As with Vietnam in the 1960s, COVID-19 is Exposing Racial Fault Lines in the U.S.

tags: Vietnam War, Draft, Protest

Emily L. Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir "Failure to Appear: Resistance, Loss, and Identity," which was released March 1, 2020 for Women’s History Month. She has been interviewed on CNN Evening News, NPR’s All Things Considered, and numerous other media outlets.  www.emilyqfreeman.com.

As in any country as unequal as the United States, the calamities of war and pandemics are not shared equally. For those who are poor or born black or brown, death is more likely both at home or on some distant battlefield. The latter was true in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, when there was a compulsory military draft, just as it is true today with the invisible war against the coronavirus.

One May night in 1969, eighteen activists including myself broke into the office of the draft boards on Chicago's largely black South Side, dragged around 40,000 paper records of draft-eligible men out to the parking lot, and set them ablaze. The press arrived, then the police. We were swiftly hauled off to jail.

The first such form of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and the draft occurred a year earlier in Catonsville, Maryland, led by Father Phil Berrigan and his brother, Dan. They burned hundreds of files with a kind of home-made napalm. At a secret meeting, Phil proposed a much larger action than Catonsville, linking war and racism by targeting the central repository of twenty different draft boards in Chicago which contained the records of hundreds of thousands of young men, mostly from the sprawling, South Side black ghetto.

At the time, I was twenty-three. Why did I risk my liberty, and my future? Why did we select the South Side of Chicago in particular to make our statement of conscience?

I remember staring at a flyer publicizing an upcoming anti-war protest. It showed a photo of a naked Vietnamese child running down a dirt track in panic. Her village had been set on fire by napalm, dropped by American aircraft. Her facial contortions made her terrible screams feel almost audible. Our government was responsible for so much suffering and death. Rallies and marches weren't effective, I felt — small tokens of dissent without much risk. This action, of burning draft cards, was real, visible, and well-aligned with my non-violent ideals.

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