The fall of 1969 started hopefully. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in upstate New York was a celebration of mythic proportions. It wasn’t all love and roses, but it did announce to the world that there were lots of young people in western civilization, and especially in the United States, who were not happy with their lot. Simultaneously, plans for upcoming antiwar demonstrations in the fall were falling into place, with more and more people willing to commit their time and energy to stopping the evil imperial adventure in Southeast Asia. Of course, none of this was going unnoticed by the Nixon White House and its ever-growing police state apparatus. Government agents and provocateurs were everywhere working their hardest to discredit and sabotage the antiwar movement and the counterculture. In fact, September 1969 saw the beginning of the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial–the “conspiracy” was composed of eight men who had been charged by the feds with “conspiracy to cross state lines with the intent to riot” after the police riot during the Democratic convention in Chicago a year earlier. This trial was perceived by the left and counterculture as a direct attack on its values and way of life. This perception was correct. The backlash against the new politics and lifestyles represented by the young was now government policy. As one popular fundraising ad for the Chicago defendants put it: “We are the Conspiracy.”
Earlier that year, in June 1969, the largest radical organization (Students for a Democratic Society–SDS) in the United States at the time fragmented during a tempestuous national convention in Chicago. This split was the result of a hardening of political stances and disagreements over lifestyles. Primary among the political disagreements were those over the war in Vietnam and the role of the African-American struggle for liberation. The dominant argument over lifestyle concerned the role of youth in the movement and the political meaning of the burgeoning youth counterculture. These issues loomed large in the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands of politically minded youth in the late Sixties and it was appropriate that they would be played out at the national convention of the country’s largest radical youth group.
The three groups claiming the SDS mantle were the Progressive Labor Party, the Revolutionary Youth Movement, and the Weatherman organization. The name “weatherman” was from the line “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” in Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Weatherman would go on to become not only an underground group dedicated to its version of armed struggle, it would also become the most well known of the three SDS remnants. This was due to its headline grabbing actions–an explosion in a NYC townhouse that killed three of its members, freeing LSD guru Timothy Leary from a California jail, setting off bombs in the U.S. Capitol and Pentagon in protest of military actions by the United States against the people of Vietnam and Laos, and its support of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
By October of 1969, Woodstock and its accompanying euphoria had come and gone. The major antiwar demonstrations planned throughout the United States–the Moratorium scheduled for October 15th and the National Mobilization to End the War scheduled for November 15th –were the focus of virtually every antiwarrior in the country. Local organizers sat at tables in shopping centers and universities, and spoke to community and student groups urging people to make their opposition to the murder going on in their name known. John and Yoko Ono Lennon penned and recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” and President Richard Nixon told the press that he would be unaffected by any demonstrations against his policies. As it turned out, Nixon and his advisers decided not to attack Hanoi with nuclear weapons after the massive protests of October and November (which attracted more than two million people to both days of protest across the country), fearful that a revolution would break out in America. It was a revolution the ultra-left hoped for, but would never see.
Meanwhile, the ultra-left, which included most of those who had attended the SDS convention that June, were organizing protests of their own. Weatherman was calling people to Chicago for a series of offensive attacks on the state and its symbols in an attempt to “bring the war home”. RYM had split off from Weatherman and were planning a series of mass demonstrations in Chicago at the same time. Both groups then planned to attend the November protest in D.C. The Weatherman demonstrations became known as the Days of Rage. Despite the organization’s hopes, these protests involved no more than 1000 people and succeeded primarily in alienating the group from much of the left, at least for the time being. RYM had a bit more success: their final demonstration attracted around 5000 students and workers and the support of the local chapter of the Black Panther party.
This chapter of the Panthers was led by the charismatic Fred Hampton. Hampton was a young man, barely 20, and had been active in civil rights organizing since junior high and was high on the list of Panthers who would assume the chairman’s position should Huey Newton remain in prison. His leadership in Chicago had turned the Panther chapter there into one of the party’s strongest and most cohesive. Besides the standard Panther program involving free breakfasts-for-kids and Panther schools, Hampton was working on creating the first Rainbow Coalition-a coalition he hoped would include the Latino Young Lords, the working-class white Patriots and the street gang, The Blackstone Rangers. To put it bluntly, the possibility that this proposed coalition might take hold scared the pants off the local, state and federal government, who did their best to sabotage the negotiations that would bring the Rangers into the group. This ultimately included the December 4, 1969 death squad murders of both Hampton and Mark Clark-a member of the Illinois state Panthers. As court testimony later proved, these murders were planned and executed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies working together. These assassinations were part of a concerted effort by the FBI and other government agencies to destroy the Black Panther Party.
Musically, the Rolling Stones were touring the country promoting their new album Let It Bleed , another of their adventures in reworking North American blues and folk idioms into hard-driving rock and roll. The song of the summer had been Honky Tonk Women, which appeared on the album as a boozy country funk. Perhaps the most important song on the platter, however, was Gimme Shelter, a blistering indictment of the world of war and greed. Of course, the Beatles had their own record out as well. Abbey Road appeared in record stores on September 26 and blasted to the top of the charts. A bit more whimsical than the Stones’ album, it did include a somewhat acid-drenched song written for Timothy Leary’s run for the governorship of California–Come Together.
Two days after the Hampton-Clark murders, the Rolling Stones ended their tour at the Altamont Raceway in California, closing out an all-day festival which included Santana and the Jefferson Airplane, as well. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to play after the Stones that night but changed their minds when the festival careened towards chaos near the stage after a gun-wielding black man was murdered by members of the Hells’ Angels motorcycle gang. This act was the final violent act of a very violent day– a satanic reflection of August’s Woodstock fest. The Dead had hired the Angels as security believing that the band’s past history with the bikers would pay off and the festival could be run without any real cops near the stage. Unfortunately for all, the Angels who showed up to work that day were mostly hopeful prospects eager to show how tough they could be and ready to kick anybody’s ass who dared defy their authority. As it turned out, anybody included members of the Jefferson Airplane along with various concertgoers. The concert ended after the Stones’ set and forever jaded the counterculture–it’s innocence defiled. The new dawn heralded by the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick at the beginning of the Airplane’s Woodstock set had become a wintry night. A night which would extend into the seventies and, some would argue, until today.
As Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote in his first song about the Altamont concert, New Speedway Boogie, “One way or another, this darkness got to give.”