A Forty-Year Crime Spree by Steve Clemens
Near the end of March marked the 40th anniversary of my first arrest beginning a life of crime that has averaged about an arrest per year – or arrest-able actions. Truth be told, it actually began three years earlier when I burned my Selective Service Registration Card after one of Nixon’s speeches and mailed the ashes back to my local Draft Board. I had registered as a Conscientious Objector when I turned age 18 in the fall of 1968 but then my lottery number was 254 when the military draft switched to that system in the government’s attempt to lessen the growing anti-Vietnam War protests.
Despite the likelihood that my Draft Board would never be sending me an induction notice given my relatively “safe” lottery number and the withdrawal of combat troops from South Vietnam so, after I graduated from college and losing that “educational deferment”, I decided to do my “alternative service” by volunteering with the Mennonite Central Committee, first in rural Mississippi and then in Washington, DC. I arrived in the nation’s capitol city just a few weeks after President Nixon resigned in disgrace following the exposure of the Watergate scandals.
I soon was invited to join a Monday evening Bible study group at the Community For Creative NonViolence (CCNV) led by Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister. We used Abraham Joshua Heschel’s provocative book, The Prophets, as a jumping-off point for our discussions on how we as Christians could embody the Gospel for our own times. The end of January 1975 found me helping as volunteer staff for “The National Assembly To Save The Peace Agreements” with thousands gathering to hear anti-war speakers and listen to Joan Baez and other musicians who arrived for the rally.
In February I joined my housemate John Swarr in going to the White House tour entrance and reading aloud a copy of the Paris Peace Accords to those awaiting entrance to the President’s home and office – highlighting the ways our government was violating the agreements we has signed. When threatened with arrest if we didn’t leave after being there for more than an hour, we both left – not ready (yet) to cross that line of deliberate civil disobedience. As our Monday night group processed our experiences, the radical Catholic couple from Jonah House – especially Liz – were gently urging me to consider risking arrest as a next step in my journey as a Christian peacemaker.
President Gerald Ford was asking Congress for more funds to support the flagging efforts of the South Vietnamese troops who had replaced the American soldiers under Nixon’s “Vietnamization” of the war. At the same time attempting to quell anti-war protests, he had also proposed what we called a “punitive clemency” program stating that draft resisters who had gone to jail or fled to Canada or other countries or had gone “underground” could have their rights restored and criminal records amended if they returned, surrendered to authorities, and completed two additional years of some approved community service. This “offer” was seen by many of us opposed to the war as a continued justification for what we felt was not only illegal but also counter-productive. Someone suggested we should respond to the President personally.
Little did we know that this proposed act of civil disobedience would be the last large arrest before the Saigon regime fell to the North Vietnamese and NLF troops the next month. The plan for the action was simple: a group of us would gather for the daily tour of the White House and once inside, we would gather on the lawn of the building and refuse to leave until we were granted a meeting with President Ford. I carried with me a typed letter to the President outlining why I was participating. Many of those joining the group had years if not decades of nonviolent arrests and expected that we would be given a warning to leave prior to arrest. Those not planning on going to jail that day should leave at that time recognizing that those remaining would likely be handcuffed and hauled to jail. I’m not sure any of us expected the President to meet with us.
There were 62 arrested that March 1975 afternoon, the largest mass arrest at the White House to that date. Human Rights activist Dick Gregory, Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, former-nun Elizabeth McAlister, Ladon Sheats, and many others became my co-defendants that day. What a group to serve as mentors for a first arrest! It took several hours for the arrests and to be transported to the jail. As we were being booked, the elderly gentleman processed in front of me told the arresting officer his name and “occupation” when asked. He responded, “James Peck, war resister”. I hadn’t met him before but I knew well his steadfast commitment to justice and nonviolence when he was savagely beaten during the Freedom Rides in the Civil Rights struggle in the South as well as his opposition to nuclear weapons testing and drills in the 50s. It was an honor and privilege to be booked with an American hero!
Yes, I was nervous that day. Other than a parking ticket while in college, I prided myself in being a law-abiding, conscientious citizen. To not “obey” a police officer or Secret Service officer went against everything I was taught – and the decision to do so did not come easily. I was greatly relieved to discover that we were being “released on our own recognizance” (ROR) after being booked, photographed, and fingerprinted. I felt proud that I survived the close to 6-hour ordeal and especially grateful for my companions.
It wasn’t until our debriefing time the following Monday evening during our regular Bible study that I discovered that not all of us were released: apparently 3 of the group remained in jail because they felt that if they weren’t white and well-educated with jobs they wouldn’t have been offered ROR. They chose to act in solidarity with the poor black men who so frequently populated those DC jails. Boy did I have a lot to learn – I never even considered not acting on my privilege!
Liz delivered her first child before our trial and was nursing infant Frida Berrigan in the courtroom. I clearly remember her standing up in that courtroom with her newborn resister and telling the Judge she was compelled to act on behalf of the future generations. (That mother’s milk –and example - has obviously nurtured Frida’s exemplary activism for peace and justice in her own right).
We were given a 60 day jail sentence which was suspended provided we weren’t arrested again during our probation period of 15 months-2 years. It was a good start and introduction to a life of crime and punishment – but also one of deep joy and commitment. I can’t say our world is better off today but I’m certain it would have been worse if not for groups of nonviolent seekers of justice, peace, and compassion. I’m so grateful for this mentoring.