Op-ed: Activist’s suicide commemorated

George Winnie Jr. is the name of the man who immolated himself on Revelle Plaza 35 years ago, on May 10, 1970. There was a memorial service May 10, 2005, in the grove of trees behind Geisel Library — near a bronze plaque under a sage brush with his name on it, and his last words: “In God’s name, end this war.” I got an e-mail from a man I didn’t know saying people would gather there. For 20 minutes, I was the only person there.

It was strange sitting by the man’s — boy’s? — plaque, thinking I might have been the only one to show. What do you think about, wondering if you’ll be the only person on a campus of 40,000 to commemorate someone’s suicide to stop a war?

And, of course, it was one of those San Diego days that people move from across the country to experience — something lovely in the breeze from the ocean and salt water in the air and the dry, even sunlight. Girls in skirts, on skateboards, in sunhats — that easy athletic stride, as though they push something forward when they walk. So I sat with the plaque for 20 minutes thinking about how it would be to burn yourself to death on a day like this.

To say the plaque is hidden is not enough — it may be the quietest corner of campus. I’ve walked by it a dozen times, not seen it, not known it was there. It’s a mile from the spot where Winnie killed himself. What are the metaphysics of the move from the public, open air of Revelle Plaza to this shady spot, pleasantly on the margins, I can’t exactly say. Except that a man walked by me and said: “Nice place to read, yeah?”

Some others arrived. Two men, in their fifties, wearing suits. One said he was an organizer with Cesar Chavez, and now works with Clinica Legal. Another taught history. They said the others were at Revelle College, and were on their way. Five of them. There was an old woman who talked about standing in front of bulldozers to keep the site from destruction when Price Center was built. She told a long story of her life in Chile, watching a father, whose sons were tortured and killed by the military, light himself on fire in the plaza of his village: “I know what it is to not be able to take it anymore, and want your own destruction.”

A few librarians on their lunch break, carrying crosses with photos of dead Iraqi children. One of the librarians read Winnie’s obituary: A graduate student. A “loner.” The oddest part: A friend of my own father, it turns out, was the physics student who stopped the fire, burning himself badly in the process. Winnie died the next day.

Former UCSD professor Herbert Marcuse read at Winnie’s funeral. And we read another obituary by a history professor, who knew Winnie from a seminar. We should protest “rationally,” he argued. Winnie should not be an example.

A woman introduced herself as one of Winnie’s friends. “He wasn’t a ‘loner,’” she said. A bright curious mind, with a deep sense of spirituality. She quoted a Buddhist monk: “The point is not to die. Because life is eternal. The point is to burn.”

The death of Winnie was, in some ways, a small event in the Vietnam War; three million Vietnamese died, many from bombs — burning, you could say. Nearly 60,000 Americans. But at what other moment in American history could we point to young people who felt so much for others they couldn’t even see?

People began wandering off. I hugged a few people. The man who organized with Chavez was crying.

And then I walked to the library.

And that was the memorial service for George Winnie Jr.

–— Benjamin Balthaser

Graduate student