From anti-war protester to professor
Saigon’s fall floored San Diego artist, “At times, it comes out — even all these years later.”

By Peter Rowe, April 27, 2015

At his UCSD office in the Visual Arts Facility, Emeritus Professor Fred Lonidier pauses for a moment as he reflects back to the years when he opposed the Vietnam war and the draft.

 

Watching the evening news on April 30, 1975, Fred Lonidier wasn’t surprised by the top story. “Things were unraveling really fast the few months before the actual collapse and evacuation of Saigon,” he said.

Yet the televised images of Saigon’s surrender floored the San Diego artist.

“I bawled like a baby,” he said. “So much of my life was taken up with this thing.”

As an anti-war activist, Lonidier had battled the draft. Even after his case was dismissed, though, his ties to the war continued. They still do.

A photographer, Lonidier first gained a reputation by shooting anti-war demonstrations. His best-known work, “29 Arrests,” is 29 photos of protesters being taken into custody during a 1972 sit-in outside San Diego’s 11th Naval District offices.

“I showed it a couple of times and then, like all the other stuff, I put it away,” Lonidier said.

But “29 Arrests” refused to fade away. Exhibited from Chicago to Rome, the work was cited by art historian Benjamin Buchloh as a key example of activist photography. Last year, the series was acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

IN DEPTH 40 YEARS AGO: THE DAY VIETNAM WAR ENDED

As symbols of a turbulent era, these are powerful images, even in an area that’s home to some of the nation’s largest military bases. In the 1960s and 1970s, though, San Diego County was also home to a robust anti-war movement. Peer counselors on college campuses advised students on how to evade the draft. Protesters marched in Encinitas and Oceanside.

In 1972, demonstrators set fire to railroad ties on the train tracks in Del Mar, trying to stop munitions deliveries. The year before, organizers had sought to prevent an aircraft carrier from leaving North Island.

“We had a ballot that asked people ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ whether the aircraft carrier Constellation should be sent back to Vietnam to continue the bombing,” said Cardiff’s Rick Jahnkow, one of the leaders of the Harbor Project. “It was a major campaign that lasted about nine months.”

Lonidier had been protesting the war since the mid-1960s, while a San Francisco State student. Graduating with a sociology degree in 1967, he went to the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. Less than three months later, he was ordered back to the States — he had been drafted.

In Seattle, Lonidier reported to the local draft board. He passed his physical exam and then, when asked to step forward to be inducted, didn’t move.

“I told them I refused, on principle,” Lonidier remembered. “They told me I’d be investigated by Army intelligence and I could go home.

“I ran all the way to my lawyer’s office.”

He was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. His lawyer appealed and, in 1970, Lonidier’s case was dismissed.

By then, his life’s direction had been set. While his case was in limbo, Lonidier attended anti-war demonstrations in Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego. He always brought a camera.

“I wasn’t sure what sociologists did,” he said. “I began to wonder if I could be a sociological art photographer.”

 

At UC San Diego, he was invited to teach a photography course in the summer of 1970. He’s now a professor emeritus. Forty years ago, when Lonidier saw those scenes of North Vietnamese troops entering Saigon, San Diego’s anti-war movement was relatively quiet. The draft had ended. American troops and POWs were coming home. Lonidier’s focus had shifted to labor unions and workers. Still, those scenes reminded him of those days of stress and uncertainty. “It was personal,” Lonidier said. “It was what I had been through, the emotional side of it, which generally I am pretty good at repressing. “At times, it comes out — even all these years later.”

 

Image credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda

At his UCSD office in the Visual Arts Facility, Emeritus Professor Fred Lonidier pauses for a moment as he reflects back to the years when he opposed the Vietnam war and the draft.