What did you learn at the Encampment? The 1968 New York Encampment was one of the most extraordinary summers of my life. My world was completely turned upside-down. I was like a sponge, soaking up everything. We had late-night discussions about the Vietnam War and America’s role in it. I participated in astonishing workshops on civil rights — and I was reading a book a night — I was on fire! We had talent shows with music and poems. It was amazing to be around other people who were smart, funny, talented and creative, with an abiding awareness of how social injustice erodes the ground everyone walks on. In a world of racial intolerance, we were living something different: “No one looks like anyone else or sounds like anybody else, but somehow we have more in common.” I was introduced to the idea of White privilege — that just because a person has blond hair and blue eyes, they would be given preference. I had never looked at it that way. I had never heard of redlining. These are facts. It made a difference to me that there were other people who believed the war was immoral. It was a beautiful little world in a big frightening world and a powerful experience of belonging.
What motivated you to go to the Encampment? I came from an arch-conservative town on Lake Erie. I was fighting with my dad about the war. I said, “I’m not going.” He was in the Navy in WWII and believed that “you do what your country asks of you.” I knew a guy named Bob who had gone to the Encampment in 1967. He said, “Look, if you want to have your whole life set on fire, go to New York City to the Encampment.” He said it was full of aspiring radicals; people who were fascinating, interesting and engaged, including talented musicians and songwriters.
When you arrived, what was your first impression of the Encampment? I was disappointed to be in White Plains — I wanted to be in the thick of New York City! The place was not memorable, but the people were available, interesting, welcoming and curious. At the EFC, everybody sat with everybody else. It didn’t matter. We were already intermingled in some way. That would never happen in the town I came from.
How has the Encampment influenced your life? One of my EFC activities was teaching ESL in Spanish Harlem. I had to get to 102nd Street and Second Avenue, so I would walk through Harlem by myself. From the EFC’s perspective it was, “Of course you do — that’s how you get there.” It was amazing to be 15 and feel tough, capable and confident. It was freeing to be in a different world with people who didn’t talk like me or come from situations that I could recognize.
In some ways, I was more of an aspiring musician than a radical. That summer, I traveled by subway all over New York City. I heard almost everyone I wanted to hear that summer except Dylan, in the Village or at the Schaeffer Music Festival. I saw the Five Stairsteps at the Apollo Theater. I was the only White person there, but I felt at ease because I was with my friends — my fellow Encampers.
These things were game-changers that have stayed with me and influenced the rest of my life. I’m a poet and novelist, and I write screenplays. The presence of that world is never far from what I try to reach in my work.
What is your favorite memory or story from the Encampment? My favorite memory was going to the Apollo Theater, but there are other memories that stick with me. I was caught up in city life in that tumultuous summer. I saw a Vietnam War protest in Washington Park turn violent when police on horseback entered with truncheons. There was a claw picking people out of trees.
Also, I remember being in Spanish Harlem teaching ESL to wonderful kids. We would have pick-up basketball games in the parking lot next to school. There was broken glass everywhere, but people were having fun and laughing — the glass was not a threat.
What topic did you spend the most time on at the Encampment and what did you learn? We focused on the war and our role in it. I was reading a lot. We talked with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I was trying to learn how I could help. With civil rights, there was a learning curve about things I did not know, hadn’t been exposed to. And New York itself was a creative mecca — I felt welcomed and at home there; a spiritual connection. I tell people who are stuck on writing projects, “Go to any street corner in New York — you will see new and interesting things, an introduction into the larger world.”
Why is the EFC important now? All the issues we learned about and worked to change are still present — if not more so. Climate change and mass numbers of people being turned into refugees have just gotten worse on our watch. it’s sobering, humbling and demoralizing to recognize that we have corrupt police in so many places. How long has that been going on? It’s just as critical to have that curiosity and awareness and willingness to make things better as it was 50-some years ago. I gained an awareness at 15 that was underscored and highlighted at the Encampment and I’ve never lost it. I’m grateful.