Easy Rider was a heavy trip the first time I saw it when it was released in the cinema. The ending was a numbing and shocking scene and I literally sat stunned. Afterwards I was too sad for words for several days. Then and today, this film was a not-so-subtle reminder that Amerika was, and still is, a dangerous place for dissent.
Amerika then was a very heavy trip for anyone who dared to stand out, to be different, to take the unbeaten path, or whose hair was long or skin was darker than white. So much for “rugged individualism” huh?
When the film came out in 1969 the civil rights movement was under full steam and under a heavy pall because of the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. The war in Vietnam was in full swing and bodies were coming home by the planeload daily. Of course we cannot even count the Vietnamese who died.
I remember reading that someone had kept careful count of all the “viet cong” who had been reported killed by US troops and the total was greater than the population of BOTH North and South Vietnam!!
I have read Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” which was first published in 1955!! (Made into a movie recently starring Michael Caine, read the book AND see the film) 1955 was fully 10 years before US Marines waded ashore and escalated the war into the nation dividing gut wrencher it was to become. 1955 was a year after the French were finally defeated at Dien Bien Phu and if you read Greene’s book you will, I hope, wonder how anyone in their right mind who read it then could have continued with US policies in the area. 1955 was only two years after the US Government and its new CIA pulled off its first “regime change” in Iran and toppled a constitutionally and democratically elected prime minister and replaced him with the Shah, a cruel tyrant by even conservative estimates.
In the late ’60’s, The Black Panther Party members ruled their neighborhoods, they were “niggers with guns” and they scared the shit out of the white establishment. They did very, VERY revolutionary things like giving free breakfasts to community children whose parents could not afford to feed them or stopped crime in the neighborhoods their members patrolled. Imagine that a black woman could actually walk home from work in the late evening and not be afraid of violence to her body.
However, the FBI through its COINTELPRO program systematically worked to wipe out the leadership of the Black Panther Party. One such example was Geronimo Pratt who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit because the FBI and the prosecutor withheld evidence. an FBI agent testified “that he believed Pratt had been framed, because both the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department knew he had not been in the area at the time the murder occurred.”
Chicago police were especially brutal against radicals and Black Panthers. They worked closely with COINTELPRO in “eliminations” of Party leaders. Fred Hampton, a prominent and actually moderate Panther leader in Chicago was shot to death in his bed while sleeping by several of “Chicago’s finest” police who broke into his apartment without a warrant.
The Democratic convention of 1968 was totally wrecked by internal division and tremendous demonstrations in the streets heavily marred by the brutal tactics of the Chicago Police under Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley who were later branded by a “blue ribbon” commission as having instigated and started the riots which eventually got out of total control.
Soon after the Chicago Democratic Convention riots, eight men were put on trial for causing the riots because they had long hair, were Black, advocated freedom of assembly in public parks, rejected authority, were community organisers, and smoked marijuana among many of their more heinous crimes. They were called “The Chicago Seven”
Bobby Seale, a Black Panther, was tried along with the Seven. Seale was not even in Chicago during the convention, but the state attempted to convict him along with the yippies and others who were there to (legally) demonstrate against the Vietnam War. Seale refused the lawyers who freely represented the other seven and wanted to make his own defense. The judge refused him this constitutional right and had Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom and tied to a chair so he could not move nor make a sound. Thus, he was “tried” by a judge and jury of his “peers” and they were all found guilty.
In 1970 the National Guard shot and killed four university students at Kent State University in Ohio and wounded many more. In almost the same week, Mississippi State police opened up with rifle and automatic weapon fire at a dorm building on Jackson State University in Mississippi. JSU was an all black university. Two students were killed and many wounded. “FBI investigators estimated that more than 460 rounds struck the building, shattering every window facing the street on each floor. Investigators counted at least 160 bullet holes in the outer walls of the stairwell alone” No one was ever convicted of the murders of these students.
The students in these and many other instances were exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. The Kent State students were given national publicity and songs were written about them (Ohio by CSNY) because the parents of the dead kids were upper middle class and…white! How many of you know today about the murders at Jackson State? So much for the land of the free…
My ex-wife, whose parents were both from Mexico and who looked very “ethnic”, introduced me to white and brown racism by just being who she was and hanging out with me, her “hippy” boyfriend. We were thrown out of places to eat in Oklahoma, hassled by small town kops in Kansas and warned explicitly by Houston police (aka gestapo) that we were in the wrong part of town and we should leave even though we were in a public park.
Sooooo, it is not surprising some young people who see Easy Rider today find it somewhat depressing. The subtitle says something like, “a man went looking for America…and found it!” which sums it up nicely.
If I have any regrets about my life they are that I did not do more. My contribution to all the above was so small I have to wonder if I did anything at all. I do not ever get homesick for the US, I left its violent, fast/fat food culture behind. Like all empires its demise is not far off, whether it takes 10 or 100 years, and all the killing and bloodshed in the name of freedom and democracy will have been for McDonald’s, Walmart, Halliburton, the war profiteers, and oil capitalists.
Amerika WAS depressing in 1968 but at least there was in the air a feeling there was a movement for social change (we literally called it “The Movement”) and so the streets of Amerika were very much alive. When the war started to wind down, the draft was ended so rich kids no longer had to worry about trying to find a dodge (like Bush and Cheney), and many of the more troublesome street organisers and resistors were in their graves. Then the “movement” started to sputter out, to splinter and fall apart and most leftists realized they had again been sold out by the middle class and this time the working class had been successfully co-opted by being allowed to integrate into the lower niche of the middle class and everyone started to stay home and watch TV.
Now? Amerika is just depressing…