Friday, June 06, 2008
Bobby Kennedy was shot 40 years ago
Actually, 40 years ago yesterday. Here, if you're up for it, is a long rant that partially documents how that event had a profound impact on my life.
People used to ask, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ Always a good conversation starter, it was assumed you’d have some kind of story about where you were and what you were doing on November 22, 1963.
That particular Friday became a kind of touchstone for change, one that marked a country’s loss of innocence. It was the end of an era that had been portrayed by the Cleaver family on Leave it to Beaver, and later, by the Cunninghams on the series with the overly rosy name, Happy Days.
I think of that Friday in 1963 as only the beginning of the change. Because the date I see as being more profound is June 5, 1968. That’s the date another Kennedy, Robert – or Bobby as he was known – met the same fate as his brother John.
The first months of 1968 had seen the beginnings of a shift in the general public’s attitude toward the ongoing war in Vietnam. Early in January, the much-respected baby-and-child-care expert, Dr. Benjamin Spock, was indicted for promoting draft evasion. Month’s end saw the sweeping Tet offensive, a series of attacks that reached as far as the US Embassy in Saigon. People were finally starting to realize just how pointless America’s war efforts were. When, at the end of February, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite made comments on the apparent futility of the exercise, then-president Johnson supposedly remarked on the significance of the newsman’s words: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
I’d been on the fringes of an organization in Milwaukee that offered advice and other assistance to draft resisters. Being part of such a milieu, I couldn’t help being around people who were working on the campaign to put anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy on the presidential ballot. They were a dedicated and interesting mix – speechwriters, organizers and a slew of pamphleteers.
The spring of ’68 had also been one where more than the weather was heating up. In part, due to the previous summer’s inner-city riots, and especially after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, there was an ever-increasing sense of living in a police state. Many of us found we couldn’t go out without spotting unmarked police cars trailing us; police photographers seemed to be at every war protest and be-in; men with long hair were routinely stopped as they walked down the street, with the demand that they show their draft card (men who couldn’t produce one were arrested on the spot, as this was a serious offense). Yet despite all that, and despite the ever-increasing death count in Vietnam, there was an optimistic atmosphere of promise in the air. Promise that things were going to take a turn – and for the better.
Only then, on the cusp of summer, Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. And for many of us, that event made it clear: no dreams were safe.
About a month later, my son Jeremy was born. Giving birth, especially to a son, did a lot to shift my perspective. Suddenly, I understood that I wasn’t going to be going to Chicago with my friends to be part of the protests outside the Democratic Convention. All of us understood that Chicago wasn’t going to be just another protest; this one would have Mayor Richard Daley’s specially trained riot forces on patrol. I understood that as a single mother, I now had responsibilities that meant I couldn’t risk getting myself arrested and thrown into jail. I also realized that my little boy was no different, only younger, than all those other boys being drafted for Vietnam.
It wasn’t very many months later that Jeremy and I were sitting in a very bright room in the bowels of the airport in Toronto. As I remember it, even though it was late in the evening, the immigration officers were super nice as they asked me questions and filled in the blanks on what seemed to be a very long form. They were coochie-cooing Jeremy and nodding with approval at the fact that I’d taken a few French courses. Of course it helped that Jeremy and I had a sponsor, no matter that the sponsorship eventually didn’t work out. So, bingo presto lucko – we were in, and told to expect our landed immigrant papers in the mail in just a few weeks.
But lately, things are different. The news keeps reporting changes to Canada’s immigration policies. And I see that 25-year-old war resister, Corey Glass, has had his application to stay in Canada refused. He’s the ex-soldier who signed up to be part of the US National Guard, thinking he’d be helping out in humanitarian causes like flood relief. But instead of being sent to New Orleans, he was sent to Iraq. When his conscience wouldn’t let him stay, he made his way to Canada. Younger than that son I brought to Canada all those years ago, Glass is an American deserter, not so unlike those soldiers who despaired over their experiences fighting in Vietnam. Yet unlike members of that earlier wave of sanctuary-seekers, he is one who Canada seems unwillingly to accept as one of its own – Canada, a country once known worldwide as place of safe haven for those who love the idea of peace.
So, I wonder: What is happening to this country that I chose? And I think, if those of us who came to Canada during the Vietnam War era were applying to come here today, just how many of us would be allowed in?