Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Year of Riotous Living

The year of riotous living at San Francisco State University, 1968-1969, contained one of the most recent major upheavals of our society. In 1968 the country was yet again divided over race relations and colonial militarism. The divisions penetrated every corner of our society: government, schools, political parties, haves/have-nots, family and even down to individuals themselves. Riots in the cities, stalemates in the war in Vietnam, and losses in the war on poverty, social despair became the norm. Everyone lost control of the youth. Assassination was political change; King, Malcolm X., John and Robert Kennedy, Evers. Aquarius hit the cusp of Mars and all hell broke loose.

Into this I entered into my own war to become an educated man and hopefully gain employment that didn’t require me to give up my body for the profit of others -- a male version of whoring. I went back to San Francisco State in the fall of 1968. At age 29 and a college career that started at 19, I was in my 10th year of struggle to become what I had hoped: an educated man. I became the odd combination and product of the result of what happens when you give a redneck a Renaissance education.

The first day of classes set the tone. It was like an audition of an opera, and I had no idea that so many used band uniforms were available for sale. The tie-dye was everywhere. Color was as riotous as the times allowed. It was the birth of identity in all areas of life. The exception ruled. Out was in. In went out. Things were fenced out, then in, then torn down. Boundaries were blurred by ideology and drugs. Everything was negotiated. Committees and subcommittees and then those had subs like a broken fraction with no controlling unit, only parts and fragments. Often was the denominator, “whatever” was the numerator. I even had classes where the curriculum was subject to debate, but those were mostly in psychology during the craze of transactional therapy, EST, Esalen, Tim Leary, and the psychobabbles of the chemically stoned.

I was jolted by how much the college had changed in my absence. The Department of Humanities used to be staffed by UC professors who refused to sign a loyalty oath during the hysteria of the McCarthy era. But due to rioting, they exited to other colleges in droves. Classes often were not taught. The assigned professor did not show up for ideological reasons. Most teachers had to say up front whether the course would be taught or not.

I was often placed in the position of "parent of the room," pointing out that I needed to finish and become employed in some field that used my brain and did not abuse my body. And they, due to this and age, nicknamed me “Dad.” “Aren’t you for minority rights in education?” I said I was but there was no –oint in admitting those who were so educationally deprived at a primary level, there is no way they can succeed at college level. 

Sadly, this proved to be true. Under pressure from the civil rights movement and all its various factions, this was the seed along with the Viet Nam protests that fueled the revolt. Once that bomb was dropped the explosion framgmented the “revolution” into shrapnel that hit both the innocent and the guilty. Nothing has more righteous indignation than the "oppressed" discovering they had "rights." It was not just us versus them, but black versus white, male versus female. Black power abandoned King for Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers stormed the legislature while armed. The conflict of minority education set this off.

One day, I was crossing the commons when a speaker at a student rally suggested that they storm the administration building and occupy it until their demands were met. Five hundred people suddenly started running toward me shouting “Storm the builing! Somebody locked the door. Hayakawa (Samuel Iceiye), a Semantics professor who stepped into the administration when the last president fled the chaos into retirement, called the cops. Somebody drove a sound truck to the main entrance of the building, and after turning up the volume began to chant, Shut it down! Shut it down! Wandering folk singers went through singing protest songs and guerrilla theater groups acted out master-slave oppressions. The crowd grew and became fervent and vocal.

In an instant of samurai ritual heroism, Hayakawa emerged and ripped out the wires on the sound truck. The crowd, momentarily stunned, fell silent. Then the Grande Dame of the English Department, writer Kaye Boyle, resplendent in blue stockings with painted eyebrows arched to mime surprise, emerged from the crowd. She shook her finger at him and called him a fascist pig and a coward like he was a naughty schoolboy who had just pushed Suzy Cream Cheese into the boy's bathroom. Hayakawa retreated back into the building as the cops showed up. Someone pushed a garbage can against the door and set it afire. It was a conflagration that did little damage but it did embolden the crowd.

