Polaroid Struggle Lands at NY APS Meeting: Or an Existential Account of my Wanderings Through the Land of APS

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Polaroid Struggle Lands at NY APS Meeting: Or an Existential Account of my Wanderings Through the Land of APS

by Al Weinrub

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 2, May 1971, p. 12 – 14

Only a few blocks uptown from Orgy of Love, Three Terror Thrillers, and Debut of a Monster, the N .Y. Hilton was hosting the winter meeting of the American Physical Society (APS). I wondered how the APS could ever compete with the orgasmic sensationalism of Times Square. How could it draw the pimps, freaks, bums, junkies, and other human derelicts of the 42nd Street circuit? Of course it really didn’t matter, but it gave me something to think about as I poked around the APS meeting overhearing saucy tidbits of equation here and there or bumping into bumper stickers reading “Physics is Good for You” (Oh, really?).

It was the first scientific meeting I’d been to in over a year. Unfortunately, being a physicist didn’t help me know what to expect. I figured the APS should be no stranger to political activity—after all, it was the birthplace of SESPA two years ago. But physics is in a bad way these days with jobs impossible to find and research grants getting harder to come by. Chances were that the physicists would be so deeply involved in their own problems that they wouldn’t want to be bothered.

And sure enough, they didn’t want to be bothered. If they were post-docs, assistant professors, or industrial scientists who were looking for jobs, they didn’t want to be bothered about why jobs are so scarce, or about how thousands of other workers are now unemployed, or about what implications technological obsolescence might have for them in the long run. No sir. And if they were tenured faculty members or well established scientists, they didn’t want to be bothered about how their work was contributing to weapons development and the war in Southeast Asia, or about how their skills were being used to legitimize and rationalize an oppressive social order, or about how racial and sexual discrimination were hallmarks of science, or about what they might do to protect fellow scientists who are being arrested and harrassed on account of their political beliefs. Absolutely not. And if, alas, they were graduate students, then they couldn’t be bothered because they weren’t even at the meeting (the cost was prohibitive unless someone paid your way).

Well bother or no bother, we activists (for want of a better description) were going to the meeting anyway. The challenge was exciting. Could the insularity of the APS the broken down? Could scientists be encouraged to see their work in a broader social and political context? Could they begin to understand that the barriers they had constructed between them and the rest of the world were only in their own minds? Maybe, maybe not. But if nothing else, they would learn that the walls of the N.Y. Hilton could not shield them from political issues.

Charlie’s 1 room, where SESPA people were supposed to gather Sunday evening to plan activities, turned out to be too small—a good sign. In fact up to 30 or 40 people finally met in a larger, soon smoke-filled room. The different groups there suggested actions they thought would be appropriate: New York was planning harrassment of Los Alamos and Livermore scientists, Chicago was interested in anti-war activities, Berkeley was pushing resolutions and the SESPA pledge, the Arden House group (graduate students) was concerned about Ph.D. overproduction, and Boston was concentrating on a challenge to Edwin Land, guest speaker at the large ceremonial session. Quite naturally, the first question to come up was that of tactics. The APS had planned several sessions on “Physics and Society” complete with star-studded casts—sort of like what was going on at Times Square. Should these sessions be disrupted?

I wonder if anyone could make sense out of the discussion which followed. The motion was made that there be “no AAAS-type disruptions.” That might have sounded wonderful but no one knew what it meant. Only a few had been to the Chicago AAAS meeting and the rest, with naive faith in the press, were reacting solely to newspaper accounts. In 1971 no less! Anyway the Chicago people explained that actions at the AAAS meetings were not designed to bring sessions to a halt, but rather to change the nature and structure of the sessions. The idea was to provide a format in which people could share their common experience and collectively analyze problems meaningful to them, as compared to passively ingesting the sterile bullshit fed them by select panelists. But then the question comes up: isn’t taking over a meeting, even to make it more democratic, an undemocratic act? Actually the more appropriate question is whether such an action could possibly be less democratic than the process by which panels and chairmen and topics are presently chosen by the people who run the APS. The elite corps of scientists that directs the APS sees to it that anyone critical of its position is kept off the program. For example, graduate students were excluded from the panel on graduate education and the APS refused a SESPA request that alternate views be included in the ceremonial session. The APS has the resources to rent hotel space, publish programs, provide travel allowances, and thus control every aspect of the meeting. How can this undemocratic and arbitrary exercise of power be challenged? Some of us felt that the best way to expose and undermine this power is to deny its legitimacy, while at the same time trying to provide a format for meaningful discussion at the scheduled sessions.

Such arguments had some sway. But people just couldn’t seem to overcome their hang-ups about disruption, as though there was something sacred about sessions blessed by the APS. It’s interesting that those most vocal in denying our right to violate the sanctity of these sessions were the same people who intone moral rectitude to the sinners in the weapons stalls. Be that as it may, the discussion of tactics was inconclusive, and so nothing definite was planned for Monday, the first day of the meeting.

As a consequence, nothing much happened that day, and when an impasse again developed at the SESPA meeting that night, it was decided that those people interested in an action at the ceremonial session on Tuesday should go ahead with their plans but not use the name of SESPA. So the Polaroid action was planned. The issue we would raise was how scientists’ skills are being utilized to develop the technology of oppression—as exemplified by Polaroid’s development and sale of the ID-2 Instant Identification system presently used to maintain South Africa’s apartheid regime.

