Editorial & Opinion

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Providence Draft Board Raid

“In November 1971, we pled guilty and were given two-year suspended sentences. Years later, when I attended law school, I was the only convicted felon in Harvard Law School’s graduating class of 1990.“ Today, June 13, 2020, is the fiftieth anniversary of the raid on the Providence draft board complex at 1 Washington Avenue that, at that time, housed four
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Published on June 13, 2020
By Jerry H Elmer

In November 1971, we pled guilty and were given two-year suspended sentences. Years later, when I attended law school, I was the only convicted felon in Harvard Law School’s graduating class of 1990.

Today, June 13, 2020, is the fiftieth anniversary of the raid on the Providence draft board complex at 1 Washington Avenue that, at that time, housed four local draft boards as well as the Rhode Island state Selective Service headquarters. We broke into the draft boards shortly after dusk on Saturday evening, June 13, 1970, and spent close to eight hours destroying files (and driving vans up to the draft boards to cart away additional records to burn later). We emerged just before dawn Sunday morning, June 14.

Our Action occurred at the height of the Vietnam War – and at the height of the protests against the war. On May 1, 1970, President Nixon had dramatically expanded the war by invading neutral Cambodia. (Invading a neutral country is universally recognized as a crime against humanity.) Protests erupted across the country. On May 4, four protesting students were shot dead on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. More demonstrations followed those killings. 

Here in Providence, no one knew who had burglarized the draft board complex for several days. Then, on Friday, June 19, David Rosen and I held a press conference in Burnside Park in downtown Providence, diagonally across the street from the Federal Building, to explain what we had done and why we had done it. We even gave ourselves a name. We called ourselves the Rhode Island Political Offensive For Freedom, a name we had chosen because of the clever acronym that it created.

At our press conference, Dave and I explained that at each of the four local draft boards, we had destroyed all the 1-A files (men immediately eligible to be drafted) and all the 1-Y files (men with temporary disabilities who would be next in line to be drafted). We also destroyed all three critical portions of the cross-reference system at each local board. These were Selective Service Form 1 (alphabetical files cards); Selective Service Form 102 (chronological ledgers), and minutes of draft board meetings. At the State Headquarters, we destroyed all the duplicate records (carbon copies – real carbon copies – of the alphabetical files cards).

At our press conference, we explained that our Action had rendered these four draft boards inoperable. In point of fact, those four draft boards never again drafted a single person. At that time, all the records were kept on pieces of paper, and we had shredded (or carried off for burning later) all those pieces of paper.

During the week after the burglary and before our surfacing in Burnside Park, draft board staff had urged men registered at those draft boards to re-register. At our press conference, Dave and I urged men not to re-register. We explained that they were under no legal obligation to re-register, and we emphasized that there was no way that they could now be tracked down or found by the government. To our astonishment, all three local Providence TV stations aired lengthy portions of our press conference on the evening news that day unedited – including our several-times-repeated urging of men not to re-register.

Not surprisingly, our press conference was also attended by every FBI agent in Providence, then-United States Attorney (later Governor) Lincoln Almond, and lots of Providence plainclothes detectives. I was surprised, however, that we were not arrested at the press conference.

Dave and I had been high school classmates in New York, and we had graduated together less than a year earlier. After the draft board raid, I was tickled that the FBI had told the press that such a professional burglary could not have been carried off “by just a couple of kids,” and now, 50 years later, I am still tickled.

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Although we were not arrested at our surfacing in June, Dave and I were indicted by the Federal Grand Jury the following September on a variety of felony charges that could have added up to a total of 18 years in prison. In November 1971, we pled guilty and were given two-year suspended sentences. Years later, when I attended law school, I was the only convicted felon in Harvard Law School’s graduating class of 1990.

Why Did I Do This?

Starting in 1965, I had been deeply involved in the Vietnam peace movement. When I graduated from high school, I decided not to go to college, but to work full time against the war. One of the things that I wanted to convey with the draft board Action was that there is a crucial difference between thought and ideas on the one hand, and concrete action on the other hand. I wanted to say to people who said they opposed the war that it is not good enough to say you oppose the war; that, if you oppose the war, there is a moral imperative to do something to stop the war.

At that time, some activists were turning to violence to protest the war. The Weather Underground, for example, was bombing buildings. Another thing I wanted to communicate with the draft board Action was that nonviolent direct action could be uniquely effective. This, of course, immediately raises two questions: First, was destroying draft files effective? Second, was destroying draft files nonviolent?

On the first question, destroying draft files clearly was effective. In one evening, our little group effectively rendered 35% of the state’s draft system inoperable for the rest of the war. When the Providence draft boards attempted to re-distribute their draft quotas to the remaining draft boards in the state, those other draft boards were unable to meet the increased quotas because of widespread draft resistance and draft evasion that was happening: guys were refusing induction; guys were “forgetting” to register; guys were faking medical or psychiatric conditions; guys were fleeing to Canada. Thus, the net, real-world result of our action was that some men could not be drafted and other men were not drafted in their place.