As the cops and the San Francisco Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department complete with a cavalry consisting of lean horses ridden by fat men raised on B-Grade western movies and the CHP arrived, the students decided they would occupy the business building instead. Unfortunately, I tried to escape the cops and the protesters by trying to exit to the parking lot through the same building. It was itself already occupied by the tactical squad of SF Police Department and I got locked in with them.

Anyone who was in San Francisco in the 60s knew the Tactical Squad. They were the goons of the Police Department bent towards bullying and not the "administration of justice" which for them was burying a nightstick in the bones of your face. I knew them from walking the picket line on Market Street in 1966. Not opposed to throwing hot coffee on you and calling you a commie prick, they used to train by destroying Chicano bars in the Mission for recreation. I got in the building alright to escape the crowds only to have the doors locked with handcuffs behind me. They ordered me to get up on the second floor and stay away from the windows as they unlimbered the firehoses from the cases embedded into the walls to get ready to turn them on the students. Then they sallied out into the crowd to bust heads. After I was pushed upstairs they ID’d me, emptied my briefcase, discussed my age, asked me if I had been in Vietnam, put me up against the wall, spread ‘em, and patted me down. The interrogation began by asking me if I belonged to any radical organization, if I was now or had I ever been? They asked me to identify people in the crowd. I couldn't truthfully, and said so.

"You ain't sandbaggin’ us are you, motherfucker?"

They had leather gloves on with weights sewn on the back. They would pump themselves up by punching fist into palm, one to the other and then run downstairs, sally out into the crowd and drop somebody, then dash back and laugh among themselves.

"Him him so hard he was pissing himself going down."

Downstairs the windows started to break as the hoses got turned on. The crowd, realizing the building was locked, turned like a huge flock of starlings and headed for the science building where one lone cop was suddenly faced with 500 charging people screaming Off the pig! I watched him through the window of that second floor in the business building. He did the only sane thing possible: he pulled his pistol, fired a shot skyward, then leveled the gun on the crowd. It worked. Faced with possible death, it was every dude for themselves. He wasn't from the Tac squad or he would have killed several people. It was one of the greatest things I've ever seen a single man do. Then the cavalry rode in to disperse the crowd.

Like most confrontations that provoke violence, this action turned out to be what a British Lord used to say about sex: the incitement is lengthy, the pleasure is momentary, and the expense is damnable — and this pretty much describes revolutions past, present and future. But with revolt there is no post coital bliss. 

The student movement went underground. In those pre-internet days, rallies were constantly being held and everything became possible. Dawn had come with students and youth in revolt against established authority. It was, as in all revolutions, adolescent in nature. Injustices perceived as the catalyst are always looked upon as the spark that ignites the proverbial flame, but the door of remedies of wrong attracts the lunatic fringe.

A friend of mine who worked at the Langley-Porter mental facility confirmed this. During the demonstration the caseload of appointments fell to zero — nothing like a public spectacle to solidify the perceived victims of life. Ah, the joys of belonging, acceptance at last, the heart swells with the unified beliefs of the masses. We have achieved courage through the delusion of change. Wrongs will be righted, justice will sprout wings and fly at last. The longing we have had for a final solution in the defeat of the original sins and the glory of acceptance of the righteous is the opium that drives change. With the loss of the individual identity to the mass collective comes the surge of raw power. 

Great pressure was applied at the time. Instructors anguished over which action to take. Confrontations were constant as to where you stood. Lines were drawn and individuals faced what were or thought to be defining positions. Were you for: integration, civil rights, withdrawal from Vietnam, pro-feminists, pro-sexual rights, free admission to education, fair housing government guaranteed income, universal healthcare? 

Sound familiar? Only love, LSD and constant delusion can save us. If delusion didn't work, try drama, denial and finally blame.

