Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie, & My Yarmulke:
A Ritual of Joyful Resistance
Dear members & friends of The Shalom Center --
Just five minutes before noon today, I took part in a wonderful ritual. One of the members of a men's group that began 30 years ago -- Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund (which supports grass-roots renewal of low-income neighborhoods shattered by disasters like Hurricane Katrina & Superstorm Sandy) -- called me and the other men's group members to remind us to turn on our radios. He has been doing this, year after year on Thanksgiving Day, for almost all those thirty years.
Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia plays Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass. in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.
And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the "Jewish thing" took on new power for me . And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.
Before I tell the story once again (a ritual retelling!) let me add that this year -- when resistance to Domination is bubbling up in powerful ways in many sectors of American society -- 400,000 protesters demanding "Climate Action Now" on the streets of Manhattan; thousands of people blocking highways all across the country to protest racism in our police forces; Walmart workers mobilizing a nation-wide strike on "Black Friday" (tomorrow) and more, and more -- the meaning of the story speaks in a stronger voice than it has for decades.
In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by the Nixon Administration and Attorney-General John Mitchell (who turned out to be a criminal himself -- see under "Watergate") with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 .
I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention -- elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and support as our "favorite son" the chairperson of our delegation -- Rev. Channing Phillips (may the memory of this just and decent leader be a blessing), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.
Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention. The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King's murder, on the third night of Passover in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.
AND -- besides being an elected delegate, I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. The police -- not the demonstrators -- finally did explode in vicious violence on the third night of the Convention.
Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a "police riot," the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, and the other defendants figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.
Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings -- etc. Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.
So when I arrived at the Federal court-house in Chicago, I was very nervous. About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.