PATRIOTISM MEANS RESISTANCE: A True Story
By Cheryl Seal
PART I: The Making of a Patriot Resistor
(Fank's own words in bold italics)
My name is Frank Kroncke. I'm an outlaw. Getting to be an outlaw was easy, legally that is. All I did was join in with seven other young men in a series of raids on Minnesota's rural draft Boards. That I became a draft-raiding outlaw with a background steeped in the exacting Obediences and Authorities of Irish-German Roman Catholicism is not so easy to explain."
The year was 1969. The war in Vietnam -- still officially a "police action" -- had escalated to the point where any warm body under age 24 without family influence or an ironclad deferment was being scooped up by the draft and dropped into the jungle. The death count had climbed to hundreds some weeks. The steady stream of body bags and broken men being shipped back from the front had become "routine," as had the nightly news coverage of the conflict -- read by deadpan commentators with the toneless dispassion of a history lesson. LBJ had left office, a defeated man. Nixon had swept into the White House, a man with an agenda disturbingly similar to G. W. Bush's, surrounded by many of the very same people, merely less gray.
The race riots had already ripped across the nation. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been buried. The same, three student at South Carolina State College at Orangeburg had been gunned down by police for trying to integrate a bowling alley. A few years alter, more students would be gunned to death by police at Kent State and Jackson State. In 1969, young men dreaded turning 18, for it could mean their number (as in the draft lottery) could then come up at any time. That year, activist priest Father Daniel Berrigan his group, the Catonsville Nine, were found guilty of burning hundreds of those same draft numbers in a courageous effort to spare just a few of those same young men a life too short or a nightmare-wracked life too long. Just a few years before, as the war was getting under way, "Time Magazine" had asked the famous question "Is God Dead?" By 1969, the question still hung in the air.
It was onto this "stage" that a young theologian and former monk at the University of Minnesota's Newman Center, named Frank Kroncke, a strapping 6-foot-3 all-American basketball player, raised with an unquestioning belief in church and state faced a crisis of faith. By 1970, Frank Kroncke, the former Friar Otto, O.F.M., Conv. would find himself at the center of one of the most highly-publicized trials of the entire War, one in which Richard Nixon himself would become involved: The trial of the Minnesota Eight.
Frank did not question if God was dead. Frank's crisis was not a matter of faith in God, it was a matter of faith in his chosen course of action. Was it enough to simply not participate in a war he believed was immoral? As a former monk and a lay minister with a master's in theology, he had easily been granted conscientious objector status when his name came up for consideration by the selective service. In an unintended masterpiece of irony, his selective service officer had assigned him to alternative service at the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Ã?????Ã????Ã???Ã??Ã?Â¢?? a ground zero of anti-war activism. Father Harry Bury, under whom Frank worked, was already a legend as a charismatic spiritual leader and as a leader of the anti-war movement.
Frank found himself counseling hundreds of young men-- some seeking to evade the draft, others seeking spiritual absolution for their actions as soldiers in the war zone. At first, though intellectually opposed to the idea of the national Vietnam "military adventure," Frank knew nothing of war. But that all changed the day a young soldier named "Joe" showed up at the Newman center. Joe was the epitome of the 1950s, Norman Rockwellesque "All American boy," with a shock of sandy hair, freckles, and a boyish grin --the quintessential wide-eyed farm boy. He's been so determined to serve his country, to fight the commies he had been raised to believe threatened US freedom, he had lied about his age and fudged his way into the army at 16. He had weathered boot camp and some of the worst Vietnam had to offer -- the endless, often pointless, sometimes bloody jungle "patrols," the "securing" of villages (a euphemism that usually meant burning and/or killing everything that constituted the village), the countless nights of sleeping with one eye open.
In the middle of a raid on a "ville," Joe had experienced a traumatic epiphany. It was, he said, as if he had suddenly been waked up where he stood. What he saw before him was no longer a hut but a home. The screaming, terrified child, those dying parents, were no longer gooks, they were a family -- a family just like his. Something inside Joe collapsed. He came back to the states, got married, and tried to put the war behind him. But, as hundreds of thousands of vets will tell you, you can take the soldier out of the war zone, but it isn't easy to take the war zone out of the soldier. Joe found himself being waked up from nightmares by a screaming wife -- around whose throat he would find his hands.
