John Holt on Violence and the Democratic National Convention of 1968

This short excerpt is from an unpublished manuscript by John Holt, which he intended to be a handbook for the young to navigate a world that John viewed as increasingly hostile towards them. My colleague Akshay Ahuja edited and transcribed the pages of this unfinished book, and I’m very grateful for his thoughtful work.

Most Americans have grown up in a milieu where fighting between men was common, where this was the approved way of settling quarrels and avenging insults. Most of them did a good deal of fighting themselves. Aside from this, their heads are filled by the mass media with fantasies of violence that they are always ready, given the proper excuse, to act out.

When I was a kid, I went for a couple of years to a public school where it was routine for the boys, and often the girls, to fight, at least until their place in the pecking order had been more or less definitely established. But, as I grew older, I thought that was kids’ stuff. In the submarines, I began to realize with amazement and amusement and something else, that when enlisted men went ashore on liberty, chances were excellent that before the evening was over, they would be in at least one fight. Now there seemed to be a kind of priority of people to fight with. If you could find them, you fought with the members of the Armed Forces of other countries. If not, you fought with your own in more or less the following order: Army, Marines, naval aviators, shore-based Navy personnel, crews of Navy surface ships, crews of other submarines, your own shipmates. I remember one torpedoman going over the gangplank in his dress blues, saying wearily as he left the ship, “Well, here I go. I’ll probably come back all drunk and beat up tonight.” I asked him why he did it. He didn’t know; it was another one of those things that you do. This extraordinarily love of and commitment to violence has seemed very strange to me even after I became used to it.

I never did get a sense of the causes of it, but we must know that it is everywhere in American life. One indication of it is that 77% of the people asked strongly approved of the action of the Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

At a Welfare Mothers’ Meeting, Dr. Benjamin Spock said that, throughout our history, people have only improved their lot when they got together and made a fuss, and that indeed our history began with people making a fuss, throwing tea, “illegally,” into the harbor when their polite letters and petitions had been many times ignored. He then pointed out, and quite rightly, that the so-called violence we are hearing about is not committed by students, blacks, or the poor agitating in one way or another for their rights or needs, but is for the most part committed by the agents of so-called “law and order” in their efforts to put down these protests. Then he told a shocking story, nothing new, the type of thing that goes on here quite often, but shocking nonetheless, at least to me who grew up thinking that these kinds of things didn’t happen and shouldn’t happen and never would happen in this country.

The story is about a friend and colleague of his, Sydney Peck, a distinguished physician, who, like many other citizens, feeling it both his responsibility and his duty, went to Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention to protest what was being done there. Because he was older and quite obviously a respectable citizen, he had been asked to act as a kind of liaison between some of the demonstrators and the Chicago police. At one point the police, coming in from three sides, had herded a group of demonstrators into a street. The demonstrators were moving away from the police, thinking that this was what the police were trying to get them to do. Suddenly, a whole new crowd of police appeared at the far end of the street, charging toward them. As the police closed in from all sides, clubs ready, Dr. Peck spotted an assistant commissioner near him and ran toward him to ask what he wanted the demonstrators to do. This is a middle-aged man, business suit, etc. Before he reached the commissioner, several policemen rushed toward him and attacked him with their clubs. He turned and ran, but they overtook him, knocked him down and in typical police fashion these days beat him while he lay on the ground, knocking him unconscious, breaking in several places his hands with which he was trying vainly to defend himself, and eventually giving him a concussion. He came to later, severely injured in a hospital.

But the real kicker of the story is that the police have indicted him for what they call “aggravated assault.” It is this last that gets me. To commit a crime upon a man—and let there be no doubt about it, when policemen beat an unarmed and defenseless man who has done no wrong, they are committing a crime—is bad enough; but then to accuse your broken, bleeding, and unconscious victim of committing a crime against you, this is almost more than sanity can stand. Hearing it, of course you get angry. Any decent person would.

All afternoon long, I thought of this story and wrestled not so much with my anger as with the temptation to hate those police, to put pigs’ heads on them, to turn them in my mind into some kind of obscene non-humans. How can one not hate such creatures? And then at some point there flew into my mind a passage in Moby-Dick in which the cook of the Pequod, watching sharks in the water beside the ship rip and tear at each other to get at something—whale meat, I suppose—remarks after a while that it is just their nature to act the way they do, and there’s no use getting upset about it. And this provided for me a kind of key with which to escape from the prison of hatred I seemed shut up in. The way for people who hate injustice and oppression and cruelty and war and are trying to oppose them, to feel about the policemen who are almost certain, at least for some time to come, to oppose them with the most brutal and illegal violence, is the way a swimmer ought to feel about sharks. You know they’re dangerous; you stay away from them if you can; if you have to go where sharks are, you try to find some way of keeping them calm or outwitting them or something; if they attack you, you resist them, fight them off, as best you can. But in no case do you hate them. It doesn’t make any sense.

For people to say, and particularly when talking to the rightly angry young, that our country is governed by democratic principles and institutions and that young people should support them and work within them is a most extraordinary and unforgivable piece of dishonesty.