The end of the Sixties

In Chico as in the rest of America, voters tired of polarization and the culture wars are looking to liberals to solve problems

Author’s note: This article expands on some ideas I presented as a member of a recent Chico State University-sponsored panel on the historical significance of the year 1968. My thanks to Dr. Laird Easton of the Humanities Department for inviting me to participate. Longtime Chicoans will quickly note that this survey is incomplete. There simply wasn’t room to mention every group that emerged out of the ferment of the Sixties. Readers are encouraged to submit their own remembrances in letters to the editor.

It was fitting that President-elect Barack Obama gave his stirring election-night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. Forty years earlier, it had been the scene of one of the epochal events of the era we now call the Sixties.

In August 1968, as the Democratic National Convention was going on just a few blocks away, some 10,000 anti-Vietnam War demonstrators gathered in the park, with thousands of Chicago cops waiting nervously nearby. When a scuffle broke out, the police attacked, wading into the protesters, clubbing them and dragging them into paddy wagons stationed nearby in what a report later called a “police riot.” Television cameras caught it all.

Three months later a majority of American voters—disgusted and angered by the sight of the unkempt and, to them, vaguely unpatriotic hippies fighting the police—elected Richard Nixon president. The war continued for another four years.

Those events 40 years ago were the beginning of the extreme polarization that has characterized American politics ever since, and also the start of the conservative dominance of the presidency and Congress.

Obama campaigned on a promise to end that polarization and the culture wars that were a mainstay of post-Sixties politics. His landslide victory shows that a significant majority of the American people supports that goal.

One of the keys to his success was the very thing Republicans mocked: his experience doing community organizing in Chicago. Obama had a compelling message, but he also understood the value of organization, and he was carried forward by the most sophisticated and best-organized campaign in the history of presidential politics.

Political-science professor Ed Bronson, now retired, founded CLIC in 1970. He is shown here advising students who occupied the university’s administration building during the infamous “gun strike” of 1975-76.

Photo by Mark Thalman

By becoming the first African-American to be elected president, Obama has signaled a sea change in American racial attitudes, one that has astonished and delighted people the world over. But it’s important to understand also that his message of racial inclusiveness and post-partisanship is due in no small measure to his experiences as an organizer. Community organizing is about bringing diverse people and groups together to solve common problems on the grassroots level, and that’s been a core message of the Obama campaign. “Bottom up, not top down,” as he likes to say.

We tend to think of the Sixties as an era of conflicting values and lifestyles and a divided society at war with itself. But it was also a time when many Americans woke up to the disparities and injustices in society and went to work to end them. Their organizing gave form to the several movements that emerged, beginning with the civil-rights movement and including the environmental, women’s, peace and gay-rights movements as well as manifold programs to end poverty.

More than anything, these efforts served as the counterbalance to the conservatism that largely dominated national politics.

It remains to be seen whether the Sixties’ influence on America is really over. One gets the sense, however, that in choosing Obama the American people were acknowledging that the country faces a daunting set of threats and challenges. They want an activist government that will deal with those problems effectively. They’re tired of divisive politics. They want bipartisanship and competence. They want results.

That’s true in Chico, too. The Sixties played out here much as they did elsewhere, with demonstrations and sit-ins and nasty political races pitting liberals against conservatives. While that was going on, however, thousands of Chicoans were organizing nonprofit recycling facilities, crisis centers, low-income health clinics, a natural-foods co-op, a peace center, a heritage association, a center for gays and lesbians, and many other lasting and influential institutions.

Photo by Mark Thalman

Those groups, many of them now composed of middle-aged boomers who came of age during the Sixties, are the true legacy of that era in Chico. And collectively they form a key political base supporting what now appears to be a permanent center-left majority on the City Council.

In the spring of 1966, anti-war protesters held a demonstration in the Downtown City Plaza. One of the speakers was an untenured Chico State Asian-history professor named Ed DiTullio. When DiTullio mentioned that he’d been a Marine in Korea, someone in the audience shouted, “On which side?”

“What kind of a bullshit question is that?” DiTullio asked. The heckler didn’t respond, and DiTullio went on with his speech, but a few days later he was fired. The reason given was that he’d used an obscenity in public. Three other teachers resigned in protest.

