Air Raid Drill Protests

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Air Raid Drill Protests

In June 1955 twenty-eight participants in a protest against a nationwide civil defense alert were arrested for refusing to take shelter in City Hall Park, N. Y. This demonstration, organized by a coalition of New York pacifist groups including the Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League, Peacemakers and the FOR, was the beginning of a direct action phase of the anti-war movement. The rejuvenated peace movement, coupled with the civil rights movement which began in 1956 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, fostered the radical movement as we know it today.

The 1955 civil disobedience action against the compulsory air raid drills was led by Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy and other Catholic Workers, Ralph DiGia of the WRL, A.J. Muste and others. Their protest got front-page newspaper publicity since the Civil Defense test, which also involved Canada and Mexico, was a major story. Demonstrations also took place in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston, and some whole cities, like Peoria, Illinois, considered the entire affair ridiculous and refused to cooperate at all with the drills. Others arrested in the New York action included Kent Larrabee, Eileen Fantino, Jim Peck, Jackson MacLow, Bayard Rustin, Henry Maiden, and a shoe shine man innocently drinking at a water fountain at the time. In their statement, the demonstrators said:

The kind of public and highly publicized drills held on June 15 are essentially a part of war preparation. They accustom people to the idea of war, to acceptance of war as probably inevitable and as somehow right if waged in ‘defense' and 'retaliation'. . . . They create the illusion that the nation can devote its major and at the same time shield people from catastrophic effects. Whatever anyone's intentions may be, this is perpetrating deceit… We should instead remove the causes of war, devoting our material, intellectual and spiritual resources to combatting (sic) poverty and disease throughout the world…

The protestors were herded into a police wagon and taken to jail where they were arraigned before Magistrate Louis Kaplan. There, in a speech which night have come out of George Orwell, he called the pacifists "murderers" who "by their conduct and behavior contributed to the utter destruction of these three million theoretically killed in our City." fie then set bail at $1500 each, an exorbitant sum as the crime with which they were charged was only a misdemeanor. A defense committee was formed years before the Supreme Court refused to hear it. As A.J. Muste pointed out:

Alert Ignored, Pacifists NabbedThe fact that Eisenhower used his speech to the nation at the conclusion of his three-day sojourn in a 'hide-out' to urge everybody to pressure Congress to adopt the Administration's Reserve Forces Bill, which is Universal Military Training only slightly disguised, gives strong support to the pacifist contention that the major aspect of the demonstration was its contribution to war preparation.

The protests continued and civil disobedience against the civil defense drills became an annual affair. Usually no more than 35 people ever took part in the civil disobedience or served jail sentences longer than five days. In 1960, however, a new spirit was afloat, and the effects of pacifist disarmament agitation began to be more visible. David McReynolds and Bradford Lyttle joined the Civil Defense Protest Committee and helped to organize a more public demonstration that year, offering varied levels of participation to those who wished to protest the drills. People could demonstrate their objection to the drills but leave when the sirens sounded, leave only when ordered to do so, or refuse to leave at all and thus risk arrest. The May 3 protest drew a thousand participants, half of them refusing to take shelter when the air raid alert sounded. The police arrested 26 people randomly picked from the crowd of demonstrators.

The next year, the Civil Defense Protest Committee organized public meetings, picketing and discussions at civil defense offices, building up to city-wide demonstrations on the day of the alert, “to make it finally clear to the authorities that the people overwhelmingly demand an end to this ‘cruel deception.’” This time, nearly all of the 2000 people who took part in the City Hall Park demonstration refused to take shelter when ordered. Fifty-two people were arrested, including four leaders of the protest, Ralph DiGia, Robert Gilmore, David McReynolds, and Mrs. Tjader Harris. Following the arrests, 1000 people completely ringed the Criminal Courts Building and picketed until 6 p.m. The demonstrations generated enormous press and television publicity, and marked the last time that New Yorkers were ever required to take shelter during a defense drill.

Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, reprinted with permission, from The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States.  Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
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