How to stop a war: Why I risked prison by burning thousands of Vietnam draft cards

We broke into the draft board and burned their records, stopping thousands of young men from dying in Vietnam

Published February 23, 2020 10:00AM (EST)

Vietnam War Protesters in front of White House, Washington, D.C., USA, photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran, August 1965.  (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Vietnam War Protesters in front of White House, Washington, D.C., USA, photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran, August 1965. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Adapted from "Failure to Appear: Resistance, Loss, and Identity." All rights reserved.

On a brisk Chicago afternoon in March 1969, Father Nick Riddell and I sign a lease for a vacant office in a building on 2355 West 63rd Street. The landlord happily takes cash for one month's advance rent and hands over the keys to the space we will transform into "Mt. Carmel Book Distributors." No need to ask us too many questions. No need to suspect that Nick, with his clerical collar, and I have plans to do anything other than supply religious tracts from an office that just so happens to sit down the hall from the Chicago Southside Draft Boards.

I first met Nick at a secret meeting organized by Father Phil Berrigan. He, his brother Dan, and seven others had carried out an exceptional act of conscience against the Vietnam War in May 1968, burning hundreds of draft files in Catonsville, Maryland with a kind of home-made napalm. Phil proposed a much larger action than Catonsville, linking war and racism by choosing the central repository of twenty different draft boards in Chicago—hundreds of thousands of paper young men, mostly from the sprawling, southside black ghetto. This act of civil disobedience would not be an anonymous hit and run. We would bear public witness against the carnage of this war by being arrested. He asked for a show of hands. Eighteen people, including Nick and I, agreed to participate.

Securing the office was a crucial step in the plan that we had meticulously crafted for months. That plan will culminate on the night of May 25, 1969.

* * *

We shove cans of red paint in the back of Nick's beat-up VW Beetle and drive down to the Southside. Around 7:00 PM, we turn the corner on West 63rd Street, as dusk swallows up the light on ghostly graffiti, steel-barred liquor stores, and sooty brick walls. A cluster of young black guys stare suspiciously at us outside a corner store. We slide to a stop in front of a dumpy building that houses the draft boards and our cover office. Every time Nick and I came here, we smuggled in something we'll need for tonight. Nick looks around before he unloads the paint and unlocks the front entry door.

Inside our "religious bookstore," only a salvage office desk, metal folding chairs, and wall shelves with a few religious pamphlets for credibility, just in case the landlord came by. From a locked storage cabinet in the back, Nick retrieves a stack of oversized trash bags, hammers, mallets, wedges, flashlights, and five-gallon containers of gasoline, piling them alongside the paint. We take a seat, waiting for the others to arrive. Nick has another smoke, while I pretend to read our press statement. We're both on a knife's edge, intensified by the silence.

"Is there anything we've overlooked? What if someone comes into the building?" I glance over at Nick.

Nick stubs out his cig. "No, we've covered everything. I won't let anyone stop us."

The door flings open. Father John Pietra darts inside, sweating and wiping his face, dressed in a glossy cleric's suit, redolent of limoncello. Around his neck, a large gold cross showing all the fine points of crucifixion. An Italian priest assigned to a parish in Ontario, Canada, he's the most unlikely member of our group. He plops down on a chair.

"Pax vobiscum," Nick says drily.

Footsteps in the hallway. By twos and threes, the rest of our group arrives, pushing open the door. I look up to fifteen leitmotifs of Movement attire—peace buttons stuck in Guevara-inspired berets, black turtlenecks, knotted leather bracelets, faded jeans.

Time to start, 7:45 PM.

Nick gathers everyone into a standing circle. We all link arms. I start off, remembering that Phil singled me out for a leadership role. Everyone expects Nick and me to show confidence. I take a deep breath before speaking. "Each of you knows what to do. If there's any hitches, we'll deal with it. Muse arrives with the press around nine." Charles Muse is the hippie member of our group.

Nick adds, "When the cops get here, stay cool. Offer no resistance to the man. Obey their instructions to extend your hands or put them behind your back. Have nothing in your pockets. Place your arrest sack on the ground in front of you. Don't give them any excuse to fuck you over."

Then everyone closes their eyes in a silent prayer, holding hands. I do the same but decide not to drag God into this. As children, my sister Arlene and I were dropped off every Saturday at Wilshire Boulevard Temple to become Reform Jews. There I learned that God was a generalist, not my personal fixer.

Nick raises his fist over his head, "Tonight, we put our bodies on the line to stop the machinery of death. How many more?"

"No more," we all reply, so primed to go.

Everyone grabs several trash bags. The guys handle the heavy shit like gas cans and tools, while the one other woman, named Margaret, and I carry the paint.

Nick and I are the last to leave. A look in each other's eyes, the quiet mystery of our friendship there, but there's no time for anything but a brief hug. With my arms around Nick's back, I fight back a swell of tears, overwhelmed by what starts right now. "Hang loose," he murmurs.

The dark, empty hallway echoes with our footsteps as we rush toward the locked office of the draft boards. For a moment, we stop outside the door, listening for any sound. Hearing nothing, our mallets pound the flimsy wood and glass. Jagged pieces crash to the floor as the frame springs back.

