"We were dreamers and schemers and planners and plotters, trying to build a different way to get through life."
Thom Clark is the president of the Community Media Workshop, an organization that trains non-profits to be media-savvy and attract attention for their work, and encourages journalists to pay attention to people and issues that would otherwise be ignored.
Clark began his narrative in high school, when he was growing up in the upper middle class suburbs of Chicago and commuting downtown every day to attend school with classmates from many different racial and economic backgrounds. He was involved with a group called Young Christian Students, through which he received training in Civil Rights-era protest; many of his friends didn't finish high school in four years because they were making frequent trips to Selma and Montgomery. Every summer, the group organized a youth conference, hosted by St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana. In 1968, they decided to use the time to hold a recreation of a political convention (in a similar vein as a model United Nations or mock trial), and it developed into an empowering experience none of them predicted. The agenda was "turned on its head" and their were some interesting spontaneous developments, including the formation of black and women's caucuses.
At the tail end of the conference, the Soviets invaded Prague. Many students in the group had felt optimistic in the days leading up to the invasion that the perspective of the USSR was improving, and in the wake of Dr. King's assassination, they felt shellshocked. Adding to the tension was the flurry of speculation that was already mounting about what might happen at the Democratic National Convention. When the conference ended, Clark and his parents went up to their summer home in Michigan. He wanted to drive back to protest, but his parents forbade him and they ended up sitting together in front of the TV, stunned.
Clark felt strong parallels between what had happened in Prague and what happened shortly thereafter, and witnessing two such overreaching acts of state intervention (so shortly after having an empowering political experience in the form of the conference) radicalized him. Whereas in high school he had used Catholic doctrine to justify the Vietnam War, after he began college in fall 1968 he was organizing anti-war fasts and other protests. Over a very short period, he was dramatically mobilized by a few key events. These political struggles felt very close to home for him; he felt the grossly inflated power of the state and its misdeeds abroad were thematically aligned with the Daley administration and its misdeeds at home (even before the DNC), particularly against black residents of Chicago.
In 1970, the Kent State shootings occurred. Clark's school, Loyola University, was quite different from Kent (being Catholic, and a commuter school), but its students and faculty, like many across the country, saw themselves in solidarity with the students at Kent State, and Clark and others held demonstrations and shut down the school. Clark feels that this was the final step in the personal-poltical fruition that had begun the summer of 1968.
The following spring, after visiting friends in Canada who had fled to avoid the draft, Clark and three of his friends decided to take a definitive action. They entered a draft board office in Evanston and destroyed 500 class 1-A draft cards by pouring blood on them. (Ironically, the blood was obtained through the stockyards using legally-obtained agricultural permits.) It was important to them that the action was "not a drive-by action, but a stand-by action." They saw the methods of the The Weathermen as terrorism, and as being counter to the goal of "providing a different path" for the poor and disenfranchised. If anything, they feared that violent action would actually turn more Americans to the side of government. In November of 1971, the four went to trial for their actions. "We saw standing up and taking your punishment," explained Clark. "You're breaking the law, you're breaking it for a reason, for a higher law of moral purpose, and you subject yourself to the power of the state in order to undermine it." Three of them, including Clark, defended themselves in the courtroom, and they were cleared of three charges despite openly admitting what they had done. The fourth charge, of conspiracy, was dropped in appeal, on First Amendment grounds.
In the years since, Clark has had some "vigorous debates" with Bill Ayers about their respective methods of protest. Even at the time, Clark and his friends had many friends who felt civil disobedience was "archaic" and that being willing to go to prison was "idiocy." However, Clark feels proud of what he did and confident that his methods were the right ones-- although he also feels that the more extreme actions of The Weathermen made space for his own actions to be more acceptable to the American public.
- A play, The Four of Us, was written about Clark and his friends, using the trial transcripts. You can hear a little bit about the play, and hear a some excerpts of it, in this Chicago Public Radio piece. I also have a copy of the play, if you're interested.
- Our local Fox affiliate ran a short piece on the anniversary of the draft board incident, which you can see here.
*Also check out these Chicago Tribune articles that were written about Thom, et al. at the time of the incident and the trial.