I got that story from Tom Reed, who arrived in Chico later that year to attend Chico State. Reed was an early anti-war activist in Chico, and with some friends formed the first local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society in 1967.

Reed, who works as a vocational counselor and part-time sociology instructor at Chico State, later founded the Butte County Health Care Coalition, the group that has been advocating for a single-payer health-care system for more than a decade.

Photo by Mark Thalman

He remembers the late 1960s as a time of ferment and change. Early in the decade two seminal books had appeared, Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and they were having an impact locally. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was beginning to tear the country apart.

Chico stayed relatively calm, however. There were protests, but never any violence. In 1970, 15 students were arrested during a sit-in demanding the closure of First Street on campus to through traffic. (It was closed a few months later.) Soon after, six anti-war activists—dubbed “the Chico Six"—were arrested during a City Council meeting when they insisted the council hold a public forum on the war.

But the biggest event didn’t happen until 1975, when more than 200 people occupied and refused to leave the university administration building, Kendall Hall, to protest the arming of campus police. The action, which lasted two months, made national television news.

In 1966, two Chico State students, Tim Tregarthen and Carlene St. John, were running for president and vice president, respectively, of the Associated Students. They included in their platform a promise to establish a tutorial program for which students could volunteer. As luck would have it, they were elected and, once in office, started CAVE, Community Action Volunteers in Education.

To Jim Jessee, who first volunteered for the program in 1967 and became its director in 1968, it was a product of President John F. Kennedy’s exhortation, in his inaugural speech, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Photo by Mark Thalman

Jessee, who is currently the director of Academic Publications/Facilities/Database at Chico State, remembers that the tutorial program began at the Gridley Farm Labor Camp but soon expanded to include disadvantaged students in the Chico schools.

CAVE has since grown to more than 20 programs involving more than 2,000 students annually. Collectively, they log more than 60,000 hours of service.

Associated Students provided a seedbed for programs that germinated and then become independent organizations. Among them were The Bridge, the town’s first crisis counseling center; the Public Law Internship Program (which became CLIC, the Community Legal Information Center); and the Butte Environmental Council.

BEC started out in 1974, the year Jane Dolan, the longtime county supervisor, became director of CAVE. Initially it was called Forces to Restore Earth’s Environment, or FREE, and operated Chico’s first recycling center. Managed by a man named Robert Swetlik, it was located at Koontz’s Korner, a privately owned flea market where the Nord Avenue Safeway is now located.

Others soon became involved—notably eco-activists Kelly Meagher, Steve Evans, John Merz and Carole Mueller—and FREE, renamed as BEC, moved to an office/warehouse site at Seventh and Cherry streets. It continued offering recycling for several years, instituted its annual Endangered Species Faire and creeks cleanup day, published an environmental newsletter, and established several environmental-education and -advocacy programs.

Photo by Mark Thalman

As other organizations began offering recycling, BEC dropped out of the business and moved its offices downtown. With more than 800 members and under the 17-year leadership of Barbara Vlamis, it has done more than any other organization to foster awareness of threats to natural resources and fight to protect them.

It has been joined in that effort by such groups as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society. The Chico Creek Nature Center, founded in the mid-'70s by a coalition of environmentalists, and Friends of Bidwell Park have been invaluable in protecting and enhancing Bidwell Park.

Merz went on to found the Sacramento River Preservation Trust. He now serves on the city Planning Commission.

In 1969 Chico State University’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Don Gerth, announced that he’d obtained a grant to extend the resources of the university into the community and called a meeting. Thirty people showed up, eager to start new programs, but only one of them, political science professor Ed Bronson, actually completed a proposal.

“It was right at deadline,” he said recently. “I stayed up two nights to write it.”

Bronson had long been interested in the plight of arrestees who couldn’t make bail. Unable to work on their cases or readily meet with their lawyers, they were at a disadvantage when they arrived in court. And although they were technically innocent until proven guilty, they were kept in jail because they were broke.

Photo by Mark Thalman

Bronson knew that poverty was no indication of whether a person would show up in court. Other factors—job, family, time in the area—were more important. Studies showed that own-recognizance bail programs were just as effective as bail bonds.

“It occurred to me that this was something we could do,” Bronson remembered. “But we had to sell it to the DA, the sheriff, the police chiefs and the Bar Association.”

