“Moments of unusual unrest provide opportunities for those without money or influence to break through attitudes of indifference — and to highlight social and political injustices. ‘Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable,’ argued prominent civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin. ‘The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places, so wheels don’t turn.’”
-from “What Makes Nonviolent Movements Explode?,” (http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/makes-nonviolent-movements-explode/), by Mark and Paul Engler
Mark and Paul Engler’s well-reasoned piece published just a few days ago reminded me of what was, without question, the most personally impactful action I have ever taken part in, over 44 years ago, in Rochester, N.Y. on the Labor Day weekend of 1970.
I was 20 years old at the time, and for the previous nine months I had been actively involved with the Catholic Left, which at that point in time was the name for the network of priests, nuns, Catholic lay people and others who were neither Catholic nor, necessarily, religious. What this network of hundreds of people did for a period of several years in the late 60s and early 70s was to pull off or inspire nonviolent “actions,” as we called them, to disrupt the war machine. Our movement took action at literally scores of Selective Service draft board offices and the offices and factories of war corporations on the east coast and in the midwest.
Twice, we also went into the offices of the FBI. The second time was an action carried out successfully in Media, Pa. on March 8, 1971, reported on in the recently-published and excellent book, The Burglary, by Betty Medsger. But before there was Media there was Rochester.
Eight of us, all young people in our 20’s except for one person, entered the Federal Building in Rochester late Saturday night of that Labor Day weekend. For five hours we were in the Selective Service office cutting up 1-A draft files of men about to be inducted into the army, in the U.S. Attorney’s office disrupting it to protest the race and class character of what passes for “justice” in the U.S., and in the FBI office, putting files into bags and suitcases. One of them was a manual for how to develop informants. Another reported on the local office’s surveillance of a peaceful and legal demonstration on International Women’s Day. And there were many more.
However, those files never saw the light of day, literally. Just as we were about to leave the building around 5 am to be picked up by two cars coming down the street, a local policeman happened to check the door of the building where the eight of us were crouching. He saw us; the cars kept going; we were arrested and indicted on charges that carried a maximum sentence of 38 years; and three months later our trial began before a Judge Harold Burke, a judge appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt several decades before.
The jury chosen to decide our fate were all white, and when asked before being chosen, all said that they supported the war in Vietnam. We expected to be convicted and sent to prison for at least 5-10 years. But before those things happened, we organized ourselves to put on the strongest possible political case that we could. Seven of the eight of us defended ourselves, and this tactic opened up the courtroom to testimony that almost certainly would not have been allowed otherwise. We had anti-war Vietnam veterans take the stand. Barbara Deming testified about her trip to Vietnam and the death and devastation she saw. Fr. Daniel Berrigan was brought in chains from Danbury prison; part of his testimony was to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the hushed, open courtroom. I questioned one of my co-defendants about the Declaration of Independence and Jesus’ driving of the money-changers out of the Jerusalem temple, making the point that what we were doing was in the highest revolutionary traditions. FBI agents were put in the witness chair and cross-examined by those in our group who had been in the FBI office.
The jury went out to start deliberating our fate around 2 pm on a mid-December day. When they weren’t yet back at dinner time, we started to get our hopes up. Could they actually be hung? We had appealed to them as human beings all throughout and in our closing statements, appealed to them to make a statement of their own about the war and government repression. Could what we did actually have worked?
But it was not to be. About 9 pm we were called back into the courtroom, and when it came time for them to report their verdict, we heard the foreman say, “guilty with a recommendation of leniency” on every count.
A recommendation of leniency? What did that mean? We found out a couple days later when the local newspaper carried a lead story based on interviews of the jurors. It turns out they were hung, 9-3 for conviction. Three of the jurors did not want us to be convicted and go to jail, and the article indicated that none of the jurors were very happy about the prospect of us getting long jail sentences. They had compromised and agreed to convict “with a recommendation of leniency” after they passed a note to the judge asking if they could do so, and he sent back a note saying they could.
When we were sentenced, the judge sentenced some of us to a year, and some to a year and a half. We were actually relieved, given what we had expected.
That experience left an imprint on me that has never been removed. It gave me hope, something I really didn’t have a lot of back then and that I sometimes, today, have to work at. Many times I have thought about those jurors, all Vietnam war supporters, and how we got through to many of them over the course of those two weeks.
Our ability to present the truth in open court about what was happening in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and with the FBI definitely was part of the reason for this change. But it was also because we had risked long prison sentences to try to disrupt, to stop what we saw as evil taking place in our name. We were willing to sacrifice for the greater good and in a tradition of those who had done so before us. There is no question this made those three jurors willing to stand up, refuse to convict, leading to the eventual recommendation of leniency from the full jury and the sentence that reflected that.
I’ve seen this dynamic many times over the course of my organizer/activist lifetime. It is absolutely true that, ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Actions that underline the moral urgency, the life-and-death reality of issues of war, or serious injustice, or the deepening climate crisis, are the most effective and quickest way to bring about substantive change.
Workers occupying factories in the 1930’s in defense of their right to organize experienced this, as did African American people in the South and their supporters in the successful battle—a battle which led to many deaths, beatings, jailings and suffering—to end legal segregation. Anti-nuclear protestors arrested for blockades of planned nuclear power plants experienced the same. Immigrant rights activists today are seeing some victories, not the big one yet but victories, as some of them risk deportation or arrest or engage in long hunger strikes. There is the mass upsurge against police racism and violence begun this summer in Ferguson, Mo. but spreading throughout the country, often utilizing tactics of risk-arrest nonviolent disruption. And, thank God, within the climate movement there is a growing use of nonviolent resistance, as seen right now in particular at Seneca Lake, N.Y. (www.wearesenecalake.com) or, last month, during blockades (http://bit.ly/BeyondExtremeEnergy) at the DC headquarters of FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
As the new year approaches, we need many thousands, tens of thousands of us to resolve that we will put our bodies on the line in 2015 to disrupt business as usual, to sacrifice so that our children and grandchildren have a very different future than the one they are now facing. Si se puede, yes, we can make a new world if we’re willing to undertake the kinds of action called for, actions that become a major component of the new normal of social justice and climate activism in this decisive teens decade.