The Truth of the Matter

The Denver Post, May 2, 2024
Backlash After Violence - Denver Post headline May 2, 2024

Ah yes, school days, school days… reminiscing about the carefree golden days of the 60s. Now UCLA is in the news again with protests (referred to as angry demonstrations, riots, peaceful protests, encampments, occupations, or battles) along with Columbia University, CU Denver, and others all around the country.

In June of 1967 I was a graduate student at UCLA, enjoying the Southern California sunshine and fascinated by the presence of coeds in miniskirts on the campus. The fascination was intensified by my just-concluded four-year stint on a college campus that was all-male, with everybody in uniforms. No, it wasn’t a federal prison, but that’s another story. The learning environment at UCLA was casual and friendly. I was there on an Air Force scholarship, kind of passing as a civilian although my regulation-trimmed hair was actually a bright red flag. Red literally, and a flag figuratively.

The Vietnam war was exploding as a big issue on college campuses and Lyndon Johnson was under pressure to end it. He kept digging in deeper, escalating the war in desperation to show progress before the next election. He would later decline to run again, declaring, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

June 23, 1967: Protestors fill Motor Ave. as they start marching toward Century Plaza Hotel for an anti-Vietnam War protest. Ten thousand protesters turned out during speech by President Lyndon Johnson. (Ray Graham / Los Angeles Times)

In 1967 though, LBJ was in the hot seat. He was reviled by a wide cross-section of the country. Outrage was building about the war, about social injustice, about the power of corporations, everything. A $1,000-a-plate campaign fundraising dinner not far from the UCLA campus became a flash point. Ten thousand people, both students and others, gathered and marched toward the Century Plaza Hotel where LBJ was speaking. As they approached the hotel, police squeezed them from four street lanes to one, and then the road was blocked by police barricades and a sit-in that had started earlier. That concentrated the crowd into what was then declared an illegal assembly instead of a march. Orders were given to disperse the crowd.

To be clear, I wasn’t in that crowd. It wasn’t for lack of interest, but you know, that red flag and all. I try to keep to the advice given to me by my parents, “Remember who you are.” I recall another situation where I had to be reminded of that advice. Stormy and I were in Bulgaria…

“… our attention was drawn to a demonstration, about 200 people forming up and getting ready to march north along the main street carrying signs in Bulgarian and English, against the war. Stop the American Aggressor! United Against the War! Don’t Bomb Iraq! As we came closer we saw TV cameras, and police were starting to funnel traffic toward an inside lane to allow space on the street for the marchers. I wanted to get some pictures but Stormy, with far more prudence, pulled away out to the side of the group, warning me, “Come on over here, you don’t want to be in range of those cameras.” Oh, yeah, [as Peace Corps volunteers] we’re apolitical, aren’t we? I forgot. Her good judgment was one of the reasons I married her.”

A Breeze in Bulgaria, p. 139

Back to the Century Plaza Hotel, the business of breaking up the crowd was carried out by riot-equipped police with guns and nightsticks. It turned into a violent, bloody struggle with scores of people injured. The following morning the Los Angeles Times ran a headline in 3-inch-high letters:

The Daily Bruin, the UCLA campus newspaper, headlined a story too.

They weren’t lying. Each was telling the absolute truth. The pictures and eyewitness accounts, the interviews and recordings, the physical evidence, protest signs, the injuries and the items used as weapons, all backed up the stories on each side.

Can two things, each contrary to the other, both be true? Is there no objective truth? Until I read those two headlines I had always thought every serious question had one and only one correct answer, and if there were contradictions they could be sorted through to find “the” truth. I’ve always been able to comprehend “there’s no right answer” on matters of opinion and taste, but not about facts – a fact is a fact, isn’t it? A statement about a fact is either true or not true.

I now know that’s not true.

In an Associated Press article by Allen G. Breed and Jocelyn Gecker, May 2 2024, the writers quote a 1970 report by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. “This crisis has roots in divisions of American society as deep as any since the Civil War,” the panel wrote. “The divisions are reflected in violent acts and harsh rhetoric and in the enmity of those Americans who see themselves as occupying opposing camps.”

The divisions now are as deep as ever, and most people lined up on each side can see only their own “truth of the matter.” As long as that is so, not only is understanding impossible, but so is peace.