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From The Boston Globe, Jan. 6, 1981.

Voices / Memoir

Acting out

A longtime activist recalls standing up — or, more specifically, sitting down — in protest of the reinstatement of the draft in 1981

Gary Sachs is a longtime area activist, a survivor of cancer, and a lover of dogs.


Forty years ago, employees of the General Services Administration dragged me down a hall by my hair and pulled the woman I was with by the underarms into an elevator from outside the cell block where our friends had been put.

The story starts back in Boston, Mass., sometime between Christmas 1980, and New Year’s the next week, when I found myself speaking at a press conference from the State House in Boston recommending that other young men not register with the military — i.e., not give the military one’s name to thus avoid feeding personally the military-industrial complex. CARD — the Coalition Against Registration and the Draft — had found me eligible as a potential public non-registrant. They originally called looking for a roommate who ended up being too old.

And so, a few days later, on Jan. 5, 1981, there I was at a protest at the McCormack Building, Milk and Devonshire streets. Post Office Square.

The post office is where boys are asked to sign up for military service. Iran held control of a number of American hostages at that time. Skip the war. Heads of state will meet over a mahogany table. Negotiations can occur.

Jimmy Carter reinstated the registration in 1980, during his last year as president. Any young man born in January 1960 or later was required to register for Selective Service.

I was born in 1960. As a kid, I remember the daily body bag counts on the news every night — on CBS, NBC, and ABC. The body bags represented the ultimate sacrifice.

* * *

From the decision of the United State Court of Appeals, First Circuit, in the case of the United States of America, appellee, v. Gary Sachs, appellant, defendant:

“On January 5, 1981, federal protective officers arrested twenty-two people during an anti-draft demonstration taking place outside the draft registry on the second floor of the John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse Building in Boston.

“Those arrested were taken to the United States Marshal’s office on the fifteenth floor for processing.

“While this was going on, the Marshal’s office requested federal protective officers to keep the area outside of the office itself clear of persons with no business there.

“Subsequently, Officers Morse, Donaher, and Hogan saw the appellant and a woman, Carla Wallace, standing in the hallway directly across from the door to the cellblock, partially obstructing the passage.

“Sachs and Wallace told the officers that they were waiting for friends. The officers said that they would have to leave unless they had official business there, at which point Sachs and Wallace sat down on the floor.

“After being told that they would be escorted from the area if they did not leave, they rose and went with the officers to the elevator. While in the elevator, they sat down again.

“The officers told them that they could not ‘sit in the elevator blocking it, they’d have to get up and leave the area.’

“When the elevator reached the first floor, the officers first attempted to carry Wallace from the elevator; rather than resist this attempt, Wallace rose and left the elevator.

“Sachs, however, refused to comply with attempts to remove him and began to struggle, swinging his arms. The officers gave him a final warning telling him that he would be arrested if he did not get up and leave.

“He would not do so. He was then arrested.”

(The appeal was denied.)

* * *

The truth is, at the bottom of the elevator the woman exited and the five GSA agents said, “You can get up and leave, or we’ll arrest you.”

I cleared out my knee-length coat from beneath me and all five of them pinned me to the back of the elevator.

“What’s this?” I said. “I was gonna leave.”

“No, you’re not,” they said. “You are under arrest.”

* * *

My trial didn’t occur until months later. I was tried earlier than any of the other 18 defendants. All of us had been charged with obstruction of federal property and refusing to follow the orders of a GSA agent (a.k.a., post office cop).

Two people spoke in my defense other than my National Lawyers Guild attorney: one, Howard Zinn, a famous historian and teacher at Boston University, and the other, Noam Chomsky, the world-reknowned MIT linguistics professor.

At the trial, the arresting officer lied, claiming I had lain on the floor of the elevator and started thrashing about, thereby causing an obstruction. That was how he changed his testimony after I described what I had experienced. His psychotic eyes at the time of arrest are etched in my mind.

The FBI called my folks. The last thing I remember hearing from the convicting magistrate was, “...and your mother told the FBI you had a history of acting out as a child.”

* * *

In August 1982, I served 24 days in federal prison. After one night behind the wall at Danbury, most of my incarceration was at Allenwood federal prison camp near Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Being at Allenwood was like being put inside an imaginary circle yet being told not to step out, never knowing the circle’s radius.

The prison showed a movie each Saturday night. My second week there, the movie was Coming Home, starring Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Jon Voight.

Arguably, it was one of the era’s more powerful anti-military movies.

I felt so proud to be there.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #598 (Wednesday, February 3, 2021). This story appeared on page B1.

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