The key, he realized, was to focus on how an OR program would save money by keeping fewer people in jail and more families off welfare. Interns would do the vetting of the arrestees, so it would cost taxpayers next to nothing.

“Lo and behold, it worked!” Bronson said, adding that it’s become such an important part of court operations that the county has now built it into its own programs.

That was the beginning of the Public Law Internship Program, now known as the Community Legal Information Center, or CLIC. Since its founding in 1970, it has expanded greatly, adding such programs as Environmental Advocates, the Chico Consumer Protection Agency, Women’s Law, Welfare Rights Organization, Family Law and several others.

As with CAVE, several CLIC programs spun off and became important community-based organizations funded by federal, state and local governmental agencies.

Photo by Mark Thalman

SIRC, the Senior Information and Referral System, was renamed the Janet Levy Center and became the local Area Agency on Aging; it is now called Passages Adult Resources Center and is run by the University Foundation out of a suite of offices on Carmichael Drive.

Another spin-off, from CLIC’s Disabled and the Law program, is Independent Living Services of Northern California, which provides invaluable aid to folks who need in-home assistance and advocates on their behalf.

A third spin-off, from Housing Law, is the Community Housing Improvement Program, founded by Jessee, Keith Hopkins, Bill Murphy and Kevin Campbell. It has since become the largest builder of affordable housing in the North State. Campbell went on to serve on the Chico school board and, briefly, the county Board of Supervisors before he died of a heart attack at age 41. Murphy became a respected Chico city councilman. Both men have CHIP projects named after them.

And then there’s Chico Area Legal Services, which began as a CLIC program but quickly went independent, became Butte County Legal Services, and began offering civil-law assistance for poor people. Mike Bush became its managing attorney in 1975, a job he held for 24 years. In 1978, BCLS merged with the federally funded Sacramento-based Northern California Legal Services, and since then it has provided legal assistance to thousands of low-income people who otherwise could not afford an attorney.

Photo by Mark Thalman

In 1972, shortly after I arrived in the area, I was walking on a forest road in Cohasset when I came upon an abandoned bus with the word “Batwinger” painted on its side. I asked people about it and was told the so-called Batwinger Indian Tribe was a colorful group of Merry Prankster-type yippies who during the late ‘60s bombed around town in their bus staging bizarro happenings and anti-war protests.

I also learned they operated the first crisis line in town. It was called the Switchboard, and it was located downtown in a former second-floor Arthur Murray dance studio on West Second Street (it’s now artists’ studios). In the late ‘60s there were a lot of teenagers hitchhiking around the state, and by calling the Switchboard they could get help and find a place to crash.

Later it spun off the People’s Office, which occupied a small storefront just off Park Avenue on 12th Street, next to Etidorpha, Chico’s first natural-foods store (the name is Aphrodite spelled backwards; it later became Family Market). The People’s Office was a focal point for anti-war and anti-poverty activism, particularly in the Chapmantown area. It also published a Berkeley Barb-style underground paper called Chico Rising.

When Jane Dolan became Chico State’s student body president in 1972, she fired the editor of the campus newspaper, the A.S.-owned Wildcat, and put Michael Hahne, editor of Chico Rising, in his place. Hahne brought along some of his Chico Rising crew and also began building a staff of left-leaning journalists. It was this group—myself included—that, in 1977, took the paper off campus and formed the Chico News & Review.

Photo by Mark Thalman

As if to complete the circle, in 1979 the CN&R moved its offices into the very space once occupied by the Batwingers’ Switchboard, where it remained until moving to its current location in 1985.

In 1990, another alternative voice entered the Chico mix: KZFR, the community radio station, which was founded by Eric Mathisen and now has more than 120 volunteers providing an eclectic selection of news and music programming found nowhere else.

Health care was another arena ripe for organizing. Although by the early ‘70s poor people could obtain Medi-Cal coverage, few doctors accepted them as patients, and there was no Medi-Cal clinic in town. In response, a group of Chapmantown activists, assisted by some CLIC folks, formed a “free clinic” modeled on the famous Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.

Photo by Mark Thalman

At first Your Clinic, as it was called, was located in a building adjacent to the Bethel AME Church on East Ninth Street. Later it moved downtown, obtained a small federal grant, and began holding clinics one day a week.

