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The 1967 Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam: Confrontation at the Pentagon

An eye-witness report from 50 years ago

On the ride in the paddy wagon, the other man in the truck told us about how one demonstrator had been carried unconscious past the wagon. He too had only gone limp. I had no trouble believing the story.

We were taken to a station, where prison buses were waiting and where charges were filed, fingerprints made and our names recorded. I was charged with “crossing the line,” a misdemeanor, though it was the line which had moved and I had actually been pulled across it. The girl was charged with “crossing the line and harassing an officer,” a felony.

At the District Work Farm at Occoquan, Virginia, we had beds and were given enough to eat. The only real complaint I have is that in those early hours, the wardens were completely unwilling to divulge information to worried husbands and boy friends about where their wives and girlfriends were being kept (they could have told us they were only a few hundred feet away in a neighboring dormitory cell but chose not to). Nor did they respond to the particularly plaintive requests from those who had seen their women beaten.

The prison chaplain was a good man, and he tried his best to find out for us later, and by early morning everyone had been told what he wanted to know. The lights had been left burning all night in my dormitory cell, which was housing over a hundred people. We had to sign up on a list to make our allowed phone call. We were informed that if we did not make our call when our turn came we would be put on the end of the list. Then, beginning at 2 am of the next day, a warden came in every five minutes and yelled out a name for the phone, as boisterously as he could. He successfully kept everyone awake all night that way, and chuckled each time.

The arraignments we had the next day amounted to mock trials. The commissioner who handled me was particularly hostile, and the lawyer supplied by the march organizers (a volunteer) informed us that we were certainly guaranteed a 30-day sentence if we pleaded not guilty, as he was sure they had no intention of acquitting us. He told us that he had two other alternatives. We could plead guilty, be fined $25 and leave, or we could plead nolo contendere (no contest), which says in effect, that we knew they would find us guilty and that we did not consider ourselves to be, but wouldn’t contest the ruling. The standard penalty being handed out for nolo pleas was a $25 fine and a five-day suspended sentence. I decided on that course of action.

However, when my turn came, the commissioner (there were several working), only offered me two options: guilty or not guilty. The lawyer asked for and was granted exactly five minutes to find a precedent showing that a nolo pleas should be allowed. The commissioner said such pleas were only for traffic violations. My lawyer ran off. In the interim, I decided that I could not plead guilty, and if the nolo plea were not allowed, I’d have to plead not guilty on principle.

When five minutes were up, the lawyer was still gone. The commissioner called me up and asked for m plea. I said I would wait until my lawyer returned, and he looked at me belligerently. Just then, the lawyer came back with the needed information, much to my relief.

story | by Dr. Radut