Through Joe's haunted eyes, Frank looked for the first time into the abyss that was war. Vietnam, he clearly saw, was not only wrong -- it was evil of the worst order:
"After all, this is not just another war... it is not just a brushfire war, or a police action, nor is it World War III ...what it is, is a total war --a Global war... the First Cosmic War ...a war in which our Government seeks to destroy every living person and thing in the whole of Vietnam. In short for me, I realized that Vietnam is the first spiritual War. What is at battle there is the question of whether human life ...and indeed any form of life... is worth anything. Yes, wars are always brutal and by-standers sometimes get killed ...but in this war it is no accident that civilians are killed and that everything: every idea, person, place, custom and institution is the Enemy ...it is defined that way in the Army Field Manual. Yes, evil is something human. But by the same token it is something which possesses. Humans are the vehicles, the viruses of evil ..."
Frank asked himself: Was what he was doing within the confines of the church enough? It was not the first time he'd asked himself that question. In 1963, as Friar Otto, a Franciscan monk with a promising future in the church, Frank's path was one of unquestioning obedience. Born in Bayonne New Jersey to an Irish-Catholic mother and a German father so conservative that he thought FDR was a "demon," Frank was the fourth of nine children. As the third son in a profoundly traditional family, he had been "earmarked" since childhood to become a priest. He had dutifully followed the prescribed path - choir boy, postulate, good boy from a poor, tough neighborhood where being good wasn't always so easy.
When he was in junior high school, the family moved to Minnesota. Instead of high school, Frank attended a seminary as a prelude to his vocation as a priest. Upon graduating, he entered the novitiate, a place where life revolved around the Holy Office -- a life of constant ritual, into which he threw himself completely.
"I was inside myself, I was inside the bowels of the church...I did everything I was supposed to do."
The turning point for Friar Otto came when he was in Indiana visiting the Franciscan monastery that would likely become his permanent home. As he stood outside the gates looking in, he saw his future: a life sequestered from real action, his housing, laundry, food - even safety - insured.
After a stormy confrontation with his family, he departed from his religious path and went to the University of Minnesota with the plan of becoming a doctor. But his spiritual mission, he soon felt, had not been fulfilled, not even yet begun. As a compromise with himself, he enrolled in a theology program at the University of San Francisco with the goal of becoming a lay theologian, a vocation then recognized by the Catholic Church. He earned a master's degree and returned to Minnesota, where his path, in 1969, led him to the Newman Center and, once more, to a crossroads.
The experience with Joe had filled him with doubt and questions as to his role as a spiritual advisor. Though he greatly admired Father Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine, his deeply engrained conservatism made him view their bold activism as extreme. Berrigan and eight other Catholics and nuns had raided a draft board in Catonsville, Md, right outside Baltimore and burned hundreds of draft cards after symbolically spattering them with blood. The group was tried, convicted and sent to prison in 1969. In effect, they had knowingly sacrificed their freedom for the lives of others. Back then, before modern computerized systems, a draft card -- the physical card itself -- represented a man's life. As the Minnesota Eight's defense attorney Kenneth Tilsen was to assert at their 1970 trial: "The character of the (Draft) records are no more 'irrelevant' to this matter than the character of the records would be if these were records perhaps of Jews being selected out for burning in the ovens of Dachau."
Yes, Frank counseled young men in ways to escape the horror of war, but it was still a passive form of resistance and, he feared, through its coexistence with injustice, was condoning evil. He sought to become more outspoken on the war. He personally attended the trial of the Milwaukee 14 who burned files in public on Sept 14, 1968 .
Then the final push came. A year or so earlier, during a stint on the faculty of Rosary College in Chicago, Frank met a charismatic young black activist named Fred Hampton. Fred was a leader in the Chicago Black Panthers. The Panthers were vilified by white conservatives as "violent," "subversive," and "dangerous," though the evidence to support these claims, as it was later revealed, was largely disseminated by rightwing propagandists or planted by law enforcement officers working with political operatives.
Frank was impressed by Hampton:
"He may have had his faults, but he was one of the most inspiring speakers, and charismatic presences I have ever encountered. He was passionately committed to the cause of civil rights."
The two men struck up an unlikely friendship -- the intellectual, conservative white "friar" and the fiery, tough black revolutionary.
