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Scenes and Changes

In Jail: “The World Is Topsy-Turvy”

An encounter with police, even one night in jail, is an intense and unique educational experience. I don’t know the exact number of people who were arrested in civil rights and antiwar activities in the sixties and early seventies, but it must have been between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand. (Thirteen thousand were arrested in one day in Washington, D.C.; thousands were arrested in Birmingham alone, a thousand in little Albany, Georgia, and so on.) That means a lot of learning took place.

The learning is about: the nature of the legal system in a liberal democracy (in brief, not so liberal, not so democratic); the willingness of people to give up their freedom for the cause of peace and justice; and the capacity of human beings, when the ordeal of imprisonment demands a concentration on one’s own needs, to sacrifice for others.

I conclude all this from what I saw in the South and in the antiwar movement. And also from my own small experience with arrests and jails. (A famous scientist was asked, “How many examples do you need in order to generalize?” He answered, “Two is good, but one will do.”)

By the latter part of May 1970, feelings about the war had become almost unbearably intense. In Boston about a hundred of us decided to sit down at the Boston Army Base and block the road used by buses carrying draftees off to military duty. We were not so daft that we thought we were stopping the flow of soldiers to Vietnam; it was a symbolic act, a statement, a piece of guerrilla theatre. We were all arrested and charged, in the quaint language of an old statute, with “sauntering and loitering” in such a way as to obstruct traffic.

Arraigned in court, most of the demonstrators pled guilty, got small fines, and went home. Eight of us insisted on a jury trial, although a jury “of one’s peers” is one of the myths of the legal system. A jury is always a more orthodox body than any defendant brought before it; for blacks it is usually a whiter group, for poor people, a more prosperous group.

We were brought to trial about six months later, in November 1970, and represented ourselves in court. We spoke directly to the jury about the war, about what it was doing to Vietnam, about what it was doing to the American people. We talked about how the American political system seemed incapable of stopping a war which was both unconstitutional and immoral. And therefore, how acts of civil disobedience, in the grand tradition of the Boston Tea Party and the antislavery actions, were necessary to speak to the public and the government in a dramatic way.

It didn’t seem to matter. As the judge put it to them, the only issue was did we or did we not obstruct traffic? Another lesson about the justice system: the way the judge charges the jury inevitably pushes them one way or the other, limits their independent judgment.

We were found guilty, sentenced to seven days or a twenty-one-dollar fine. Five of the defendants paid the fine. I was ready to do that, too—I had no desire to spend any time in jail. But two of the group—a woman from Wellesley named Vaneski Genouves, and a young fellow from Cambridge, Eugene O’Reilly—said they would go to jail, and I felt I could not desert them, so I also refused to pay the fine. The judge seemed reluctant to have us in jail, so he gave the three of us forty-eight hours to change our minds, after which we should show up in court to either pay the fine or be jailed.

In the meantime, I had been invited to go to Johns Hopkins University to debate with the philosopher Charles Frankel on the issue of civil disobedience. If I showed up in court as scheduled I would have to miss the debate. I decided it would be hypocritical for me, an advocate of civil disobedience, to submit dutifully to the court order and thereby skip out on an opportunity to speak to hundreds of students about civil disobedience.

So, on the day I was supposed to show up in court in Boston, I flew to Baltimore and that evening faced Charles Frankel for our debate. I had been an admirer of his writings, but now, clearly, he was more reluctant to endorse civil disobedience, more respectful of government.

Civil disobedience, as I put it to the audience, was not the problem, despite the warnings of some that it threatened social stability, that it led to anarchy. The greatest danger, I argued, was civil obedience, the submission of individual conscience to governmental authority. Such obedience led to the horrors we saw in totalitarian states, and in liberal states it led to the public’s acceptance of war whenever the so-called democratic government decided on it.

My talk began like this: “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy.… Daniel Berrigan is in jail—a Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war—and J. Edgar Hoover is free. David Dellinger, who has opposed war ever since he was this high … is in danger of going to jail. And the men who are responsible for the My Lai massacre are not on trial; they are in Washington serving various functions, primary and subordinate, that have to do with the unleashing of massacres, which surprise them when they occur.”

In such a world, I said, the rule of law maintains things as they are. Therefore, to begin the process of change, to stop a war, to establish justice, it may be necessary to break the law, to commit acts of civil disobedience, as Southern blacks did, as antiwar protesters did.

I was at the Washington airport early the next morning, to return to Boston, where I planned to meet my eleven o’clock class. I phoned Roz, who told me, “The news on the radio says you cannot be located and there’s a warrant out for your arrest.” Again, I would have felt foolish, skipping my class on “Law and Justice in America,” in which civil disobedience was one of our topics of discussion, in order to submit to the court. I always believed that teachers taught more by what they did than by what they said. I thought, I’m not going to do anything heroic, I’m not going underground, but if the authorities want me they’ll have to come for me.

From the Boston airport I went directly to my class. The students were wide-eyed. “You’re wanted by the police! Aren’t you supposed to turn yourself in?” I said I would, after class. But there was no need for me to do anything. When the class ended and I walked outside, two detectives were waiting for me, with a university official there, too, clearly nervous.

