(Copyright 1999 Al Aronowitz)


[The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Portraits from Memory: New Orleans in the '60s by Darlene Fife, to be published in the fall of 1999 by Surregional Press, 1539 Crete Street, New Orleans, LA 70119.]

I was the draft counselor for the New Orleans MDS (Movement for a Democratic Society).  Our group at first called itself the New Orleans CEWV (Committee to End the War in Vietnam) but coming to the belief that the war was not an error but a symptom of American political life, we changed our name.  In another chapter I've mentioned some of what we did in the early days and here I'll only write about the anti-draft work.  Beginning in late 1966 we regularly demonstrated at the Custom House Induction Center (where young men took their pre-induction physicals) at the lower end of Canal Street.  We walked up and down in front of the Custom House with signs:

"Hell No We Won't Go"

"War is Good Business, Invest Your Son,"

"13th Amendment, No Involuntary Servitude,"

"On Strike International Brotherhood of Draftees."

"Choice Not Chance---We Won't Go.'

At first we tried to expand beyond our MDS group and get as many people as possible to come to the Custom House,  I recall Robert  asking (or more accurately, demanding) Ben Smith, an ACLU attorney to come and demonstrate,  Ben argued that the was too old to march up and down and that his work for the ACLU was demonstration enough.  Robert would have none of such an attitude and he must have been persuasive because Ben did show up and, looking slightly uncomfortable, walked up and down with the rest of us.

A large number of people (30 was about the most we ever had) at the Customhouse every morning at around 6:30 was impossible to maintain and the demonstrations after the first few times did little more than restate our position.  And so I began to study the draft laws, which were available from the government printing office.  I kept a little black binder with the over 100 pages of draft regulations.  We set up a schedule of two of us a day at the Custom House.  The young men would be standing around outside waiting for the doors to open and we gave each of them a one page leaflet.

The leaflets' head said "Know Your Alternatives" and when officials began taking the leaflets away from draftees as they walked in the door, we added a header saying "you have the right to keep this."

We passed out the leaflets far enough away from the steps so that the person would have a chance to at least read a little of it and we were happy to note most of them put it in their pockets rather than into the waiting hands at the door.

I don't recall how many days a week I went to the Custom House, two maybe.  Passing out the leaflets took less than an hour and then I walked about five blocks into the Quarter, where my ride to work lived.  I was accompanied by one of the government agents who were at the Custom House watching and taking our pictures each morning.  I recall one morning in particular because the agent accompanying me had passed out cigars (in honor of the birth of his child) to the other agents and then three of them had posed, smiling on the steps of the Custom House with their cigars for me to take a photo.

Two of the agents in the photo were from the New Orleans Intelligence Squad and the one who passed out the cigars and accompanied me was, I think, from the FBI.  As we walked in the Quarter, he made an attempt at friendly conversation.

"Just what do you do at Chrysler?"  And "you work in optics, don't you?"

I didn't respond.  My fellow worker was waiting for me at his car, which happened to be parked near St.  Louis Cathedral.  As I came up to him, two plainclothesmen with cameras came out from behind the pillars of the Cathedral steps and started clicking.  My fellow worker was amazed, scared and angry. He jumped in the car and as we drove off he rattled off a series of angry, frightened statements and questions.

"What have I done?  Will I lose my job?   isn't this a free country?  What's happening with this country?"

I was cynically amused. What did he expect?  So, he thought this was a free country?  Looking back, I am surprised at my own attitude.  For some reason all this government attention was not unexpected; I think I was even flattered.  Yes, I thought it a violation of civil liberties but I expected the government to violate civil liberties.  So did everyone else I knew.  ##



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