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The CIA has been so busy consulting on Zero Dark Thirty (as detailed in the latest subscriber-only issue of CounterPunch), not to mention funding Hamid Karzai, bribing Russians, lying about weapons, and conducting humanitarian drone murders, that it didn’t have any time at all to help out with Hit and Stay, and yet arguably the latter turned out to be the better film despite such a severe handicap. You can check it out at http://hitandstay.com
This is a film about people taking risks to prevent killing rather than to engage in it. The focus is on the Catonsville Nine action on May 17, 1968, 45 years ago this Friday. That action, in which activists burned draft cards and apologized for burning papers rather than children, was preceded by the Baltimore Four action of October 27, 1967, in which four activists poured their blood on draft papers. It was followed by countless other actions, leading right up to the Transform Plowshares action in Tennessee for which three are currently awaiting sentencing.
The Catonsville action received so much publicity that it had something of an Occupy effect. That is, others who felt the same way about the slaughter of the Vietnamese people but didn’t believe they could do anything, suddenly began doing something. Some did very similar actions. Others tried their own approaches to the same problem. Catonsville Nine inspired other tactics, enlarged marches and rallies, and generally moved the peace movement forward. The creativity and novelty of the action even made people think about the war who hadn’t before.
Draft records were destroyed, preventing the drafting of those people. So, this was substantive resistance that couldn’t be undone. At the same time it was educational and inspirational. It didn’t inspire sadistic shouts of “Bin Laden’s dead!” It inspired people to act on their moral outrage. There were over 100 actions taken at draft boards over the next few years. Many thousands of people’s draft records were destroyed, saving them from the draft and saving those they would have killed from that fate. Some of the draft offices were shut down permanently. In the end the Selective Service declared it was under assault, and Nixon declared that the military would now be volunteer.
Some of the actions went after FBI offices and U.S. attorneys offices. Activists never yet apprehended stole COINTELPRO documents and sent them to the media, exposing the FBI’s abuses and creating a major news story that lasted until it was overshadowed by the Pentagon Papers — released by Dan Ellsberg, himself inspired by the activism shown in Hit and Stay. The people shown engaging in these actions are, in many cases, still active today — although they look a bit older. In other cases, their sons and daughters are still involved.
The name “Hit and Stay” comes from the method of engaging in civil disobedience (or civil resistance for those who prefer to point to laws being upheld through the violation of other laws deemed less important) and then staying at the scene of the crime to take responsibility. This was a communications strategy, not a masochistic drive toward suffering. Some of the Catonsville Nine went into hiding to avoid their trial and remain active, even after having stood still long enough to be arrested and charged.
The film shows us the Milwaukee 14, the DC 9 who went after the Dow Chemical Company, and the New York 8. The New York activists hit more than one location and chose not to stay. Instead, they held a press conference to claim responsibility without identifying who was at which location or agreeing to answer questions. They were not prosecuted.
We see the Boston 2, the Rhode Island Political Offensive For Freedom (RIPOFF) — modeled after the New York 8. We see the Rochester Flower City Conspiracy, the Buffalo, the Camden 28. That last one was encouraged, assisted, and then busted by an informant, but in the trial the judge allowed defense witnesses including people like Howard Zinn. The jury nullified the law by acquitting defendants who openly admitted to their actions. The jury joined in singing “Amazing Grace,” and the foreman threw a party for the defendants.
Activists have not entirely figured out how to counter the brilliant move of creating a “volunteer” poverty draft, but neither has it shut down resistance in quite the way as is generally imagined. The stories of these long-ago actions and so many thousands of actions since still inspire. And resistance is in many ways greater now. Wars are protested before they even start, and sometimes prevented from starting. There is much to inspire us in independent media reports of nonviolent actions today, but I suspect this movie has the power to inspire us further.
David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.