By his own description, Karl Bissinger is a former Communist, a one-time fashion photographer, a radical, an anarchist and a man who has been busted more than 20 times for demonstrating against war and in favor of disarmament.
His career in the antiwar movement reflects the ups and downs of social protest during the last two decades-from the lonely days of the late '50s and early '60s to the heady days of the late '60s and early '70s and now the weary days of the late '70s.
There were days in Washington within the last 10 years when, out of concern for the safety of the president, one could not see the White House for all the D.C. Transit buses parked bumper-to-bumper to bar antiwar protesters. Today that movement seems little more than ripple.
Bissinger is part of that ripple. He and 10 other members of the War Resisters League now are on trial on charges of unlawful entrance to and "refusal to quit" the White House grounds Balor Day. The demonstration here was planned to coincide with one held in Red Square in Moscow, and both demonstrations protested nuclear weaons and nuclear power.
To hear him tell of his life, Bissinger, 64, drifted into radicalism from an upper middle-class upbringing in Cincinnati, where his father owned a candy factory.
He says he came to New York in the early 1930s not knowing that the country was in a depression. "I literally didn't take it in somehow," he said. Reality dawnes on him the day he tried to get a job as a busboy and was turned away because there was no work.
He remembers another moment when his girl friend wanted to walk across a picket line and he suddenly balked. "That was one of those moments," he says. "There aren't many in life. Things fall into place. You know, whose side are you on?"
Bissinger had his romance with communism, quitting, he says, "before they threw me out. I was too much of an anarchist to be a Communist." He discovered during World War II that he was a pacifist, just about the same time that he made a large amount of money selling antiques. "There was no furniture," he explains, "so people bought second-hand furniture."
He "floated around Europe," after the war, grabbed an opportunity to become a fashion photographer and wound up shooting for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. He made money-enough to put his son through college, rent a 125-acre farm on Long Island, drive a sports car and not care about money.
He got into the antiwar movement one day in the early '60s when he was arrested with Dorothy Day, the Catholic socialist, for refusing to take cover during an air raid drill at New York City Hall.
From there, he recalls, it was a steady march of people that gradually grew.
There were ban-the-bomb meetings but still a feeling of isolation. "I also had to deal with the fact that a lot of the people I was with were considered crazy," he says. "There were people who were working for peace. These were issues that busy Americans weren't concerned with. If you were against arming to the teeth, you were pro-Soviet. . ."
Then, as Bissinger puts it, "the war in Vietnam began looming on our horizons." Before long, Bissinger was involved in counseling draft-aged persons about how to avoid the Army. "Then it escalated, and we said 'we're going to go out on a limb.'" He started helping deserters.
By the late '60s, "I felt a feeling of tremendous solidarity. There was a period in the late '60s when we took out buses to go to Washington. We knew we were going to fill them. People were angry. People were speaking out. There was a iceling you could do something. Prominent people were coming out."
That all peaked in 1971. Bissinger was arrested outside the U.S. Senate in 1972 for lying down to protest the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. But the Vietnam War was slipping away and with it the antiwar movement.
Bissinger gave up photography five years ago, he says, to work full-time for the War Resisters League. He discusses it cheerfully, with enthusiasm and warm memories of what is past but without noticeable remorse that the '60s are receding in memory.
For one thing, he does not believe the antiwar movement is dying. He points to demonstrations around the country against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. "We're building a movement against nuclear arms," he says. "We're beginning to feel it."
Bissinger says he has no regrets about giving up his career in photography for a career of protest. "This is what I want to do," he says. "This is what I'd be doing in my spare time and to be paid a little bit for it is wonderful." CAPTION: Picture, Karl Bissinger . . . part of the ripple