by Lewis Leong
It is 7:30 in the evening, Feb. 25, 1970, when Stephen MacLeod steps out of the Magic Lantern Theater in Isla Vista, Santa Barbra, after watching the film, Fellini Satyricon with a few of his friends. Down the street is a Bank of America. Something catches MacLeod’s eye. There is a group of college students congregating outside the Bank of America. The ground is littered with tiny shards of glass, glistening like diamonds under the streetlamp. Students broke into the bank, using a dumpster which was later set on fire to break in. Inside, people were making long distance phone calls to their loved ones and rummaging through files. A bunch of fraternity boys were tearing down drapes from the story above, laughing and cheering with reckless abandon. Outside is an unknown man filming the action. Feeling nervous, MacLeod and his friends made their way back to their apartments. In the morning, only the ashes of the Bank of America remain. The news reports that several hundred people congregated at the Bank of America in protest of the Vietnam War because the Bank was lending money to the government for buying Agent Orange.
MacLeod, a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, watched as the news showed video of where he stood the previous night, glad he did not participate. Several years earlier, MacLeod was majoring in architecture at Cal Poly San Louis Obispo but switched his major to sociology, deciding “all of a sudden, [the War] seemed more important.” Today, MacLeod works for the University of California in Irvine for the Langston Library as their Public Services Coordinator and head of Special Collections and Archives. It is ironic for a peace activist to find himself working for the government instead of protesting against it as he did in his youth but it was the War that laid out the path that MacLeod’s life would follow. MacLeod, dressed in khakis and a collard shirt under a sweater, met with me in his office on the 5th floor of the Langston Library on a sunny, Monday afternoon.
Lewis Leong: So how did you find yourself working for UCI’s Langston Library?
Stephen MacLeod: During the War, young men had draft numbers and I had a very low draft number, like 10 or something. They basically published in the national newspapers when they started the draft, a date, month and day and a number and it was just this arbitrary thing and I got number 10 and I was going to be drafted shortly after I got out [of school]. You know they had some majors that were deemed worthy for the protection of the country or something like that and sociology certainly wasn’t one of them so I had a couple of options; one was to go to Canada and the other was to file as a conscientious objector. A conscientious objector is someone who is opposed to war on a religious ground, on a philosophical ground. They just are against the idea of war period and they won’t participate.
They give you about 3 months to find work that fit the criteria on your own or they send you off to this federal mental institution in Kansas City. [I could have worked] in this mental hospital which I really didn’t want to do. After a while, I realized, looking at the criteria, I could work in a library. [Libraries are] not for profit; it’s for the betterment of human kind. They had a few openings, one which was as their film librarian or film clerk so I kinda faked my way into that but I knew a lot about films and really loved it. I liked it so much that I went to library school. To be a librarian, you have to have a master’s degree in Library Information Science so I went to USC and got that degree and then I worked at the Claremont colleges as my first library job. This position opened up here as the head of the Reference Department. I applied and I got that job and I was head of the Reference Department downstairs for 18 years. I wanted a change and this position opened up in Special Collections and Archives.
LL: What roles did you have during the Anti-War Movement?
SM: There was a reaction and that reaction meant that there would be a demonstration on campus. Those demonstrations could go on for days if not weeks. So it was a very, very different environment than it is now, for instance, with the war in Iraq. I wasn’t in any particular campus organizations at UCSB. Frankly, there weren’t a lot of public organizations on campus, mainly loosely organized without titles, officers, etc. I was a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, a national political party that still exists. I [also] liked to take photographs. I had a nice camera with a nice, powerful lens. The most critical role I played was taking photographs of people taking photographs of us. We would figure out or attempt to figure out who these people were. (laughs) I would take photographs of old people with straight clothes and straight hair. (laughs) And if there was a pattern of continuing to show up, it was part of an intimidation war. They would come take pictures of you, and you would take pictures of them, that sort of thing. That’s a role I remember having.
LL: I’ve noticed that there hasn’t really been much action and protest against the Iraq War. Why do you think that is?
SM: There were students who were younger who weren’t going to have to face [the draft] for several years but they were really in opposed to the war. Students were leading the opposition but students today don’t think they can have an effect in politics. You think that the Congress can do this and you listen to them talk. Occasionally you’ll have a massive demonstration in Washington or something like that. I don’t think students think they have the power to change things. It was just a different time.
Another reason that students are afraid to voice their opinions is because all want to get the best grade [they] can. I think you guys have so much pressure to succeed in school it’s unbelievable. I see that in my kids by the time they’re in 5th or 6th grade, they’re already tracking how they do in test. It’s just amazing the pressure that you guys are under that creates an environment that you want to learn everything you can from this master and be able to just ace every exam, every paper, everything. The priority today is not engaging differences and the pressures to succeed are so great that you just need to study and master the material you’re given because the environment is so competitive.
With Obama’s campaign, you see so much more activism and political organization with young people in any election in recent decades. To me, that’s heartening and that’s idealism. He’s the idealist in this election and it’s heartening to see people motivated by that and that they see a future that’s different. [They] see a difference by participating in that campaign. It’s not a huge movement or anything but it’s significant. To me, it’s very positive because [students] see it has an impact on elections.
LL: Why do you think there’s that transition away from activism? Didn’t everyone want to succeed financially back then as well?
SM: Not everyone wanted to make money. I had no ambitions to make money and none of my friends did either. The goal was to try everything you could to the point where you found something you were passionate about and when you found something you were passionate about, you worked as hard as you could because it was play to you. Maybe that was just an environment back then because everything seems so much less expensive back then. (laughs) There are a lot of reasons but having children made me realize that the pressure to succeed is so great. I think that the War and all the demonstrations made people realize they had independent power and I don’t think students have the sense that they can stand up to some sort of social, political group and have some impact.
LL: Are you an active participant against the Iraq War?
SM: No I’m not. (small chuckle)
LL: So you’ve basically left protesting in your past?
SM: I’m not in any organization that there isn’t really an effort because in many ways it’s an odder war and a more immoral war, or as immoral a war as Vietnam was. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. One of my kids, she’s in college and she’s very opposed to the War. I’ve been opposed to that war since it started. It’s been interesting to see. I remember meeting one person my age that was opposed to the war. Everybody else was pro war when it started. It’s something that I feel really strongly about and follow but it’s just a different time. I think something that’s so different on a college campus when I was growing up was you rarely engage your instructor, faculty, your professors in any disagreement. It’s very rare. You would have a lecture and two or three times during a lecture you could have real engagement in differences. Part of that, again, came from that sense of empowerment that people had that was transferred into the classrooms as well so the engagement over ideas was real.
LL: Do you hope your kids will take up the same role as you did?
SM: Well I encourage them to think independently and to act on their conscience and to participate in all the opportunities on college campus to participate. I encourage both my daughters to do that. I want them to think independently about all issues but especially in political issues and that means engaging in differences. I think it’s better now than it was maybe 5 or 10 years ago when everyone wanted to be a businessman and wanted to make lots of money but I think you still see it a little bit but it’s no where near. [My children] don’t want to know too much about what I was doing when I was in college because they know what they’re doing but whenever they ask, I always encourage them to think independently, to ask, “Why?” [I encourage them to] propose different solutions and generally speaking, I think they’re doing that.