June 4, 2011

Day Drill

In 1955, a woman named Dorothy Day and a handful of friends were living with poor people in a house in Manhattan and feeding homeless people on the street, everything run on donations. They were radicals. Feeding the poor was only part of their fun.

In the spring, they read in the newspaper that the city was going to conduct a massive civil defense drill. When New Yorkers heard the air raid sirens, they were supposed to take shelter underground or underneath a school desk in a classroom.

This drill was supposed to help the New York City population survive a nuclear war. Well, Day and her pacifist friend Ammon Hennacy doubted it and called a few other friends. They all met in the park in front of City Hall on the day of the drill.

Newspaper reporters, photographers and a television camera gathered along with police. As the sirens blew, the police told the folks sitting on a couple of park benches to take shelter. They declined, were arrested and loaded into the paddy wagons waiting a block away.

They went to jail, women and men. The judge called them “murderers.”

After Day and the others refused to pay the bail, another judge sent them home after 24 hours in jail. The next year, the city repeated the drill and the protestors repeated their crime of not moving from park benches. The judge ordered them to pay a fine or serve five days in jail. David Caplan, who worked as a physicist, attempted to explain to the judge how such civil defense drills were a fraud because human beings would have to be far under ground, much deeper than a subway tunnel. Some paid the fine, others went to jail. Day wouldn’t pay any fines because the poor couldn’t pay fines.

The next year everybody was jailed again when they refused to take cover. More press than ever turned out to watch the silly pacifists loaded into the paddy wagons.  In 1958, Day and seven others were arrested for a fourth time. This time, the judge suspended the sentences. In 1959, while the sirens wailed, the police ignored a mother and her two children picnicking in the grass and hauled away fourteen people, including Day, before the cameras.

Day credited her friend’s picnic with her two little ones for inspiring hundreds of young mothers to eat sack lunches in the park the following year, 1960.

Those mothers with the infants and young students made for hundreds of people in the park. The park was so packed, Day wrote, it would have been hard to clear out without pushing people out of the way, so the majority stayed. The police ignored Day and arrested 25 others.

The next year, two thousand people stood outside City Hall refusing to take shelter. All across New York people were openly ignoring the screaming sirens. The newspapers finally agreed with the silly protesters that the civil defense drills didn’t make much sense except to scare people. That was the last year of the civil defense drills.

A letter to the editor in the New York Times supporting the protesters said, "There is no possible defense against an atomic attack other than peace."

Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which the community I am living in is a part of.



Sources used: Jim Forest's Love is the Measure; Jerry Elmer's Felon for Peace; Day’s writings; The Catholic Worker newspaper, July-August, 1956, June 1960, July-August 1955

This is Part 11 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless. Here's Part 12.

16 comments:

Brian Miller said...

dude...that is so cool...love the back story on the community...took guts...and all it takes is one or a few to make a big difference...

Jaco said...

What a great story. Day's single act of defiance in the beginning became the sentiment of the masses. I remember those drills. Sitting against the walls in the halls of the public school I attended. Tuesday's 2:15pm if my memory serves me well. Thanks for this bit of history Ed.

Claudia said...

wow - this i call civil courage..tells me again that individuals can make a difference

Mark Dixon said...

that is so cool. she refused to just accept things the way they were. actions like refusing to participate in the civil defense drill were creative ways of expressing her dissatisfaction. setting up a free oatmeal stand on skid row is a form of creative dissatisfaction, it's refusing to accept hunger as a given.

Alexandra said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I hope you are well. Missed you in the Blogathon this year.

Su-sieee! Mac said...

These are the kind of stories we need to hear and read about. Day and her friends had an amazingly positive outlook on life. Thank goodness for such thinking people. I remember the silly civil drills in school. Seriously crouched beneath a desk with hands clasped behind our necks were really going to save us. Talk about instilling false confidence.

The Empress said...

I wonder how shocked people were to hear, "there is no safety from an atomic attack.


Maybe the drills gave some hope?
I mean, why would they do them if they knew there was no way to be safe?

Just. hope.

The Empress said...

You know, the statement "there is no safe place.." gave me instant goosebumps.

lucychili said...

what strange games we play in the name of governance and safety

Barb said...

Really inspiring story. That took so much guts, what Day did. Thanks for sharing and giving us some courage to stand up for our beliefs.

She Writes said...

I am always inspired by people who go against the grain to fight oppression. America, sadly, holds down her poor in more way than we like to admit.

Wine and Words said...

How wonderfully this ties in with your recent posts. It always starts with One...One who will not compromise, backdown, or give in. One with belief enough for all of us. Perhaps someday...I will be One.

Cye said...

What a courageous woman! I would have just followed meekly to keep myself out of trouble. Love to hear this story of courage and of people who think!

Phoenix said...

This is awesome. And to your earlier commenter that replied that the drills offered hope to people: No, the drills were not meant to give people hope. They were meant to instill fear in the people, and fear usually works until some very silly people stand up to the government and say, "No. I will not be afraid, I will not buy your fear, you cannot sell me your fear."

Love it. Wish we had someone like Day in our modern age to stand up to the same fear that the government is still trying to sell us today.

Ocean Girl said...

Hello Ed, does this mean I won't be hearing anymore of your love letters or your life views on your blog?

I tried to download Dragonfly but could not. I have Glitch.

slouchy said...

The judge called them MURDERERS?

What the hey?

Sometimes I don't get people at all.