I was 24 years old in April of 1971. The United States involvement in the Vietnam War had gone on for well over a decade, and it had occupied the entirety of my young political life. The reality of war was starker during Vietnam than it might be today due to the reality of the draft. Whatever your politics, the draft was a real and sobering presence. One of the common slogans of the resistance movement was, “Eighteen today. Dead tomorrow.” Once selected, you were going to participate in the war or you were going to make life-altering choices to avoid it.
This reality hung heavily over everyone I knew.
By the spring of 1971, my perspective, like that of many others, had evolved from resistance to the draft to an encompassing opposition to the war itself. It was no longer solely an issue of self-interest. Nor was it only an issue of the damage being done to our country. We were killing, maiming and destroying the people of Vietnam for indefensible reasons. I felt compelled to become more involved.
By that time I had attended several antiwar demonstrations in Washington, D.C. During those demonstrations I had participated, but mostly passively. I felt a strong need to do something else, but I had no idea what that might be.
When we heard that there was a major protest taking place in D.C. during the last week of April, my friends and I decided to go. There were two sequential demonstrations over a period of a week. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) organized a rally for April 24 on the National Mall with speakers and music. The crowd was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. There were planned activities every day, including peaceful protests at select federal headquarters and a few days to lobby Congress.
The Youth International Party, commonly known as the Yippies, organized a follow-up demonstration for the next weekend, Saturday through Monday. The stated intent of the Monday action was a massive disruption of traffic all over D.C. The slogan was: “If the government won’t stop the war; we’ll stop the government.”
For history buffs, these protests followed days after John Kerry, a former soldier and future Secretary of State, gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
My friends and I set off on Friday morning to visit our Congressman. Many Representatives who had already voiced opposition to the war welcomed the protesters. Our guy, Earl Landgrebe of Indiana, was not in this category. He was a fervent war supporter to the end. He is also infamously remembered for his quote at the Watergate Hearings, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Needless to say, we didn’t get to speak to him. Rather, we delivered our point of view to his staffers who, though polite, were decidedly not welcoming. We left petitions and other antiwar publications at his office, knowing that they would be in the wastebasket soon after we left. From knocking on the door of his office to being shown our way out again hadn’t taken much time, so we walked out of the office building not exactly sure of what to do next.
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It was a beautiful day. We decided to walk over to the Capitol to see what might be going on there. As we entered the Capitol rotunda we heard a commotion ahead. There were hundreds of people there — protester types, guards, tourists, gawkers. Suddenly the crowd split and two guards emerged from the center of the rotunda. They were dragging a long-hair out by his arms. He was facing forward with his legs dragging behind him. The guards had one arm under each of his armpits. He was smiling broadly, flashing peace signs with both hands. We remarked laughingly at how pleased he seemed with himself as he passed by.
Many people were smiling. In fact, hardly anyone seemed upset or mad. We asked someone what he had done. He said the guy just sat down on the center circle of the rotunda and refused to get up. About as simple an act of resistance as you can get.
The same person told us there had been varying acts of civil disobedience in the Capitol all day and that many people had been arrested. He mentioned that some folks even disrupted the Senate. We were curious about that, and decided to try to get a pass to the Senate gallery.
It was easier than we thought. We got the passes, received a stern warning from the clerk about the consequences of breaking the rule of silence, and were seated in the Senate gallery within an hour. The gallery, which rings the Senate floor above the majestic chambers, was packed. As we sat down, there was a commotion directly across from us. Two people stood up and began speaking to the Senate below, voicing their opposition to the war. Two guards immediately came down their aisle and arrested them. They left peacefully.
We sat for another 10 minutes. I was half listening to the debate, but I was involved in a much more serious debate in my mind. From the time we heard that some people had been arrested for speaking out against the war, the thought that I might do the same had been germinating. What could be more appropriate, I thought? We had just been rebuffed by our own Representative. It felt that no one had listened to our point of view for years.
Why not tell them directly?
I was sitting between my two friends. It totally surprised them when I stood up and started testifying against the war. I didn’t shout. I wasn’t angry. I remember Senator Hubert Humphrey looking up at me. Within moments two guards came down to me and asked me to go with them. I didn’t resist. My friends were still in shock as I was led away. They hurriedly said they’d find out where I was taken and check on me.
The guards took me down a long labyrinth of hallways and stairs, into what seemed like the very depths of the Capitol. Finally we came to a room where there were four other protesters. The guards left me in the room with the others, and locked the door.
“What did you do?” a woman asked.
“I was arrested for standing up and speaking in the Senate gallery,” I replied.
Everyone nodded approval. Someone said, “Yep, that’s all of us then.”
Later, two more men arrived with the same charge. Of the seven of us, four had planned to act, while three — myself included — spoke out against the war without premeditation. We all felt it was just the right thing to do.
Later we learned that the authorities believed our protest was a planned disruption. Little did they know that our actions were far more potent for their lack of a conspiracy.
After about an hour or two we were cuffed and herded into a van and taken to a police station. Neither the Capitol guards nor the police were mean in any way. We also were polite and cooperative. They acted like this kind of thing happened every day. At the police station we were booked. Since we were all being charged with the same crime (disrupting Congress), we were kept together. When it came time to get our mug shots, one guy refused to cooperate by making faces every time they tried to take his photo. The cops gave him a warning, but it didn’t stop the guy from bulging out his eyes and sticking out his tongue. The cops called for help, and while one cop held his face tightly between his paws and another held his jaw closed, they managed to get a relatively good photo. Weirdly, everyone was almost laughing at his antics, even the police.
