As I worked to make my middle aged bones accommodate the uncompromising metal cot in my jail cell in Cambridge’s police station, history floated through my mind. It was Thoreau responding to Emerson when Thoreau was jailed for opposing the 1848 invasion of Mexico. Emerson had asked Thoreau, what he was doing in jail. And, Thoreau’s response was what was Emerson doing outside the bars.
A week ago, friends and AFSC colleagues joined a peaceful protest on the city’s centuries old common. Two of us, a photographer, and four younger activists ended up in the slammer.
The Army – increasingly unable to recruit young women to kill and to be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, had secretly planned another offensive. A Blackhawk helicopter, the Under Secretary of the Army, parachutists, and other military hullabaloo would descend on Cambridge Common, ostensibly to celebrate the Army’s 230th anniversary. The piece de resistance would be the televised induction of new army recruits in the Red Sox’s Fenway Park. Maybe Leni Riefenstahl had risen from the dead to produce more military propaganda!
With little notice, peace activists across Boston organized as we could, knowing that attracting people for a workday morning demonstration would be difficult. Fortunately, the military extravaganza coincided with an AFSC staff retreat several blocks from Common. As we considered how to respond, we were joined by City Councilor Marjorie Decker joined us. The extravaganza, initiated by the military, had been organized in secret. A City Council meeting just before the extravaganza had been cancelled so the mayor couldn’t be challenged about it. A local paper had been informed, but failed to serve the community by holding the secret.
Morning began with breakfast conversation with my wife and a colleague. These child buyers shouldn’t feel they can come into our community and hijack our young for cannon fodder for a Bush and Cheney’s bloody and nationally self-destructive war. In addition to holding a protest sign, if the opening came, I might do something more.
At our retreat we made signs: “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home”, “Military Out of Iraq and Cambridge?” “Peace”, “Stop The Killing.” We discussed who might do civil disobedience and how they could be supported. Then we walked to the Common, through the phalanxes of police and soldiers, and the peace activists who seemed to outnumber warriors, armed police, and mobilized audience.
I found myself near the stage where the Secretary of the Army, a poor 11 year-old boy whose father was killed in Iraq, and others would be speaking. I stopped and stood with my protest sign. I wasn’t blocking anything, but I could certainly be seen. Others saw and joined me with their peace signs. Then the first of several soldiers and police came ordered us to move.
I responded that I am a resident of Cambridge. The Common is public space. I was peacefully protesting a criminal war, and I was not about to move. Then came the final order to leave. Many protesters stepped back. Armed police started pushing us forcefully from the other direction. I decided not to be pushed, and sat down. A colleague did the same. Soon the police were nearly breaking our arms, painfully smashing handcuffs on our wrists, and dragging us away. A photographer knocked down in the commotion was also cuffed and arrested.
Others soon joined us in our cell blocks – four young men and women who had planned creative and apparently unwanted guerilla theater about the human costs of the war.
Meditating in my stuffy cell the statement I wanted to make to the judge came to me. In court, he refused to allow it – leaving me little to do but to call out “illegal war” and “Nuremburg.”
Here’s what I had planned to say:
- If the President of Harvard has the right to graze his animals on Cambridge Common, a 30-year resident of the city has the right to walk there, even to carry a sign condemning an illegal war.
- I went to protest an illegal war. As the Secretary General of the U.N. has recently reiterated, the invasion of Iraq was illegal. The Nuremberg Principles are clear: those who fight an illegal war are by definition war criminals, and silence is consent.
- I went to protest the cynical harvesting of our city’s youth to serve as cannon fodder in a criminal war, which even senior Pentagon figures are now saying may never be won. We need to protect our children.
- I went to protest a military occupation of my home town which was to have had the pageantry of a fascist rally and which was organized in secret. We must protect what remains of our constitutional democracy.
- We all need to do more to stop the killing. Civil disobedience is not the only way to protest, but people who oppose the war, oppose the harvesting of our young for the killing fields, and oppose the subversion of democracy must put more of our life energies into resisting. Signing Internet statements and turning out for vigils and demonstrations are necessary, as is lobbying our Congressional representatives to cut funding for the war. But, we must use our imaginations to find ways to do more if we are to become the political force that turns our nation around and provides real security for our and future generations.
Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England and author of With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion, and Moral Imagination.