Paraphrasing the ‘60s

TODD GITLIN teaches journalism at Columbia University. His next book, "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent," will be published by John Wiley this fall.

THE NEWS burst forth this week that eight former radicals, all or almost all of them said to have been members of a Marxist-Leninist fragment called the Black Liberation Army (a small breakaway from the faction-ridden Black Panthers) had been arrested — 35 years after the fact — and charged with the shotgun murder of a San Francisco police sergeant in 1971. Two of these men are currently serving time in New York for another policeman’s murder. Newspapers report that several of the others went on to constructive lives and that, by all accounts, they are husbands, grandfathers and all-around nice guys.

Just a few days before these arrests, I was one of more than 4,000 people at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, who watched Brett Morgen’s vivid documentary “Chicago 10,” about the street confrontations during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the farcical riot conspiracy trial that followed in 1969-70. Most of the audience cheered wildly, probably aroused by the on-the-street rebelliousness of the time.

And so, spewing flames and trailing symbolic plumes, arrived two more weird eruptions from the normally dormant volcano known as the ‘60s. Although these eruptions are surely matters of urgency for the families of the participants, the dead, the prosecutors and the prosecuted, casual readers and sound-bite surveyors under, say, 50 may well wonder: What was that all about?

Ah yes, one recalls, there was a time when handfuls of revolutionaries declared themselves to be “armies” and “liberation fronts,” when they “picked up the gun” for “armed struggle” and became common criminals (or, if you approved of them, righteous brothers).

Some may be horrified and others rendered nostalgic by reminders of times when police clubbed demonstrators on the streets, when judges and prosecutors ran amok, when “revolutionary” organizations collided violently with “fascists” and “pigs,” and the inflammable results made the whole world watch.

But as the years pass, the complexity and strangeness of the actual ‘60s retreat behind many layers of scrim.

With “Chicago 10,” for instance, the first documentary to open Sundance during its quarter-century history, Morgen hopes to arouse his contemporaries to spill into the streets against the Iraq war. Toward that end, the film (which artfully splices actual footage with cartoon re-creations) simplifies the Chicago saga, neglecting to mention that most television viewers in 1968 sided with the police, not the demonstrators, or that a couple of months later, the country elected Richard Nixon president, whereupon the Vietnam War proceeded for five-plus more years. He neglects these reminders not because he does not know these facts (so he assured me) but because he doesn’t want to bum out present-day spectators whom he wishes to inspire, once they are electrified.

Many are the motives for trimming back the truth and printing the legend. But those times, stupendous and consequential as they were, are not well described with stick-figure melodrama. The actual ‘60s took 10 years to happen and were crammed with people of more than one dimension. The events are hard to understand when you rip them out of their historical situation and cram them into melodrama. They were comic, tragic and complex on every side. There were heroes, flakes, opportunists, villains and also-rans. Some who were well-motivated and heroic at one time were flakes and maniacs at others. If you were reviled by the establishment, you were scarcely an automatic saint.

But does anyone care about the whole truth and nothing but? Wouldn’t most of us, present-minded, distracted and ignorant as we are, rather print — and read — the legend? Those who think that the trial of the former Black Liberation Army members is going to be a straightforward case of evil cop-killers being prosecuted by dogged government do-gooders need to note — as some newspaper accounts of the Black Liberation Army mentioned — that for years the prosecution’s case in the San Francisco police killing was tainted because a key witness claimed to have been tortured by the New Orleans police. On the other hand, those who still cling to gauzy dreams about untainted militancy need to remember all the murders committed in the name of various radical ideologies that accomplished exactly nothing for the victims of racism.

Both sides would benefit from reading a recent book. Last July, Paul Bass, a Connecticut reporter, and Douglas W. Rae, a Yale management professor, published “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer,” a compellingly written, deeply researched and subtle study of the 1969 torture and murder of a New Haven Black Panther who was believed by the organization to have been a police spy, and the 1970 trial that followed. Their account is not overpopulated with saints, nor is it presented as a confrontation with villains. It rests on hours of interviews with the killer, a former community organizer turned Panther who eventually turned against the group, served time, got paroled and went straight.

The atmosphere in New Haven in those days was flammable. Had local politics not been masterfully finessed by Yale President Kingman Brewster, the university might have been burned down. Brewster said publicly that he was “appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

(In response, the vice president of the United States, a felon-to-be named Spiro Agnew, replied, “I do not feel that students of Yale University can get a fair impression of their country under the tutelage of Kingman Brewster.”)

This book provokes thought and deserves to ruffle partisans of all stripes. Yet a Lexis-Nexis database search discloses that since its publication six months ago, the book has received all of one major newspaper review and one magazine review.

I do not know whether those arrested this week are guilty of anything. I do know this: If we were a sober culture, not a faith-based or stick-figured one, we would outgrow all the hysteria, all the romance, all the intoxications, and stare long and hard at the whole god-awful hodgepodge of tragedy and farce in which we live.