Excerpt from Chapter 2, So Much Older Then. Coming of Age When the World Is Coming Apart

Viva la Huelga!

“Viva la huelga!” cried Matt at the top of his lungs.

“VIVA!!!!” all 20 of us responded in unison at the top of ours. “BOYCOTT KROGERS — BOYCOTT GRAPES!!”

We repeated the chants over and over as we marched up and down the sidewalk alongside the Kroger grocery store in downtown Kirkwood, waving our picket signs emblazoned with the slogans we were chanting. The store was just a couple of miles from my parents’ house, and I was pretty sure that one of our neighbors or church members would drive by and see me as they went about their Saturday shopping. The grape boycott was relatively new and still controversial, especially the grocery store picketing. The likelihood that some of my parents’ friends would see me doing this and then, maybe, call them, made it doubly exciting for me that morning. I wanted to shake all of these suburbanites — especially my parents — out of what I saw as their complacency. If one of them picked up the phone and reported to my mom they’d seen me, I knew that would really get her attention.

Little did I know at that moment that the events that were about to unfold over the next few hours would not only get my parents’ attention, but also that of the FBI.

After returning from the Easter retreat in Houston and learning of Vic’s death in Vietnam, I was determined to get into the action. During the retreat, I had seen and heard firsthand how all the issues I was concerned about were connected to each other. Racism, poverty, the war in Vietnam, and world hunger were all tied together in a system that I now understood as fundamentally unjust and unfair, favoring the few at the expense of the many. Christians, especially, I thought, were required to respond to these urgent needs. To do otherwise was the height of hypocrisy in my book. And action required more than talking about things with your friends or just giving money to various causes. Action meant doing, real doing — literally putting your body on the line.

In Houston, our speaker from the United Farm Workers (UFW), Jorge, had told the story of his own work in the fields in California, Arizona and Texas. What he told us of his personal experiences of low wages, racial slurs, and terrible living conditions in the camps made me feel both enraged and somehow guilty — a confused set of feelings that I had experienced reading James Baldwin and talking about racism with Darrell. Yet I came away feeling connected with Jorge, and sure that the only way migrant farm workers could get better lives was by unionizing. Jorge emphasized that the best way for people who cared about farm workers to show their support was to join the national boycott of grapes that UFW was organizing to put pressure on the big growers. After his talk, I asked Jorge if the UFW had supporters in St. Louis. Before we left Houston, Jorge got a list of contact numbers to Frieda.

And so, the week after I got back from the retreat, I screwed up my courage and called the St. Louis contact number and connected with Matt, who was very welcoming. He told me that they met up with supporters every Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Teamsters’ headquarters in St. Louis and went off in groups of 15 to 30, depending on the day, to as many grocery stores in the area that they could cover with picket lines for a couple of hours.

Now, in mid-June, after participating in the picket lines for almost two months, I was a veteran and had become pretty good friends with Matt and Verna, the full-time UFW organizers, as well as a handful of Teamster members and shop stewards who were regulars most Saturdays. My sister Susie had started to join me sometimes since she was home from college for the summer and was with me this particular Saturday morning. It was going to be my last picket line for a while, since I would be taking off in a week for a two-week long Youth Leadership Institute sponsored by Walther League in Chicago.

I was thrilled to have been invited to the Institute on Frieda’s recommendation. I hoped I would be able to meet her and the national leadership’s expectations of me. I was also secretly fearful that they would figure out I wasn’t really cut out to be a leader and send me home. After the Institute, I would travel from Chicago to Denver, where the national convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was scheduled to take place. The League was bringing as many of its youth leaders as possible to Denver to witness to the church’s leaders about hunger and its root causes, as well as provide a “human face” for the League, as more conservative church leaders were beginning to attack it as it transformed to being “youth-led and issue-oriented.”

