October 2, 2010

An Enemy of the State?

by Polly Mann, co-founder, Women Against Military Madness (WAMM)

The first time I realized that the government might so consider me was 1968 at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.  It was a lovely not-too-warm summer day, and I was sitting in the bleachers in a  amphitheater with two Roman Catholic priests I had walked into Grant Park  with.  As I recall – that was, after all, some 42 years ago – among the speakers at the rally were peace activist Dave Dellinger and authors Norman Mailer and Jean Genet.  Someone had brought a pig upon the stage, comparing it to the Chicago police.  Near the stage was a flag pole I had not noticed until my eyes were drawn to a short, skinny somewhat disheveled  man in a white undershirt who was holding a rope attached to a solid red flag he was attaching to the pole.

Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a bevy of  Chicago police appeared, hitting people with their billy clubs as they charged through the crowd.  People were running down the bleachers, hopping from level to level as the police began to indiscriminately hit people trying to leave the area.  The priest next to me nudged me and silently pointed to a building about ten stories high.  On the roof were several soldiers with their rifles trained on the crowd. I was astonished!  What was this? Up to that time, I had never ever had a gun turned on me. As the priests began scrambling down the bouncing wooden bleachers, I followed them down and managed to arrive unscathed at my hotel.

There were many many other occurrences at that convention that were unsettling.  However, the most disturbing was the realization that my actions, driven by a desire for a peaceful world and in protest against U.S. policies that I deemed criminally wrong, made me an enemy of the nation.  It was another step in that educational journey from high school civics classes, where I somehow got the idea that the United States was the most perfect country in the history of the world, concerned not only about justice and equality for its own citizens but for all the inhabitants of the world.  Oh yes, I knew the indigenous people had been treated unfairly and the slavery. (After all, I grew in the south of magnolia trees and mint juleps and sheer unadulterated racism.). But these were only unimportant blips in the historical landscape. On that journey I learned how false much of my learning had been.  I had to discard it for newly perceived truths, which have carried me to the present. As of this moment, I see a country which, to me, resembles nothing so much as the Roman Empire in its last days.

Since the Chicago convention, that realization remains strong within me that some government officials would consider that the nonviolent actions I take in protest against what I perceive to be criminal government policy makes me an enemy of that empire.

One such occasion when I was pitted against the military was during a strike of workers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, as they sought better working conditions and pay.  Several people from the Twin Cities joined the Hormel workers on their picket line.  The Governor of Minnesota, DFL Rudy Perpich, called out the Minnesota National Guard, and somewhere in my files is a picture of several friends and me carrying signs of support for the strikers in front of the guard unit, composed of oh-so-very vulnerable looking young men. It was the middle of winter and the temperature was hitting the bottom of the thermometer. In heavy boots, wearing several layers of clothes, with thick woolen head scarves covering all but our eyes, we resembled nothing so much as Siberians of old crossing the steppes.

It’s interesting – this business of being an enemy of the state – to observe the variety of people who could so likewise be labeled:  for example, quite a few nuns, especially, those who have done jail time.  Some have “walked across the line” at Fort Benning, Georgia, the location of an infamous U.S. military facility where the police and military from Latin America are trained in the use of the very latest military equipment, techniques and  strategies, including the use of torture.  A protest is held there each fall, attended by thousands of people, including students from major universities and colleges, religious leaders, academics and just plain folks.  The protest is held at the site of what is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation but was previously known as the School of the Americans. Graduates were notorious for their violations of human rights, such as massacres and torture in their native lands.

At the protest demonstrators are informed they cannot walk onto the site of the Institute and those who do are arrested and released with a warning not to repeat their action.  Those who do return to repeat the trespass are charged and usually given time in a federal penitentiary, and their numbers continue to grow. There are many other religious figures who have chosen to challenge policies of the state and have spent time in jail.  Probably the most well-known are the Catholic priests known mostly as the Berrigan brothers.

In the late 60s, I challenged the government’s construction of missile silos.  It seems so patently simple that if you behave fairly and justly to others, they will respond to you in like manner.  A country is, after all, composed of people with the same instincts, weaknesses and strengths as our own.   A missile silo is hardly indicative of good feelings towards other nations. One such silo was being built in North Dakota when I was working at a state college in southern Minnesota.  I drove a group of students to the silo, and we demonstrated with hundreds of others on the muddy site.  Later we went to a small café for breakfast, and the servers refused to wait on us.

This summary has convinced me that I am an enemy of this state.  I don’t like the state in which I live.  The state I’d like to be a member of would limit all congressional seats and the presidency to one term with no pension; provide campaign funding for the presidential and legislative races; set penalties for any individual or agency interfering in the internal affairs of other countries; make certain that its policies having to do with other countries do not conflict with what is  best for that country; forbid the manufacture of nuclear weapons, drones, bacteriological or chemical weapons, forbid the use of state national guard troops overseas; institute a 100 percent tax on all annual incomes of over $500,000; initiate a health care system available all from cradle to grave; eliminate tuition in state-owned colleges and universities; pay reparations to the descendants of the indigenous people of the United States and the descendants of slaves; and reduce the military budget by 50 percent. And that’s just for starters. If the F.B.I. or other security agencies would like to contact me, I’m in the Minneapolis telephone book.