Day in and day out it continued. Increased police, sheriff’s deputies, mounted or not, the threat of the National Guard. The pressure to commit to a utopian idea was intense. I had a wife, a mortgage, a job, a car. I had been on my own for a decade. I felt like the longshoreman who told Harry Bridges, Fuck the Revolution, Harry, the bills are due on the first of the month. Thus it was with me. I had my own end to worry about, one daughter living and another child on the way. I had neither time nor money nor spiritual nor emotional support. All I had was a sense of responsibility for what I did sexually. To put it in redneck language: You all went and did it and now you gonna have to go git it!

Children crying from want tends to focus me and most men I have known. But the problem of means and ends was operative in the school from hour to hour. The means of funding the Black Student Union, originally founded at San Francisco State and later established at multiple colleges and universities, ended with Huey Newton absconding with $600-grand of state money to go into the dope business in Oakland, and he, one of the founders of the Black Panther party, was gunned down over a dope deal gone bad. Huey got freed, but not in the way he expected.

First it was black identity and the death of passive resistance to the bearing of arms. Nonviolence to violence. When that happened I knew from that point forward the game was over. Those who sought change through violence were doomed because they were outgunned and they had no property to speak of. They failed to understand that you can harm people and usually get away with it. But if you harm property, the favorite target of the radical, you threaten the assets of the powerful and they will try to crush you and usually succeed — the current example being the riots now happening in Hong Kong.

Slowly the bourgeoisie turns on you. The blowback starts with loss of public support for education. The increased meritocracy to guarantee that the lower classes stay low, and the demand for tax relief based upon the behavior of the landless. To be a conservative implies something to conserve. The renter cannot lower his rent because of diminished earnings, but the landlord has the right to raise his earnings to continually profit. One of the main foundations of our democracy is that very principle laid down by our founders. Originally, only the propertied had the right to vote.

The fragmentation continued. The women's liberation movement started. Women's studies, ethnic studies. Interdisciplinary studies. Turf was staked out, surveyed and recorded. Everything became a liberation except the slavery of biology and its glandular drivenness and what turned out to be the enduring idea of that age. Identity was decided by the individual and belongingness was the reward to the club. It was like the supermarket of the Self.

All academic year long it raged. Some courses got taught and were helpful later on. One was not and the class threatened a lawsuit to get credit. We had to do a final paper on a topic given by the department head. People disappeared. Vanished. Good faculty left for better teaching conditions. In the confusion I wound up in grad school courses and graduated with nine units in learning disorders which seemed appropriate for the school I got them from. I taught that graduate-level minor all my teaching life ending in adult education at age 69. After graduation I looked for work but was never asked about my education, only my politics. When I finished, the campus was still occupied and San Francisco State sent me a letter asking if I wanted to come to the graduation ceremony.

I wrote back, "Not unless you give me a combat infantry man's badge."

They sent me the diploma in the mail. It was signed by S.I. Hayakawa, the greatest somnambulist in the history of the United States Senate and Ronald Reagan. My education thus confirmed by a grade-B actor who became California's state governor and US President.

PS. My first teaching offer was in Bullhead City, Arizona for $3400 dollars, a third of what I was making as a cement mason. I felt like a fool for working so hard just for a place to practice. I did not realize then that the value was not financial but how it changed who I was, what I could do with what I saw. The jobs came and went. So did the wives. The children grew up and my parents grew down. The only thing I did that remained mine was my education. It has kept me lucid and thoughtful to this day.


  1. Betsy Cawn November 28, 2019

    Dear Mr. McCain,

    I relished your account of surviving the mayhem of the day, and laud your hard-won success. Your story revived old memories buried under five more decades of my own twisted and miraculous path to an entirely unanticipated retirement with just enough “social security” to keep me from homelessness, and a surprising wealth of creative companions to keep me happy — most especially the bounteous obstrepery of the AVA.