No local doctors were willing to participate. Finally Dr. Mark Murray, who had been coming up from Davis to do clinics, agreed to move to Chico and work full-time. The clinic, renamed Chico Neighborhood Health Center, moved to a facility on Elm Street near the fairgrounds, and by the time Murray resigned several years later, it had a caseload of 4,000 patients.

Unfortunately, nobody was interested in taking Murray’s job. By then, however, other Medi-Cal clinics had opened in town that could accept the center’s patients, including Enloe’s Children’s Center.

When Your Clinic was still downtown, a group of women, some of them clinic volunteers, began meeting regularly and traveling to Oakland to learn about feminist health care at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center. Within a few years, they established a branch in Chico and took up residence in the historic Enloe Hospital building on Flume Street. There they offered an array of health-care services for women, including a weekly abortion clinic, Chico’s first.

It wasn’t easy. The clinic could get no backup from local doctors, and each week they faced sometimes-vicious protests from anti-abortion crusaders. On several occasions, the protests crossed the line into outright terrorism.

But the FWHC women were fighters. They sued the doctors for anti-trust violations and won. Facing bogus charges of unemployment-insurance fraud, they fought back and won again. And in another court action, they obtained restraining orders requiring protesters to stand back from women entering the clinic. And they never stopped providing services.

Today, renamed Women’s Health Specialists and long relocated to offices on Humboldt Road, they continue to provide abortion services, but they’re not alone. Planned Parenthood provides similar services from its offices on Vallombrosa. Both agencies still must deal with occasional anti-abortion protests, but it’s nothing like the old days.

In the fall of 1972, a group of liberal activists began meeting with the idea of electing some progressive candidates to the City Council. The election was to be held in April 1973, so they called themselves the April Committee.

The council at that time was dominated by business types who paid no attention to the concerns of liberals in Chico. Twenty of the last 21 victorious council candidates had been endorsed by the Chico Enterprise-Record.

The April Committee took an unusual approach. Instead of looking for candidates to support, it began by building a coalition and creating a platform that called for bike lanes, protection of prime farmland, a bus system, social-services funding and more than a dozen other, similar measures. By the time the AC went looking for candidates who would back its platform, more than a hundred people were actively involved.

Photo by Mark Thalman

The group mounted a grassroots campaign unlike any ever seen in Chico. It held forums on the major issues, did neighborhood canvassing, registered new voters—especially college students—and when it was over, managed to get two of four candidates elected.

That was a huge breakthrough. It showed that Chico was more liberal than commonly believed, and that with the right kind of organization progressive candidates could get elected.

That’s just what happened. Dolan, who first ran for supervisor in 1974, at the tender age of 24, ran again in 1978 and won. She’s been a strong liberal presence on the board ever since, beginning with her leadership in the effort to establish the Greenline protecting westside farm land.

By the 1980s, she and her husband, longtime activist Bob Mulholland, had formed a local chapter of Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy. Thanks to Mulholland’s skills as an organizer, it succeeded several times in getting such liberals as Shelton Enochs, Karl Ory, Coleen Jarvis and Dave Guzzetti elected, and for several election cycles they formed a majority. As such, they were able to support their natural allies among the various nonprofits and arts groups that were springing up by voting to assist them financially.

But the big issue was growth, and though developers lacked organization and volunteers, they had plenty of money to spend on advertising. The result is that until recently control of the council alternated between liberals and conservatives, often following elections notable for their nastiness.

Photo by Mark Thalman

Liberals have enjoyed a majority since 2002, however, and in both 2006 and 2008 their control solidified, going from four seats to five to six. In 2004, the council selected Scott Gruendl, an openly gay man, to serve as mayor of Chico, and nobody blinked an eye.

Clearly, voters are leaning left in Chico, as in the rest of America. This shift in mind-set happened over time, and it parallels the growth of progressive organizations that have spent the past four decades educating Chicoans about the environment, energy alternatives, the needs of the poor, the crisis in health care, gay rights and many other issues.

Few people complained, for example, when the council established a Sustainability Task Force and then voted to commit the community to reducing its greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020. That’s a huge commitment, but even a conservative councilman, Steve Bertagna, voted for it. That’s how much things have changed in our little town.