Editor’s note: This piece came in after the June 6th 50th anniversary of the murder of Robert Kennedy. We struggled with finding a photo of that night that wasn’t under copyright for illustrating it. We had an alternative idea, and then it got lost in the crush of ‘other things’ that took our focus away. We feel it’s a worthwhile piece, as many of us struggle with finding out how we can still be agents of change or become them in a time of turmoil. To our younger readers, this current time is all very familiar. This editor, like Dan, was there in the midst of the chaos of 1968, Dan in L.A. and I was in Chicago. We both see the reflection of that time in this. Hope you enjoy, even though it’s late. It is worth honoring Robert Kennedy with these remembrances. And also worth noting and rarely mentioned is that he was the first person assassinated in this country over the Palestinian issue. Daniel Erlenborn is a former Port Townsend resident currently living Portugal.
June 6, 1968. I was a 16 year old campaign volunteer standing smack in the center of a packed Embassy ballroom of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, exhilarated by our election victory, waiting for Bobby. We had canvassed neighborhoods, registered voters in East L.A., plastered signs everywhere (illegally) and now Bobby was standing at the podium just feet from me thanking us for our hard work and urging us to continue our work—of course we would. We were awestruck and then crushed as his remarks came to an end, too quickly with,” …and on to Chicago” . He disappeared through the curtains behind him. Forever.
I grasped the hand of the girl standing next to me , “let’s go!” and we pushed through the the people in front of us to climb the stage. I helped her up, the girl in the polka dot dress who I had a crush on but was too shy to ever say. We ducked through the curtains into the pantry hallway that was already filling with fans like us, just wanting to shake his hand, touch his sleeve or gush something goofy. It was dark and raucous , adrenalin pumping. We pushed ahead of some people, desperately trying to catch up to Bobby, then all hell erupted. Screams, men and women wailing, even louder men shouting strange orders. The human panic seemed like an earthquake. A bus tray full of dishes and silverware fell off a rolling cart and crashed to the floor causing a second panic. A group of Latinas in front of us turned back , their faces a picture of sheer terror. “Get out” they shouted or maybe it was something in Spanish that conveyed the same alarm. They rushed past us and we followed.
Standing in the ballroom, frozen in disbelief we watched more people rush through the curtains until one young grief stricken woman came out and screamed “they shot him” or was it “he’s been shot”. I’m fuzzy now. There was no oxygen in the room and it was searing hot with all the television lights and body heat from the crowd . We ran to the doors. When we reached the foyer and caught our breaths the service doors to the left flew open. A mass of tangled arms and legs pushed out toward us.. giant men.. I recognized Rosie Greer and Jesse Unruh. Pinned in the middle of this group of giants a small figure who’s feet didn’t touch the floor, who we’d learn later was Sirhan Sirhan. He looked like a soiled football in the middle of a bloody rugby scrum. The mass moved as one through the lobby like a giant humanoid crab, led by a policeman with weapon drawn. Among them someone kept shouting “don’t let anyone near him”. I thought it odd at the time until we’d later learn who the him was and what he’d done and how his survival was somehow essential.
In the intervening years, I’ve always measured every disaster, conflict or unspeakable loss of life against that horrid night….No, that horrid year, Martin had been murdered and our cities burned as riots spread across the nation. I would pull a shred of hope each time another crisis occurred from the fact that we had survived 1968…nothing would ever be that disastrous. Until now.
A couple of months after Bobby’s death a group of us “young activists”, a dozen or so were invited to meet Marlo Thomas in her Wilshire blvd. office. She offered to back us, if we were game, to promote gun control legislation. We signed on to form a group called the Kennedy Action Corp. It seemed cathartic, we were young and it gave us a new goal.
The issue then over guns focused on small caliber handguns, “Saturday night specials”. It was what killed RFK . They were becoming a scourge to inner city and minority neighborhoods. We thought it was a no brainer. Easy dunk. Who would disagree?
I vaguely remember a handful of organizational meetings and then SAT exams and life moving on. There was no social media, 24 hour cable news or Twitter fame. And so the gun control movement of 1968 withered and died. Gun control, racial and gender equality, political sanity has ebbed and flowed since. This mirror image year of violence and racial reckoning, with the assassinations of too many innocent blacks it’s imperative to note how little progress we’ve made .
I am, 52 years later, edgily hopeful because of an inspirational movement from this emerging generation. They possess a tenacity and focus we lacked, perhaps because they are potential victims or maybe because social media makes it more evident, or both. It’s hard to be hopeful in this era and I look for any sign of spring in this dark pandemic winter.