IN THE COLLAGES that pass for popular history, memories of the fabled 1960s dwell on the action shots in living color—cue Joan Baez, burning draft cards, long-haired hippies sticking flowers inside rifle barrels, motel balcony in Memphis, Chicago cops on a rampage, Kent State scream freeze-frame. And why not? The movers and shakers of the movement, as the opposition was known, acted in the world—they were activists, who spoke with their actions—and a lot of what they did, and a lot of what was done to them, was photogenic, dramatic, and spectacular. They sat down at lunch counters, put their bodies on various lines, and got mauled by white supremacists. Their buses were torched. They got assaulted, bloodied, gunned down. They filled streets, seized buildings, got seized themselves. They disrupted the everyday.
That is, the movement was filled with actions wherein demonstrators demonstrated. They pointed out to the world conditions that not only needed to change but that that they themselves and people like them intended to change. There were the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the placards, the marches numbering hundreds of thousands. There were the papier maché puppets of warlords and later the Viet Cong flags and the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.” There were the flailing billy clubs, the snarling police dogs and fire hoses blasting the demonstrators in the streets of Birmingham; the Black Panthers in black leather and black berets, fists in the air, chanting “Free Huey”; the freaks mounting the Civil War general’s statue in Grant Park, the clouds of tear gas, the demonstrators in helmets. No wonder the typical flashback compilation video looks like an action movie.
In his memoir, Bill Zimmerman contributes his own vivid tableaux to the annals of action sequences, and makes plain that they were sequences in which events followed from events, not the sort of pulp hodgepodge made canonical by the fraudulent pop history of, say, Forrest Gump. Born in 1940 to Jewish refugees from Latvia and Vienna (and so, like many others of his vintage, viscerally revolted by the thought that he might become, if only by default, “a good German”), Zimmerman was not only brainy but physical and audacious. In high school, he learned to fly small planes. He was a Lake Michigan lifeguard. He pulled survivors from a flaming car wreck. He joined an underwater rescue team.
He got around. In 1960, as a University of Chicago dropout, he learned that ending up on the wrong end of a lead-weighted police club in Paris could be a move in a more elaborate game in which a regime ends up being brought down by the sheer stupidity of official overkill. In Israel after Paris, he found himself among kibbutzniks studying Chinese and reading Mao on Shabbat mornings. He witnessed raw racism in the Mississippi Delta and, writing evocatively about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helps to undermine the absurd retroactive falsification that the civil rights movement consisted strictly of a bunch of people who “marched with Martin Luther King” (though he did that too, and got pelted with stones and bottles for his pains while trying to integrate a white part of Chicago).
Older than most of his political peers, Zimmerman did not become a full-time activist before trying a conventional career track. An early student of the psychology of sleep at the University of Chicago, he earned a Ph.D. there and started teaching at Brooklyn College. He was in the front line of the protest at the Pentagon in October 1967, as a long-haired protester walked down the line of soldiers calmly inserting flowers into their rifle barrels. (This scene, captured by a Washington Post photographer, was the origin of “flower power.”) By the end of that year he was refraining from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Realizing that his scientific research might have military applications, he renounced it, whereupon he got fired. After a period spent on Caribbean beaches, he started organizing other scientists against military research.
It took several years before Zimmerman realized that America was not ripe for revolution. It took him until 1971, in fact, when thousands arrested in Washington in the largest mass arrest in the country’s history “did not immobilize the government,” to realize that “our strategy and our tactics had both failed. … The massive arrests and our mistreatment by the police did not provoke a huge public outcry. … The workers did not rise up and support us as they had in Paris in 1968. … We had miscalculated. … A majority of Americans were finally opposed to the war. Yet the militant tactics of the antiwar movement alienated those same people, most of whom were not activists but ordinary citizens.”
But Zimmerman had not gotten the word that the age of adventure was over. “If I couldn’t be a revolutionary,” he writes, “I’d be a troublemaker.” Soon he was smuggling medical aid to Vietnam, starting with a stolen sample of a new antibiotic that would help wounded North Vietnamese soldiers recover. He debated the rights and the wrongs, and concluded that this was a life-saving expedition, since American soldiers would not (in the short run, at any rate) be placed in harm’s way as a result. Later, he was under American bombardment in North Vietnam, and raising funds for medical supplies that went there, around the time when B-52s razed the largest and most advanced civilian hospital in Hanoi.
All of this precedes the act of troublemaking for which Zimmerman is perhaps best known. In 1973, Oglala Lakota protesters and their supporters occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to oppose their corrupt tribal leader and demand that the US enforce treaties. Federal marshals and FBI men blockaded the town for 71 days. Zimmerman led a three-plane expedition through a storm across government lines and dropped a ton of food for the besieged Indians—crippling his own plane in the process. This part of his book is as thrilling as any true-life thriller—which it is.
Where does one go from there? To normal politics. Zimmerman lobbied Congress in the closing years of the Vietnam War, and worked with Tom Hayden to create what they hoped would be a California statewide electoral machine. He concluded that after 1973 “we … won significant victories not with protests and defiance but with focused work inside the established political system.” He went on to become perhaps California’s most accomplished progressive public relations and media consultant.
There is rather too much boilerplate history in Bill Zimmerman’s account, but for all its occasional self-dramatization it reminds us, in a timely way, of the immensity of the radical movement that swept America in the ’60s, of the manifold ways in which it engaged a host of activists and eventually became sublimated into an enduring feature of American culture and politics. At a time when journalists persist in judging the Occupy movement by its easily visible signs and accomplishments of the past hundred days, Troublemaker is a useful reminder of how much of a social movement takes place in a profusion of lives, under the surface, among the unfamous.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, to be published by HarperCollins in April.