Tropea: The history of anti-Vietnam War actions shows protesters creatively adapting to state repression
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussion with Joe Tropea about acts of civil disobedience during the Vietnam War.
Joe Tropea is a Baltimore-based historian, writer, editor, and filmmaker, and he is the codirector of Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance.
Thanks for joining us, Joe.
JOE TROPEA, CURATOR OF FILMS AND PHOTOGRAPHS, MARYLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Thank you for having me.
WORONCZUK: So in the first part of our discussion with Joe, we talked about acts of civil disobedience that occurred during the Vietnam War. And now we’re going to talk a little bit about how the U.S. government responded.
So let’s start. How did the U.S. government respond to these acts of civil disobedience?
TROPEA: Well, their response was varied and not very well organized. With some of the draft board raids, they reported them in the press. Other times, they tried to downplay it. And if no one knew the raid happened, they wouldn’t report it, they wouldn’t talk to reporters about the actions.
As it went on, though, as the actions continued to happen, they basically tried to cultivate informers and provocateurs. And that’s what happened in some of the later actions.
WORONCZUK: And so what was the role of the FBI in some of this, and especially Hoover’s obsession with trying to discredit the movement?
TROPEA: Well, the activists had been trying to get into FBI offices a year before the famous citizens commission to investigate the FBI in Media, P.A. Often draft boards were located in buildings that also contained attorneys’ offices, states attorneys’ offices, and FBI offices. And in one case in Rochester there was an action called the Flower City Conspiracy, where they raided a draft board. And they also went into an FBI office that was located right down the hall, and they got a bunch of files out. This was in 1970.
But someone had been an informer for that action, and it was basically a trap, and they were arrested before the action could be pulled off. So though they did destroy a bunch of draft files–and they weren’t going to destroy the FBI files; they wanted to keep those. But because they got caught, they had to give them back, and the government never mentioned that again.
A year later, some people who had been draft board raiders went into a resident agency in Media, Pennsylvania, which was basically just a small FBI office in the outskirts of Philadelphia. They went in on the hunch that J. Edgar Hoover was an amazing bureaucrat and would document everything he did, and they were right. They went into that office and took out a bunch of papers. And when they got to their destination, they started combing through the papers, and basically they uncovered the COINTEL program, COINTELPRO. And it sort of became–well, they basically sent those copies of those papers to the press. And it was a giant story that the government was infiltrating organizations like the Black Panthers and trying to disrupt them, trying to instill infighting.
And basically J. Edgar Hoover felt completely violated by one of his offices being raided and his secrets coming out, and at that point he had a vendetta against the Berrigans, who he saw as the leaders of this entire movement–not necessarily true. It was a fairly decentralized organization, where people really didn’t call shots. But, anyway, he saw them as the leaders of this thing and he set his sights on them.
WORONCZUK: Well, let’s take a look at a clip from your film about the FBI’s attempt to discredit the movement.
WORONCZUK: So another really important act of civil disobedience was the Camden Twenty-Eight. Talk about that a little bit.
TROPEA: Okay. So the Camden Twenty-Eight was an action where–it was 28 people. Not all 28 went into the draft board; it was probably more like 17, I think. But it was in Camden, N.J. And they had staked out the building, figured out how to get into it. It was on the fifth floor of a building, so it really took some planning. And what they didn’t know was that one of the members of the group had started to get cold feet, and he went to an FBI agent in his town and basically told him what they were up to.
WORONCZUK: Now, before the–no, even though he told them, though, the FBI didn’t actually try and stop the action from taking place.
TROPEA: Well, no. The informant only thought that he believed his friends were only going to get a slap on the wrist for doing a draft board raid. What he didn’t know was that once J. Edgar Hoover got wind of this, things would be very different. And what ended up happening is they were allowed to stay in the draft board, shredding files for, like, four or five hours. They had completely destroyed everything. And then, toward the end, the FBI swooped in and arrested everyone.
WORONCZUK: And why did they wait?
TROPEA: I think they basically wanted to have enough evidence to really put them away for a long time. What they didn’t foresee was that the informant, who was a friend of many of the members of this action, realized how he’d been used by the FBI, and when it came time for the trial, he sort of turned and became a witness for the defendants.
WORONCZUK: And none of them actually did go to jail.
TROPEA: They did not actually go to jail for that particular–I mean, they were taken to jail that night, but they did not serve prison terms for that action.
WORONCZUK: ‘Cause the outcome of the trial was a jury nullification. Can you explain to us what that is?
TROPEA: From the very beginning, people doing these actions were trying for jury nullification. They maybe weren’t coming out and saying it, because usually a judge would not let them go that far, to say that in front of a jury, that you have the right to say that you don’t agree this was a crime that should be punished. But by the time the Camden Twenty-Eight happened, the country had sort of turned on the Vietnam War and everyone was kind of aware of what was happening over there, and the country had no more tolerance for it. And they basically pursued a jury nullification defense, and it worked.
WORONCZUK: Let’s take a look at a clip from Joe’s film of an interview with Howard Zinn talking about this trial. He actually was a witness who testified at the trial.
WORONCZUK: Okay. So looking at all this history, these acts of civil disobedience, what’s the significance? Why is it important to know this?
TROPEA: Well, as a historian, I think it’s important to know this because it’s a crucial part of American history, in my opinion. But I also think things have changed since then. There are no longer draft boards that you can walk into and destroy files and have it make a difference. Everything’s computerized. Things have just changed beyond that level.
So I think the importance of what they did is they adapted. They didn’t keep doing the same type of action over and over again. They upped the ante. They got more creative as they went along.
And I think that is useful to anyone who’s involved in activism today. It’s a great case study in how to change up your game plan and your actions. So I think it’s very useful in that respect.
WORONCZUK: And so your film has some screenings coming out, Hit & Stay?
TROPEA: It does. We’re–in March we’ll be at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, on March 6. We’re playing the Self-Medicated film festival in Austin, Texas, that same weekend. And then we’ll be in Chicago at the 8th Day Center for Justice on 23 March.
WORONCZUK: Thanks so much for joining us.
TROPEA: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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