One October day in 1970, I sat atop a truck in the parking lot behind the Municipal Auditorium in San Jose, California, as President Richard Nixon, inside the auditorium, gave a speech to Republican loyalists, condemning the cowardice and irresponsibility of me and about one thousand others who were there to protest the war in Vietnam. Outdoor loudspeakers had been provided so that we could hear his speech clearly.
The arrangements for security had crammed anybody who looked like a protester into the parking lot, which was full of Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs and other cars of the prosperous establishment folks inside. A line of limousines waited in the street alongside the building, ready to sweep past after the speech. The crowd in the parking lot might well have been the children of those inside and was peaceable enough, wanting only to yell things like “No more war” as the President left the building. Uniformed police officers and Secret Service types clustered at the head of the column of limos and at the exit from the parking lot onto the street. The back of the building was screened by a line of large buses.
Immediately after Nixon’s speech the buses roared to life and shifted position just enough to reveal a second line of limos next to the building, facing an exit to the side of the lot. Suddenly, next to one of them, just fifty yards away, stood Nixon himself! With a grin that struck me as diabolical he flashed at the crowd the outstretched fingers of the peace sign.
We reacted in exactly the way we were meant to—with a roar of frustration and rage at this man who had appropriated our sign of peace as his own symbol of victory and triumph.
In a flash Nixon was gone. The buses moved in a curious choreography, shielding the exit of the limos out onto the street—but no, here came the line of limos out away from the building and through the crowd, which had absolutely nowhere to move.
As the cars rolled the whole length of the parking lot, big men in short haircuts and suits, hanging on to the sides of the limos, flailed away with brass knuckles at anyone within reach. Rage turned to panic, blood spurted, engines roared, people screamed and yelled. In the minute that it took to plow through that lot, at least twenty people were left bleeding on the asphalt.
The next ten minutes turned into chaos as the crowd went after the only symbol of Nixon they could see—the cars iA the wealthy there in the lot. The Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles lost their windshields and the smoothness of their fenders in flashes and shards of sound and glass. It ended as quickly as it had begun. The crowd, abashed and bewildered by its own unplanned action, melted away. It was soon replaced by the audience from inside the building, which had been delayed by the concluding speeches and rituals.
I’ll never forget the bewilderment and injured innocence of those poor California Republicans, coming out to find their trashed cars, wondering what in hell the country had come to, astonished that our President had managed to escape safely, hoping to restore the peace, sanity, and dignity of the Eisenhower era. And where were the journalists in San Jose? Inside the auditorium, where the official story was, listening to the speeches and interviewing officials. When they came out, the only people they could think to talk to were the car owners.
Ever since that afternoon and evening in San Jose, I have looked for journalists who thought to cover the back door. It is easier and ever so much more professional-looking to stay with the suits in the building than to find the story out back. One can only hope that the grindstones of history knock away enough of the chaff to find the kernels of truth as people lived them.