    Oddly enough, S.I. Hayakawa’s book, “Language in Thought and Action,” catalyzed a major redirection of my life in the early 60s. My term paper in a Los Angeles City College semantics class was based on Lenny Bruce’s monologue titled “To is a preposition, come is a verb.” Lenny’s rap ridiculing contemporary prissiness was perfect fodder for introducing impudence into the instructor’s nearly religious reverence for the text, conveying Hayakawa’s elucidation of why and how “the word is not the thing.”

    My essay was rewarded with a sharper rebuke than I expected — the ultra-dignified pensioner teaching the class simply turned beet red and tore it in half. My expulsion from that last-ditch attempt to accept (i.e., swallow) formal education was a blessing of vast proportions that found me divorced, unemployed, and half-crazy the day that Art Kunkin stuck his head through a doorway at a beat era coffee house and asked if any present knew how to type. Equipped with a Frieden “Just-O-Writer” and a horrific cold-type production behemoth (a Compugraphic phototypositing nightmare
    surplussed by the Chicago Sun-Times), the LA Free Press for three years paid my meager rent, kept me fed, and nourished a life-long rejection of Anglo-American mores and mainstream bafflegab.

    After the upheaval never successfully squelched in response to Mario Savio in 1964 — simultaneous with my SoCal liberation from the last remnants of righteous upbringing — the authoritarian dicta of ol’ Sam the Tam (o’Shanter) and his blunderbuss surprised me only because his earlier explication of demystifying language was the key that unlocked my mind. I was shocked that he did not seem to possess the intelligence that clearly informed his helpful user’s guide to debunking, which had so happily endowed me with relative immunity to arrogant bureaucrats and bosses.

    For ten years, I “joined the revolution,” long enough to see Nixon onto his final chopper ride, and went back to work for the man, mistaken for a feminist and derided as a “traitor” to my gender group by women who demanded I support their feeble attempts at “equalizing” their roles in the workplace.

    My only regret is that I shall not live long enough to enjoy Greta Thunberg’s mega-maturity, having rocketed from unsatisfied student to world leadership before achieving her “majority.” (Well, I do wish I could drive at night, so that I could toast Mr. McEwan once or twice at his favorite watering hole, but those days are long gone.)

    Cheers to everyone from east of the Cow.

  2. Susie de Castro November 28, 2019

    I wonder if Mr. McCain, Dave met Stephen Gaskin at San Francisco State.

    In 1967 Stephen Gaskin, a former Marine turned hippie pacifist, was teaching English and creative writing at San Francisco State College, when the administration decided not to renew his contract. (“I’d gotten too weird to rehire,” he said.) He came up with an idea for an unusual sort of learning experience that focused on current affairs. The country was in flux, and many young adults were asking questions about the ongoing war in Vietnam and domestic issues related to civil rights, poverty, and inequality. Gaskin decided to start a public conversation about those topics, and others.

    Twelve people showed up for Gaskin’s first class, which was held on a Monday night in a room on the San Francisco State campus (called ‘Monday Night Class’ in 1967, on the San Francisco State campus). Over the next three years the class grew — eventually venues changed and there were 1,500 people sitting on the floor of a ballroom near the Pacific Ocean — the format stayed the same: perched cross-legged on a cushion, Gaskin would open his freewheeling seminar with a silent meditation, and then he’d share some thoughts and field questions.
    Enlightenment,” he said, “is getting off your tail and doing something.”.

    Gaskin became a prominent figure on the countercultural scene in San Francisco, and went on to found the long-running intentional community the Farm, which is still thriving in rural Tennessee.

    High Times: A Tribute to Stephen Gaskin – The Sun Magazine

    The Plowboy Interview | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    •On a personal note…I was great friends with Stephen’s sister, from whom I received a wealth of knowledge, and care, over the years: i.e. hand-me-downs during my pregnancies, lessons on nutrition, and a copy of her sister-in-law Ina May’s book on natural childbirth (for which Ina May received a Right Livelihood Award).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *