Where I grew up there was an Irish, Hispanic and Italian family. It was all mixed. There was a liberal and accommodating vibe in Englewood, New Jersey. It was deep. Our parents went to the board of education and forced them to integrate our schools, which was unheard of. The community said: “This is bullshit, we all dig each other.”
We had gangs and we’d change sides each week. The kids knew each other’s parents and looked out for each other; we played stickball, jump rope or hide-and-seek until all hours. That is what halcyon days are like. The summer seemed to go on and on. There was a freedom kids don’t have today.
I was at school with John Travolta and the Isley Brothers’ Ernie and Marvin. We were in a town of celebrities. Ben E King lived round the corner, Dizzy Gillespie up the hill. Coming from that environment, you realise you are no different from anybody else. You see Dizzy in the A&P [grocery] store and the next night he’s at Carnegie Hall. That is what cats were doing around our block. We loved them for it but played it cool.
We did all the marching and protesting. I was too young to articulate my political views but my brother was part of Snick [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and Core [Congress of Racial Equality]. They were student activist groups that went to the South to campaign for voter rights. He brought a political consciousness to the house that opened my eyes.
I was arrested protesting against Vietnam. It was a waste of time, life and money. I thought it was a stupid thing we were doing in Vietnam and I think it is a stupid thing we are doing now in the Middle East. That doesn’t make me a bad American.
I had a white girlfriend and we’d walk hand in hand, knowing people would get upset. If someone stared too long, we started kissing – without realising this kind of shit could get us killed. But we felt so passionately. This was the year Martin [Luther King] was killed. Your hormones are driving you nuts at that age anyway but there was a sense of being on a mission, knowing that what we were doing was, to some people’s minds, taboo and that this shit had to change.