NAT FINKELSTEIN :: Defend Freedom
March 7, 2013
Nat Finkelstein was a photographer with the photo agencies PIX and Black Star during the 1960s. He was a successful mainstream photojournalist, published in major media outlets. In August 1965, Nat was assigned by Life Magazine to photograph protesters in Washington DC. The protest – known as the Assembly of Unrepresented Persons—was designed to link opposition to the Vietnam War with support for voting rights to create a broader peace and freedom movement. Urged on by a young woman holding a “DEFEND FREEDOM” sign, the protesters tried nonviolently to enter the Capitol to present a “Declaration of Peace.” But police intervened and a melée ensued—with Nat Finkelstein there to capture every frame of it.
After the protest, Nat gave his negatives to a messenger from Life’s Washington office. Those negatives promptly disappeared. For almost 30 years they remained missing and this hole in the historical record persisted. But fortunately, the contact sheets of the images Nat captured that day were recently re-discovered. Below is Nat’s story, as he lived it.
Photographs and Story by Nat Finkelstein
First published by The Blacklisted Journalist, 2004
The Free Press is free only to the man who owns the presses. —A.J. Leibling, The Press
Liberty is murdered when the Free Press is Murdoched
It was the eighth of August ’65.
There’s hardly a person still alive who remembers that date and time and year when insurrections were here and the protest was clear: all comparisons stop there.
I was a stringer with two major photographic agencies, Black Star and Pix. I specialized in civil rights, politics, and the counterculture. I was younger then and still believed that it was possible to change the world 35 millimeters at a time. That as a photojournalist working for nationally distributed magazines, I could contribute to change and betterment:
”Show them the light and they will follow” sort of elitism. The Liberal trap: a fallacy.
BULLET: True that Playboy helped bring about certain temporary changes in societal attitudes towards sexuality. But Hugh Hefner never was and never would be a politically progressive publisher. He was never much more than a brilliant huckster of titillations, sex, and lightweight literature: An apostle of materialism and masturbation, the perfect exemplar of capitalism…
LOOK MA! ANYONE CAN DO IT. GET ON THAT RAFT AND COME TO AMERIKA CARLOS AND ROSITA, LOOK WHAT WE GOT AND YOU CAN HAVE IT TOO.
I had a good reputation for handling myself in competitive situations. I had acquitted myself well during Pope John’s visit, Marilyn Monroe’s circus performance, Castro’s visit to the U.N., and the previous Civil Rights demonstrations (as well as fending off sneak attacks of Warhol’s pack of grave-robbers, whiners and sycophants).
Furthermore, I was deeply involved in what was then called “The New Left”—both as a journalist and participant. Long before the onset of “The Struggle,” I had joined the Y.P.A. in the Fifties and had friends and contacts in the movement. I was trusted. So, when Howard Chapnick, the president of Black Star, was asked by Life Magazine to cover an upcoming anti-war demonstration in Washington, he gave the assignment to me. Before I left, Howard warned me of a feud between New York and the DC office. New York, being slightly more liberal of the the two, was less prone to sucking the Luce/Chenault ass. Sabotage was not unheard of—the rivalry was intense.
I arrived at Union Station in Washington the day before the march was scheduled and met up with a group of kids from Columbia University. They were students of Professor Paul Goodman, a well respected, left-leaning political philosopher, and I spent the day with them. I was surprised that they knew who I was and some of the previous articles that I had published. (This was to rebound on me later.)
As the evening progressed, the group became more diverse, as veterans of the civil rights struggle came in: The DuBois Society, CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee). Fresh from voter registration drives in Mississippi, militants from Newark and Harlem were joining up with kids from Y.A.W.F. (Youth Against War and Fascism). White middle class kids and black militants coming together in an uneasy alliance. Together with the various Pacifist societies, as well as the followers of Martin Luther King, who previously had eschewed the anti war movement, they joined to form an Assembly of Unrepresented People, determined to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right of free assembly in order to petition their government and declare the war in Vietnam to be a racist war.
Neither Martin Luther King nor any of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were present, here preferring to lend their support from a safe distance. They later lent their full support, but at this point in the struggle, the Afro-American section of ‘The Movement’ was represented by SNCC and CORE.
At this point I was encountered by a photographer assigned by Life’s Washington office (I believe Dennis Brock), who informed me that he was there to assist me and that I would get the best shots by climbing to the roof of the Smithsonian Institute, overlooking the parade route and getting an overhead view. This, of course, would take me away from the action and put me on the sidelines. I refused the advice.
Upon leaving the Mall, the march, led by David Dellinger, Stuart Lynde and Robert Moses was attacked by uniformed members of the American Nazi Party. They threw pails of red paint on the leading marchers, of which I was one.
The Nazis were gently led off by the Washington police. I followed, photographing the entire incident.
The Life representative then asked me if I was shooting in color, & I told him that I was shooting in both color & B&W. In that case, he said, you’ve got a cover.
When we reached the House of Representatives, the group was divided by Dellinger and Lynde, the pacifist wing. Those that wished to encounter the government’s forces should sit on the steps, while the pacifists would absent themselves from any physical action and stand on the side.
A short time after this was done, we were refused entry into the House of Representatives. A young Black lady (wearing a “Defend Freedom” sign) with a young white lady stood up and exhorted the crowd to exercise their legal rights and cross the police lines. At this point, I believe the photos speak for themselves. I was busy doing my job.
But you can observe that the first people to be accosted and intimidated by the police were the Afro-Americans. During the march, an apparently late Nazi threw some of his own paint, and was also roughed up by the police. However, he was not arrested.
At this point, the police forces were led and instructed by a non-uniformed, unidentified man, who apparently commanded the police to be rough. In fact, you can see this man in the pictures. Who he was, no one may ever know.
As you can see from the photographs, the other photographers stayed at a short distance from this action, whereas I was fully involved, as you can see one picture, to the point of being punched in the stomach by a policeman during the melee, even though I was wearing official press credentials identifying me as a photographer from Life magazine. I did my job recording the information before me; the brutality, the obvious concentration on people of color, the fingernails crunching nerve endings, the faces squeezed, the glee of the oppressors, the courage of the kids.
At the conclusion, I immediately headed to Union Station to return to New York. While at Union Station, a messenger from Life magazine sought me out, telling me they needed my color shots immediately as they were preparing for a cover. My ego, at that point bigger than my brains—I was thinking about my picture getting on the cover of Life magazine—handed the film to the messenger and returned to New York. Where I received a chewing out from Howard Chapnick, who told me these pictures would be lost forever, which they were. The black and whites—buried—were not retrieved until recently. Time-Life tells me they no longer have the negatives.
(Until recently I fully believed that there was a bureaucratic or interoffice rivalry that resulted in the lose of the story but in July the New York Times frontpaged a similar instance where an early civil rights  story was similarly “lost”: More will appear.)
At that point, I decided to put down my cameras & pick up my militancy. The time for poetry ended, the time for political action began for me. I left for San Francisco soon after, and joined with people such as the Diggers (Emmett Grogan and Peter Cohen (aka Coyote).
As you’ll notice from these photographs, there were no “long-haired freaks”: no Abbie Hoffman, no Jerry Rubin, no Allen Ginsberg. No pot, no gratuitous violence on the part of the protestors. This came later. It is my firm belief this was done by the so-called capitalist “Free Press.” The mainstream media that appointed theatrical clowns such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary, as representative of the antiwar movement. When actually, the antiwar movement consisted of the students and the ordinary American working class. The mainstream press persuaded middle America that William Burroughs was making opiates the religion of their children while their daughters were getting knocked up by commies and Blacks.
The culture war had begun.