A 40-year reunion is being planned for the end of this month in Gainesville, Fla., of the Gainesville 8. Sadly, Richard Nixon won’t be able to join them, although his presidential library has just released more audio recordings of his descent into madness — or what we like to call today: standard government practice.
The Gainesville 8 were eight men, seven of them members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), who planned to nonviolently demonstrate at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. They were wrongfully prosecuted for planning violence, and they were all acquitted by a jury on August 31, 1973, in a highly publicized trial.
Under the shadow of the chaos that surrounded the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, VVAW took extra steps to avoid violence at the ’72 RNC, meeting with the Miami police and with right-wing groups in an effort to prevent conflicts. And yet, prior to the convention, President Nixon’s FBI began preemptively arresting VVAW leaders, accusing them of plotting murder and mayhem, and attempting to prevent them from taking part in what they were really plotting: a nonviolent march to the convention, where they would request to meet with the president.
Many VVAW members managed to pull off the march, during the course of which they came upon an activist carrying weapons; they turned him in to the police. Three vets, including Ron Kovic, made it into the convention to pose some uncomfortable questions to some long-distance, stay-at-home war supporters.
Just prior to the arrests of the VVAW members in Florida, burglars working for Nixon had been arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate. When the Watergate burglars were captured, one of them, James McCord, explained that they were investigating a link between the Democrats and the VVAW which they believed was planning trouble at the upcoming Republican National Convention. McCord submitted an affidavit to the Gainesville 8 defense team restating this. The Gainesville 8 defense argued that their prosecution was aimed at strengthening Nixon’s thugs’ phony case for the Watergate break-in.
One of several infiltrators and would-be provocateurs who made up the fabricated case against the Gainesville 8 was Vincent Hanard. He said that Nixonian henchmen Howard Hunt, Bernard Barker, and Frank Sturgis had asked him to infiltrate VVAW and cause trouble. Another hired trouble-maker, Alfred Baldwin, was employed both monitoring a bug at the Watergate and infiltrating VVAW with a goal of embarrassing Democrats if VVAW demonstrated at the RNC.
Another professional provocateur named Pablo Fernandez was summoned to a grand jury investigating Nixonian henchman Donald Segretti. Fernandez said he’d tried to sell the VVAW guns and been turned down (something the Miami police confirmed), and that he’d spied on the veterans using electronic devices. In fact, he’d tried to record a conversation with VVAW leader Scott Camil, but Fernandez’ hidden microphone had failed.
Other of the government’s many infiltrators in the VVAW included William Koehler, Karl Becker, Emerson Poe, and William Lemmer. Poe had become best friends with Camil (or so Camil thought). Poe sat in meetings with the defendants right up until he was called as a prosecution witness, thus blowing his cover — about which the government had previously lied under oath. Lemmer was the star witness, however, alleging wild tales of violent plans. He was himself violent and unstable. Lemmer had already set up a 17 year old to vandalize a building in Arkansas and arranged to have the FBI waiting for him. Lemmer had helped bust six people for marijuana. His specialty was talking people into considering the use of violence. He just wasn’t very convincing as a witness.
Scott Camil was the southeast regional coordinator of VVAW. His lawyer’s office was broken into during these proceedings, and his file taken. Also, FBI agents with electronic gear were found hiding in a closet of the room that the defendants and lawyers were meeting in during the trial.
“It’s not really 11 years till 1984,” Camil said in his closing statement (PDF) in court. “It’s a lot closer than that.”
This sounds odd to us, living in 2013. Technology, if not morality, has made great leaps forward. There’s no more need for bungling idiots with brief cases full of spy gear hiding in closets. The government can spy on us without making its presence known. But provocateurs are still employed to manufacture crimes, and much of what was considered illicit under Nixon is treated as acceptable established practice under Obama.