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Finally, we were shuffled into a small cell with two bunks. We had no idea where the jail was located, nor how any of our friends would be able to find us. We were told we would be arraigned that same day, later in the afternoon.
At about five in the afternoon, a couple of officers came to get us. We were handcuffed and ankle-cuffed and put in the back in another van. No one would tell us where we were going. It was a short ride. We were taken into a courthouse by a back door and into a holding room. We were in good spirits.
In time, an officer came to get us and led us into a courtroom. To our amazement it was packed with spectators. All the seats were taken and there were people standing in the back, against the wall. There were cheers when we entered the court. It was clear the room was packed with our people.
The bailiff tried, unsuccessfully, to quiet the room.
We were brought around to the front of the court in a semicircle. Once in position, facing the bench, we started flashing peace signs to the crowd with our hands cuffed behind our backs. This gesture served to increase the giddy misrule of the crowd, which in turn sent the bailiff and the court guards off on high alert.
The bailiff, a short, officious man, walked out to face the spectators.
“I’m only going to give you one warning,” he said. “This is a federal court. You will remain silent.”
He stood, glaring at the crowd until it quieted down. Then he turned on his heel and went into the judge’s chambers. Even before he’d closed the door, the crowd had started giggling.
Five minutes later, he came out of the same door, walked several steps into the court, and announced, “Order in the court, the Honorable Judge Joseph Pincher presiding! All rise!”
The judge followed behind him, taking three steps into the courtroom before glancing up at the gallery, whereupon he immediately wheeled around and marched back into his chambers. The bailiff heard the chambers door slam and turned to look at where the judge was supposed to be. He looked like he might blow a gasket when he, himself, turned to look at the spectators.
As the accused, we were all facing forward and didn’t know what had happened, so I turned my head to get a peek at what was going on behind our backs.
Practically everyone in the gallery had remained seated.
The bailiff, beside himself in anger, admonished, “You can all be held in contempt of court for this behavior. It will not be tolerated!!!”
He then stormed into the judge’s chambers, the door slamming behind him.
There was more laughter.
Five minutes later the bailiff reappeared, walking a little further out into the courtroom, the judge standing just out of view of the gallery, next to the jurors’ box. The bailiff then announced in an even more forceful voice than before, “Order in the court, the Honorable Judge Joseph Pincher presiding. All Rise!”
There was more commotion behind us. We turned around. Maybe a third of the audience stood as requested, hesitated, and then sat back down as others slowly stood and then quickly sat back down. The bailiff seemed astonished and momentarily unsure of what to do. The judge, utterly exasperated, retreated back into his chambers.
The bailiff was very angry. “I will have you all arrested for contempt of court if you refuse to stand again!!!” he shouted.
This must have struck everyone as an empty and amusing threat because I could hear muffled laughter coming from all throughout the crowd. The bailiff, steam coming out of his ears, then turned and stormed back into the judge’s chambers, again slamming the door.
Of course, we were thoroughly enjoying this theater of the absurd. We had time to look back and discovered all of our friends in the audience. It was clear that they had raised the alarm among the protest leaders, who made sure the court was packed with demonstrators.
The bailiff and the judge took longer in the chambers this time. We assumed they were trying to figure out how to maintain authority over people who obviously had made a common decision that the circumstances of the war overruled decorum. We also wondered how much longer this could go on.
After several awkward moments, the bailiff came out of the door and walked only a few steps into the courtroom. The judge did not appear. The door to the chambers was left open. The bailiff seemed more composed. He looked long and hard at the audience, and then announced very quickly and barely audibly, “Order in the court. The Honorable Judge Joseph Pincher presiding. Allllll . . . SIT.”
The last word was spoken so softly it could barely be heard. The judge rushed out of the chambers, nearly running, his robes flying behind him.
The audience was taken completely by surprise; some were sitting, some were standing, and many were going up and down in confusion, not believing what they had heard. It looked like a sea of jacks-in-the-box gone mad.
The judge rushed up to his seat, pounded his gavel three times, and announced hurriedly, “Court is in session!”
I took one final peek back to the audience, and nearly everyone was standing.
The judge made no comment about the contempt of court charge, thereby signaling, in a way, that he too was no longer willing to stand in the way of a common cause to end the war. He moved quickly to read the charges against us, advised us of the fine, and then released us all with no bail. We were led out of the courtroom, processed right there, and were with our friends outside the courthouse in an hour planning our next act of disobedience.
Of course that protest in 1971 didn’t end the war. It barely shut down D.C. traffic for more than twenty minutes. But there was something of a tipping point that was achieved that week. The morality of the protesters and the absurdity of those in power was glaringly clear as 17,000 National Guard and police arrested over 7,000 people in one day alone. That set a record which still stands for the most people arrested at one protest in the history of the United States.
Looking back on it, The All Rise Seven were pretty lucky. For thousands of others, there was no room in the jails, so they were held in a fenced-off section of RFK football stadium without food or sanitation facilities. Close to another 5,000 were arrested in the next two days.
The whole week was a public relations disaster for the Nixon administration and for the pro-war forces overall. Some of the protests were well planned, intentionally staged, and they certainly had an effect on the movement. But for me what really changed that week was finally realizing the power of standing up . . . or, when the situation calls for it, sitting down.
The United States Government began pulling troops back from combat areas in 1971-72. Peace negotiations with North Vietnam began in 1972. The Draft ended in June, 1973. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975.