Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War

Bruce Dancis
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Bruce Dancis arrived at Cornell University in 1965 as a youth who was no stranger to political action. He grew up in a radical household and took part in the 1963 March on Washington as a fifteen-year-old. He became the first student at Cornell to defy the draft by tearing up his draft card and soon became a leader of the draft resistance movement. He also turned down a student deferment and refused induction into the armed services. He was the principal organizer of the first mass draft card burning during the Vietnam War, an activist in the Resistance (a nationwide organization against the draft), and a cofounder and president of the Cornell chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Dancis spent nineteen months in federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, for his actions against the draft.

    In Resister, Dancis not only gives readers an insider's account of the antiwar and student protest movements of the sixties but also provides a rare look at the prison experiences of Vietnam-era draft resisters. Intertwining memory, reflection, and history, Dancis offers an engaging firsthand account of some of the era's most iconic events, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Abbie Hoffman-led "hippie invasion" of the New York Stock Exchange, the antiwar confrontation at the Pentagon in 1967, and the dangerous controversy that erupted at Cornell in 1969 involving African American students, their SDS allies, and the administration and faculty. Along the way, Dancis also explores the relationship between the topical folk and rock music of the era and the political and cultural rebels who sought to change American society.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7041-7
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VIII)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    On December 14, 1966, at the age of eighteen, I stood before a crowd of three hundred people at Cornell University, read a statement denouncing the war in Vietnam and the draft, and tore my draft card into four pieces. I then walked over to a nearby mailbox and sent my statement and the four pieces of my card to my draft board in the Bronx, New York, informing the Selective Service System I would not fight in Vietnam and would no longer cooperate with the draft in any shape or form. I expected to be arrested on the spot....


    • Chapter One Boy from the Bronx
      (pp. 11-24)

      “Hay man, where you from?”

      It was about midnight during my first night in the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, an hour after lights out. An inmate I didn’t know was talking to me over the short wall separating our beds.

      “I’m from the Bronx, in New York City,” I replied. But the other inmate wasn’t really interested in my background or my birthplace.

      “Hey, let’s go to the shitter and fool around,” he said while stretching his arm over the wall to touch my head. I may have been the new guy in prison, but it wasn’t hard to...

    • Chapter Two Socialism in Two Summer Communities
      (pp. 25-34)

      While my grandfather’s buddy was way off the mark in describing Parkchester as the fulfillment of his “socialist” dream, I actually spent more than two months of every year while I was growing up living in a summer community organized by real socialists.

      The Three Arrows Cooperative Society was founded in 1936 by members of the Socialist Party and YPSL. Their goal was to create a summer community based on cooperative principles. The founders sold enough shares to raise $22,500 to purchase 125 acres in Putnam Valley, New York, a rural area in Putnam County only a few miles north...


    • Chapter Three First Year at Cornell: Runs, Pledges, and Sit-Ins
      (pp. 37-53)

      I may have held rapidly emerging radical views and sported longer-than-mainstream Beatlesque hair when I arrived at Cornell University in September 1965, but during my first year I engaged in the usual collegiate pursuits. I went out for and made a sports team (the freshman cross-country team), joined the Folk Music Club, bemoaned the three-to-one male-female ratio among undergraduates, rushed a fraternity, ate hero sandwiches at midnight, and struggled to wake up for 8 and 9 a.m. classes.

      Cornell in September 1965 stood on the cusp of change, but wasn’t quite there yet. An Ivy League university with thirteen thousand...

    • Chapter Four Tenant Organizing in East Harlem
      (pp. 54-65)

      The changes in the civil rights movement during 1965 and ’66 were unsettling for a person like me who wanted to make a greater personal commitment to the movement. By the mid-1960s, the effort to build a racially integrated society had run into major obstacles. Despite a decade of nonviolent bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, mass demonstrations, voter registration drives, and legal and political victories, the unyielding racism of many whites—in both the North and the South—ensured that every positive step to end segregation would be met with hostility, obstruction, and even violence. The persistence of poverty continued...

