Monday, April 03, 2006


On January 14, 1968, Martin Luther King addressed a rally at the gates of Santa Rita, an old Army camp that had become Alameda County’s prison farm. In addition to the usual inmates were 250 or so demonstrators who had blocked doorways at the downtown Oakland, CA, induction center during Christmas week. For a few hours the business of that facility, processing draftees for the horrors of Vietnam, ceased. The penalty for the non-violent civil disobediants, I among them, was 20 days at Santa Rita. For us, tumultuous 1968 began in jail.

We 150 or so male demonstrators were segregated into two contiguous barracks buildings out on the edge of the housing compound. The commies in the group wanted to be in general population so they could proselytize the real inmates. I wonder how I would have fared on the yard. For the prison administration keeping us together was the easiest way to handle this additional burden.

Dr King came to Santa Rita ostensibly to visit Joan Baez, one of the women prisoners. Joan, besides being an avid proponent of non-violence, was a major donor to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She also used some of her money to found the Institute for the Study of Non-violence. For this I salute her. She put some of her money where her mouth was.

The notion that governments must replace violent with non-violent means of settling disputes seems obvious, how that’s going to happen less so. As a political technique it has proved useful. As a matter of law, we are mostly required to live our lives without resort to violence. For most who espouse it, non-violence is a moral position. At the very least, development and promotion of non-violence can’t do too much harm. So Joan did a really good thing, I think, to use her fame in such a way.

A long time mentor to Joan Baez who also knew Dr King quite well was Ghandian scholar Ira Sandperl. Ira was housed in the other men’s dormitory so I saw him only a little. In my building was Roy Kepler who employed Ira in his bookstore and plenty of smart, interesting men--the Who’s Who of Bay Area pacifists and draft resisters along with snot nosed kids like me. The picture below is my only Ira Sandperl Google image result, taken in 1965. Closest to the camera is Ira, then John Lennnon, then Joan Baez, then someone whose identity seems to be in dispute.

Advocates of violence were vying for leadership of the civil rights movement, and many anti-war activists thought of themselves as violent revolutionaries. The non-violent sit-in at the induction center was day one of Stop the Draft Week. The remaining days were for those who wanted to battle the police. So turning out for non-violence directed a message at the world at large, but also at the non-non-violent demonstrators. King was planning a major campaign in DC that summer and he definitely wanted to keep it non-violent.

In his speech, Dr King praised us imprisoned demonstrators. Then, as he was doing those days, he slowly explained why his commitment to justice and non-violence compelled him to oppose our war on Vietnam. Seems logical enough today. He was killed less than three months later. Many think Dr King was assassinated because of his anti-war stance. Some say all five were Vietnam related—two Kennedy’s, King, X, and Wallace. Certainly all were Hoover jobs.

For me the most extraordinary visit we received during our stretch was in the wee hours of Christmas morning. I was awakened in total darkness by a commotion, mostly loud whispers and laughter, things like “How’d you get in?” and, “There’s a special pack of Marlboro’s.” And they were gone.

Some friends of some of my fellow demonstrators had broken into Santa Rita and into our barracks and delivered a bag of goodies: cookies and candy bars, but best of all cigarettes, two cartons. Those days most people smoked, me included, and our group, because of our segregation, were denied tobacco, and had to make do with two or three puffs, two or three times a day of rollyourown that somehow got to us. Marlboros, two cartons! Actually, 19 packs. The 20th pack held what looked like Marlboro’s but were carefully filled with marijuana. Merry Christmas!

All during this time, the US Air Force and Navy were bombing the shit out of Vietnam.

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