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[whitespace] Helen Garvy
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Looking Back: Herself a member of the SDS, Helen Garvy interviews members of the radical student organization for her documentary history of the '60s.

Hell No, We Won't Forget

Santa Cruz filmmaker Helen Garvy takes an alternative look at the rebels and causes of the 1960s in her new documentary

By Richard von Busack

HOW MUCH MORE rehashing do we need about the 1960s? Obviously a lot more, because the too-common vision of the era is of a time of defeat and failure. Personal reminiscences of broken hearts, arrests, feuds, addiction and beatings make up so much of '60s history. Even Abbie Hoffman in Steal This Movie was presented as a manic-depressive family man who really needed to settle down.

Seeing these confessions of exhaustion and compromise, the right wing pounces. Oh, we could have told you all along that those erstwhile rebels were just a bunch of mentals and, besides, they exaggerate the bad side of the war. What did Tom Wolfe call the Vietnam War in Harper's, in this very year 2000?--an "Idealist crusade, fought solely to stop the onslaught of Communism's Magyar hordes in Southeast Asia!" If those peace creeps had their way, we'd all be speaking Hungarian right now.

The approved way of looking back at the contentious decade is to don the tragic face and say, Mistakes were made. (The passive sentence inspires the mournful view. Protesters became clubbed; massacres were conducted; hands became wrung.)

Isn't it time to stop moping and have a little retroactive congratulations here? We won! The soldiers stopped dying in Vietnam; Nixon was run out of town on a rail; American women received at least a portion of freedom due them. Racism continues, but it's no longer openly encouraged by courts and politicians. On the one hand, '60s rhetoric was excessive. On the other hand, we won. On the other hand--besides those two other hands--we won. Hippie student radical Black Panther bra burners got their way. They're winners.

Yes, mistakes were made, but Santa Cruz filmmaker Helen Garvy's calmly argued documentary Rebels With a Cause (which gets its local premiere this week), underscores a long overdue look at the triumphant side of '60s rebellion. Garvy interviews with some 30 members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The group began with a meeting in 1962 at Port Huron, Mich. At campuses nationwide, the SDS led multiplaned actions against the social problems of the 1960s. The organization, which topped 100,000 members, led the coalition of movements against the war, racism, sexism and pollution until 1970, when there were too many different people and opinions to be led by one organization.

I met Garvy at her modest home up in the mountains behind Soquel. There, I also encountered her friend and collaborator, Robert Pardun, whose memoir Prairie Radical: A Journey Through the 60s, will be published next year; and Carl Oglesby, president of the SDS in 1965.

'THE '60S EXIST as a myth or a series of myths, even though the '60s are a current event," Garvy said, as Oglesby and Pardun put on some coffee. "Take the current election: the '60s are there. Al Gore talks about Vietnam and won't apologize for being antiwar. He says, 'I was opposed to the war'--everybody knows that's why his father lost his seat. And George W. Bush evaded the draft like the rest of us.

"When people talk about the '60s, it's all just sex, drugs and rock & roll, and people whitewashed the political side. I think it is really important for people to understand what happened during that period, from our point of view."

The '60s are considered a time of defeat, because not every aim was won, I noted. Garvy agreed: "I remember a daughter of a friend told me--and this is a kid who knows about the '60s saying this--'You failed, you all sold out.' I stopped her and asked, 'Do you realize how different your life is from mine when I was your age? Part of our success is that people take for granted a lot of the things that changed."

The SDS got its start as a student group aiming to help the disenfranchised voters of the South, who were kept from the polls by institutionalized racism. Later, the groups spread out to the inner cities to help teach, organize and protest against slum conditions.

When the American presence in Vietnam escalated, the SDS rallied against the war--creating the first significant antiwar demonstration, in Washington, D.C., April 17, 1965, with some 25,000 in attendance. Before the voting laws changed in 1970, you had to be 21 to vote; the draft got you at 18. Some of the anger at student antiwar demonstrations came from individuals who, as the saying went, were old enough to die but not old enough to vote.

