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On Being Indicted

I. “CONSPIRACY”

Until I was indicted for it, I had thought a conspiracy was something sneaky, like dope-smugglers or price-fixers. Most people still think so, but that is because they have not been indicted for “conspiring” to do something in broad daylight. Newly educated, I searched my etymological dictionary for proof, and found that a “conspiracy” was originally a “breathing together.” Two people who breathe the same air, it seems, or who are inspired by the same spirit, are “conspirators” (or, in legal parlance, “co-conspirators,” a word I could not find in any dictionary). Of that sort of conspiracy I joyfully confess I am a member (not card-carrying, however): something was blowing in the wind last summer and we breathed it in.

Last summer’s slogan, “from dissent to resistance,” was more meaningful than most slogans in the peace movement, because thousands of people made up their minds to commit themselves in a basically new way to anti-war politics. Resistance has already taken many forms (some of them symbolic, like the “liberated zones” around the Pentagon), but draft resistance has emerged as the focus, and among the many anti-draft groups the Resistance has emerged, in many parts of the country, as the vanguard. Since October 16 about 2500 draftable men have turned in or burned their draft cards and face prosecution or imminent induction for doing so. Thousands who are not liable to the draft have done their best to implicate themselves with those who are. Men are refusing induction at a rapidly growing rate, sometimes by groups of six or ten at a time. The senior class of America’s universities will graduate into the army, prison, or Canada and at this writing it is not clear which will get the most (a Yale poll showed 38 percent will refuse to serve if called). A growing number of high-school students are refusing to register at age eighteen. And some who have gone to Canada are coming back.

HOW DID THIS RESISTANCE so suddenly get started? Who was behind it? No one. No pediatrician or chaplain could possibly have brought it about; if anything they have come along behind, feeling they had to help those who had already chosen to resist the draft. To indict them for conspiracy to “counsel, aid, and abet” these thousands is on the face of it absurd. No mere words or offers of legal help could have led the young men to choose prison: that choice comes from a place too awful and too deep for the reach of thought alone. What has reached inside and taken hold of the spirit is the war and the draft and the crumbling all around us of many good and hopeful things. If anyone “aided and abetted” the Resistance, it was Lyndon Johnson, or Lewis Hershey.

A few mimeographed sheets, magazine statements, and press conferences were all—once the idea was articulated the response came of itself. The idea was a strategy for having an impact on the draft and the war, but it was not the logical persuasiveness of the strategy that brought such numbers to the Resistance. Men whose insides were ready for commitment needed only the barest hope of a chance that their gesture would be more than an act of moral witness, that with sufficient numbers and organization and publicity they just might have a measurable impact. They were willing to pay a high price; all that was needed was the chance that the price might not be for nothing. It is already clear, I think, that it is not.

II. WHY I JOINED THE RESISTANCE

My own motives for joining the Resistance were partly personal and partly political, and they were so interrelated that the personal and the political became extensions of each other (which is a way of saying what the Resistance is all about). I cannot hope to list them in a way that reflects the shape they took in my head and heart, and even less in a way that bespeaks the condition of other resistants; but let me separate some of them.

(1) Holding a student deferment while others died in a war I deeply hated, I felt uneasy and hypocritical. Last spring, having procrastinated long enough, I sent in forms to my local board for conscientious objector status. That seemingly innocent gesture started a chain of events that brought theory down to reality for me in a very educational way. Initially—and I speak for many co-applicants—I felt good: I had stood up for something I believed in, and all the statements, documents, and support testimony I sent my board were weapons in my noble battle for truth and justice. That battle, it soon became clear, I would lose, but it also became clear that even if I won, the battle was anything but noble. Far from impressing my board members with the depth of my commitment to nonviolence, the power of my arguments, etc., I was forced to dance the “Conscientious Objectors’ Gavotte”—an intricate series of steps arranged by absurd logical categories and legal machinery and directed by several old men of dubious wisdom. After months of futile effort I was tired and angry enough to quit the whole dance, and when I handed in my card on October 16 it was partly to reclaim my independence and dignity.

(2) I had joined SDS about four years ago, in the good old days before the escalation, when the prevailing tone of SDS had been one of experimentation, openness to new ideas, and cheerfulness. By last fall, it seemed, that tone had changed. Now we had long and harsh parliamentary wrangles over ideology, and our sense of humor had dwindled to exhibitionism and one-upmanship. Everyone was hung up over being properly ideological, and many tried to become members of the working class by wearing blue work shirts and speaking illiterately. It was bad enough to hear at every meeting about the virtues of the working class and of the “true imperialist nature” of just about everything, but it was painful to see kids who had liberated themselves from the stifling stereotypes taught by their parents and schools only to take up new ones, of ideology, styles of speech and dress, and heroes from other revolutions. They were also up tight with the draft: SDS had condemned student deferments but most of its members still carried them. The world was deemed unworthy of their sacrifice.

