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Commentary :: Education : International
Re: Protesters Outnumber Military Supporters, as Peace Activists Protest Army Recruitment on the Cambridge Common
16 Jun 2005
Why We Were Arrested

Joseph Gerson (One of the "Venerables"...)

American Friends Service Committee


Written 6/15

Yesterday afternoon, as I tried to make my middle aged bones accommodate the uncompromising metal cot in my jail cell on the men’s block of the Cambridge police station, I found old New England and national history floating through my mind. During the 1848 U.S. invasion of Mexico, Emerson had asked Throreau, (who had refused to pay war taxes), what he was doing in jail. And, as we learned in school, Thoreau’s response was what was Emerson doing outside the bars.



Many of my friends and colleagues from the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker-based peace, justice, reconciliation and development organization, had joined a peaceful protest on the city’s centuries old common. Two of us, a photographer friend, and four younger activists ended up in the slammer.



What happened? Last Thursday evening, a friend called with news that it had just been announced that a Blackhawk helicopter, the Under Secretary of the Army and a lot of other military hullabaloo would be descending on Cambridge Common, ostensibly to celebrate the Army’s 230th anniversary. Interestingly, the Army hadn’t bothered to show up to celebrate the 200th or 225th anniversaries!) What the military, desperate for recruits, had in mind was an extravaganza to reignite its sagging recruitment efforts. Finding it nearly impossible to recruit young men and women to kill and to die as occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military was anxious to gin up its system. By coming to Cambridge, after years of being unwanted here, the military wanted to show that it was on the offensive. The piece de resistance would come at night with the televised induction of new army recruits in Fenway Park, the home of the World Champion Boston Red Sox. Had Leni Riefenstahl risen from the dead to produce more military propaganda?



Over the weekend, peace activists across Boston coordinated to the degree that we could, knowing that turning people out for a demonstration between 9 A.M. and 1 P.M. on a workday would be anything but a piece of cake. As it happened, the AFSC had scheduled a semi-annual staff retreat at the Quaker Meeting House several blocks from Common. On Monday we discussed how to relate to the unwanted military invasion of Cambridge, and were blessed by a visit from City Councilor Marjorie Decker who was furious. The extravaganza, initiated by the military, had been organized in secret. Cambridge’s Mayor and City Manager hadn’t told anyone on the City Council. A City Council Meeting scheduled for the night before the extravaganza had been cancelled, so that the mayor couldn’t be challenged before the sacrilege. A local paper had been informed, but on instructions held the secret and failed to notify the community – so much for the 4th estate! Democratic process had been subverted.



Morning began with breakfast conversation with my wife and a visiting colleague. These child buyers shouldn’t feel they can just 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.” “I’m A Resident. Don’t Invade My Home Too!” We talked about the wisdom of committing civil disobedience on this occasion, who might do it, who would not, what were others planning….. Then we walked to the Common, to and through the phalanxes of police and soldiers, and midst the swirling protest signs that seemed to outnumber warriors and armed police.



To my surprise, after being frisked, we were allowed to proceed onto the Common. I found myself on a path that passed the stage from which the Secretary of the Army, a poor 11 year-old boy whose father had recently been killed in Iraq, and others would be speaking. Just to the left of the stage I stopped and stood with my protest sign. I wasn’t blocking anything, but I could certainly be seen. Others saw and joined me. Then the first of several soldiers and police came up to me. We would have to move. We would be blocking the way for one of the muckity mucks to lay a wreath at a monument.



I responded that I was a resident of Cambridge. This was a public space. I wasn’t doing anything more than peacefully protesting a criminal war, and I was not about to move. Other protesters gathered, forming a line with their signs. News photographers, military police or intelligence photographers, police photographers, and people who had come with their cameras went snap happy.



Then came the final order to leave. Many protesters stepped back, and what must have been the county police, dressed in black, started pushing us forcefully from the other direction. I decided not to be pushed, and sat down. One of my colleagues did the same. Soon the police were twisting our arms to near breaking points, painfully smashing handcuffs on our wrists, and began dragging us away. A photographer friend who hadn’t planned to be arrested was also cuffed and led away. He’d been knocked down, and once on the ground was deemed fair game.



So we spent much of the afternoon in jail, wondering how the protest was going, wondering if our AFSC colleagues were ever able to resume their retreat, and wondering how long it would be before we were brought before the promised judge. Two other young men were brought into the men’s block: one in an army uniform and quite blooded up. Mat and Pat had planned to do some creative, and apparently unwanted, guerilla theater. We also later learned that two young women who had been with them were also arrested.



In the comparative silence of the stuffy cell thoughts passed quickly, rising and falling as in meditation. Soon I was thinking of the statement I wanted to make to the judge. Once in court, he refused to allow it – leaving me little to do by to cry out “illegal war” and “Nuremburg.” I would have to wait until my trial date on July 15.



Here’s what I had planned to say:



1. If the President of Harvard has the right to graze his cows and sheep on Cambridge Common, surely a 30-year resident of the city has the right to walk there, and even to carry a sign condemning an illegal war.



2. I came to protest an illegal war. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Anan recently reiterated what he said two years ago: The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Blair invasion of Iraq was illegal. Former World Court Vice-President Christopher Weeramantry, who I had the privilege of touring in April, has written a tome on the illegality of the Iraq War. The Nuremberg Principles are clear: those, like the Under Secretary of the Army, who fight an illegal war are by definition war criminals, and silence is consent.



3. I came to protest the cynical harvesting of our city’s youth to serve as cannon fodder in a criminal war, one which even senior figures in the Pentagon are beginning to say might never be won. We need to protect our children.



4. I came to protest a military occupation of my home town, one which was to have had the pageantry of a fascist rally and which was organized in secret – even from our city council. We must protect what remains of our liberal and constitutional democracy.



5. The reason I risked arrest grows from the reality that we all have to do more to stop the killing. Civil disobedience is not always the best way to protest, but those of us 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, and more of our imaginations, into resisting. Signing Internet statements and turning out for vigils and demonstrations are absolutely necessary, as is lobbying our Congressional representatives to cut the funding for the war. But, we must 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.