By Dee Knight
Jan 18, 2009
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
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.
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
vehiclesdocumented 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."