    • Chapter Five From Protest to Resistance
      (pp. 66-85)

      When I arrived back in Ithaca in September 1966, to begin my sophomore year at Cornell, I was approached by my SDS friend Tom Bell about joining him in organizing a draft resistance union in Ithaca. Over the summer, Tom had decided to drop out of graduate school and become a full-time organizer for SDS in upstate New York (the Niagara region). He had also taken part in a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, of about fifty people, mostly from SDS, concerning what to do next about the draft. Those assembled debated two strategies—a “big bang” proposal for a...

    • Chapter Six Draft Cards Are for Burning
      (pp. 86-104)

      I was still, surprisingly, a free man in early February 1967. The federal government didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to arrest me for tearing up my draft card, although two FBI agents had come to my apartment to talk to me. I told them, on the advice of my attorney, that I had nothing to say to the FBI.

      At my parents’ behest and the recommendation of Harrop Freeman, a professor at the Cornell Law School and an antiwar Quaker, I had contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union (the New York state affiliate of the ACLU)...

    • Chapter Seven The Summer of Love and Disobedience
      (pp. 105-124)

      The summer of 1967 has been remembered as the “Summer of Love,” a season of urban bucolic bliss, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, celebrating sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The African American residents of Newark, Detroit, and other cities experienced a different kind of summer, one of riots, rebellion, and military occupation. But for me, the summer of 1967 was a short, intense period of antiwar and antidraft organizing, getting sucker punched by a pro-war counterdemonstrator, civil disobedience, and invading the New York Stock Exchange.

      Bob Greenblatt was attempting to develop a new strategy for the antiwar...

    • Chapter Eight The Resistance
      (pp. 125-144)

      In September 1967 Judge Port decided to go ahead with my trial for tearing up my draft card. Since the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to rule on the legality of the law forbidding draft card burning and other such acts of paper destruction, we had not expected to be in court so soon. Faith and I had not even discussed our trial strategy or what witnesses we might call.

      On the mid-September day I was scheduled to appear in court, supporters from Ithaca, Rochester, and Syracuse gathered outside the federal court building in Syracuse to show their solidarity. Along...

    • Chapter Nine SDS, South Africa, and the Security Index
      (pp. 145-169)

      What was left unstated, because everyone in the FBI already knew it, was that individuals placed on the Security Index were targeted for arrest and indefinite detention in the case of a “national emergency.”

      The FBI’s Security Index dated back to World War II, when it began as a list of possible enemy agents. It was revived during the McCarthy era to target Communists and Trotskyists. But the growth of the antiwar movement and the New Left, as well as the rise of black nationalism and urban rebellions during the summer of 1967, led the FBI to create new ways...

    • Chapter Ten From Resistance to Revolution
      (pp. 170-192)

      By 1968, like others in the New Left, I began to think of myself as a revolutionary. To be a young radical in the America of 1968 meant living in a personal state of rebellion over the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, and a stultifying, avaricious culture. However, despite the serious fissures and disruptions taking place in American society, this country was not on the verge of a social revolution—no matter the pipe dreams and rhetorical excess coming from our side or the paranoid fantasies of J. Edgar Hoover.

      The revolutionary posturing that many of us indulged in...

    • Chapter Eleven Trials and Tribulations
      (pp. 193-218)

      Even before the beginning of my trial for tearing up my draft card, I knew I didn’t stand a chance. I had the best possible legal counsel in my corner—lead attorney Faith Seidenberg of Syracuse, joined by Alan Levine and Burt Neuborne of the New York Civil Liberties Union—all working for free. But the evidence that I had mutilated my draft card was undeniable. Since I had mailed the four pieces of my card to my draft board in the Bronx, I assumed those pieces would be presented as evidence. So would the letter I sent to my...