So, a couple of days away from my seventeenth birthday — as well as the start of new adventures — I was in high spirits, marching and shouting outside the store. We had been there about 15 minutes when a KMOX-TV van rolled up and started filming us, with the reporter interviewing Matt on camera about the boycott. Just as Matt’s interview was ending, Kirkwood police cruisers began arriving, pulling into the store parking lot, with lights and sirens going. The cameras kept rolling, but shifted focus to a police officer who got out of one of the cruisers with a megaphone and began addressing all of us in the picket line: “Attention! Attention! This is an illegal assembly! You are in violation of the law in the City of Kirkwood and must disband immediately. You have two minutes to disband.”

I could feel my heart racing — this was totally outside my experience! I wanted to shrink away, but was carried along by the momentum of the picket line. As the cop was speaking, additional cars kept rolling up and about a dozen officers formed a loose line behind him in the parking lot. Radios crackled and the cars’ bar lights kept flashing in the moments of silence that followed the announcement. Then, Matt and Verna swung into action, Matt walking over to the police with the cameras trailing behind him and Verna shouting encouragement to us on the line: “It’s OK, it’s OK. Keep walking, keep moving.” Then shouting: “HUELGA! HUELGA! VIVA LA HUELGA!”

“VIVA!” all of the Teamsters responded while giving encouraging looks and nods to the rest of us, a motley mix of suburban housewives and high school and college students. “ BOYCOTT GRAPES, BOYCOTT KROGER!!”

From 50 feet away, I watched as Matt seemed to become more agitated talking to the police officer, turned his back on him, and walked over to the picket line. This didn’t seem like a good outcome to me. Matt got into the line next to one of the Teamster stewards, said a few words to him, and then joined in the shouting. The police officer stepped forward with his megaphone: “Time is up! Disperse now. Cease this illegal assembly immediately or you are under arrest.”

Matt stopped walking and motioned and called us all over to him.

“Look. These suburban cops are dopes. We can walk on public sidewalks and exercise free speech. But, they won’t listen and will arrest any of us that keep the action going. OK if you need to go, I understand, nobody signed up to get arrested. But, Verna and I and our Teamster brothers are staying put, and you can join us. We will likely go to jail though.”

With that, Matt hoisted a Boycott Grapes sign and began walking down the sidewalk. Verna and the four Teamsters followed suit. I looked over to Susie and she said, “What the hell?” and joined the line again. I followed her, along with another three or four students whom I knew vaguely from previous Saturdays. The rest of our group faded off into the parking lot, while the cops watched those of us marching, our line of about a dozen now picking up energy and shouting again, while the TV cameras rolled.

“BOYCOTT KROGERS! BOYCOTT GRAPES! VIVA LA HUELGA!”

The leading cop had put his megaphone down on the hood of his car and now walked over toward the picket line, motioning the other officers to follow him. He stopped and stood in front of Matt. “You are under arrest for illegal assembly. Please come with me.”

The officer took Matt by the upper arm with one hand while taking the picket sign out of his hands. Matt offered no resistance and looked toward the camera. “BOYCOTT GRAPES!” he shouted one more time as the cop led him over to his car, put the sign on the ground, opened the back door of the cruiser for Matt and guided him into the seat, closing the door behind him. He then watched as his men walked over to the rest of us to follow his orders.

The cop walking toward me seemed to be moving in slow motion. He had a slight grin as reached out and grabbed my upper arm while simultaneously grabbing a hold of one of my sister’s arms. He turned us around and began walking us down the sidewalk toward his cruiser. I could feel my heart pounding, racing in rhythm with my thoughts: Was this really happening? Were they going to take me to the infamous juvenile detention center, where somebody was likely going to beat me up? Wouldn’t Frieda and the other Walther League leaders be proud of me? Was I going to have a criminal record now? Forever? And what on earth would Daddy do?

Surprisingly, they put Susie and me in the same cruiser, and we had a minute to talk before the cops got in the front seat.

“Daddy is going to be livid! Why didn’t you tell me this could happen?” she said.

“I would have left if you wanted to. Jeez!”

“Sure, sure. God, this will probably be on the news tonight and everything. Man, he is going to kill us for this,” she said.