Once inside, we scan the long bank of metal file cabinets with our flashlights. Our focus is the 1-A records and file cards. "1-A's" in draft speak means eligible for military service, meaning no deferment, no approval as a conscientious objector. In this immense paper ghetto, 1-A files fill most of the cabinets in the room.

We pry open the drawers. Out flies a stream of paper. We shove as many as we can into our bags, filling them up with thousands and thousands of records. Whatever consequences follow for us, these paper men should have a far better fate than death in a paddy field.

Margaret and I douse the ledgers thrown on the floor in red paint. They bleed instead of lives.

"It's 8:30. Let's get to the parking lot," Nick says. After everyone's out, Nick locks the outside door like a dutiful seminarian.

A street light flickers on the corner of S. Western Avenue. No one is around. We drag the gas cans and our heavy sacks down the sidewalk to the adjacent parking lot, dumping their contents to build a paper mountain, returning back to the building to retrieve more. I glance up at the brick walls with faded signs of meatpackers from long ago. My former life ends on this weedy, concrete patch.

With the pyre complete, we break out into a dizzy outburst of joy. Some of us sing or hug each other. Margaret pumps her arms in the air. The plan worked to perfection; but very soon, we'll be in jail.

From the direction of Western Avenue come growls, whines of car engines, at first faint, growing louder and louder. Pietra scampers to the street to look.

"Here come the reporters!" Pietra's smile drops. "Mother of Jesus, the police are right behind them!" He runs back to us, crossing himself.

Nick and I scurry to the sidewalk. Revolving blue lights trail behind a troop of converging cars and TV remote vans turning on 62nd Street off Western Avenue. We return to rejoin the others who gather around us. Euphoria withers, when they see our stern faces.

Nick holds up his flashlight and trains the beam on each person as he speaks. "Get ready, the cops will be here quick. Remember, no resistance. Be strong!"

Silently, we reform the circle, linking arms. I move next to Margaret, facing the street, one arm around her waist, the other around Pietra. Nick's opposite me, beyond the smoky breath of the fire. My back is quivering, soaked with sweat. I can't think and dread what comes next.

One by one, the press zigzag around other cars to secure the best view. Cameras around their necks, about fifteen reporters scramble out of their cars, gathering on the sidewalk, astounded by the whipping bonfire in front of them. Teams from the TV vans unload their equipment, as Muse hands out our press statement. The press stare, snap pictures, too nervous to get any nearer.

Muse laughs, "Didn't I say, be there or be square?"

The press babble, pointing at us.

"Holy cow!"

"Who are these kids?"

"Gimme a copy of the statement."

"What's burning?"

A reporter yells. "Don't you guys get it? It's another Catonsville, but way bigger!"

"Catonsville?" Everyone's jotting notes.

My legs beg me to escape, but I stay fixed to the spot. Will I make it through this confrontation with the cops?

Muse joins us in the circle. More wailing from squad cars, growing ever louder, screeching to a halt behind the press, honking to get them out of the way. I hurl the last unscathed records as far as I can. I watch them crinkle, then explode in flames. I try to find a place inside myself where there is no paralyzing fear. It's the place that spoke up to my father when I was at UC Berkeley. Despite what I knew would be rejection or worse, I told him I was in love with a woman. That moment of fortitude sustains me now.

The cops maneuver to shine their double headlights on the parking lot. Their blue revolving beacons whirl in a mad tandem dance. The night sky hides behind a flurry of cinders, raining down on us, the blaze collapsing on itself. We have no more paper to give it.

At least a dozen cops are running towards us with their guns drawn. I take a deep breath, trying to slow my shallow, panicky breathing. I clutch Margaret's waist tighter. I glance at Nick who's closed his eyes.

As the ashes smolder, we start singing the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, the words of Dr. King's final sermon. Our voices hardly audible in the chaos around us, we sing to ourselves, to the person next to us. I think about Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the blacks-only section of a Montgomery bus.

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome, some day.

* * *

A year passes before our trial begins in federal court, shortly after the National Guard kills four Kent State students peacefully protesting the war. The country is more polarized and violent than ever. In this atmosphere, the court doesn't want to hear why we burned draft files, but only to make an example of us, especially Nick Riddell and me. I don't stay for Judge Robson's day of vengeance. I learn of my 10-year prison sentence followed by 10 years of probation at a safe house in Detroit.

And so, I can only watch as the idealism of the 60s and 70s gives way to backlash, as the powerful seek to undo all that our generation achieved at such great risk. I'll live in many cities, running from the FBI for nearly twenty years. In 1989, I voluntarily surrender, acknowledging the terrible toll of years underground, but never disavowing the draft action or my belief in social justice and peace.

Fifty years later, I'm telling my story in a country that feels like same shit, different century. Yet the struggle goes on. We shall overcome only if we make it so.

By Emily L. Quint Freeman

Emily L. Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir "Failure to Appear: Resistance, Loss, and Identity," which was released March 1, 2020 for Women’s History Month. She has been interviewed on CNN Evening News, NPR’s All Things Considered, and numerous other media outlets.

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1-as 1960s Conscription Draft Cards Excerpts History Vietnam Vietnam War War Protestors