Library - Reading Room

Supporting Materials for Sir! No Sir!

A Model Demonstration

Sunday November 16, the day after the New Mobe giant rally, about 50 servicemen, wearing peace movement insignia which clearly labeled them as active-duty GIs, held an antiwar demonstration first on the steps of the National Archives, then around the Court of Military Appeals. Although wearing civvies, the servicemen wore white paper caps lettered "GIs for Peace" and carried antiwar signs.

At issue was the right of servicemen to assemble peaceably to demonstrate against the Vietnam war without being arrested by Washington D.C. police. The certainty of surveillance by government agents, the likelihood of military reprisals when the servicemen return to duty -these worries were put aside in the attempt to prove that young men in the Armed Forces, in civvies and off duty, could declare openly their opposition to the war without provoking, by their anitimilitarism, police brutality.

The problem was to avoid violence which would lead to arrest and still be militant. Saturday night, November 15, restless and excited from the New Mobe march, the servicemen met in their churchhoused GI Movement Center and argued passionately over how to conduct their demonstration Sunday afternoon. How ought they come out with their hatred of the Vietnam war? There was wild talk of "doing your thing," wild talk of smearing government buildings with red paint and breaking windows. Cool heads, painfully schooled in the inevitability of police brutality and stockade horrors, said No to violence: "Do this and you'll go to Leavenworth." The cool heads, some black, some white, argued "Make the Man think; fool the Man what you're going to do." The cool heads argued persuasively that violence and militancy are not synonyms; that political action carefully restricted into a legal framework is far better than martyrdom; that orderly marching, radical signs and slogans, not vandalism, are demonstration techniques that work. A call to New Mobe promised the GIs legal protection. "Nice Jewish lawyers from New York" would be their survival kit, and unanimously the GIs agreed to demonstrate peaceably.

A second issue came out of the first: freedom of the press, the right of the American public to know, and to know in detail, that GIs are declaring their opposition to the war in full view of the government. In the Movement Center the GIs perused Saturday night's Washington newspapers, and they noticed that the papers gave almost no reports, among their coverage of New Mobe marchers, of GIs marching as GIs. Incredible! Thousands along Pennsylvania Avenue had watched the GI contingent march by with their militant banners demanding freedom for the Fort Dix 38; the twisted letters, in the style of a Japanese blockprint, were unforgettable: "Our brothers will not be slaves!" So eyecatching was one sign that hundreds of cameras had photographed it, including cumbersome TV gear. Held waist-high, the sign stretched from curb to curb across the Avenue, with big letters: ACTIVE-DUTY GI'S AGAINST THE WAR. Behind this sign marched around 200 GIs in civvies, with their distinctive white caps, sloganeering at the top of their voices. Antiwar GIs, loud and clear. And in the papers not one photo of this controversial contingent with their controversial signs. The papers printed only a few obscure lines which hinted that GIs, too, were among the marchers.

Why had sensation-hungry editors crossed out antiwar GIs as no news?

The GIs decided to confront the newspapers with the apparent news blackout of Saturday and demand that Sunday the media cameras be at the National Archives. One group made phone calls to the Washington Post making the city desk accede to their demand: 'Sunday you be there, man!" A second group, in a midnight auto tour of TV stations, demanded that the mediamen maximize the GI antiwar message. The rest of the GIs made signs to carry in Sunday's demonstration.

In the sunshine of Sunday afternoon they gathered at the National Archives, the civvie-clad GIs with their white peace caps, the mediamen with their costly gear, and the first of the uniformed police. The demonstration began with a brisk march round and round the Archives. Raggle-taggle peaceniks joined the GIs. With expert staging, the GI parade marshals marched the orderly file up and down the Archive steps, then in artful diagonals across the steps, so that the ensemble made the number of marchers seem more. From the lofty walls and columns of the Archives, the passionate antiwar chants echoed forth like trumpets: "Free the Fort Dix 38! Power to the people! Off the brass! The grass grows high while GIs die!" Tape recorders wound on and cameras snapped away.

Still orderly and still watched by police, the demonstrators marched away from the Archives and took a quick threeblock jaunt to the Court of Military Appeals. Discipline got a little ragged, for en route the ranks ignored stoplights and streamed across the sidestreets, luckily unnoticed by the police. The GI demonstrators with their peacenik followers regrouped and in a military column marched round and round the Court. Now the omens turned fearsome. The rumble of police motorcycles surrounding the Court, the incessant click-click of government cameras minute by minute became more numerous. The marchers chanted on, paused, and got police permission to assemble on the lawn.

In a scene reminiscent of the Presidio stockade, complete with a circle of seated listeners chanting and giving the V-sign, listening to the petitioner reading off the demands, the GIs in front of the Court of Military Appeals held their rally against the Vietnam war. The demands were militant: "Freedom for all political prisoners in military and civilian prisons. Freedom for these political prisoners, not forgiveness for crimes committed. Freedom for GIs to express their political opinions and act on those opinions. End the war now! Not next year, not next week, not tomorrow, now!" They ended with: "We came peaceably." And so they did; not a wall was scratched, not a shrub disturbed. And on the part of the police, not a move with a club, not a whiff of gas. A noisy assembly, but peaceful.

After the speeches, the antiwar GIs posed for a group portrait on the lawn, holding their signs, with the Court behind them. They talked quietly and walked off, most back to the Archives. The demonstration at the court was over. The police drove away. Nothing to suppress.

Monday's newspapers had short accounts of the GI antiwar demonstration but no photos. The Washington Post called the demonstration "almost unnoticed." But a city-ful of Post readers now knew that active-duty servicemen opposing the Vietnam war had marched in plain view of the authorities.

A peaceful assembly with an ominous chant: "While GIs die!

GI Press Service, vol. 1, no. 12

 

© 2005 Displaced Films. All Rights Reserved