And, as Rebels With a Cause explains, students began to understand their universities' role in the development of weapons used in Southeast Asia. One sad moment in the film is an interview with Oglesby, who describes how he'd been crunching numbers for his university, which, unknown to him, were being used to figure out the correct way of spraying Agent Orange on the Vietnamese jungle. Since the universities and their regents were complicit in defense industries, students went on strike, occupying their own campuses.

ONE ASPECT of history that Rebels With a Cause neglects is Garvy's own story. She was the co-founder of the SDS chapter at Harvard. "My story was no different than other people's," Garvy said, "and personally I was much more comfortable behind the camera." Garvy is a former teacher and self-taught filmmaker who used to work with Dan Bessie, the Santa Cruz film director who made the feature film Hard Travellin'.

Most of Rebels With a Cause consists of interviews with SDS members looking back. While Garvy admitted that she hates talking-head films, she added, "It's hard to get the archival materials, because there weren't any. I wanted to make a film about something that wasn't documented. People assume that there's tons of stuff lying around. There isn't. For the later part of the '60s, there's more film, but it's all very similar: cops hitting people over the head.

"All the earlier stuff--people didn't think it was important. I would have assumed that the first march on Washington would have been covered marginally. There are almost no pictures--the TV stations didn't waste footage on us. I had a camera at least from '65 on, but I only have two rolls of pictures from the 1960s. We had the sense that what we were doing was important, but we had no sense that it was historical stuff that ought to be documented."

"It never occurred to me to keep anything from those days," interjected Robert Pardun. "I threw everything out except for my passport, in case I had to leave the country. My SDS card and everything else just disappeared."

The making of Rebels With a Cause began with a search for materials around the country. "I went to go see people, to get a sense of who I might want to interview," Garvy explained. "Mostly, I was asking, 'Do you have any photos, any posters any buttons?'--and I started putting stuff in my car as I traveled around."

Because GARVY had been an SDS member, it was easier for her to reach back to retrieve the past from memories of the SDS's final days, when the organization died out from factionalization and a good strong portion of government persecution. Cointelpro--the FBI's orchestrated plan to neutralize student radicals--was exposed by Senator Church's committee in 1974.

Pardun's FBI file is some 2,300 pages long: so long, as he says in Rebels With a Cause, that he couldn't afford it see it all at the price of 10 cents a page that the FBI charges to sell it back to him.

"One of the things that's cut us out of this history," Pardun said, "was that here was a very large propaganda campaign in the 1970s and into the '80s, to really cut out the antiwar movement--they didn't want us to be remembered."

The collapse of the SDS into factions included the departure of a splinter group called the Weathermen. One of the most widely reported events of the 1960s was the explosion that killed three Weathermen in a New York townhouse, when a bomb they were manufacturing went off. In Rebels With a Cause, Garvy interviews Bernardine Dohrn, the best known of the Weatherman fugitives. Dohrn went into hiding from the police after the explosion, and here she discusses her still obviously painful memory of "dear friends and colleagues" lost in the blast.

"Actually," Garvy said, "Bernardine was one of the people who had not been talking about this stuff at all. I think she decided it was time to do it. One of the advantages I had was that people trusted me--whether I got stuff exactly right or not, they knew I was going to be pretty serious about what I was doing.

"It's not like this is past history we don't think about or talk about. And a lot of these people have been in touch. We have tried to make sense out of our experiences ... especially because at the end of the SDS, things collapsed with a lot of bitterness. There's been a lot of getting together and talking out stuff."

Oglesby leaned forward and said, "There was a point for some of us where we wanted to forget. It was painful and in many respects tragic. I remember throwing out a bunch of stuff, thinking, No, mother of God, save me from this, I never want to think about it again. This was the most painful period of my life.

"[But] the bruises heal, and I came back to my senses at a certain point wishing I had that stuff. I'm trying to write a memoir now. The stuff I threw away, I wish I could have back. Being in the SDS was a painful experience, as well as an uplifting, joyous one."

Using the history of the SDS as a way of understanding the 1960s, Garvy presents a group of people who have kept up a commitment to the oppressed. Today they're teachers, lawyers and activists. This documentary shows how the '60s changed their lives. It also shows how, whether you know it or not, the '60s changed your life, too.

Rebels With a Cause (Unrated), a documentary by Helen Garvy, opens Thursday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the November 1-8, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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