And ours was not the only action of its kind. At the time, there were only 4,101 draft boards in the country. Literally hundreds of those boards had files destroyed by groups more or less like ours. The previous November, I had been part of a group that destroyed files simultaneously at six draft boards at four different locations in Boston. The following September, I worked with a group destroying files at four draft boards in Rochester, New York. Hundreds of boards were raided in New Haven, New York City, Chicago, Indianapolis, Twin Cities, Evanston, Illinois, and elsewhere. There is no doubt at all that these actions crippled the Selective Service System.

But was destroying draft files nonviolent? I think it was. The definition of violence is harming a human being. If I punch you in the face, that is violent, because I am hurting a person. If I put my fist through a window, you might say that the action is destructive, because I destroyed some property, but it is not violent, because no person is hurt.

Bombing a building (or torching it) is not nonviolent, because if you a bomb a building, people might be killed. (People sometimes were killed in Vietnam-era bombings.) Even burning a building down isn’t nonviolent, because a firefighter who responds to the blaze could be injured. In what we did, we were very, very careful that no one else could be hurt. We shredded files by hand. In fact, the major risk was to us – we could have been interrupted by a young, inexperienced police officer who reacted poorly and pulled his service weapon.

Sometimes, property exists as a direct threat to human life. If someone during World War II could have sabotaged the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz, that would have been a nonviolent act.

My entire family on both sides were Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. My parents and their parents managed to escape the Holocaust, but other relatives were not so lucky. When I was growing up I was not puzzled at what Hitler had done; much of human history is the history of human cruelty to other people. What puzzled me was that the crimes of Hitler were greeted with silence from whole societies. During the Vietnam War I knew that, while I did not have the power to stop the war, I could ensure that when my government was committing crimes against humanity in my name those crimes would not be greeted by silence.

I could at least break the silence.

Civil Disobedience

Many people are troubled by the illegal nature of what we did. Although I have read a fair amount about anarchism by anarchists – Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Peter Kropotkin, Michael Bakunin, Noam Chomsky – I am not a philosophical anarchist. I believe that law can play a constructive and salutary role in society. Nevertheless, I believe that civil disobedience is sometimes called for. In my view, there are three requirements that must be met in order for civil disobedience to be proper.

First, civil disobedience is never undertaken casually or lightly. Gandhi always said that the first job of someone who engages in civil disobedience is to carefully obey all laws except when there is a deeply held religious or moral reason not to. During the Vietnam War, most of my friends smoked dope. While I thought that marijuana prohibition was stupid, I obeyed the law, because I had no deeply held moral beliefs about getting high. In contrast, I did have deeply held moral beliefs about the war.

Second, civil disobedience has to be nonviolent. When breaking the law, we must always be careful that other people are not hurt or harmed.

Third, if we break the law, we must do so publicly and be willing to accept the consequences. In the case of the draft board Action, we did not publicize our act in advance because then we would not have succeeded in pulling off the burglary. But shortly after the burglary we held a press conference in downtown Providence to accept responsibility for our action and to explain (in some detail) what we had done and why we had done it. This is an important element that separates civil disobedience from mere criminality; most burglars (or bank robbers, for that matter) do not hold press conferences after pulling off a successful heist.

In considering whether it is ever acceptable to break the law, it is useful to remember the Nuremberg war-crime trials following World War II at which the victorious Allied powers (including the United States) tried, convicted, and executed members of the Nazi high command. The defense of every Nuremberg defendant was that they had acted legally; that they had been following the law of the land. The Nuremberg defendants were correct; they had been obeying the law of the land. In fact, if they had acted any differently than they did, they would have been violating the law of their country. The counter-argument at the time, used by the United States and other prosecutors, was that if obeying the law of the land entails committing crimes against humanity, then there is a moral obligation – an ethical imperative – to disobey the law of the land.

That is what civil disobedience is.

Looking Back Today

When I was 18, an argument that my parents used in trying to dissuade me from doing civil disobedience is that I should not do something rash when I am young that I would later regret. Now, 50 years later, I can honestly say that I have never regretted my decisions then to oppose the war by means of public, nonviolent civil disobedience. There certainly were times when I realized that there might be adverse consequences from my choices – as when I applied to law schools, and, later, when I applied for admission to the bars of various states. I would certainly have been disappointed if I were not allowed to practice law because I am a convicted felon; but I would not have regretted the choices I made that made me a felon.

In 1975, I accompanied my Dad on his first trip back to Vienna since he had fled in 1938. Dad had been expelled from high school by the new Nazi government in Austria just a few weeks before he was to have graduated from high school. On the same trip we went to the memorial that stands now at the site of the former concentration camp at Dachau. Today there is a stone at the memorial, with the famous quotation of George Santayana that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat past mistakes. I will always be grateful that, when my country was committing crimes against humanity, I somehow found the strength to stand publicly against those crimes.

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