“Look, whatever happens, we’re in it together,” I reminded her.

“Right, sure, whatever. I hope we won’t be in jail for a long time. Jesus, this is — ”

Wefell silent as the two cops got into the front seat, started the car, and gave a few whoops with their siren. I looked out the window and saw the TV cameraman still filming other arrests as we pulled away. The cops up front mumbled to each other and their radio crackled. They didn’t say a word to us, and we kept our silence as they drove the five minutes over to Kirkwood’s city hall and pulled around the back to park. They got out of the car, opened our doors, and each of them took one of us by the arm and led us into the building, up the stairs to the police department.

Soon there were 10 of us standing together in a group surrounded by a loose circle of six or seven cops in the reception area outside the police department in Kirkwood City Hall. Matt and Verna were smiling and joking with everyone. I realized that I had been trembling inside. I took a deep breath and looked over at my sister, who was talking to Verna like nothing special was happening. I found myself smiling a little, thinking that somehow, some way, this was going to be all right.

After a few minutes, the cop who had had the megaphone — and turned out to be the shift lieutenant — addressed us. He said we were going to be processed now and taken to cells. They had already contacted the municipal judge, who would be there in an hour or so to determine our bail and then, we would likely be able to get out of jail if we had someone to bail us out. He said this would apply to everyone who was an adult and that if anyone was under 17, they should let him know and they would call a juvenile officer and probably take them over to juvenile hall in Clayton. Susie glanced over at me and I shook my head, slightly, “no.” I was three days away from my birthday, and there was no way I was going to get pulled out of this into the juvenile system. Neither of the other two students said a word.

Wewere told to line up in two lines, one of men and one of women. We stood in front of a desk sergeant who motioned impatiently for each of us to step forward, one at a time. As each of us stepped up in front of him, he glanced up, gave us a withering look, and barked out the same set of questions and commands:

“Name?”

“Spell it?

“Address?”

“Phone number?”

“Date of birth?”

“OK. Step over there for prints and pictures.”

“Next.”

When it was my turn, I subtracted a year and gave 1951 as my birth year.

“Almost your birthday, huh, fella?” the sergeant noted after I gave my information. “18 soon. This here is not going to be enough to get you out of the draft, though.”

I smirked, moved over, and stood with the other men, waiting to get our mug shots and fingerprints done. I looked over to Susie in the women’s line. For an instant, she met my eyes, smiled, rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say she couldn’t believe what I had done. Then she turned back and continued her conversation with Verna. When we had all been fully processed, a couple of cops shuffled each of the groups off to cells. We had two cells for the men in one section of the jail, while the three women were put together in one cell in another section. As far as I could tell, there were no other prisoners of either gender in the Kirkwood city jail that afternoon, but apparently they had protocols to follow that included segregating the sexes.

The expected one hour stretched into two, and then three. During the first half hour or so, we busied ourselves with chanting back and forth, between the men and women, repeating the slogans from the picket line. Soon, even we were bored silly by that. The Teamsters taught us some labor songs, like “Solidarity Forever,” and everyone knew a few of the civil rights standards, like “We Shall Overcome.” Soon enough, though, we had exhausted our repertoire and fell quiet. A few more minutes passed, and then I heard Susie’s voice singing a round that she had learned years ago in Girl Scouts, “White Choral Bells.” She and Judy and my mom knew a whole bunch of these rounds that my brothers and I thought were completely inane, but were always a part of long family car trips and singing around the campfire on our camping trips. “Jesus,” I thought, “spare me from my sister’s stupidity.” She and Verna and the other woman in their cell kept at it for a while, though, and no one in our cells seemed to mind.

Matt and another guy stretched out on the steel shelf beds and fell asleep. The rest of us found seats on the floor. There was a little small talk and long stretches of silence. From my perch on the floor in the front corner of the cell, I could see down the hallway to the door that led back into the police station. I sat staring at the door, willing it to open, to no avail. I leaned my head against the bars, closed my eyes, and began to think about what would happen when we got home….

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