackson, Mississippi. You've probably already read about it. We were put in here Monday at 5 P.M. for marching on a sidewalk with no permit. We were protesting unconstitutional laws against demonstrations. On Tuesday, 200 people were arrested. On Wednesday 150 more people joined us and on Friday people will come from all over the nation to demonstrate in support of our actions and will be arrested. I am perfectly all right. The food is horrible and it's boring but we're all right. They segregated the white women from the black women. We have cells, eight in a cell and four beds, while the Negro women are in a hall at the state fairgrounds lying on the concrete floors with only two meals a day. The boys are in another building at the fairgrounds, segregated of course. Gregory was arrested too. I think he's all right too. What we have to wait for now is donations for bail money. The bail is set at $100 dollars each...
We really don't know how long we will be in here. Maybe by the end of next week we could get out because there's an injunction coming up in court next week to declare the laws against demonstrating unconstitutional. It is terribly boring. We have only one book and two pens. We made cards and carved soap... besides that we just talk and sleep. How is everything?
My finals were okay. I don't know how well I did. I'm really all right. I'll try to write again soon if this letter gets through. I love you. Don't worry please. Love, Vivian.
Q: As time went on in the sixties there was a change in the relationship between black activists and white activists...
Rothstein: Part of the idea of northern white students going South was to learn how to be community organizers and then to bring those skills back to organize poor people in the North. The concept was to build an interracial movement of the poor in both the North and the South. When I left Mississippi I did start to work with an SDS project, first in Oakland and then in Chicago where I organized in low-income communities. Increasingly, those of us who were white organizers were not seen as a part of the movement that was being built in the black community... there was more and more separation and estrangement.
And that persisted for years, for 25 years. I mean it's only now that I'm really working with black people on a day to day basis in my agency in the way that I used to back in the sixties in the civil rights movement.
But there were some periods of connection, so it was a gradual separation I'd say the rage in the black community that came out after the murder of Martin Luther King was profound. That left no organizational forms to work together any more.
Q: Was that hard for you?
Rothstein: Yeah, it was. When the movement became more ideological and there was more separation and rigid division... the black organizers said they didn't want to be in the same organization with while community organizers. We started a union and we tried to support each other and the work that we were doing, but we felt a loss of black participants. Our movement has struggled with that for years.
Q: Did the Vietnam War provide an alternative outlet? Was that some of the dynamic?
Rothstein: The Vietnam War brought us into a relationship with a whole different group of people, the Vietnamese people. I had the opportunity to go to Vietnam and meet Vietnamese people... they became very real to me. It wasn't abstract. And that's what happened in the civil rights movement. The suffering of black people wasn't abstract, it became very real and very personal.
Q: What did you take from your civil rights experiences to the anti-war movement?
Rothstein: The major lesson was that ordinary people could have great wisdom and that you didn't need to be intimidated by "experts" because there is a wisdom that ordinary people can have. Have confidence in yourself, you may not be a powerful person but it doesn't mean you can't figure out the truth about a situation.
When it came to Vietnam there were all these experts trying to explain to us why this war was right. And there was a certain confidence that we got from working in the civil rights movement that allowed us to say, "Wait a minute, we maybe don't think this is true. Maybe there's another story here." It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to question national leaders and we were definitely questioning all the national leaders.
Q: Did gender become an issue for people in the anti-war movement?
Rothstein: Well, yeah, the anti-draft movement was part of the peace movement. Women had a really hard time. It wasn't collective. It was very individual and focused on individual guys. It was hard for anybody who wasn't a draft resister to really have legitimacy in that movement.
I got into gender issues in a different way... I had the opportunity to go to a conference in Czechoslovakia with representatives from the range of organizations in the American peace movement. We met representatives of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. They invited a group of us to visit North Vietnam. My consciousness as a woman really developed because the women from Vietnam were very consciously organized in women's organizations and consciously reaching out to American women. I had never really seen myself in that way, as representing a whole constituency... half of the United States. I had never thought of organizing separate women's organizations before. That led me to the women's movement.
Q: Did going off to Vietnam during the war feel like an outlaw act to you?
