In June 1967, in the freewheeling spirit of the times, I dropped out of Antioch College, in Ohio, and hitchhiked to New York. I was 19, mildly though not madly political. In junior high, I had joined civil rights demonstrations. Now I opposed the Vietnam War. But my ideology was simply the counterculture’s: peace and love, plus anything fun that could undermine convention.
I floated into that summer in a luminous haze of artistic impulse, magical thinking and pot smoke. But by September, things were darkening. Reality — menace — began to intrude. I found a focus. I joined the staff of Students for a Democratic Society, the principal organization of the New Left; I became an organizer. By year’s end, I was calling myself a revolutionary.
Two years later, I would help found the militant Weatherman group, a breakaway faction of the S.D.S. Weatherman picked ruinous sectarian fights within S.D.S., and violent street battles with the cops. Later we went underground and carried out a campaign of bombings. By then, I was no longer the gentle hippie of 1967. But it was actually during 1967 that I changed.
I had come to New York with a notion to get into theater — to be a stage manager or lighting designer, an actor or dancer. I took some classes, participated in some workshop productions. I crashed with a friend on East 11th Street, between Avenues B and C. That was still called the Lower East Side; its tony rebranding as the East Village came later.
It was a rough, polyglot slum, buildings decaying and pavements strewn with the fragments of shattered windshields. But this was supposed to be the Summer of Love. For a while I acted as if I were in San Francisco, as if there were flowers in my hair. Sometimes I strolled to Tompkins Square Park — barefoot. At the Paradox, a macrobiotic restaurant where brown-paper grocery bags served as lampshades, you got rice and vegetables for a buck. Seating was at a communal table — or out back in the “garden,” a narrow patch of concrete between dirty-brick tenements. I recall idly dropping light bulbs down our own 11th Street air shaft, just to hear the experimental music of small implosions and tinkling glass.
But my soundtrack mostly came from folk rockers, like Jesse Colin Young. His iconic “Get Together,” with its admonition to “love one another right now,” came out that year. So did his “Dreamer’s Dream.” Its chorus goes, “Now the dream has ended, the world that I intended crashing down into bitter reality.” It was actually a song of broken romance. I misheard it as political commentary, because crashing into bitter reality felt like what was happening.
It began with that summer’s race riots: Newark in mid-July, followed by Detroit; Cambridge, Md.; and dozens of other cities. One afternoon, I went to Tompkins Square not to get stoned, for a change, but to join a rally against police brutality. The cover of the Aug. 24 issue of The New York Review of Books depicted a schematic of a Molotov cocktail; you could easily have followed it to assemble one. This image blazed from news stands all over town. It burned into my consciousness, although my takeaway was hardly a brilliant insight: The match that lights a joint might also ignite an uprising.
My earliest political gestures had been for civil rights. Now the riots in black communities — the rage that fueled them, and the authorities’ savage responses — made that nonviolent movement and its legal achievements seem hollow. They weren’t hollow. But I was 19, impatient and getting angry. The escalating war and ostensible powerlessness of its growing opposition was making me angrier.
Some half a million people — roughly equal to the number of American troops deployed by then in Vietnam — had joined a national antiwar mobilization in April. In June, 15,000 people marched on a Los Angeles hotel where the president was speaking; they were attacked by 1,500 riot police — white people, liberals, beaten by cops. Pacifists bearing moral witness were staging hunger strikes. Young men pledging resistance were burning their draft cards.
I was called up for induction into the military that year. I received an immediate, permanent deferment because a shrink I’d been seeing wrote a letter explaining that I was homosexual. I was glad to have an out, but it was so humiliating to admit to being gay, back then, that for years I lied to anyone who asked, even close friends. I pretended the letter only said I was crazy — a lesser shame. I was angry about all that, too.
In September, I moved into my first solo apartment, a grim cell on East 6th Street. Soon I had a pair of pivotal experiences. I may be reversing their order, but they were so close in time and correlated in effect that it doesn’t matter. The pivot in question was that from fear to bravado.
One evening I stood shaving, naked, before my uncurtained window, careless that I was on display to the street. Suddenly a young man came pounding on my door, shouting hysterically: “You insulted my mother! I have a knife! I’m going to kill you.” What I could glimpse of his face was distorted by his fury and the fisheye peephole in my door, behind which I cowered. He went away, returned again screaming threats and finally left for good. I never did recognize him on the street, nor did a physical encounter ensue. Still, it was terrifying. I felt queasy until I moved again, a few months later. Thus, for me, the Summer of Love’s helium balloon fell to earth.
My best friend had quit Antioch when I did, to join the S.D.S. New York staff. Through him I was meeting a more politically committed circle. In October, I went along to Washington for a national demonstration targeting the Pentagon. The night before the march, I joined a secret propaganda action. People went out to spray-paint slogans on buses. This may not seem radical, but back then cities and transit systems were not slathered in graffiti. I went to a lot where buses parked overnight. Access was easy; there wasn’t even a fence. Moving down the dark rows with my paint canister blasting felt utterly without risk. Then I had a thought. What if a watchman steps suddenly into my path? Then I had another thought. I’ll spray him in the face and blind him. Easy.
My commitment to pacifism had been superficial, just something I casually assumed. It seemed inseparable from the morality and idealism of the civil rights movement. My light-bulb moment among the parked buses was equally nonchalant. I embraced the idea of physical action, without a care for possible consequences. As thoughtlessly as I had supposed myself to be a pacifist, I gave myself permission for violence.
The demonstration the next day and the ones to come were increasingly combative. I always hated confrontation, and still do. I was always afraid in those situations. So it may seem paradoxical that within weeks I joined the S.D.S. staff. After that, my fear of fighting never stopped me from encouraging militance and organizing actions in which people could be hurt. If I often avoided going toe-to-toe with the riot squad, I certainly smashed my share of windshields. Strutting and provocation were camouflage for my fear, and for the taint of weakness most people then — including me — thought inextricable from being gay.
I immersed myself in radicalism for many reasons. I felt betrayed by a democracy so deeply racist and unequal. The stupefying carnage of the war repulsed me. A naïve vision of communism seemed attractive. Plus, passionate involvement replaced my untethered existence with community, a persona, a job and — however unrealistic — a life plan. Alongside these motivations were those knottier psychological ones.
Then, as now, millions were moved to political action — and were often met with brutality by the state. But few besides us chose to deliberately instigate and justify violence. Maybe some of my comrades were more self-aware, or had less to pretend to or cover for. I can’t speak for them. I only realized my own confusion of impulses years later. I would have been an activist anyway. But I wonder what other more creative, less destructive ways I might have found to be one.
Jonathan Lerner is the author of the memoir Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary.