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Advice to nonregistrants singled out for prosecution

by Edward Hasbrouck (1984)

Peace. Freedom. Survival.

[Since 1988, nobody has been prosecuted for refusal to register with the Selective Service System, and the policy of the Department of Justice has been not to investigate or take any action on reports of refusal to register for the draft. However, if Congress decides to try to expand draft registration to women, and if enough draft-age women publicly refuse to sign up, the government may decide to respond — as it did in the 1980s — by prosecuting some of the “most vocal” nonregistrants in the hope that this will intimidate the masses of quietly closeted nonregistrants and “restore the credibility of the system”. Any new prosecutions of nonregistrants after decades of nonenforcement of the Military Selective Service Act will inevitably be high-profile “show trials”, legal test cases, and media and peace movement circuses. The article below was written in 1984 to share my experiences with whomever might be in the next wave of prosecutions of nonregistrants. At the time, that next wave of indictments that seemed imminent. But the first wave of prosecutions had proved so counterproductive for the government, encouraging rather than deterring the resistance, that decades would pass without another attempt at enforcement. These experiences might, unfortunately, be relevant once again to those contemplating actions such as telling the government that you didn’t register or making public “I won’t go” or “We won’t go” statements that might place you at risk of being singled out for prosecution for refusing to register. Some things may have changed, but others may not have. I have resisted any temptation to revise this article for republication here, lest I disrespect or misrepresent the views of the (younger) person I was by substituting the views of the (older) person I am now.]

To my friends who may be prosecuted for refusal to register for the draft, and to their friends:

You have your own reasons not to have registered. I won’t try to impose mine, and it’s only to let you know my perspective that I tell you they are anarchist, pacifist, nonviolent, and revolutionary. Your reasons are strong, or you would have registered long before you got close (as I assume you now have) to prosecution. This is good; you will need the clarity and strength to act entirely on your own if necessary. (It probably won’t be necessary: like most of those prosecuted I had a great deal of support from a great variety of people and groups. But I am glad that I formed my resolve to resist before I was involved in any significant way to organize movement or support group, and that I never depended on one. I would have made the same decision to resist even if I knew of no one else who was doing so or thought it was right.) Without clarity, you will be vulnerable to confusion and manipulation. Without strength, you will be vulnerable to isolation by the powers-that-be and exploitation by those on whom you depend. Without both, you are unlikely to fare well in prison.

You should not, on the other hand, let your own clarity blind you to the diversity of anti-registration (I can’t even say “anti-draft”, since some who oppose draft registration support the draft, and vice versa) points of view. Especially if you have not been involved in organizational politics, you may be surprised that the epidemic viciousness of movement infighting. (Smaller and more isolated communities are more likely to recognize the necessity of cooperation. The large left communities of places like Boston and Madison, which are produced the two worst draft-prosecution faction fights, or more likely to indulge in internal squabbling.) Other than to keep sight of your priorities I’m not sure what to recommend. Coalition-building is a precious skill much rarer than skillet sectarianism. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone sent through all the factionalism I’ve seen just for the educational experience!

Perhaps the most common mistake in coalition politics is to assume that all those who want to do work in connection with an event (e.g., your prosecution) define the issues of the event in the same way. “We’re all part of the Movement,” it is tempting to say, “so the only issue is how best to advance our common goals.” But “the Movement” may be - no, is - a movement against US imperialism 21, a movement for nuclear disarmament to another, a movement for use liberation to a third. “We” are lawyers and anarchists, socialists and libertarians, revolutionaries and reformers, Communists and individualists, Leninists and feminists, spiritualists and materialists. Your case is an opportunity to advance the causes of paganism and of the world proletariat. This diversity is reflected in different assumptions about goals and process that are often more problematical than tactical disputes.

Whatever the organizational form (coalition, church, defense committee, support collective), whatever the conditions of participation (acceptance of least-common-denominator “principles of unity”, membership in a community of faith, willingness to delegate all decisions to legal professionals, commitment to collective decision-making), whatever the decision-making process (voting, prayer, fiat, consensus), the choice of form, conditions, and process is a political choice that defines a political outlook. (Even this statement is hotly contested by detract wars of feminism.) it is a choice to be made carefully, with the full awareness of its implications. The nature of the organization, especially the range of issues open for consideration within it and the procedure to be used to make decisions should be explicit from the start. (You should also have a clear understanding with those who offer you their “support” as to just what they are offering, on what conditions, and what, if any, quid pro quo they expect in return.)

You may think that this is all irrelevant. You may shun organizations and politics, and may not want to respond to your prosecution with the campaign of agitation and propaganda. You may not, unfortunately, have much choice. There have been, and are likely to be for some time, few prosecutions of draft resistance. You’re probably one of the first, if not the first, to be prosecuted in your district. Your case will probably produce rare public interest, and your willingness to risk imprisonment probably produce a rare public respect and willingness to listen. Your present a rare opportunity for lawyers to try out their pet arguments against draft registration, for organizers to build mass protests against the draft, for propagandists to spread their ideologies, for splinter parties to recruit new members, and for movement “leaders” to advance their careers. If you choose to ignore all such activities (a course which I don’t recommend) many of them—for which you will be held responsible—will happen anyway.

You may be told that your case is an opportunity for the Movement (it is) and that you “oh it to the Movement” to do or say things you don’t want (you don’t). The press, of course, will expect you to speak for the Movement, and I do think you have a responsibility to make clear that you don’t and that no one can. Only if you present yourself as a representative or claim to speak for others do in current obligation to speak or act other than on your own judgment. It is those whose actions in relation to your case (even without your knowledge or consent) will be attributed to “your backers” and affect the outcome of your case who have a responsibility to consult with you and to respect your wishes.

It is particularly important to keep this in mind in your dealings with lawyers and lawyering. You may choose to have as little to do with lawyers as with political organizers, but the consequences are likely to be similar. Some nonregistrants’ lawyers raised legal arguments over their clients’ objections or without their knowledge. The most important and difficult work my legal advisor (a close and trusted friend) did for me was to keep the court from forcing an unwanted public defender on me and to explain to other lawyers why I didn’t want to present (or have presented on my behalf) a legal defense.

While few more prosecutions for refusal to register for the draft may be (as the first few, including mine, have already been) national news stories, they are likely to remain major local stories. You are, or soon will be, NEWS. No matter how closely related to draft registration, nothing you say on any other topic may be reported at all, even if you want it to be. On the subject of the draft, however what you say will be news—anything you say. (One columnist not only printed things I said in confidence but printed the reasons I told her I would say them only in confidence.) What you do will be news. If you choose to say nothing publicly or to reporters, or do no nothing, that silence and inaction will be news. (My refusal to participate or to present a defense of my trial, though it was not understood by the reporters in attendance, was more widely reported than any defense I could have presented would have been.) If you tell the press not to bother you, that will be news. (Enten Eller reluctantly yielded to demands for interviews by holding a press conference to get all the reporters office back at once. The New York Times reported the news conference as a devious attempt to attract publicity by pretending to avoid it.) The media spotlight will be pointed elsewhere when it loses interest or is distracted. I know of little you can do to turn it aside or broaden its focus.

Dealing with the press is probably the hardest work any of your supporters can take on, and it should not be undertaken lightly. I happened, for example, to be out of town and unavailable for comment when I was indicted. A friend whose name had earlier been given as press contact at a television crew and camping his (and his housemates’) living room and refuse to leave until he told them where he had “hidden” me.

You should be prepared to lose your privacy not just to reporters but also to the public. The strangers who used to pass you every day on the street will stop you, congratulate you (hostile people tend to avoid me, though I’m sometimes aware of them whispering about me to each other as I pass by), thank you, encourage you, interrogate you, and ask your advice for themselves or their sons and brothers, friends and lovers facing draft registration. (If you aren’t a draft counselor I urge you to become one, since many nonregistrants too scared to contact counseling organizations will seek impromptu advice from you. I’m still doing draft counseling here in prison camp.) for several months I could not go out in any public place without being recognized by strangers. This often happened at inconvenient moments, such as when I was in a great hurry or in the middle of a private conversation with a companion. I was stopped on the Mall in Washington, DC (by a group of tourists from Boston) as was David Wayte (from Los Angeles) by New Yorkers in the subway, and asked, “Aren’t you the man who…?” I had an anonymous envelope of money thrown in my front door. I got so many supportive letters I couldn’t answer them all, and if you hate letters (all anonymous, so I couldn’t answer them either). My parents got so many he calls (my home phone is listed in a housemate’s name, not mine, so it was less targeted) that they had to get an unlisted number. My letter had to choose between not coming near me near the courthouse (even a crucial moments we both needed to be together) are being prominently identified a newspaper and television photographs as my lover (and being reduced in the public mind to the role of “Ed Hasbrouck’s lover”, just as I had already been reduced the role of “the draft resister”).

Being a celebrity was a mixed blessing. I’m glad I made myself available to the press. I met a lot of fascinating people, I learned a lot from them, and their feedback was an ongoing reassurance that I wasn’t alone. The only really intractable problem caused me was that of the hero worshipers, the would-be groupies, and the followers.

Don’t say, “I’m not a hero, I’m not a leader, I don’t want groupies; I won’t have to worry about that.” I’m not either. I want to empower people, and I want them to reclaim their lives from the leaders. Too many wimmin, in particular, already draw their identities from those of the men they “support”. I’m not taking on risk: inaction in the face of the nuclear threat is vastly more dangerous than work for survival. I’ve been through much more painful experiences than this imprisonment. I’ve tried to explain all this. A frightening number of people refuse to listen. They see only an image they have created, an image of the draft resisters as a martyr, as someone who has assumed such dangerous risk and pain as only a hero would take on. When they meet me they relate not to me but to what they imagine me to be: they think I have sacrificed myself for their sake. They often (1) feel guilty that they haven’t made such a sacrifice themselves and/or (2) want to reciprocate (or assuage their guilt) by sacrificing themselves for me. (Some also saw me as having the leadership they couldn’t find in themselves, and just wanted to follow me.) All this was, needless to say, quite disconcerting, and it took me some time even to figure out what was going on. The scariest part was the realization of how easily, even inadvertently, I could hurt these people, manipulate them, the boom astray, abuse their blind trust. I felt this power (as I hope you will) as a heavy responsibility. May you find the strength to refuse the power and leadership over themselves that others will try to give you.

Notwithstanding the far greater danger of nuclear omnicide, there are still, I suspect, fears and unknowns in your anticipation of court and possible imprisonment. I hope that you will find (or have already) a group of friends with whom you can share fears and emotional support for each other in relationships of love rather than of subservience. You may find, as I did, that your experiences are remote from those who aren’t in the same situation. I found it easier to talk in a men’s group and with other draft-age people, but there are some things—especially the problems of celebrity—that I’ve only been able to explore freely with others of those invited them of those living closely enough with us to share our experiences. Don’t try to draw all your emotional support from a lover: if you have one, your prosecution is likely to be as painful for him or her as for you, and you are likely both to need support in your fears and uncertainties.

The best cure for fear and uncertainty is knowledge, firsthand if possible. Go to the trials of civil disobedients and political activists. (since the federal and state courts, like the federal and state penal institutions, are very different, you might also want to spend some time in a federal court.) Talk to people who’ve presented their own cases in court. Whether or not you have a lawyer, you’ll feel much more empowered to take whatever part in your trial you choose if you understand the legal goings-on and are familiar enough with the court from atmosphere not to be intimidated by it. Visit prisoners and talk to people like yourself who done time. People respond very differently to trial and imprisonment; talk to people who cooperated with them and with those who haven’t. (Keeping in mind the differences between most jails and prisons and the least secure federal prison camps where, if at all, you will likely be assigned to do your time.)