Rothstein: Yeah, there were actually three: getting arrested in San Francisco, because at that time you couldn't be a public school teacher if you'd ever been arrested... going to Mississippi... and then going to Vietnam. It was illegal. The United States didn't recognize North Vietnam so it was illegal to take your passport into North Vietnam. But it wasn't a declared war. It was an outlaw act and a dangerous thing to do -- the bombing was going on in North Vietnam and the only way to fly into Hanoi was via a 30 foot air passage that was marked with balloons for the International Control Commission flights to go in and out.
That was the only area that the Americans weren't bombing. You could look out the windows and see these balloons... that was pretty scary. I thought I had gone over the line there...
I was the youngest person in this delegation, led by Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis. Rennie and I had been organizers together in Chicago. I was 21 years old and really terrified. I think I was the only one who expressed any of that terror because when I walked up and down the halls at night in this hotel I heard people throwing up. I think everyone was terrified but... it was a little bit of this macho thing... you just didn't talk about it. But I felt like a wimp. There was bombing every day... we had to wear helmets, we had to go into bomb shelters... it was a really scary thing.
The main goal was to look at the targets of American bombing and the weapons that were used. Our government was saying that only military targets were being hit and that none of the weapons were anti-personnel weapons. And so our goal was to go in and see what the strategy was for American bombing. We met some American pilots who had been shot down and the truth became very confusing. The Vietnamese brought the pilots in... some of them had been injured. They had tea and candies for them... we were sure the pilots never normally had that. They wanted to show us how well they were being treated.
There were a couple times when one of the pilots would say something like, "I know what they're trying to do to me here..." or something like that. We were Americans and they were Americans and we were guests of the Vietnamese who our country was bombing. We had trouble figuring out the relationships. They couldn't figure out who we were and we had trouble figuring out who they were.
One of the prisoners was this guy, a sailor who had fallen off his ship and was rescued by Vietnamese fishermen. He was treated a little differently than the pilots... the North Vietnamese considered the pilots professional killers but they didn't have the same feeling about enlisted men. They gave him a bit more freedom. He and Rennie got into a discussion about sports... they started to bond around American sports. Suddenly the whole relationship shifted.
We had a lot of discussions about whether the pilots were truthful -- were they really treated well or were they being forced to pretend? What did they think about us? What role were we playing, meeting with shot-down pilots? Our whole role as Americans got very confused.
Q: Did the pilots think you were traitors?
Rothstein: Oh I'm sure they must have thought we were traitors because we were there and we weren't in prison and they were. I saw an interview with one of the pilots later that said he realized that the war in Vietnam was wrong. The issue was, was he saying this because he was a prisoner or was this really true? And was he saying this because he needed to say this in order to be safe?
Q: A lot of people thought that demonstrators were un-American, that they were not supporting their country. How did you feel about America and yourself as an American?
Rothstein: Well, I went to Vietnam because I was appalled by what our country was doing there but I also felt I was on a fact-finding mission that actually could be helpful. No one from the State Department ever contacted any of us. I guess they had decided we were enemies and not reliable.
I subsequently was treated like an enemy when I got back to the United States. We lost our passports. I was followed by Naval Intelligence in Chicago and I lost two jobs. My husband at that time lost a job...
I felt that the Vietnamese opposed the American government but they didn't oppose the American people. They knew that if the American people knew the true facts about the war then they would oppose it, but it didn't mean they were against America. The Vietnamese said to us, "You are the true sons and daughters of Washington and Jefferson," which we really didn't buy. We weren't patriotic in that way. But they said it over and over again because they actually valued the American political tradition, maybe even more than we did. The Declaration of Independence is a part of their Constitution.
They, and Ho Chi Minh, actually had a lot of respect for the United States. So one of the things I learned was that these communist countries were each different. The Vietnamese were trying to build a socialist country but they were not necessarily allies of the Chinese nor did they necessarily want to be long time allies of the Russians. They really just wanted their own country. That was the message I got.
It was interesting to see how a really poor country like that could mobilize its people to fight the most technologically sophisticated country in the whole world. This tiny country figured out how to survive the bombings with little straw hats and by building bomb shelters everywhere and decentralizing all their factories and schools... it was just so rudimentary, so primitive what they had to fight with but we got the message that they could not be defeated. You could kill every Vietnamese person and they wouldn't have given up. Actually, that's what McNamara says in his book -- that it was not a good war for the United States because it was the kind of movement we could not defeat... A lot of water under the bridge.