How can I even begin to capture the drama of that action? Imagine yourself at the meeting: from the time you register on Monday morning it’s evident that something besides pollution is in the wind. For a day and a half a four page pamphlet [see following pages for a reproduction of this pamphlet) is being handed out which describes the Polaroid ID-2 system, how it’s being used, and how the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM) is fighting against Polaroid’s South African policies. You wonder what that has to do with the APS. By Tuesday morning it all becomes clear. A leaflet explains that the APS has implicitly endorsed Polaroid’s policies by inviting Edwin Land, its president, to be the featured speaker of the ceremonial session that afternoon. The leaflet announces that the microphone will be taken before Land is scheduled to speak in order to raise the issues discussed in the pamphlet. Land will not be prevented from speaking. Tension mounts as the afternoon session approaches. How many people intend to occupy the stage? Will police be used to block the takeover?

It turns out there are no police. In fact the ceremonial session is approaching acute boredom as the regular speakers drone on and on. Then as the chairman finally begins to introduce Land, there is a stir in the audience and 40 to 50 people move up onto the stage to take the mike. No resistance. Ira Rubenzahl explains the importance of the apartheid issue and then turns the mike over to Ken Williams of the PRWM. A black man (who has no degree in science) is addressing the APS! He describes how scientists as well as other workers are endangering not only themselves but the whole world by producing the tools which are used (and will be used) to control and manipulate us all. Suddenly the mike goes off! Shouts from the audience, then applause. Finally Ken finishes without the mike, but the occupants of the stage, irate at the microphone shut-off, remain on stage in protest just long enough to arouse the hostility of the audience. (Get the bums off!)

And then, his passage safe at last, Edwin Land approaches the podium. Hands trembling and lips quivering, he begins to speak—no, nothing comes out. The President, Chairman of the Board, and Director of Research of Polaroid—Mr. Polaroid—cannot answer. He begins again, and again nothing. Then a few halting words—incoherent attacks upon the PRWM and revolutionaries. More stammering. At long last, his composure finally regained, Land begins his talk on color vision and the audience once more can relax into scientific oblivion.

I find it difficult to assess the overall effect of the action. Aside from a few hecklers in the audience, the reaction to the microphone takeover was not one of great hostility, though it is doubtful that the tactic won many over to our side. Most seemed to listen with interest. The great success was that for the first time at a scientific meeting, radical scientists, working closely with other movement groups, broke down the barriers of a scientific meeting to bring an important issue before scientists in a forceful way. For members of this country’s ruling elite, like Land, the action signified that they can no longer find a haven in the confines of a scientific meeting. Many physicists, upset by our tactics, expressed a desire, rather, to be convinced by good manners and the force of rational argument. My impression is that most of them would never have considered the issue at all had it not been brought up in this way. Many of them, for example, had read full page Polaroid advertisements, believing every word, while neglecting to consider the arguments in the pamphlet distributed by SESPA/Science for the People.

The main shortcoming of the action was that it did not build interest is further actions; the number of people attending the nightly SESPA meetings remained just about constant (30 people) throughout the meeting. That kind of attendance represented a failure on the part of the radicals to stimulate interest and mobilize support.

I confess I’m somewhat at a loss to explain this failure. We were up against sizeable odds—as I already pointed out, people really didn’t want to be bothered. There were very few graduate students around to lend moral or manpower support to the actions. In the past, local groups had provided a great deal of support, but N.Y. SESPA had succeeded in mobilizing essentially ‘no one except a half dozen or so. The younger scientists who did come to the meeting were absorbed in their own employment or funding problems. They correctly attacked the APS and the physics establishment on a number of grounds, but failed to recognize how the systemic roots of these problems rule out solutions from within the scientific community alone. Nevertheless the existence of just such disaffection should have been the nucleus upon which radicals could build. We were unable to take advantage of this opportunity.  

Certainly local organizing left something to be desired. Virtually no provisions had been made for producing leaflets or other materials, a situation which proved to be a great handicap in organizing and publicizing actions. Thus John Froines’ (Chicago Conspiracy 7) appearance Wednesday night went almost unnoticed, while an action that same afternoon was missed by many who would have been sympathetic. The action, directed at the session on graduate education, consisted of calling a meeting of graduate students an hour before the official session was to begin, and then treating the regular session as a disruption. Needless to say, Fred Seitz and the cronies on his panel were a bit surprised to find themselves out of control. They were forced to put two graduate students on the panel who then proceeded to lambaste the whole bunch of them.

It was heartening to see people who had earlier expressed reservations about the so-called disruptive tactics participating in the Polaroid and graduate-education actions. Some progress had been made. Perhaps it’s too early though to judge the overall effect of the SESPA activities. The authority of the APS leadership had been successfully challenged and the sanctity of the meeting had been destroyed. To have neglected the Polaroid issue would in my opinion have been a terrible failure. While feeling a certain frustration over the difficulty of organizing, I found working with some of the people from Chicago, Berkeley and New York very rewarding. I made some friends, no doubt some enemies, and some new contacts. No sooner will these words be printed, than we will find ourselves at the APS once again, this time in Washington. More physicists will be feeling the squeeze. The spring anti-war offensive will be under way. Seize the time!


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  1. Charlie Schwartz of Berkeley SESPA [ed.]