"Hampton was one of the most constructive urban black activists to have lived. Far from the thuggish image the Nixon-Hoover regime wanted to project, Hampton represented the poor and working class black community. He started several programs, like the Free Breakfast for School Children program that fed over 3,000 children in Chicago every week, a sickle cell anemia testing program, and a free medical clinic. And all this by the time he was 21 years old."
Frank was stunned, when on the morning of December 4, 1969, he opened the paper to discover that Hampton had been machine gunned to death in his bed in a cowardly pre-dawn raid by the FBI and Chicago Police that also killed Peoria Panther Leader, Mark Clark, and wounded several others, including Hampton's wife, 8 months pregnant. Years later, a civil suit found the FBI guilty of wrongful death.
Beneath the headline was a photo of the agents carrying Hampton's body out of an apartment building on a stretcher; there were smug smirks on some of the faces. Later, Frank was to discover that Hampton, like the California Panthers, had been betrayed. The same betrayers had drugged him with seconol before he went to bed to insure he would never wake up, never stand a chance.
The tragedy devastated Frank. It was not just the loss of a dynamic leader and a respected activist-friend, it was the complete travesty of justice that the event represented. Until that year, Frank said that he had never really questioned the basic goodness of America's institutions. They could be misguided, yes, and sometimes run off track. But to engage actively, knowingly, and systematically in evil -- such a possibility had never entered his consciousness. The Hampton assassination, coming on the heels of his encounter with Joe drove the ugly truth home: evil can infiltrate anywhere. The only antidote was action.
"It hit me full force then: If you want to be a spiritual advisor, you cannot hide behind the walls of a church or college."
Frank's conversion from conservative pacifist to radical resistor -- outlaw, as he drily calls himself -- was made complete a few weeks after Hampton's death. The final blow came when, as Frank bitterly put it:
"Nixon bombed Cambodia for Christmas."
"The thrust of my educational mission was soon radically altered by the revelation of the secret war in Laos. It is difficult, today, to appreciate how shattering this secret event was. Today, government lying is widely assumed. However, the day I realized that the government was deliberately lying, that truth telling was against policy, my identity was transformed. Previously, I had been a reformer. Even my support of draft board raids was part of an effort to say, "Enough!" -- and to call the government to its senses. Now, I was confronted with an impossible dilemma: if the government was lying, how could I speak to it? I considered leaving the country. I visited Toronto, but was convinced that my challenge was to speak to my People. But how? I pondered what the FBI saw as they peered at Fred Hampton. How had he made himself visible to them? I realized that I would have to redefine myself as an agent of the symbolic. Yet how could I or anyone consciously appropriate symbolic material? As I lost my story -- the version of American history which had grounded me in a shared public morality -- I grew mad. The thought of being imprisoned or murdered obsessed me. My antiwar activities became the discipline of my spiritual search. I no longer thought of the future -- of a career, marriage, or getting old. In this state, peering revealed the symbols. I found a way to speak symbolically: return one draft card, burn the next, refuse induction. I did it in union with others. The government heard us. Destroying a single draft card was desecration: a ritual of alien spirituality; idolatrous allegiance to a strange god. I had been an outsider; I now became an outlaw. I began to peer at everyone and everything and could not believe what I was seeing. I watched Walter Cronkite on the evening news and saw his cue cards: "Lie! Lie!" I scoured the morning newspaper; the photos exposed the verbiage as lies. I listened with paranoid attention to governmental sermons and, slowly, the Nixon Lie unfolded. Watergate had not yet taken place, but its future servants were already about their mission of converting America."
Frank sought out other activists who would be as committed as himself to making a difference in the battle against the war. These would-be activists gathered in a series of retreats to discuss the war, their goals, and possible plans of action. In the beginning, several dozen people attended. The media then, as now, sought to portray anti-war activists as freaky, drugged-out misfits. But, said Frank, in reality, the core activists were like himself - angry, sometimes even very conservative Americans.
This core group -- the Minnesota Eight -- was composed of a group of young men whom, Frank laughs, looked more like guys from an All-American college football team than a band of revolutionaries. Molly Ivins, then a young reporter in Minnesota, who ran the first story on the group after their arrest, had much the same impression. Frank recalls her description clearly:
"The Minnesota Eight were young men, sons of the Establishment, with impeccable, middle-class, white, Judaeo-Christian backgrounds. Young men whose minds and hearts are torn apart by the Vietnam War. Young people who had been active on the University campus, in church gatherings, in draft counseling centers, as conscientious objectors, as writers --in protest against the War which we judge immoral and insane."