I joined the Resistance, then, partly to encourage a renewal of spirit and energy among already convinced radicals. Probably no group dedicated to saving a country as far gone as ours can stay immune to low spirits, factionalism, and paralysis, but so far Resistance groups in most parts of the country have remained buoyant and cohesive. Theoretical disputes evaporate in the midst of struggle.

(3) I grew up in the Unitarian-Universalist church, a church with a brilliant heritage of idealistic social reform and radical commitment to change. Until I went off to college I had been proud to claim that heritage as my own, but as the church faltered and hesitated in the civil rights, anti-poverty, and antiwar struggles I grew disillusioned. Just another bourgeois Protestant church, forgetful of its own origins. But lately, as discouragement with this country’s disastrous policies has spread, and as the youth groups of the church have shown greater and greater involvement with social issues, the church as a whole has begun to wake up. And when the Arlington Street Church in Boston housed a Resistance service on October 16, I felt a little like a prodigal son returning home.

The clergy of all faiths who have stood with the Resistance and the seminarians of all faiths who have joined it have been a strong and healthy influence. They have helped us—and many of us were far more alienated from institutional religion than I—to see the possibility of a truly radical church, an ecclesia, a community dedicated equally to the mental and spiritual health of its members and to the changes that must come in the larger society around it.

(4) Before I decided to turn in my card I had anticipated coming to court some day for draft refusal (as a result of having lost my conscientious objector claim) where I would have tried to argue against the war and the draft. I knew, of course, that I would have had little luck bringing any arguments other than those relevant to my classification. By turning in my card I hoped I might mount a clearer challenge, using the argument, among others, that it was my main intention to get into court (and test a law not yet reviewed), and not to evade service. I certainly did not foresee the conspiracy indictment, but it offers an opportunity to bring the same challenges to the war and the draft. Whether that challenge will be permitted I cannot guess, but I will try to bring it.

(5) Finally, of course, I gave some cold-blooded thought to certain precise aspects of strategy. It seemed possible that large numbers of draft-refusers might put intolerable pressure on the judicial system. Not that Congress could not increase the number of courts and judges, but the prospect of a major overhaul of the legal machinery might prompt a reconsideration of the policies ultimately responsible for it. In some places we may already be approaching the point where pressure on the legal system is causing serious difficulty, especially in Oakland.

It was also clear that the Resistance might speak in a peculiarly powerful way to the entire peace movement and to everyone with doubts about the war. Every resister has several constituencies affected by his gesture, and many repeated gestures affecting overlapping constituencies could galvanize immense numbers of people into sharper anti-war protest. It is in this respect that the Resistance has been most successful. Let me illustrate with examples from the Boston area during the last six weeks alone.

(a) Suburban peace groups. White professional-class men and women have a dinner party in Newton and raise $1000 for draft resistance.

(b) Religious groups. Seventy priests (in Irish Catholic Boston!) publicly support conscientious draft-refusers.

(c) Family. Howard Marston of Rockport risks indictment to insist that his son, a minor, refuse induction. Dozens of parents are moved to telephone him and pledge to stand by their sons in the same way.

(d) Black community. Active draft-counseling center is started in the Roxbury ghetto by white students whose seriousness has helped to break down the barriers once created by privilege.

(e) Campus. Large anti-draft unions and “We Won’t Go” pledges are begun on several campuses. The Harvard Crimson endorses resistance. Faculty support groups are growing.

The examples could be multiplied, and the story is the same all over the country.

III. AND SO?

What do the conspiracy indictments mean? I can offer no more wisdom than anyone else. It is possible that the administration feels trapped, staving off the hawks by indicting Spock to give it time to bring victories in a war it is losing, while knowing it is politically too costly to indict everyone, etc. That is possible. And it is also possible that the administration is preparing still for a great crackdown, perhaps with a declaration of national emergency. If that is true we may have to confess that the idea of the Resistance was a mistake, for the Resistance as we now perceive it depends on arousing democratic and conscientious forces in the country as a whole (it depends on McCarthy and Kennedy, too, to some extent) even for its survival, let alone its success. If these forces are crushed, a lot more than the Resistance will go under. But the risk must be taken, for the may never come another chance.

P.S. Johnson’s refusal to seek another term does not change things fundamentally. The war goes on; draft calls are high. As if to show they were not fooled, more than 250 new men sent back their draft cards in Boston April 3, and hundreds more did so throughout the country.

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