I’m standing in a vast, darkened office filled with row after row of filing cabinets. It’s a hot August night in 1971. I’m wearing only BVDs and a t-shirt. I have to open those filing cabinet drawers—that’s what I’m here for. But the cabinets are locked and I don’t have a crowbar.
Before I can get one, the night sky outside the office windows erupts in pulsating red light.
Running to the windows, I peer to the street, three stories below. Half a dozen police cars, their cherry tops madly churning, crowd the curb and sidewalk.
In the corridor outside the office I hear distant shouts that are lost against the echoing stone walls of the cathedral-like building. I step into the empty corridor and walk to an empty corner room. Another man is there; Chuck friend and fellow conspirator. We’re both shaking, shivering in our shared knowledge of failure. We’d arranged to meet in this tiny room if anything went wrong.
Something -- everything -- has gone wrong.
I look at Chuck. We grin stupidly at each other. One of us decides to whistle. We both try, but our mouths are dry, our eventual song off-key and raspy. The sound brings a pair of cops to the door. They look as scared as we do. Worse, they look jumpy. We stop whistling. I don’t remember guns. We raise or hands. The cops pull us into the corridor that’s now ringing with shouts ("Halt! FBI!") and the sounds of rushing feet.
The cops throw us down on the terrazzo floor. Cuff our hands behind our backs. Their blood is up. They call us a few choice names. One of the cops gets it right:
“Draft board raiders, huh? Fuckin’ draft board raiders.”
That had been the idea, officer, to empty the Selective Service office in downtown Buffalo, N.Y. of its draft records. And to steal Army Intelligence files while we were at it.
That had been the plan, before it all went wrong.
Or, as events later demonstrated, before it all went right.
A Baltimore filmmaker named Joe Tropea is trying to finish a documentary he and his filmmaking partner Skizz Cyzyk have been working on since 2007. Their film, Hit & Stay tells the forgotten history of what was sometimes called the “action communities” of the Catholic radical left. It was a history that few people knew about as it was unfolding; even fewer folks remember it now. For me (and I admit to being biased), it’s one of the great untold stories of the anti-war years.
We were a small band of Vietnam war resisters who were frustrated by anti-war mass symbolic actions. We rejected violent protest as being antithetical to our aim. We broke into various offices around the country; mostly draft boards, but also corporate headquarters and even—to J. Edgar Hoover’s fury—FBI offices. The idea was simple: to throw some sand into the gears of a relentless the war machine that was devouring it young. And even more innocent people in Southeast Asia.
I always thought of draft board actions as the non-violent equivalent of war.
The original idea for these actions came from a group of religious and lay men and women who became known as the Catonsville Nine. Their most notorious members were Catholic priests Phil and Dan Berrigan.
In 1968, members of the group walked into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, grabbed as many draft files as they could and burned them on the lawn outside, using homemade napalm. The protesters stood by, held hands, sang and waited to be arrested, which promptly happened.
The Catonsville action still lingers in some memories, helped along by Dan Berrigan’s play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which was also adapted for the movies.
But the actions that followed Catonsville were the real story, the story Tropea’s film documents. The Buffalo action I was arrested for in 1971 was one of the last in a series of more than three dozen non-violent attacks against an unresponsive government between 1967 and 1971.
There was an irony in determining the "success" of a raid. The actions that ended as planned, with documents in hand, happened virtually without public awareness. These actions had little public effect. They were little more than police blotter entries in the next day’s newspapers.
The actions that ended with arrests became front-page news both as news events and then later, when federal trials put the spotlight back on the war.
Our action in Buffalo was indeed a national story, especially because we were busted as the result of a tip from an FBI informant within another group in Camden, N.J., whose draft board action happened the same night as ours. It looked, for a time, like the FBI had finally nailed us.
But even when it held all the cards, the FBI still busted out. The details of those long-forgotten, post-Catonsville actions and the trials they culminated in still await their Boswell.
Tropea’s film documents the movement’s earliest actions in Baltimore and nearby Catonsville. But more importantly, I believe, Hit and Stay provides an historical overview of the many subsequent actions that occurred afterward and the impact they had.
You’ll find a few recognizable names in the movie's trailer -- Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman. But mostly you’ll see a lot of people you’ve never heard of – grizzled boomers for the most part – describing this hidden history of the antiwar movement and the parts they played in it.
You can access two trailers here:
I’ve written this post for a practical reason. The story of the action communities will remain hidden and forgotten unless Tropea and his partner find money enough to finish their film. Like most artists I know, they appear to be more skilled at what they love to do than at fund-raising. So this is a pitch to anyone who’s curious about this story and would like to – literally – contribute to its being told.
The Hit & Stay web site cited above includes a "donate" button that will allow you to make a tax-deductible donation. Tropea’s aiming for a release date this year, in time to make the the rounds of the various film festivals.
Have a look at what he's done. The story he tells in Hit & Stay is in danger of disappearing down the memory hole of American history. Perhaps you, or someone you know, might want to help rescue a story worth remembering
This post appeared originally at fictionique.com