The group came from diverse backgrounds, but agreed on one thing: They would raid draft boards. Why? First, as mentioned above, the cards represented lives. Once your card was burned, said Frank, your chances of being drafted were all but nil -- "Unless you were dumb enough to go to the selective service board and say, 'Here I am, guys! Haven't heard from you in a while!'" Second, it was a bloodless form of action -- no bombs or threats or physical danger to anyone was involved.
"In a further effort to communicate our moral values to the Draft servants we geared our actions so that no one would get hurt. After all we could have firebombed the Boards, or shot the State Director, or ran in during the day time, gag the Clerk and ripped off the files. Rather, we wanted to speak non-violently. Therefore, we selected out just the 1-A files. Snuck in at night. Had letters prepared to explain the meaning of our actions. And planned everything so as to minimize fear and destruction.
The group called itself the "Minnesota Conspiracy to Save Lives," in honor of Father Berrigan's group, "The East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives." But, though they modeled themselves after Berrigan, the Minnesota Eight were far more daring. They were to become anonymous legends of the anti-war movement for their part in the "Beaver 55" raid - the largest draft raid in American history. This raid, which took place just a month after Hampton's murder, in January 1970, took out 45 centralized rural boards housed in the US Postal Service towers in downtown St. Paul. It was also the office of the State Director, Colonel Knight. The first and only State Director's office ever raided. The scale of the raid prompted J. Edgar Hoover to order 100 agents to Minnesota and the Willmar VFW and American Legion to put a $10,000 reward on the heads of the uncaught raiders. The PO towers were supposed to be impregnable, with 24-hour security -- yet the group of more than a dozen men and women made it in and out without ever being caught, as snow began to fall. . Hundreds upon hundreds of blank draft cards and official Selective Service stamps, including the signature of Colonel Knight were seized and destroyed. Some were spray painted, some were ripped, some dumped in the Mississippi River. But even better than that, said Frank -- he stumbled upon roughly 1,200 draft "stamps" --official stamps that, once affixed to a draft card, proclaimed that the card holder had completed his service and was thus free forever from the draft. The seizure of the stamps, which were promptly shipped to Canada, made it possible for hundreds of American refugees to return to the U.S. legally, to all intents and purposes.
After the dramatic triumph of Beaver 55, many activists might have called it quits at that point, but not the Minnesota Eight. They were in this "war" for the duration. Undeterred by the increased security of draft boards and the increased likelihood that they would be hunted down, the Eight pressed forward with more raids.
Yet, far from having become a "hardened" revolutionary, Frank constantly struggled within himself over the concept of "breaking the law." His inner sense of what was right was constantly being challenged by his programmed concept of the "law as right." The night of the last raid found him proving the old axiom -- "Courage is not the absence of fear -- it is the mastery of it."
The last raid took place in Minnesota on a stiflingly hot July night. In a comic touch of irony, Frank had "borrowed" his mother's airconditioned as the "getaway" car. He had something of a premonition that day that something would go wrong, but would not back away from his mission, anymore than the soldiers forced on suicide patrols in Vietnam were allowed to back away from theirs.
"My hands shook as I tried to cut diamond shape holes in the plastic bags. Sweat began to itch my legs. "Got to get a hold on yourself." Someone kept asking me -- trying to raise his voice from somewhere back in my head, not speaking to me directly but a vaporous asking --"Should you do it?" I was hot and hair sweaty. A slight trembling buckled me -- my knees get painfully weak when I get nervous. Just an hour before, Karen called saying that one of the southern Boards had cancelled themselves out. With cautious concern they reported that an alarm system had been installed by "Silent Knight." When I had heard that I felt really funny, like when winter numbs your skin and it tingles near frostbite. A numbing paranoia in a way. Some sense kept telling me not to go on the raid. Something kept urging me to cancel out - "The others would understand, wouldn't they? And just go back to San Francisco as you had planned." But I didn't cancel. Rather I went out and raided a draft board in Little Falls, Minnesota. "
Later, in the car heading for Little Falls with another one of the Eight, Mike Therriault, Frank's doubts welled up again. He was scared shitless and wanted to bail.
