Activists Face Tough Registration Battle
The 25 parents who picketed against draft registration in downtown Boston yesterday had not memorized their chants. So they read them off of mimeographed sheets, haltingly, and with some obvious embarrassment. "Mothers, fathers hear our cry! We don't want our kids to die!"
Though hardly noticeable in the midday swirl of the city, the demonstrators marched in a tight circle in front of the McCormack Federal Building for an icy hour and a half.
They waved placards, asked watching policemen to join the line, and eagerly answered question for local t.v. and radio. And, as other participants in this week's demonstrations against the second round of registration have done, they claimed success despite small turnouts and media skepticism.
Robert L. Hernandez, spokesman for Parents Against the Draft, a group headquartered in Brookline, yesterday voiced a common theme of the antiregistration movement: "The press and other people don't realize that this is really just an anti-war movement starting early before we have another Vietnam."
"We all learned a lesson from Vietnam--that you can't take what the government says for granted and wait till people start dying," he added. "We must realize that the registration is only the first step of a war process that could lead to another Vietnam."
On Tuesday, a group of men who fought in that war marched at the Central Square post office and joined in a symbolic attempt to barricade the building with discarded Christmas trees.
Larry Chartienitz, a 34-year-old exMarine, spoke for his organization, Veterans Against Foreign Wars: "I would fight to really defend this country, but no one should willingly sign up to fight for nothing for some politician and have poison put in your body."
Like many Vietnam vets, Chartienitz says that exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange--used heavily by the United States army in Southeast Asia--has damaged his health since the war and may make him susceptible to cancer.
Urged on by leaders such as Hernandez and Chartienitz and organized by the Boston Alliance Against Registration and the Draft (BAARD), the anti-registration troop in this area has maintained a determined effort to publicize what they see as a purely political, and ultimately dangerous and immoral government policy. But the movement is burdened with a pervasive pessimism about the extent of its impact and what its members perceive as a continuing threat of war.
Speaking before the current drive to register 18-year-olds began on Monday, Nora Leyland, a BAARD spokesman, warned that "It looks like we're headed for war one way or the other." She added that her movement could not realistically hope to shut down registration, but would settle for "gaining more publicity and making it as hard as possible for the government to get a draft."
Who's the Enemy
Frank Broadhead, BAARD's director, pointed out recently that one difficulty for his group is finding a clear enemy to oppose.
President-elect Ronald Reagan has promised to end registration and avoid a peacetime draft, yet few BAARD members trust him. Congress, meanwhile has expressed a wide variety of views, particularly on the necessity of a draft to go along with registration. The influx of conservatives on Capitol Hill makes many of Broadhead's marchers nervous.
And finally, there is the confusing issue before the Supreme Court--the constitutionality of registering only men in light of recent drives against sex discrimination. Should anti-draft protesters take a stand on the issue one way or the other?
"We do lack something of a focus, Broadhead admits.
Other anti-registration leaders stress that while dumping on a common enemy would be convenient, their main goal is to educate young people, telling them about the implications of registering, the various options open to them, and the necessity to prepare opposition forces in case of a draft.
The national Coalition Against Registration and the Draft (CARD), a Washington-based group, will turn more toward counselling high school students in the coming months, Duane Shanks, CARD spokesman, said yesterday.
"CARD would not tell anyone what to do, but we advise them to consider their actions and the possibility of not registering," Shanks explained, adding, "We do remind people that not signing up is a crime punishable by a prison sentence."
Leyland, who praised the efforts of counsellors under the supervision of American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, added that BAARD assures young men who call seeking advice that "if they are caught, the government always gives you a chance to sign up quietly before sending you to jail."
Leyland defended her group's more activist stance and criticized CARD's "careful legislative view." Tomorrow, BAARD members will try to close down the Harvard Square post office, and Leyland explained, "We are tired of petitioning Congressmen; we want to get out in the streets."
Once in the streets, however, BAARD has not been able to draw more than 50 people to any one protest. Last Saturday's sit-in in the McCormack Building, during which federal officers arrested 22 people, has highlighted the week's events. But Leyland and her compatriots will plug on.
"To get anyone out in this cold is an achievement," Greg Ward, another BAARD member, said at Tuesday's pine tree party.
Small turnouts indicate only that many people are on vacation or resisting passively at home, Leyland says, and she denies media reports that the movement is weaker in other parts of the country. "They (journalists) say it's quiet, that there's no ruckus, no violence. That's only because people are protesting more peacefully."
More people responded to last summer's initial round of registration of 19-and 20-year-olds because they were not in school or at work, Leyland added.
Furthermore, many people do not believe the Selective Service System's claim that 95 per cent of the eligible men complied with the summer registration. BAARD claims 25 per cent, or about one million people, did not register and adds that the turnout this week has also been light. No official statistics are kept by post offices, and the Selective Service has not yet collected any registration cards.
Shanks said the movement will probably pick up momentum as people realize that Reagan "will continue the militaristic program established by (President) Carter." But like many of his fellow protesters, he views the whole battle with a dissatisfied resignation, saying, "All in all, the whole situation is not very promising.