The Texas Observer FOREIGN POLICY AND VIETNAM A Journal of Free Voices A Window to The South Nov. 26, 1965 25c ‘Hey, Prof, Why Don’t You Set Yourself on Fire?’ El Paso I had not planned to go to the demonstration. I was just downtown loafing and had stopped in at the Hotel Cortez for a haircut. Ordinarily the main Saturday topic would have been football, but not this morning. “I wish they’d turn the boys from Fort Bliss loose on ’em for about a minute,” one barber was saying, gesturing with his scissors. “I bet that’d cure those ‘protesters’.” There was a general headbobbing of agreement from the straightbacked men in barber chairs. One fat man, reclining for a shave, pulled his steaming towel aside and wheezed, “Punks . . . just a bunch of punks,” and slapped the towel back over his face. Barbers and customers nodded again, quite serious and quite in accord. Well, demonstrations . . . I didn’t know. And I didn’t know what to think about the El Paso Committee to End War in Vietnamthe ones that were going to demonstrate in the plaza except that they had the right to exist and have their say and maybe cause people to think a little more deeply about a hell of a complex problem. They were probably about half right and half wrong, just as everyone else who had taken a stand about Vietnam was probably half right and wrong. An undeclared war, and bombings of civilians, and communist aggression, and self-determination, and loss of Southeast Asia, and U.S. commitmentnobody seemed to have a single, easy way to make a solution out of all those current phrases. Why not keep thinking about themhard, and in public . . . I paid for my haircut and walked over to San Jacinto Plaza to wait. I had never seen any kind of protest group in action except for a few bored Mexican men who had once picketed the .Hilton Hotel. The anti-war demonstration was set for one o’clock, but at twelve-fifteen the plaza was just as it always had been: a fine place to be sitting in on a pleasant fall day. Old mgn in coats were out taking the sun, couples were idling around the center alligator pond, barefooted Mexican boys with homemade shoe-shine boxes were trying todrum up trade. Japanese and Korean student officers from Fort Bliss were snapping pictures; Negro students from Texas Western College were waiting for their bus. An old gypsy woman was asleep on the grass. Elroy Bode I found it hard to believe that this cosmopolitan little park was suddenly to become a hotbed of violent passions. On dozens of Sunday afternoons I had sat listening to plaza evangelists exhort the crowd and no one had ever jumped up, infuriated by a holy roller’s interpretation of the Bible. It would be interesting to know if Vietnam could strike closer to a man’s vitals than a concept of God. For the next twenty minutes or so things went along routinelypretty much the way any crowd would gather for any downtown spectacle. Motorcycle policemen roared up in crash helmets and shining boots, people began standing on flower bed walls to get a better view, traffic thickened in the streets. But gradually you could sense a change in atmosphere. Mingled among the strollers and bench-riders were obvious plainclothesmen who were trying to stand around and look inconspicuous. They puffed narrow cigars and ambled about, the ridges of their shoulder holsters showing through their coats. Several Veterans of Foreign Wars were beginning to pass out miniature American flags. A squinting, burr-haired Mexican man with an “I’m Happy” button on his lapel walked about searching for something in the air, on the groundsomewhere. “That’s Chuy de la 0.,” a man said, shaking his head. “He’ll be trouble for somebody.” Little knots of newsmen and photographers had grown together, the newsmen holding cigarettes and sounding dispassionate and articulate. An old man in old man’s shoes and khaki pants and a worn-out hat-85, if a daywas pushing a candy vendor’s cart along with THE DENVER KID handprinted in front. He was selling Almond Joys. I decided that was going to be the tone of our controversial demonstration: Old Mortality, in the guise of The Denver Kid, would sell his Almond Joys and provide a stabilizing element; the eccentric “I’m Happy” guy would go frantically along, squinting after his private demon in the crowd and providing us with a Dark Omen ; the newsmen would keep everything objective and in focus. It was all going to be a good casual leg-stretch and eye-balling. Minority dissent taken in stride in tolerant El Paso. The noon was so very pleasantgrass smelling good, sun warm, men moving about leisurely with slung cameras and jutting pipesthat I grew reflective as I waited. Hmmm: public gathering, with a spark of political tension in the air. I hadn’t been in Dallas on November 22 but I had seen the pictures, had read. I found myself automatically looking up at the open windows of the surrounding buildings. Two days before a crank caller had threatened the life of the Texas Western history professor who was to lead the demonstration: I tried to imagine how the windows of the School Depository Building had looked to those -gathered below on the grass . . . BY ONE O’CLOCK the crowd in the plaza had gathered and was ready. Sidewalks were jammed, cameras were out, the many small American flags. were distributed and pinned. \(They provided a handy division between the Good Guys and Bad. Those not wearing flags stood together and made quiet jokes among themselves ; they were the definite minority. One college boy told another: “Tonto, I’m No one seemed to know what the demonstrators were going to do or say or what sort of impression they would make. Would they look like beatniks? Would one of them maybe that history professorget up on a box and address the crowd? What kind of people were demonstrators, anyway? This was a new spectator sport, and the crowd was curious. Waiting, I wondered where Chuy de la 0. was and what he was going to do. The Denver Kid had stopped by a water fountain to hitch up his pants. Policemen were clearing out the last of the shoe-shine boys, causing one man to yell, “Hey, sergeant, how come you’re running them off? They’re not against us they believe in free enterprise.” People laughed. Finally across the way, from the direction of the Western Union Building on the northwest corner, here they came: the war protesters. White pasteboard signs had begun to bob underneath the sidewalk elms and the crowd was surging toward them. At first it was not clear what route the protesters were going to take; the crowd kept flowing back and forth uncertainly. Boys gave up good viewing positions on
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