"Jesus, what are we doing?" I glanced at Mike. He seemed to glow as mellow as ever... We looked so young that for a glimpse I was startled. I shuddered - rippling full body lengths -- and took some heaving, nerve-relaxing breaths. I reflected to myself. Images of a million human faces -- rainbow's hued faces -- flew towards me from around the curving, hilly bends of farmed fields. Faces of untold multitudes of the dead -- "these my body's bones and bloods"--"these my spirit's breaths and nourishments" -- the peaceful grip of the Struggle wound itself tight around my chest and stomach. I knew that we'd do it no matter what -- They were calling us forth!"
Frank's misgivings were well-founded: unknown to the Eight, the FBI had begun to monitor the movements of some of them and knew about the Little Falls raid through a deal cut with an informant. Frank, Mike and the others had barely made it into the file rooms when all hell broke loose.
"Within seconds the whole scene whirled around. Heavy footsteps scampering and rushing up creaking wooden stairs. With two jerky, quiet strides I moved towards the door. But before I could do anything, the dark started chanting, "Back away from the door! Back away from the door!" A flurry of possible reactions flooded my mind - I was almost close enough to shove the door closed I had added some lighter fluid in case something like this would happen. I wanted those files!! Possible thoughts of just burning the files in their cabinets ...and with that distraction making an attempt to escape by the windows ...hit me, yet the knapsack was across the half-open door. I jumped to the protected side, glanced at Mike, saw some face flesh squat outside in the hallway, heard a kicking and pounding to the left of us shaking the waiting room door... and behold! one figure crouched dimly in the doorway yelling, "Don't move... or we'll kill you!"
Ironically, it was in those moments after capture that Frank found his true moral ethics being challenged as they never had before.
"Here, finally, among the enemy. No: not the Agents as such. "No matter what you feel - don't hate or fear them. Heal them - and so heal yourself. Hate the forces they so physically represent: death and the devil." How can I ever share with you how I felt that night? Handcuffed and captured by those other humans who protect the devil's dance? Quiet, stoned-face humans, who went about their government's work with such well-trained Dick Tracy precision."
By 2:30 AM (a Saturday morning), all 8 raiders had been rounded up, transported to the Twin Cities, processed and locked into Hennepin County jail cells. By Saturday evening, A former priest and nun, Charlie and Pauline Sullivan, had formed "The Committee to Defend the Eight" and were already being interviewed on television.
"For the next three days and nights there were large rallies held outside the courthouse building. Over 500 people protested in the streets, the Minneapolis Tribune said. On one night the Tactical Squad rioted and went crashing through the crowds, banging heads, and arresting people at random. A woman had broken a courthouse window with a flag staff. All this police frenzy brought the righteous liberals out of the woodwork. Remember this was the hot summer following Cambodia ...Kent State ...Jackson State... and nation-wide draft office raids. Minneapolis, like so many cities, was simmer to boil. When the cops came down, the people rose up! Even more people came into the streets when they heard that the eight of us had been formally arrested on the charge "Sabotage of National defense materials" and had been handed a $50,000 bail bond apiece. The charge? That we were part of a sinister, national plot (he almost said "international Roman Catholic plot") of draft raiders, ala the Fathers Dan and Phil Berrigan, who were "intending to overthrow the Government." It was Nazi weird."
The outpouring of support from the public for the dissenters intimidated the Nixon administration as much as such displays intimidate the Bush administration. The demonstrated eloquence of Frank and some of the other Eight was also perceived as a threat. As a result, a media blackout descended. With a few days, the charge was changed from sabotage to "interference with the Selective Service system by force, violence or otherwise" - in essence, a common burglary. This ploy was to serve two government purposes: first, to de-glamorize the activists with the public (it didn't work). The second, to gag the issue of Vietnam from the courtroom. The trial of the Minnesota Eight - practically a military tribunal in its secrecy and manipulated charges -- foreshadowed the coming of Bush "justice." And, the hypocrisy of the government's heavy handed overinvolvement in the trial's outcome (Nixon ordered them to be found guilty and given the stiffest sentence of all draft board raiders caught in the entire war) also foreshadowed the Bush administration. In a supreme irony, while Nixon's influence caused the charge of sabotage -- which could have become a symbolic issue - to be shifted to burglary, the Watergate burglaries, to be committed within the year, were to represent sabotage of the U.S. Government in the truest, most nonsymbolic sense of the term.
Stay Tuned Tomorrow for Part II: The Trial of the Minnesota Eight: Nixon Steps In, Justice Steps Down