The threat of imprisonment is most effective as the threat of a mythical and nameless unknowing. The limbo of waiting (in my case, from July 1980 2 November 1983) to find out if I would be imprisoned for my refusal to register was distinctly worse than my time here in a Federal Prison Camp has been. (This assessment is shared by most draft resisters I know who’ve been imprisoned.) The more you can make imprisonment real in your mind, the less threatening it will be. You will still be in limbo, but you will be better able to go on with the rest of your life if it is not dominated by fear and uncertainty.

I haven’t space here to go into my own experiences of imprisonment. (I have put some of them in writing and another long article in Resistance News, be glad to talk with you about them and answer any questions I can. Be forewarned that any letters to or from prisoners will be read by their captors, which can make it more difficult to get some of your questions answered by current prisoners.) One especially pervasive myth I do want to mention is that pacifists have more to fear from other prisoners than from guards. ‘Tain’t so. Neither here nor in any jail (I’ve been arrested a dozen other times for nonviolent political action) have I encountered any significant hostility from other prisoners to either my crimes or my politics.

In making public my refusal to register for the draft, I tried to encourage other nonregistrants, to give visible substance to a largely closeted resistance movement, and to promote the tactic of nonregistration within the larger anti-draft movement. It is easy to forget the only after it proved its effectiveness was nonregistration accepted by many in the anti-draft movement. Some had fears or philosophical objections about its illegality or felt unqualified to advocate a decision they were not themselves in a position to make. The more active hostility was based on the belief that illegal resistance would alienate older voters and people of power on whom we would have to rely to stop the draft for us. Such contempt for the ability of potential draftees to free ourselves parallels the contempt for the lives of the young which the draft epitomizes. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a similar situation, was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate… Who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” While four years of failed registration have produced a growing consensus on the validity of nonregistration is a mass movement of the oppressed (most non-registrants are poor people and people of color) even the most minor manifestations of use separatism still produce cries of outrage. Older resisters emphasize that we must learn from the history of the movement for peace in Vietnam. But one of his greatest contributions to our political consciousness — the recognition of the oppression of youth — has been largely forgotten. It was a recognition produced by the draft, but ageism remains one of the most serious and least confronted internal problems of the draft resistance, anti-draft, and peace movements.

This is not a forum for debate. Nor is it a youth separatist publication: I know that many of those older people within the Movement who have most depressed me will read this. I have been hurt badly by them, I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to confront them directly with my criticisms of their ageism, and I fear they would hurt me more were I to recount those hurts and those criticisms here. I understand why many wimmin (including draft resisters) feel it is time to leave it to men to overcome our own sexism (including that sexism of the anti-draft movement that is one of its worst legacies from the Vietnam era). I hope older readers of this article will understand why I feel it is time for older draft resisters — particularly those who already acknowledge the ageism of the draft as one reason to oppose it — to begin to work on their own ageism and its manifestations within the movement (perhaps the worst of which has been the tendency of older “leaders” to exploit the respectability and credibility their age gives them to represent themselves as spokespeople for nonregistrants and interpreters of our actions).

That I am forced to internalize my ageist oppressors, to feel their eyes on the page as I write, is both a source of anger and a symptom of the need for youth separatist space. I would like to share more of my experiences with other young people, and I encourage you to get in touch. I hope that what I have been able to say here is of some use, and I hope that I will have a chance to explore these issues with you and other comrades and allies.

I wish you well as you face the possibility of prosecution. I wish us all peace.


Edward Hasbrouck
Federal Prison Camp
Lewisburg, PA 17837

[Written February 1984 in Federal Prison Camp in Lewisburg, PA. Published in Resistance News #15, July 1984.]

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This page most recently modified 18 December 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.