Peace and War in the Heartland - Dave Gutknecht


Burn, Baby, Burn! (those draft cards)

Imagine this: One day you're all alone sitting in your office reading and writing. Then all of a sudden, you receive a phone call. Some deep voice on the phone tells you that your office is going to be bombed sometime in the near future. Scared for your life, you leave the office and go home. Later that night you receive a phone call from a friend that your office has been bombed and everything was ruined. Luckily, nobody was hurt or killed.

This actually happened to David Gutknecht in 1967. David Gutknecht was living in Minneapolis, and working at the Twin Cities Draft Information Center. Like many anti-war organizations, this one was targeted by the U.S government. His office was bombed because not only was he not supporting the war in Vietnam, but he was also fighting against it. This organization was an anti-war organization that educated people on the selective service draft system, and on the truth about the Vietnam War and what was actually going on Southeast Asia. They felt that if people were going to be sent off to war and possibly die, they should, at the very least, be educated on why and how they were being sent away. This group also felt that the selective service draft system was very much in need of being amended, to make it a more fair system.

So, its employees did as much outreach education as was possible. Some of this consisted of visiting high schools to give presentations about the war in Vietnam and the selective service system. These presentations were very valuable because what they were talking about wasn't being taught in most public schools, and yet it was information that was going to be affecting the future of these high school students. David Gutknecht and the Twin Cities Draft Information Center also printed out a lot of literature and fliers to spread the word about the war and draft.

One of the things that the organization became famous for was holding huge demonstrations outside of draft board offices. These demonstrations were often legally sanctioned protests and they focused on education and trying to gain publicity. The Twin Cities Draft Information Center quickly became the local expert resource on the draft and would help anybody if they had questions regarding the draft or their rights in it. They became very successful in moving a lot of information very quickly, which caused them to gain strong support from a wide variety of people from different backgrounds.

So why was such an elaborate organization like the Twin Cities Draft Information Center needed? And why was it bombed in 1967?

Well, with the Vietnam War going on in Southeast Asia, soldiers were needed to fight this war. In a time of war in this country, the president puts a draft system into effect when all the volunteer soldiers have already volunteered their time. The draft system that was in effect during the Vietnam War was called the selective service system. In short, this is how it worked: When you turned 18 years old, by law you had to fill out a registration form with all your information. The result of this registration form was that you received a draft card. The draft card gave you a status, and this status presented your level of availability to be drafted into war. For example, 1-A was high priority, meaning that if a draft call came along to send people out to war, you were one of the first to go.

As you can imagine, there were many people who didn't want to leave their lives and run off to war, so they figured out ways to get around being drafted. One of the ways was called a deferment. Deferment meant that you could postpone or be excluded from the duty of war for different reasons. Some of the different reasons were being a student in college, (which was called 2-f -- student deferment), having a short-term medical problem (1-x), or having a permanent medical problem (4-f, which meant that you would never be sent off to war). One final reason was having a religion or religious beliefs that prohibited you from killing. But overall, the first ones to be sent off to war were the 1-A delinquent, since this status meant that you were a delinquent (who wasn't a student and didn't have any medical problems) who had tried to dodge or fight the draft system before and had been caught. (This later would change in a very historical landmark case Gutknecht vs. The United States, but we'll get to that shortly.)

The selective service system had offices in Washington D.C and hundreds of others throughout the country. The offices consisted of a draft board that people would go to when they were called for service. Here they would receive a final physical issued by the army and would soon after go into boot camp, in preparation for being sent off to war. In other more potent words, these were the offices in which people's destiny would be decided.

Naturally then, these places became rally spots for anti-war protesters like David Gutknecht and others from the Twin Cities Draft Information Center. These people protested not only the draft system, but also the entire war. Many of the people involved in the anti-war protest were people who didn't or couldn't receive a deferment, but whose own conscience and morals wouldn't let them go to war at whatever cost. Some people tried different ways to receive deferments, like by pretending that they were mentally disabled. This worked in some cases (probably for the better actors), but not in others. People would also find ways to fail the army physical and receive a medical deferment. Then there were the people who simply refused to go, but because this was flat out against the law, it put many people at high risk for a punishment (usually prison or community service). Sometimes, people would go into these induction offices when it was their turn to be drafted, and debate with the board members about the ethics of the war and the draft. They would also walk up and down the lines trying to educate all of the other young people preparing to be inducted into the army. Of course, some would listen and others wouldn't. Outside of these offices huge protests took place. People would burn their draft cards in public (which was also illegal), or mail the cards back to the draft board offices, and even to the Pentagon, to demonstrate their opposition to the war.

David Gutknecht remembers fighting the draft, " We were completely opposed to the entire system and the entire war. It wasn't about us trying to save our own skin, we wanted to completely stop the entire system and end the genocidal war in Southeast Asia."

It was this attitude the provoked all the protests and demonstrations. These actions congested the courts on all levels all across America. In some states, over 50% of all indictments were those relating to the draft and opposition to the war. The selective service system had many faults and administrative problems, so changes were quick to be made, but not before some court cases that greatly impacted the changes had already taken place.

Oh my Joshua Tree!

In January of 1968, David Gutknecht and several others refused induction and were arrested. It usually took months and months for indictment but in this case, David was arrested quickly for disobeying the selective service system. He went to court and was sentenced to prison for four years. He appealed and went to the circuit court, and then his case finally made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in his favor under the following guidelines: The court said that the way the selective service system was set up was unconstitutional, because it was a denial of due process. This meant that the selective service system didn't give resisters the right to appeal. Secondly, it said that the status of 1-A delinquency was also an unconstitutional status, because the selective service system was using it as a form of punishment for those who opposed the war and the draft. And that was a direct violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Because the case ruled in his favor, David's charges were dropped, but more importantly, the ruling opened the door for many other cases to be heard.

After the Gutknecht vs. the United States court decision, some 30,000 court cases were overturned and several people were even released from prison. But the struggle continued for David Gutknecht. Even though his case was pivotal in the fight against the war, it still didn't keep him from becoming exempt from being drafted. He was handed right back down to the draft board to be sent to war! He refused to go once again, and finally this time, he was put in the "conscious objective" status. This phrase meant that he didn't have to go to war, but he that he did have to do two years of community service instead. Still infuriated by the entire war and the draft system administration, he still refused to cooperate completely. At this point, he wanted nothing less than to squash the entire system! At the time he refused to cooperate, the anti-war sentiment had escalated, and he was not alone in his rage. Nixon was losing popularity, the Kent State killings had taken place on May 4th 1970, and opposition was still mounting.

David hid out from the police for a while and was finally arrested in 1972. He was sentenced to three years in jail, which got reduced to two years, and then he ended up spending one and a half years in prison. And all because he didn't want to go over seas and fight a war with which he didn't agree. His prison experience actually turned out to be a united one. He remembers, "There were so many draft resisters in prison back then, we were all there in solidarity." When he was released, he decided to go into cooperative food organizing, because this was a way he felt that he could contribute to creating a better democracy. He continues to work in the food cooperative today.

As for the draft resistance movement -- it wound up lasting for many years and accomplishing many things. There are such important lessons to be learned from this era in history. First, we don't always have to do what our government tells us to do! We have a system where every individual has rights, including the right to express one's own beliefs and feelings. The anti-war movement proved that when you stand up and fight for your rights, sacrifices will happen (you might go to prison, or even risk your life), but the greater outcome almost always outweighs the sacrifices. We must think as individuals, not always by guidelines set by society or our government. We have to dig we deep down inside of ourselves to express how we actually feel. The people of the anti-war movement did just that, and we can all learn from their actions.


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