I was brought before the judge, given my chance to pay my fine. I refused and was immediately handcuffed and taken to the Charles Street Jail. This was a holding place for people awaiting trial or serving short sentences—an old dungeon of a building, long ago condemned as unfit even for prisoners. My cellmate was a teenager, a taciturn fellow, there on some drug charge.

That night, in my cell, I didn’t get much sleep. The talk, sometimes shouts and screams, in the cellblock, the lights on all night, the cockroaches racing around my bunk, the constant clanging of steel doors. I made up my mind: not one more night. I would pay the rest of my fine and get out of there. Besides, my cellmate thought there was something wrong with me when he learned I could get out by paying a few dollars and chose to stay. Also, I had an engagement in Oregon to talk about the war. And—maybe above all—the cockroaches!

The next morning we were allowed out of our cells into the corridor for something like breakfast. We sat at long tables and were served by other prisoners something that looked like slabs of plywood painted yellow. It was French toast. With something like coffee.

As I ate I heard a guard call my name. I looked up. “Zinn, we got a telegram for you.” The other prisoners looked up. People don’t receive telegrams in the Charles Street Jail. I took it, somewhat embarrassed. It was signed by two people whose names I recognized; they were new neighbors who had just bought a house next to the two-family where we rented the top apartment. They were from the Midwest, “Middle America,” a lawyer and an artist. We didn’t know much about them. The message was, “Best wishes. We are on your side.” That made up for the French toast.

When U.S. involvement in Vietnam first escalated, in August of 1965, 61 percent of the American people approved of U.S. intervention there. By the spring of 1971, public opinion had turned around dramatically; 61 percent now thought the war was wrong. In late April of 1971, several thousand antiwar veterans converged on Washington, to camp out, to lobby. As one of them said, “It’s the first time in this country’s history that the men who fought a war have come to Washington to demand its halt while the war is still going on.”

In the final event of the veterans’ Washington encampment, a thousand of them, many in wheelchairs or on crutches, tossed their medals over a fence that the police had built around the Capitol steps to keep them away. As they did so, one by one, they made personal statements. One of them said, “I’m not proud of these medals. I’m not proud of what I did to receive them. I was in Vietnam for a year and … we never took one prisoner alive.” An Air Force man said that what he had done was a disservice to his country. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m now serving my country.”

The day after the medals were given back, there was a giant antiwar rally in Washington, of perhaps half a million people. It was a peaceful, non-disruptive gathering.

They had barely returned home when a few days later twenty thousand protesters came to Washington prepared to disrupt traffic. Some spoke, extravagantly, of “shutting down the city.” Everyone felt that more than speeches were required to stop the war. Affinity groups were formed, each with a dozen or so people who knew and trusted one another. The idea was to avoid centralized, bureaucratic organization; the members of the affinity group would decide for themselves how to play a part in the overall strategy.

Our affinity group was not one you would think appropriate for guerrilla action in the streets of Washington: Noam Chomsky; Dan Ellsberg, a former marine and government man, his role in releasing the top-secret Pentagon Papers not yet public; Marilyn Young, a historian; Zee Gamson, a woman who taught at the University of Michigan; Fred Branfman, back from Laos and working full-time against the war; Mark Ptashne, a Harvard professor and biologist; Cynthia Frederick, an organizer; Mitch Goodman, a writer and codefendant with Dr. Ben Spock in the trial of the Boston Five.

We assembled too late to join the large march to the Pentagon, and rather than rush to catch up, we decided to act on our own, to block traffic on a main thoroughfare. As we huddled in the middle of the street, we could see the police moving toward us (we had no idea at the time of the numbers mobilized by the government: five thousand police, fifteen hundred National Guardsmen, ten thousand federal troops, including paratroopers). They fired tear gas shells and soon we were enveloped in a cloud of gas. We ran, then reassembled and went out to block another street. This went on for a while. Truth is, symbolic actions (we were not accomplishing anything by blocking the street) always feel a little bizarre.

At one of these regroupings we were bunched on a corner, talking to a passerby who asked to know what was going on. As we spoke, a policeman came up quickly to us and sprayed mace directly into Dan Ellsberg’s face, then into mine, and walked away. Dan and I were blinded for about ten minutes. We recovered, but our action was over.

I spent that night with a friend in Washington, and awoke the next morning to find the city under military occupation. I walked to DuPont Circle, and saw it was crowded with GI’s of the 101st Airborne Division. I kept walking. Policemen were everywhere.

Just ahead of me I spotted a small group of young fellows—long hair, grungy clothes, unmistakably part of the antiwar actions going on in the city. They were ambling along happily, singing “America the Beautiful.” Suddenly the police descended on them, declared them under arrest, and had them spread-eagled against a police car.

It was clear that they were being arrested not for something they had done, but for who they were and how they looked. Without thinking, just responding to my immediate indignation, I stopped and said to the officer standing over one of the fellows, “Why are you arresting them?” (I knew it was a naive and pointless question, and yet I couldn’t watch this silently.) The policeman immediately turned to me. “You’re under arrest too. Get over there!”

