The November 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

AFSC Honors War Resisters

David Harris: A Stirring Call to Conscience

Leonard McNeil: Resisting 'Rich Man's Wars'

Karen Meredith: A Mother's Plea for Peace

Not One More Death, Not One More Dollar

Massive Police Sweeps in Contra Costa County

Housing First for Poor Families

Landlords Sue to End Just Cause

Struggle to Save the Free Box

YEAH! Shelters Homeless Youth

Gentrification in Berkeley

New Home for East Bay Law Center for Poor

Wal-Mart Pushes Philanthrophy

Sutter Health's War Against Health Workers

Growing Gulf Between Rich and Poor

Inequality in America

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Forgiveness


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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

David Harris: A Stirring Call to Conscience and Resistance

To be the person I wanted to be, I would not sit back and be the nameless assassin of thousands of people in Southeast Asia who had done nothing but live where they were born.

Vietnam War draft resister David Harris addresses the AFSC peace event, "Remember the Draft." Lydia Gans photo

Talk given on October 27, 2005, at an AFSC peace event, "Remember the Draft? From Vietnam to Iraq: Honoring Resistance Then and Now."

by David Harris

I'm honored to be here for AFSC. I've had a long relationship with them that has been all good. I certainly want to thank them for honoring myself and resisters over the years. In that spirit I am going to answer the question that was on the invitation: Yes, I do remember the draft! I registered for military conscription on my 18th birthday, when I was a freshman at Stanford University, and the dean of my freshman dormitory was Dwight Clark, who was also in the AFSC film [about draft resistance].

Four years later, I took my draft cards that had been given to me by a local draft board, I put them in an envelope and sent them back with a letter saying that I would never carry another draft card as long as there were American troops in Southeast Asia.

Three more years after that, after spending the intervening time trying to find as many people as I could who would also send their draft cards back, I was on my way to federal prison. At that time, I had already spent a month in San Francisco county jail where I was being held for transport to the federal prison system.

We had staged a strike at San Francisco county jail, down at the Hall of Justice -- a hunger strike amongst all the federal inmates being held in the county jail. I was identified as one of the organizers of the strike, so I was taken over to Oakland to spend the night on the top floor of the Oakland courthouse in a set of holding cells they had there.

I was transported, as federal prisoners are transported, in leg irons with a chain through my belt loops and my hands shackled to the chain in my belt loops. With myself and two federal marshals, one on each side of me, we got on the elevator in Oakland; and we got up about three or four floors and stopped, and in steps a woman who had business up in the courthouse, I guess. She got in and the door closed, and she looked at me and I'd been in jail a month at this point and been on strike and hadn't had a shower for almost that entire month. I'm all chained up and she looks at me and says, "Boy, what did you do to get all chained up like that? You must be an awful bad man!" I looked at her and I said, "I didn't kill anybody." And she said, "Oh, you are a bad man."

I then went on to the federal prison system where I spent another 19 months, 12 of those in maximum security cell block, four of those in isolation cells. I was finally released into the custody of the U.S. Board of Parole, where I spent another 16 months under their supervision. All told, that finished out the three years that I supposedly owed the Attorney General of the United States.

At the time when I was asked, "Well, why did you do that? Why did you go to all that trouble?" My answer was, "When I reach a point like I'm at today -- and like most of the familiar faces I recognize out there, I have become an "old fart" and can't figure out who the hell that guy is in the mirror when I get up in the morning. When I got to that point, I said, I wanted to be able to look back and feel good about who I was and what I did. And I'll tell you: "Mission Accomplished!"

And in that spirit, I want to thank thousands of people who will go unrecognized by all of us simply because their names have disappeared in the course of history. All of whom made enormous sacrifices; all of whom stepped outside of themselves; all of whom made that basic decision that all of us are faced with, which is: to be the people that we want to be, the people that we imagined ourselves to be, the people that we have been raised to be, the people that we have dreamed of being. It was impossible to do anything else!

To be the person I wanted to be, I would not sit back and be the nameless assassin of thousands of people in Southeast Asia who had done nothing but live where they were born. I think all of us owe a debt to all of those people out there, not just those whose names we remember, who made the sacrifice to make our country something different than it was at the time.

It's an honor to be recognized for that, and looking back at it, I try to sort out some of the lessons that are available to us today from that experience that we went through, and people after us went through and people are going through today. And God knows, there are more than enough of those to fill this evening and a hundred evenings like it.

But I picked out a couple lessons. The first is that responsibility is unavoidable. There is nothing about orders from a government that frees you of responsibly for your actions and the actions of that government itself. This was the moral question that was presented to my generation when we first showed up at college.

I remember the hot issue when I was a freshman at Stanford, where it had been framed by Hannah Arendt in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was, of course, an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal. And the questions she posed in that book became the questions of my generation. The most fundamental of those questions was, "What do you do if you are a German? What do you do when all the powers of your society, when all the organized institutions of your society, instruct you to behave in a way which you understand to be fundamentally in violation of everything a human being is supposed to be?"