A careful study of the FBI’s own data on terrorism in the United States, reported in Trevor Aaronson’s book The Terror Factory, finds one organization leading all others in creating terrorist plots in the United States today: the FBI. Peace groups today, including chapters of Veterans For Peace, have been redefined as “security threats” and “potential terrorists.” The police have been militarized. Free speech cages are established at great distance from political conventions. Preemptive detentions before demonstrations don’t always bother with charges or prosecutions at all. And the corporate-state media has internalized these practices as normal. In 1973, CBS sued for the right to cover the Gainesville 8 trial. Today I think it would be easier to find a media outlet willing to pay money to avoid having to cover something. Chelsea Manning’s trial was covered by bloggers.
Camil represented himself in court, and included no apologies, as observers of Chelsea Manning’s trial might have expected. Camil’s opening statement should be read in full (PDF). He put the government and the war and President Nixon on trial. Here’s an excerpt:
“The evidence will show that the seven of us who went to Vietnam spent a total of 111 months over there, received 57 medals and citations, and were all honorably discharged. The evidence will also show that we threw our medals away out of shame, because we knew that what they stood for was wrong. For myself, the throwing away of the medals I once cherished was the cutting of the umbilical cord between myself and the government lies, such as, ‘We are helping the people of Vietnam,’ ‘Our purpose is honorable,’ the covering up, such as, ‘We are not bombing Cambodia,’ ‘We are not murdering unarmed civilians,’ ‘We are not bombing hospitals,’ the immorality, such as ‘free fire zones,’ where all life was fair game, to show the American people back home that we were winning the war by giving them a tool of measurement to judge, and that tool of measurement was the use of dead human beings — it was called ‘body count.'”
On August 31st the jury quickly acquitted all of the defendants. VVAW said at the time:
“The government needed, first of all, to defuse the anti-war issue in the 1972 presidential campaign. What better way to do this was there than by portraying a leading anti-war group as a bunch of vicious killers? With the public outcry caused by the Watergate scandal, a secondary purpose for the trial can be found: an attempt to partially divert attention away from the Watergate affair by fabricating a phony ‘threat to national security.’ James McCord specifically named VVAW/WSO as the chief villain in this ‘threat to national security’ and as a justification for their actions.”
The Gainesville 8 were John Briggs, Scott Camil, Alton Foss, John Kniffin, Peter Mahoney, Stanley Michelson, William Patterson, and Don Perdue. All but Briggs were Vietnam veterans. Kniffin and Patterson are now deceased.
Four of the eight are gathering for a reunion in Gainesville this month: Peter Mahoney, Don Perdue, Alton Foss, and Scott Camil. Joining them are three of the lawyers who worked on the defense: Larry Turner, Nancy Stearns (Center for Constitutional Rights), and Brady Coleman (Texas National Lawyers Guild). Also coming are jurors from the trial: Donna Ing, and the husband of Jury Foreperson Lois Hensel who is now deceased. Plus members of the defense committee: Nancy Miller Saunders, Nancy Burnap, and Carol Gordon. And John Chambers who spent 40 days in jail for refusing to answer questions from the grand jury. And Richard Hudgens who was subpoenaed to the grand jury. The Oral History Department at the University of Florida will be doing interviews.
I went ahead and did my own interview of Scott Camil. “We came home from Vietnam,” he said, “and saw that the government was not telling the truth about the war. We exercised the Constitutional rights that we fought to protect and tried to educate the public to the truth. The government came after us with a vengeance, trampling on our rights in an effort to silence and intimidate us. We stood up to the government and prevailed.”
And what has happened since?
“Things have gotten much worse since then — the illegal activities that brought down President Nixon are now legal. Then the press accepted its role as the 4th estate. Today the press has become a propaganda arm of the National Security State. Today the National Security State wipes its boots on the Constitution. And the public, rather than standing up for the Constitution, cowers and hides its head in the sand.
“Today’s whistleblowers trying to educate the public to what is being done in our name with our tax money are under attack as we once were. I hope that they are able to prevail as we once did.”
David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.