As I was pushed against a police car, a young man came along with a camera and tried to photograph all of this. He was grabbed too, and put under arrest. The bunch of us were pushed into a paddy wagon and driven off. I spent a night in a tiny cell crowded with ten young fellows, many of them eighteen or nineteen, from Wisconsin and California and Georgia and Tennessee. About fourteen thousand people were arrested in Washington those first few days in May, for demonstrating against the war.

I returned to Boston in time to speak at a huge rally, fifty thousand people gathered on the Boston Common. I talked about the necessity for civil disobedience in the face of the failure of the regular mechanisms of government—the electoral process, Congress, the Supreme Court—to stop the war. Civil disobedience was a dramatic way of representing the intense antiwar feelings of a large part of the American public, I said; it therefore, even when violating the law in a technical sense, was a supremely democratic act, in accord with the provision in the Bill of Rights for citizens to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The following day several thousand of us sat down in an encirclement of the J.F.K. Federal Building. The police were out in force. One of them called to me—a friendly greeting. A jovial, middle-aged man, he had heard me recently give a lecture at Northeastern University to an audience of police officers on the subject of police brutality. Police, I learned over the years, are like soldiers, normally good-natured people, but part of a culture of obedience to orders and capable of brutal acts against anyone designated as “the enemy”—in this case, the antiwar movement.

It was a sunny spring day, and we sat in that great circle, occasionally singing and chanting antiwar slogans. Suddenly the police charged into the circle and yanked certain of the demonstrators out of the crowd into the building. I was one of them. They knocked me around a bit, tore my clothes, threw me into an elevator with a few other demonstrators, and took us upstairs to place us under arrest. I still have the notations I made: “Steven Bertolino, seated next to wife, clubbed on leg, kicked in balls.… Guy near him, O’Brien, not doing anything, clubbed on head. Mike Ansara, sitting next to me on floor in elevator, hit by cop, bloody lip.”

Later, those arrested were held in a lockup behind the municipal court, waiting to be arraigned. A man named John White pulled a little flute from his pocket and played an Irish jig while two people danced.

In the next several years I was arrested a few more times. Once, a group of us refused to move from the White House lawn, where we’d gathered to protest U.S. support for the murderous government in El Salvador. We were arrested, our hands tied behind our backs with plastic cord (it was a group of religious pacifists committed to nonviolence, but police procedures don’t allow for exceptions). We were packed together in an airless paddy wagon for hours, in the suffocating heat of early July. We were soon drenched in sweat and it was harder and harder to breathe. One man passed out and we started to yell; a policeman opened the van door to let in some air.

In the wagon with us was a young black man with long braids, a graduate student in mathematics at Princeton and also, it turned out, a Houdini of sorts. In the wagon, his hands tied together behind him, he used two quick motions to get his hands miraculously in front of him, then used his teeth to loosen the plastic wire. The following day, when we were all in handcuffs in another van, being transported from jail to court, he held up his hands for us to see—no more handcuffs. He didn’t talk very much, so I imagined him always thinking, planning his next trick.

It was a long night in the D.C. jail. My cellmate was a small, thin black man in his sixties who didn’t touch his food; he had been arrested, he told me, after a violent argument with a friend over money owed. He had a great knob of bone on his knee. It came, he told me, from a lifetime of kneeling to pick cotton in North Carolina.

I lay back on my bunk and thought about people I love, and how lucky I was to be white and not poor and just passing briefly through a system which is a permanent hell for so many. Roz, who was arrested at the Pentagon in a women’s antiwar demonstration, told me that her thoughts, spending that night in a cell, were similar—how privileged she was compared to the other prisoners, mostly nonwhite, all poor.

My few brief times in jail were to have an impact the rest of my life. They gave me the smallest of glimpses into the ordeal of the long-term prisoners I came to know.

One of these was Jimmy Barrett, whom I visited every week while he was in the Charles Street Jail in the early seventies. A Boston street kid, he had killed a local thug who was sexually brutalizing him. Jimmy was sentenced to a life term, was committed to the worst of prisons, but never let that destroy him. He became a reader and a remarkable writer. He organized inmate protests against the Vietnam War, and arranged a prisoner fast to donate food to starving people in Africa. Every time I saw him he greeted me with a great smile and an ebullient spirit.

I think also of Tiyo Attallah Salah-el, a black man and a gifted musician, who earned several degrees while in prison, and is writing his autobiography. After corresponding with him for years, I visited him in a Pennsylvania penitentiary, and he leaped out of his seat to hug me, to tell me what he was doing and how he was resigned to live the rest of his life in prison but would not surrender to it, would play music and write and make the abolition of prisons his cause.

I sat in on a court of appeals hearing for a new trial for Jimmy Barrett, the outcome obvious. Judges and parole boards, shuffling through legal briefs and probation reports, remain totally ignorant of the human beings behind those papers.

Over the years I have made many visits to prisoners, including a day spent in Block Nine, the maximum-security cell block of the notorious Walpole prison in Massachusetts. I have taught classes in several prisons. I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed—which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.

It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.

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