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Sanctuary movement supports surge in GI resistance

Published Jan 18, 2009 2:38 PM

The current surge in GI resistance, as reported in earlier articles in Workers World, has begun to stimulate calls for a sanctuary movement. In such a movement, people massively communicate unconditional support for GIs who refuse to fight in unjust wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Sanctuary cities have been established in Ithaca, N.Y., and Berkeley, Calif.

Such a movement has also been underway in Israel. Dozens of young Israelis have refused to be part of the Israeli occupation force on the West Bank or in Gaza, scene of the latest slaughter of civilians.

Workers World spoke with John Lewis, a national field organizer of the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) in August 1969, when an earlier sanctuary struggle took place in Honolulu in protest of the war against Vietnam.

The struggle started when Louis “Buffy” Perry entered the Crossroads Church there amid a flurry of publicity on Aug. 6. “I’ve chosen to begin a lifestyle of noncooperation, on any level, with the military establishment,” Perry told reporters. “I urge all my brothers and sisters to do the same.”

Began with a mass protest

The local anti-war movement, known as the Hawai’i Resistance, held an anti-war march and rally of 350 people on Aug. 10 to commemorate Nagasaki Day. GI participants and their civilian supporters demanded “a bill of rights” for military personnel. By the end of that day, six GIs went AWOL and sought sanctuary inside the Church of the Crossroads, joining Perry.

During the next week, Black Marines rebelled at the nearby Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station and a delegation from the sanctuary church demonstrated support for them. Marines and soldiers from other bases and from the tens of thousands visiting Hawaii on rest and recreation break from Vietnam began to join those in the sanctuary. Some who didn’t join the sanctuary brought food and other material aid.

The Hawaii People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice quickly formed to support the soldiers. Two “sanctuaries” for AWOL soldiers were established: the Church of the Crossroads and the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. During the next four weeks, Honolulu became a hotbed of GI resistance, with over 100,000 military personnel on the island of Oahu at Pearl Harbor, Wickham Air Force Base, Scofield Barracks and Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, plus GIs on leave from Vietnam. According to legal records from a case brought three years later, at least 24 soldiers refused to cooperate in a war they didn’t agree with and took refuge in the churches.

“You have to picture the grounds of the Crossroads teeming with people,” said Cindy Lance, who stayed at Crossroads Church during the sanctuary struggle. “In the evening there would be maybe a couple hundred support people bringing food and other supplies or just coming to stay for the evening, singing and talking with the GIs.”

About dawn on Friday, Sept. 12, military police stormed the two churches and seized some 12 AWOL GIs. Others escaped. The Unitarian Church caretaker remembered waking up with an MP’s gun to his head. The raids occurred simultaneously and were over quickly. The soldiers would face court-martial.

“It was a dramatic end to a dramatic demonstration,” Unitarian pastor Gene Bridges said of the raid. He explained that the sanctuary idea derives from medieval Christian practice, when a person fleeing authorities could find safe haven inside a church.

Liberated Barracks

Cindy Lance continued to work with Liberated Barracks, an organization spawned by the sanctuary movement that continued to reach out to GIs after the sanctuary raids. “I think the military simply wanted the sanctuary movement to die,” Lance said. “They probably thought we would be demoralized after the bust and just fade away. On the contrary, we continued to visit the guys in the brigs and attend their trials.”

Many GIs defied the MPs’ efforts to arrest them. The cops only caught John Lewis after a dramatic chase across Honolulu by a convoy of vehicles—documented by a BBC-TV news team in Honolulu to cover the sanctuary movement. Lewis ended up in the Fort Dix stockade in New Jersey.

Other GIs who had participated in the sanctuary decided to leave the country and go to Canada. The life-and-death gravity of the situation changed not only the lives of the GIs, but also the thinking of some anti-war activists. Community members began secretly housing AWOL GIs in their homes.

An earlier sanctuary movement was integral to the anti-slavery abolitionist struggle of the 19th century, known as “the Underground Railroad.” Thousands of runaway slaves found freedom and a new life through the heroic support provided to them by churches and individuals who sheltered and guided them, often at extremely high risk to themselves. This legacy is important to the current struggle. Then, as now, those who provided sanctuary were consciously doing everything they could to win immediate freedom for the victims of a criminal government and its institutions arrayed against them.

Today, it is unknown how many GIs are living a semi-underground AWOL existence, although thousands are AWOL. During the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands were AWOL, and non-white GIs especially were sheltered by their families and other community members.

Today, to the extent it exists, this embryonic form of sanctuary has been largely clandestine. It may be possible to make it public if it can be made clear to those who remain in hiding that there is widespread public support for them in their communities and in society at large.

Some worry about the difficulty of providing sanctuary. In a 2003 article, Cindy Lance commented: “Wasn’t it difficult for Germans to help Jews escape, or for whites to smuggle slaves to freedom? It’s not a question of degree of difficulty, it’s a question of doing what’s right.”