Q: There was some criticism during this time that serious activists such as yourself were too serious...
Rothstein: At one point, when SDS was dying, we were talking about forming a new organization possibly as an expression of our politics and it was crashed by Abby Hoffman and Tim Forat, I think, and Jerry Rubin... they called us, yeah, totally uptight, repressed, out of it people... they said all we could think about was politics. We were out of touch with the kids, with the youth and, and we were totally intimated by that criticism ...
Q: Did you think they had a point?
Rothstein: Well, it is true that the issues we were working on were life and death issues and they were really important. And if you got serious about them, it was a good thing because most of the rest of American culture was trying to pretend that these issues weren't serious. It took a lot for us to commit ourselves to try to raise other people's consciousness. So it was insulting ... actually, it was infantile to attack us for the clothes that we wore and that we didn't get stoned enough.
Although we used pot and stuff, and I tried a couple of other things, I didn't glamorize that kind of lifestyle. I didn't. The drug thing wasn't in Chicago. It seemed very scary to me and I didn't think women had much of a place in it, it was a real guy's thing. Women were earth mothers with a lot of babies, barefoot, stoned, long blond hair. I don't know... it didn't do anything for me.
I think we should have been respected... we were insecure enough I guess that we were afraid to defend our personal style. Personal style is really irrelevant. With the Yippies personal style was everything but it's just a game. It separates you from people, it's not necessarily a political statement
I didn't feel like we were that uptight. I don't know. I mean I was uptight in retrospect but I was trying to have a middle ground politics . When you're middle ground you believe in working with a fairly broad group of people. You don't come to your politics out of rage, but there's a certain amount of joy in it.
Q: What did the Yippies represent?
Rothstein: They were very media oriented and not grass roots organizing oriented. And I came out of a tradition, through SNCC and CORE, of organizing people at the community level. I never thought there was any substitute for talking to people one on one. The Yippies were very much about what they wore and what they said and how they looked and how belligerent they could be in relationship to American society.
They had this mass approach to organizing -- get people all worked up and excited and they'll follow you -- rather than a more systematic, one on one, talking to people approach.
When I got involved in the civil rights movement, I choose to work in the South to learn how to be an organizer. I didn't want to be a member of a mass movement where I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't really trust people who had that kind of organizing style... just get those bodies to Washington and then we'll have a confrontation... I felt people had to think carefully about what they were doing. This was going to affect their whole lives. And they needed to think about it... you really wanted people who were thoughtful . This is serious stuff. There's danger in it and people needed to know that it was not a joke. I guess that's what the Yippies made the sixties and our politics -- they made it a joke and it wasn't a joke.
Q: You were living in Chicago at the time of the 1968 convention. Could you see it coming?
Rothstein: There had been a number of anti-war demonstrations in Chicago in the months preceding the Democratic Convention where the police had been really violent . It was clear that the police, that everybody was egging for a confrontation. In a way the convention was organized to provoke confrontation. And I think that the police so overreacted and were so violent that they showed themselves for who they were.
Q: Wasn't that the goal, the idea that the whole world was watching?
Rothstein: Yeah, the goal was to show that America was ungovernable and that the Democratic Party, and particularly Richard Daley, was allied with forces of repression. And that's what they showed, yeah. And actually it turned out to be a good thing, a great thing for the peace movement. It became such a blood bath and the Democratic Party looked so bad and the Chicago police looked so bad that Daley never really recovered from it. But I don't know, originally Bobby Kennedy was supposed to be the nominee, before he was shot, and I think if we had done that when Bobby Kennedy was going to be the nominee, it would have been a crime because I think he would have ended the war in Vietnam and those demonstrations would have worked against his election. But it was Humphrey-Mondale.
Q: Were you out on the streets?
Rothstein: There were a number of us in Chicago who worked with high school kids and we were trying to get the high school kids to come to the demonstrations. So I went down to the demonstrations. I was at Grant Park and my main experience was that there were a lot of provocateurs in the crowd. I think these were government provocateurs, I don't really know who they were. It was an extremely volatile situation. You felt like it was about to turn into a mob scene which is pretty scary because you can get trampled. Everybody made an effort to keep people calm.
Q: But it did turn into a mob scene, didn't it?