And the answer to that question is, "There is no way to avoid answering it." There is nothing about the order that exempts you from it; there is nothing about not participating in the larger society that exempts you from it. We are a collective. In a modern society, it is inescapable that everything a society does flows out of the permission either implicit or explicit given by the people who participate in that society. There is no way to avoid that choice. That choice requires us to make it. And the only way to make it is to understand that who you are is at stake in that question and how you make that choice.

The second lesson from that period that lives on, is that you are what you do. It is an inescapable kind of moral mathematics: You do not get what you talk about; you get how you behave. To napalm villages in the name of "relocation," does not give you relocation; it gives you burned villages. That is the reality. So call it democracy and translate it as kicking in people's doors in the middle of the night and dragging them out in plastic chains -- that does not give you democracy. It gives you people who have been dragged out of their houses in chains.

It is our behavior that we must live with. And that is true for us on the largest level as a society -- we will not get what we want from America by behaving in some way that does not look like Americans are suppose to behave -- and also in the smallest way -- that we as people will not have values by espousing them; we have values by living them. And to the extent that we do not live them, we do not have them.

And this is a rule that favors nobody; left, right or in the middle, we're all subject to that same math. And the sooner we understand it, the sooner we can get about building the kind of world that we want to live in. Because all "ends" are simply "means" in progress. Gandhi had it right; we don't need to revise it. All we need to do is to learn how to live it out.

And finally, I think it is important for us to remember the question that was posed here tonight, "Do you remember the draft?" Yeah, I remember it! It's an old institution that used to exist. Change, as discouraged as we all get, is possible. And we have engaged in it.

It was the sacrifice of countless, unnamed Americans who were prepared to drop their life as normal and go out and step outside the boundaries of their society, and force that society to change. That is the reason that young men at the age of 18 no longer have to go down to the post office and sign over their lives to the government, to be called upon whenever the government felt that it was time for them or someone else to die at their hands.

That success flowed directly from the values and the open hearts that we brought to that process. The magic that happened during that period of time, in that situation, was that we did not have any enemies when we set out to stop the Vietnam War. We just had people who hadn't figured it out yet. And we treated them as such.

Let me give you an example, out of my own history. One of the summer jobs that I had when I was a college student was as a short-order cook in the Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Park. One of the guys I worked with was a guy named Ray Corio, who was a bus boy. Ray was a football player from San Luis Obispo; we had that in common because I played football in high school. He was your epitome of "jock." Seemingly mindless, intent on going to junior college and making his way as a football player.

Ray and I shared a cabin that summer and we were friends, but I lost track of him after that and I went off and did what I did about the war. It wasn't until almost ten years later that I caught up with Ray Corio and found out his story.

What had happened was, here was a guy who seemed to be totally impenetrable. I would be sitting there listening to my Bob Dylan records and he would go, "What the hell is that?" I was about to go off and become a civil rights worker in Mississippi and he didn't have a clue what that was all about. I thought "Ray's a nice guy, but he's going to end up another one of those 27-inch necks out there slugging it out on a football field. Well, it turns out Ray's football career didn't go very far; he injured his knee, he was done.

But he wasn't injured so badly that the Navy wouldn't take him. So, he signed up into the Navy. He ended up on an aircraft carrier on the China sea, bombing North Vietnam as a member of that crew. And like all members of Navy crews, he had times when he had an enormous amount of time on his hands and he started reading. He read Thoreau, he read Gandhi, he read all of these books. And he was thinking about it, and thinking about it, and when the aircraft carrier came back to San Diego to refit before going back out for another tour, he went to his officer and said: "I'm done. I can't do this any more, I'm not going to be a part of this. I want out of the Navy and I want out of the Navy now."

They, of course, would hear nothing of this and refused to treat him as though he was serious. So Ray said, "I'm serious. I am not going to eat another bite until you guys let me out of the Navy." At that point, they took him seriously and brought the Marines out, dog-walked him down the gangplank, and kicked him around in the brig for awhile.

And ole' Ray said, "You can do whatever you want, but I'm not eating until I get out of the Navy." Ray Corio didn't eat for almost an entire month; he was on the edge of death. They had to hospitalize him because his tongue was so swollen that he could no longer swallow.
He seemed to be on the verge of death, and finally the Navy came to him and said, "We're going to let you out. Just eat something," And he looked at them and said, "Give me the papers!"

Now who would have believed that Ray Corio would have ever got in that spot? But he did, because there is something inside of all those other people out there that can be touched if you bring truth and an open heart to them, and are as committed to them as you are to yourself.
And certainly there is no institution in modern America that stands more for that than the American Friends Service Committee. And I am honored to be honored by them and I think all of us have to remember that lesson. It is possible.

Two years ago, barely 20 percent of America disapproved of what we were doing in Iraq. Today, that figure is up, pushing 60 percent. It's there because we didn't shut up. It's there because we forced the issue -- because in our own gentle fashion, we refused to let it go. And that task is always on our doorstep and it's time we simply embraced it and got on with it. Thank you very much.


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