Friday, September 21, 2007

Thirty nine years ago this week, The Milwaukee Fourteen lit up the news...by lighting up hundreds of draft files of men classified 1-A.

The times were different. The war was different.

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Don Cotton, Michael Cullen, Father Robert Cunnane, James Forest, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Rev. Jon Higgenbotham, Father James Harney, Father Alfred Janicke, Doug Marvy, Father Anthony Mullaney, Fred Ojile, Brother Basil K. O'Leary, Father Larry Rosebaugh *

It's never different. War is always the same.

Back then, Lyndon Johnson was waist deep in big muddy, fearful that he might be the first president to lose a war, surrounded by people who had assured him--and the Congress, and the American people-- that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that Americans would turn the war over to the Vietnamese.

Then, it was dominoes. Now, it is oil.

Then...and now, the times call for acts of civil disobedience, non-violent resistance, marching, challenging, defying orders to "Keep moving, nothing to see here," refusing to pay war taxes, sabotaging the machinery of war-making.

The genius of the M-14 plotters was that they had a very crucial target, just begging to be sabotaged. On an upper floor of the Brumder Building (now Germania Building) at the triangle formed by Wells, Plankinton and N. 2nd was the office of Milwaukee's branch of the Selective Service System, keeping the files for 9 Local Boards.

The Draft was set up as Little groups of neighbors, each local board responsible for the impressment of young men between the ages of 18 and 26--those lacking any kind of deferment or exemption-- medical, educational, religious or Political--into the meatgrinder of Vietnam. They really were set up on a neighborhood basis. When I once had an adversarial interview with the members of Local Board 26 in Cleveland, I learned that some members were focussed solely on the Near west side of Cleveland.

Historical note: at the same time the Fourteen were processing 1-A files, in a little park in front of the Brumder, with homemade napalm (jellied gasoline, useful for raining fiery death indiscriminately from the Southeast Asian sky), George W. Bush was was being processed through his initial National Guard pilot training at Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring, Texas. Water Blogged knows this for a fact, because your blogger had visited Big Spring several weeks before, spent time with his younger brother who was undertaking the same pre-pilot training (the first weeks and months were strictly bookwork and going up in Piper Cubs and Cessna 150s to assess the trainee's flight aptitude), in a class that overlapped the time GWB was there. Word was that W, at age 22, was a two-bit smug frat boy, but well down the road to becoming a big-time, all-grown-up, smug frat boy.

So, the Fourteen torched the files. They had done a good deal of planning, even involving a diversionary action the Sunday before the move on the Selective Service. Sunday, September 22, two days before the SSS raid, a group of clergy, students, out-of-towners, local folks ripe for resistance, had been recruited to take over the solemn high 11:00 o'clock Mass at St John Cathedral. All the informers and infiltrators had been subjected to a slick mis-direction ploy, said to have been cooked up by Mary Lou Massignani. When Nick Riddell, a renegade Franciscan graduate student in Social Work at UWM, jumped up and took over the pulpit, Sgt. Miller and the Red Squad (Y55), plus a horde of FBI and plainclothes cops appeared from the sacristy doors, from behind the altar, out of the confessional boxes, from the pews and the choir loft to make arrests and show the rabble that they were not going to get away with any lawlessness. They had our number.

That was the first time I had ever been subject to arrest. In fact, they had too many people to process, not enough handcuffs; they shooed a bunch of us away. We wouldn't leave, so they kept threatening to arrest us, then telling us that they WOULD arrest us IF THEY COULD.

Two days later the carefully planned and executed draft board raid went off without a bit of foreknowledge by the smug law enforcement crew and their infiltrators and informers.

The destruction of draft files of young men classified I-A convulsed the city and the nation. That photo up top of this screed was a two-page spread in Life Magazine the following week. The 14 eventually went to jail. The prosecution by a pious, sanctimonious, hypocrite named E. Michael McCann, used the convictions to build the foundation of his political hold on the office of District Attorney.

Resistance to Johnson's war (soon to be Nixon's) had begun to have its effect. Only a month before, the Democrats at their convention in Chicago, had been forced to hold their noses as they picked someone to nominate as successor to Johnson, who had acknowledged in the Spring that the nation had turned against him and his war. In the next four years, many more acts of non-violent resistance ensued. (I'm not talking about the Weathermen and their ilk. They were elitist, too-smart-for-their-own-good, counter-productive and unspeakably violent). The action of the Fourteen emboldened others. Tax resistance grew, political organizing grew. It was a long, long, hard, battle. In the end it was attrition and weariness in the face of so much popular revulsion at the senseless bloodshed that ended it all.

As we remember the moral clarity of these fourteen men, the power of their non violent resistance, the moral force of their civil disobedience, consider the testimony at the trial of the Fourteen, recalled recently by historian Howard Zinn.

“In the year 1968 I was called to Milwaukee to testify in the case of the Milwaukee Fourteen. A group of priests, brothers, and laypeople who had gone into a draft board, taken thousands of its documents, and burned them in a symbolic protest against the war in Vietnam. As a historian of social movements, I was asked to discuss the role of civil disobedience in American history. The judge was clearly uneasy, but he allowed me to answer the question. I spoke of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and of its insistence that when a government becomes destructive of basic human rights, it is the duty of the people to ‘alter or abolish it.’ I began to talk about Henry David Thoreau and his decision to break the law in protest against the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. At this point, Judge Larsen interrupted. He pounded his gavel and said: ‘You can't discuss that. That is getting to the heart of the matter’.”
It is time, once again, to go to the Heart of the Matter.
* Why are there are 15 men in the photo of the Milwaukee Fourteen? The man writing at the far left is Dan Patrinos long-time first-rate reporter from the Milwaukee Sentinel. I think it was John Hagedorn who tipped him off thirty seconds before the conflagration.)
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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.