Rothstein: Yeah, there were certain times, but there were times when people dispersed and the cops were just chasing people down the street. I remember one cop just swinging his nightstick. He didn't care who he hit. He was just looking to hit somebody, this fat Chicago policeman. But it wasn't a surprise for those of us who worked in Chicago because the police were quite repressive there. And they had given us warning... we had had a big demonstration - I think it was in April -- and I got knocked down with a nightstick...
Q: There was an element of class warfare wasn't there, not just in Chicago, but in a lot of the confrontations between police and demonstrators?
Rothstein: Yeah, there was also a lot of hostility in the early anti-war movement against GIs. That was another thing the Vietnamese used to talk to us about. I remember saying, "we don't consider the GIs the enemy, these are just young boys who got drafted, it's the officers and the pilots, those people made the decision to do this with their lives but these young GIs didn't." We had a pretty arrogant attitude about GIs and that created a lot of animosity between returning GIs and the peace movement. But then the peace movement got a bit more sophisticated and efforts were made to reach out to GIs. There was the coffeehouse movement; coffeehouses were established at military bases. I helped get one established in Missouri. It reflected a change in consciousness.
But I have to say that in Chicago, the police were so repressive that it was hard to create any feeling of solidarity with them just because they were blue-collar workers. They really weren't anyway. They got very decent pay and they were a very political force. They had a very strong Red squad that, that followed people around and they were like an occupying army in a way.
Q: How did Vietnam Veterans Against the War affect the changing attitude toward the GIs? Was that important?
Rothstein: It was very important. VVAW helped educate all of us about the disaffection in the army and they were able to speak to GIs because of the misery they'd all experienced in a way that those of us who didn't fight there couldn't really understand. You know we were more oriented towards the Vietnamese and less oriented towards the suffering of American soldiers. So I think they were extremely important, extremely. And they still are, that whole vets' consciousness is really important.
Q: As SDS started splintering there was a clash of ideas about which way to go. Was that a tough time for you?
Rothstein: The concept was that each generation would renew itself and that the old leadership would move on. But the new generations seemed to be more sectarian and more out there and further from what I call the good guy politics -- people who are motivated more by idealism than by rage. We didn't pretend that we knew the answers. We were really struggling to figure out what to do and increasingly there were groups that felt they had the answers and then they started competing for control of SDS. I don't blame them completely, the stakes were really high. We had been organizing against the war for a long time and it only got worse and it made people hysterical. I think it made all of us search desperately for some quick solution, some quick answer. Then some group would come up with an analysis and what they thought was surely the way to stop the monster in its tracks and end the war. There were always people who looking for answers.
In fact over the years, as I look back, the people who have survived and continue to be politically active are people who can tolerate not knowing the right answer. You just keep doing your work, you try to figure out what could be effective, but you can deal with uncertainty. There are some people who can't. It's just too upsetting. People were in absolute agony about the war.
Q: What effect did the Weathermen have on the movement?
Rothstein: I think it was horrible. I think it made us look like hate-filled maniacs. They not only were hateful toward America, which they spelled with a 'k,' but they were hateful towards all of us in the movement who didn't agree with them. They treated people really terribly, as if we were the enemy. I think it was the beginning of the end of trust that the peace movement was made up of rational, thoughtful, humane people. The Weathermen didn't come across that way.
I knew a number of people who became Weathermen and before they got into that they were very compassionate, caring people and smart. It was a disappointment to me that we lost these people by the wayside. They would spin off into some kind of extremism and it was sad, it was really sad. But I was particularly angry. I feel they distorted what many tens of thousands of people had worked so hard to build. And I don't really forgive it.
Q: One of the goals of the movement was to bring in the working class...
Rothstein: We started working around the draft and it became more and more clear that the people who got exemptions were middle-class people and professionals. And the people who ended up going to war were black and brown people and working-class kids who had no alternatives. As we began to work against the draft we began to try to listen to the interests of some of the working-class families who were bearing the brunt of the war. They were the ones with the little stars in their windows for having lost sons... they were the ones who were really suffering in our county. Of course it's ironic that now the volunteer army is mostly made up of a lot of people of color and a lot of people from working-class families who don't have the resources to go to college. So, at least it's voluntary but...
Q: Did you think there was a revolution that was going to happen?
