Where is Billy Jack When You Need Him: A Conversation about Saving Ourselves

BELL VIEW--My kids can barely comprehend when I tell them I couldn’t just click on whatever movie I wanted to watch whenever I wanted to watch it.

I had to wait for it come on TV. And if I had to run to the bathroom in the middle, I had to wait till it came on again to catch whatever I missed. On Sundays, we used to tune it to Family Classics, with Frazier Thomas, to watch movies like: Lassie Come Home, The Hans Christian Andersen Story, Kidnapped, Captains Courageous, Sink the Bismark, The Time Machine, The Mark of Zorro, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  

Some nights, I would sneak out of my bedroom to watch the Late Late Show with the sound turned down low, for classics like Dr. Sardonicus, Niagara, Les Girls, Irma la Duce, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Nevada Smith.

Some movies got special treatment – like The Wizard of Oz -- whose annual appearance loomed like a national holiday in my neighborhood. Every television in my universe was tuned to Channel 9 on that night.

Less famous, but no less eventful in my childhood circles, was the all-but-forgotten Billy Jack, about an ex-Green Beret living in a hippie commune somewhere up in North Dakota or some such place. The movie extolled the virtues of non-violence while allowing Billy Jack to kick the crap out of a bunch of snarling racists and frat boys.

One scene sticks in my mind all these years later. A bunch of kids from the hippie commune go to a lunch counter, where they’re clearly not welcome. A couple of frat boys wander into the place and dump flour on to the hippie kids, who hang their heads in non-violent resignation as the frat boys do the 1971 equivalent of high-fives. Just then, Billy Jack walks through the front door of the place, and you can practically see the steam rising out of the top of his head. He walks up to one little girl, her calico dress speckled with white powder; he holds her tear-stained face in his hands and says something like: “This girl here – who is so beautiful we call her God’s little gift of sunshine. When I think of her re-living the shame of this moment.” And then there’s a pause as Billy Jack grinds his teeth into dust … “I JUST GO BERSERK!”

And – wham! – it’s nothing but feet and elbows and frat boy teeth flying in every direction. God I loved it!   

So, where, exactly, is Billy Jack when we need him?

Born too late for the 60’s, my friends and I and everyone else in my neighborhood nonetheless grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan and The Band, and Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And Neil Young, all by himself. We learned to play guitars, and went to the woods, and got high, and soaked up all the love and peace and harmony we could get our hands on. We followed the Grateful Dead – at least as far as Wisconsin.

So what happened? I keep asking myself this question. What happened to the people I grew up with? When did they become the drooling racists in the Billy Jack movies?

In the end – and I can’t remember all the details – Billy Jack’s girlfriend convinces him to embrace non-violence, and – spoiler alert! – the racists and the frat boys gun him down. Just like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

And that’s ultimately the problem with hippies: They just can’t commit to the happy ending. The one where Billy Jack chases the rednecks out of town and the hippies ride their bikes in peace to the organic food co-op to sign up for single-payer healthcare. No. There’s no ex-Green Beret going to ride in on a chopper and give us our country back. It didn’t even work in the movies, how can we expect it in real life? Robert Mueller may be an ex-war hero, but he’s going to need us to get up from the lunch counter and do our bit.

Which is kind of a long way to say we have elections coming up. June 5 in California. And, of course, November – when nothing less than the future of America will be on the ballot. So, don’t blow it. And don’t forget to call your cousin in Philly and tell him to vote. And your mom and dad in Ohio. It may not be as much fun as kicking a Republican in the head, but it’ll do the trick in a pinch.     

(David Bell is a writer, attorney, former president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and writes for CityWatch.)