The first time I was hauled into a police station for thoughtcrime was in 1968. I was 16 years old.
I volunteered for the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign that year. In an unlikely turn of events for the suburban New Jersey town where I lived, a McCarthy campaign office had opened in a former pet shop (“former” being just the week before). I happened across it on the way home from school and dropped in.
I was becoming convinced that the war in Vietnam was wrong. But I couldn’t express why I felt that way. I was the only one in my family, including the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, who felt this way. I certainly never heard any anti-war sentiments or arguments at home. Nor at school, where “controversial” (ie political) ideas were taboo. So I didn’t have a framework for arguing why the war was wrong. I simply felt it was. Once while watching the evening news, I asked my father, “Why are we in Vietnam?” His answer, “because they’re communists”, never satisfied. It certainly wasn’t an explanation.
The McCarthy campaign office in Westmont became my school. The other volunteers in the office, all of them older than me, well understood the realities of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the fatal flaws in the “dominoes” theory of containment, imperialism, etc. The greatest educator, though, was the man who had owned the pet shop and who had turned it into a campaign office: John Tisa.
Tisa was a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and a well-known union organizer in the post-war era. He won union recognition for workers at the huge Campbell’s Soup plant in nearby Camden and went on to be elected national president of Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers Union of America (FTA). He opened the pet shop in his retirement. I learned a lot from him, mostly through his telling stories of his own organizing experiences. (Some bio info on John can be found here and here.)
On the day of the thoughtcrime bust, a Sunday, the county Democratic party was due to hold a rally and fundraiser in the evening. Several of us volunteers from the McCarthy office were sent out in a rented sound truck to publicize the event. In a white panel truck with large speakers attached to roof, we drove around the suburbs playing recordings of McCarthy speeches interspersed with live announcements about the evening rally. (Think of the Blues Brothers announcing their charity concert in the film.)
As we approached the town of Collingswood (next door to Westmont), we noticed a police car parked just over the city limit. As soon as we crossed into Collingswood territory, the police car’s flashers came on and we were pulled over.
Now, I have a theory as to why this happened in Collingswood and not the other towns we had visited. There’s no proof, but I think my theory is correct.
Collingswood was home to a very well-known, well-connected and powerful fundamentalist preacher named Rev. Carl McIntire. McIntire was radically conservative in an area that was pretty conservative to begin with. He had a national radio program (heard on some 600 stations). He was staunchly anti-communist and just as adamantly pro-Vietnam war. In the early 1970s he organized a half dozen pro-Vietnam War “Victory Marches” in Washington, D.C.
And Carl McIntire dominated Collingswood politics. To this day I remain convinced that the police were waiting for us on McIntire’s orders.
The three or four of us who were in the sound truck were taken down to the police station, where we sat on a wooden bench for what I recall as being several hours. During that time, an officer seated at a desk just across from us leafed through the Collingswood municipal code, one page at a time, licking his finger with each turn, looking for something to charge us with. Finally, he found what he needed. Our crime?
“Causing to be made an unduly loud noise on the Sabbath.”
We were thereupon released–causing unduly loud noises being an infraction, not a felony. But our sound truck publicity efforts had been taken out of circulation for most of the day. That, of course, was the point.
From the tender age of 16, I would go on to a lifelong career of thoughtcrime.