    • Chapter Twelve Rebellion and Factionalism in Black and White
      (pp. 219-244)

      The period from January to May 1969 was unparalleled in the history of Cornell University and in the lives of those of us who were involved in the protests that shook the campus community. Issues were coming to a head that had roiled the campus for the better part of a year—over Cornell’s responsibility for Ithaca’s housing shortage, over the university’s complicity with the apartheid regime of South Africa, and over the presence of ROTC on campus.

      But the programs, demands, and actions of Cornell SDS turned out to be far less significant than the dispute involving the Cornell...

    • Chapter Thirteen Brinksmanship, or Cornell on the Brink
      (pp. 245-274)

      I had never seen the Cornell campus as tense as it was when I returned to Ithaca in the early afternoon of Sunday, April 20. About one hundred Afro-American Society members were occupying the Straight. SDS had organized a picket line outside the building to support and defend the black students inside. Campus cops, Cornell administrators, and curious students, faculty, and staff members were milling around, nervously watching and waiting to see what would happen next.

      When I arrived at the Straight, my friends in SDS quickly filled me in on what had happened while I was away. On Thursday...


    • Chapter Fourteen Safety and Survival in My New Kentucky Home
      (pp. 277-291)

      I was not raped in prison. I didn’t get into any fights. I suffered no physical abuse at the hands of fellow inmates or prison guards. But I had to disguise my fear during my stay in county jail and for the first few months of my time in federal prison. Although it would not be accurate to describe this fear as terror, I experienced a form of largely unabated tension. I was wound up tight, while trying to look cool, unafraid, and impervious to the danger around me. I learned to always be aware of my surroundings and avoided...

    • Chapter Fifteen A Typical Day in Prison, and a Few That Weren’t
      (pp. 292-302)

      In prison, once you settled in and got your bearings, there was not much difference between one day and another.

      Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted, Oscar-winning screenwriter who spent around ten months in 1950–51 in Ashland for contempt of Congress, captured this feeling in a letter to his wife: “Things are so dry at the FCI [Federal Correctional Institution] that I’m ashamed to put pen to paper. There is absolutely no news. Today it rained. Yesterday it didn’t. My cold persists. I rest. I work. I eat. Time passes more rapidly than it even should. I am not even too...

    • Chapter Sixteen Politics in Prison, or Keeping Up with the Outside World
      (pp. 303-317)

      During my nineteen months in prison, I missed the Stonewall Riots in New York; the Manson cult’s murder spree in Los Angeles; the Woodstock and Altamont rock festivals; the death of Ho Chi Minh; the demise of SDS nationally and the splintering of the Cornell chapter; the Chicago Eight and Seattle Seven conspiracy trials; the Weatherman-sponsored Days of Rage; the nationwide protests sponsored by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and an even bigger protest in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the New Mobilization Committee; the introduction of the draft lottery; the breakup of the Beatles; the U.S. invasion of Cambodia; the Ohio...

    • Chapter Seventeen Getting Out
      (pp. 318-322)

      I first went up for parole during my fifth month of imprisonment in Ashland. I didn’t expect to get paroled—none of the other draft resisters were paroled on their first attempt—and the proceedings seemed perfunctory. My parole was quickly denied, and the next parole hearing was scheduled for a year away, in October 1970. The FBI took note of this, as a memorandum from the Louisville, Kentucky, bureau of the FBI to Director J. Edgar Hoover stated that I would not be eligible for parole until October 1970 and that my address “will also be verified on an...


    • Chapter Eighteen Did We End the War? Did Draft Resistance Matter?
      (pp. 325-335)

      It comes back to Vietnam.

      In 1980, erstwhile Cornell SDS leader Chip Marshall was interviewed byTimemagazine. The story was a snide piece about a former radical’s exodus from the Left. Chip had become a businessman, and the story quoted him saying “America is in good shape.” Most startling to those of us who knew Chip back in the ’60s was his answer to a question about the Vietnamese “boat people” who were then fleeing Vietnam. He felt “terrible” about it, Chip told theTimereporter, giving a humane, nonpolitical response to a question about human suffering.

      But then...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 336-338)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 339-358)
  10. Index
    (pp. 359-372)