In November 1990 on the eve of First Gulf War, a group that later became known as the Bush Street14 – comprised of UC Berkeley and SF State students, and community activists – occupied the recruiting station on Bush St. in San Francisco.
The group walked in, announced to the officers on duty that they were occupying the space and told them that they could leave, or be locked in with them. A strong chain and lock was attached to the inside of the door.
The recruiting station remained closed for the rest of the day.
It took police awhile to respond to the scene and figure out a course of action. They really didn’t want to break the plate glass window doors – especially in front of the TV cameras. Note that as soon as the Bush Street14 were inside and immediately after the doors were chained shut, all the phones inside were used to call the media.
At one point it became clear that the police and/or fire department were attempting to enter through a skylight on the roof. Once this was discovered, Bush Street 14 people began to block off the skylight access by piling up file cabinets and other materials.
Eventually, the police did say that they were going to break down the plate glass and physically remove everyone. At that point one person in the group suggested that it was time to end the action and go out willingly. That’s what happened.
People had all sorts of exorbitant charges like kidnapping that were eventually reduced. Because there were good National Lawyers Guild lawyers involved, because it was 1990 and 1991, because it was the Bay Area, because it was a group of mainly students from middle class backgrounds, and because of other factors, eventually all the charges were reduced and the ultimate punishment was some type of community service, which some people were able to do working with non-profit homeless organizations and other such type activity.
Were that same action to happen today, in a different state, in a different context, I doubt those involved would get off so easily.
Then. . .
When the First Gulf War actually started in January 1991 there were “three days of rage” in San Francisco. Massive numbers of people were in the streets protesting the start of that war. Many expressed their rage in the non-violent destruction of property.
Because the Bust St. recruiting station had been given a spotlight just two months before, it became a target during these three days of rage. The place was physically destroyed. The plate glass doors and street windows were smashed and much of the interior was trashed.
It stayed closed for a long time after that. Eventually, I think, it never re-opened.
This is a little piece of history from 16 years ago–a different time, a different place.
It’s an interesting case study and comparison. On the one hand, the purposeful occupation of the recruiting station during broad daylight and on the other hand the nighttime raid by masked anti-warriors.
I would classify both within the spectrum of non-violent direct action. They were “non-violent” in the sense that no one was physically harmed. Although the act of smashing plate glass windows can have the appearance of violence, because there is swift active movement of the body, the same movements that can and do have violent results.
The Bush Street 14, the ones who had physically occupied the recruiting center, had to deal with the repercussions for many months. Before the charges were reduced, and before it became apparent that there would basically be a very minimal penalty, there was some anxiety.
The Bush Street Raiders, the ones who moved in swiftly and stealthily at night under the cover of darkness and amidst a city full of massive numbers in the street, well, they got away. Their act was purposeful–in the sense there was intent and a thoughtful correlation between that physical space and U.S. foreign policy, as well as purposeful with the intent of not being caught. The Raiders didn’t have to worry about court. Had they been caught, that would have been another matter.
Both actions had risk. And both sets of social actors were risk takers. Arguably the Bush Street 14 took a greater risk because they knew they would be caught. But they weighed the political context against the risk. In the end, their level of risk proved to be low.
But arguably the Raiders took more of a risk because they engaged in a greater offense to the physical space itself that could have resulted in more sever penalties.
From a media perspective, the Bush Street 14 action was more pointed and focused. It occurred prior to the onset of the war (aka prolonged air assault) in a relative vacuum of noticeable dissent. It made for good TV and was on the headline news and in the papers the next day.
The Bush Street Raiders action was lost on the media because it was just one of many acts during the three days of rage. So, whereas many people in the greater Bay Area media audience heard of the Bush St 14 action, comparatively few heard of the other.
The recruiting branch of the military surely was aware of both. For them it was a one two punch. From a military point of view, the Bush St. 14 action was akin to marking the target. The spotlight was put on this space. Everyone in the anti-war camp knew about it. The Raiders’ action was the assault.
Recruiters got the message loud and clear. Obviously didn’t stop recruiting though.
In the end, both actions were good political theater and performance art.
The social actors engaged in both experienced personal catharsis and the endomorphic high that comes from the adrenaline rush of danger.
Did it stop military recruiting? No. Did it convince some young people to decide to think twice before talking with a military recruiter? I don’t know.
Did it send a strong message to the general public and the anti-war movement at the time about the need to focus on recruiting centers? Definitely yes.
Are these sorts of theatrics a substitute for the less dramatic work of public education? Definitely not.
The type of work that Non-military Options for Youth does has a greater direct impact on helping to shape young people’s minds in relation to the military than these types of heroic acts.
Ultimately it won’t matter if the recruiting centers remain open if no one is walking through the front door. But in that event, they’ll crank up the draft again won’t they?
STEFAN WRAY is a writer and documentary film-maker. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org