Rothstein: Yeah, I felt like we were changing the world. I felt my personal choices had the potential to impact the entire world and to make history and I had such a strong feeling about that. It did feel like a revolutionary period. What that revolution would look like, and what would replace what we had, was pretty vague.
Somehow I think we lost the support of the American people. We became so alienated from the people that we were trying to get to join us that we became a smaller and smaller segment of the society. But at the same time a lot of our ideas just permeated American society and have impacted it permanently.
You could say there were revolutionary changes in some ways although there wasn't any revolution. There was a revolution in consciousness, I think, about race and racism although there a lot more needs to be done of course, and around women and foreign policy too.
I also think we changed this concept that the United States has the right to tell other people, other countries what to do.
Q: In the end, who were the patriots?
Rothstein: I think we were. Robert McNamara admits that the government didn't know what it was doing and he even says they didn't take the time to sit down and figure it out or talk about it, they just pursued this relentless strategy. Even though there were divisions within the government between the Defense Department and the State Department, they never sat down and thought this through. In retrospect he says, of course we couldn't have won the war, it was not a winnable war. The Vietnamese were just fighting for control of their own country. There's no way we could have won. And that's what we were saying. And so our country went through this massive destruction, all these young guys killed, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed, the economy was disrupted... We were right, we were the true patriots. We were painted as traitors and we began to accept that we were traitors, but we weren't traitors.
Q: Was your commune experience a retreat from society?
Rothstein: No it was in Chicago. You can't retreat... No, it grew out of the women's movement. Part of changing American society was building new forms of living, new forms for relationships. People's needs were more complex than could be met in a nuclear family. We were not so staid as the Yippies tried to make us seem.
I always felt the movement had a two-pronged approach... we tried to build counter institutions that presented a vision of the way society could be at the same time as we were working to change the society as it was. But if you don't have a vision, you don't really know where you're going. So a lot of people spent their time creating counter institutions: health clinics and child care centers and communes were part of it, communes probably the least successful part. I was in a political commune. I was married at the time and it seemed like the only way to stay married was to be in a commune. It was an extremely serious commune. We shared all our money, we all made decisions about each other's work, each other's political work. We bought a house together and there were two kids there and we shared the child care responsibilities of the kids. And it was a disaster! I don't want to get into it.
Q: The sexual revolution seemed like a great thing in 1964...
Rothstein: The biggest thing was that women could have sexual relationships without having to get married because they could control when they were going to have children and could be more self determining. Once that became possible anything was possible. .. all kinds of relationships. And so that's when people started struggling with different forms of relationships... It just opened up a whole Pandora's box; if you don't have to follow the rules you can do it any way you want, if you can figure out what you want.
But one of the problems was instead of want, all these shoulds started being laid on us. There were a lot of shoulds in the political arena, but the shoulds in people's personal lives were really destructive. People had trouble figuring out what they really wanted. And then sex became politics and politics became sex. The women's movement played an important role in opening up sexuality. It also played a role in starting to regiment it. I'd say it was struggling with probably the most fundamental issues around human identity. I mean that's revolutionary.
Q: What is the legacy of the activism of the sixties?
Rothstein: I think it changed the language, it changed the agenda, and it changed the vocabulary of a lot of American life. I think on the most specific issues it made enormous changes, enormous reforms. The grass roots movements that now exist are built on the legacy of the grass roots movements of the sixties. I think the idea of individual action and individual people taking a step out of their private life into the public arena is all a legacy of the sixties. It set many people's lives off on a different course. I have no idea what my life would have been like if I hadn't become politically active. It determined the whole course of my life, everything that I've done since. And I think that's true for tens of thousands of people.
Q: Did you have a good time as a kid? Did you have some fun in your life?
Rothstein: You know, there's a balance. When you're serious about something and you really work at it you get just enormous gratification from what you do and it's great pleasure. It's not exactly fun, but it's pleasurable and it enhances your life. I think I probably could have done better in terms of being more lighthearted and a little less uptight and having a little bit more fun. But I was brought up being told that I could never understand what suffering was really like and that there was nothing that could ever happen in my life that could be as bad as what my family had gone through. I don't think I was set up for a lot of fun. I think I had more fun than most of the people in my family. They're pretty grim, you know.
Well, I never traveled to Europe or that kind of stuff which I sort of wish I had. But I'll say this - this stuff was fun. I mean it.
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