Milwaukee isn't really known as a protest city. But for a few months during the height of the Vietnam War, 14 protestors were the talk of the town.
In broad daylight on Sept. 24, 1968, 14 young men broke into what is now the Germania Building. Back then, it housed Milwaukee’s selective service office. Their target: 1-A draft records, 10,000 thousand of them, containing the names and health status of the boys and men most likely to be drafted into service in Vietnam.
They pushed past two maids and filled burlap sacks with files. The papers were carried across the street to a small park near the corner of Plankinton Avenue and W. Wells Street. There, the bags were doused in homemade napalm and set aflame. The men danced and prayed around their makeshift bonfire as the news teams they invited arrived on the scene, followed closely by law enforcement.
These men wanted the attention. They knew that destroying a few measly files wouldn’t end the Vietnam War, but their goal had been to send a message. That message was effectively spread, receiving coverage from the Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal, WTMJ, and other local outlets, and later receiving national attention from magazines, collections and books.
The Milwaukee 14 wasn’t the first such protest, and it wouldn’t be the last. The 14 were inspired by groups like The Baltimore Four and Catonsville Nine, who performed similar draft-defiling protests. Many of the protests were led by members of what was known as the “Catholic Left Movement” — five of the Milwaukee 14 were ordained priests.
The Catholic Left’s pacifistic resistance came amidst rapidly growing opposition to the Vietnam War. When the Baltimore Four protest took place in October 1967, about 46 percent of Americans thought sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. Within a year, disapproval was up to 58 percent.
Civil Disobedience on Trial
For two weeks in May 1969, 12 of the Milwaukee 14 stood trial, having been gleefully arrested the day of the napalming. They would all be found guilty and each served at least a year behind bars. (The other two were foreign-born and tried in federal court; both were eventually deported. One of them was Father Michael Cullen, who founded the Casa Maria Catholic Worker House on the West Side.)
One of the protestors, an award-winning biographer named Jim Forest, typed out a full transcript of the trial. He included penned annotations and a brightly hand-drawn cover page. The abridged version is 219 pages long.
The Milwaukee 14 were defended by William Kunstler, a “civil rights lawyer” notable for also defending Communists, the Black Panthers and the Catonsville Nine during the 1950s and 60s.
The Court wanted the case to be focused on the specific actions of the men being tried for burglary, arson and theft.
Kuntsler and the defendants had other plans. They wanted to turn attention to the questionable morality and rationality of war and the draft.
Nationally renowned writers and philosophers, including award-winner Howard Zinn, were flown in as expert witnesses for the defense. The goal was to give credibility to the protestors’ clearly unlawful action of destroying government property.
“The tradition of civil disobedience goes as far back as Thomas Jefferson and it comes right up to today,” Zinn said on the stand, “…people distinguished in the field of law and philosophy recognize that there’s a vast difference between a person who commits an ordinary crime and a person who commits an act which technically is a crime, but which in essence is a social act designed to make a statement—”
Zinn had intended to expand on what he was saying, but was interrupted by cheers from a gallery that was filled with Milwaukee 14 supporters.
Looking at the transcript, the accused enjoyed testing courtroom protocol, intentionally chiding the judge and prosecution throughout. They hadn’t given up on civil disobedience.
One of the most memorable moments came after the guilty sentences were delivered. A spectator, identified in Forest’s transcript as Sister Joanne Malone, interrupted the judge and proclaimed, “I want to thank you, men and women of the jury, for finding Jesus Christ guilty again.” The embattled judge then threatened to clear the room when the room erupted in applause.
“It was a big, dramatic trial,” remembers Bob Graf, one of the Milwaukee 14 who can still be seen around Milwaukee protesting violence in pretty much all of its forms.
Graf claims the trial was going to be made into a movie, but it never came to fruition. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine did become a play and later reached the silver screen, produced by Oscar-winner Gregory Peck. However, the film reportedly tanked; political furor doesn’t always translate into a blockbuster.
The 14… 50 Years Later
When they were arrested, the average age of the Milwaukee 14 was 25. Now, 50 years later, only half of them are still alive. The survivors cling to the memory and their message.
Graf speaks with as much gusto now as he did then. He’s been arrested a number of times since 1968 and is almost proud of his status as a felon.
In 1969, he testified as one of the Milwaukee 14: “I guess it’s like the stories you hear when someone is drowning and someone runs out to save him, his arm, his body, his whole body gets tired in the act of saving the drowning person. That’s how I felt, my arm, my body was at full extent of physical exertion in order to get those records out.”
In 2018, he’s already been kicked off the Marquette campus at least once for protesting the university’s ROTC program, touting signs that read “MU be faithful to the gospel,” “MU teach war no more” and “Stop hosting military training.” He was technically banned from the campus (his alma mater) in 2013 for his continual protests.
“The connection with the military is just dominant in our lives,” the now 75-year-old says. “We don’t even think about it anymore.”
He jokes about still being “a pain in the ass,” knowing the headaches he and his protesting cohorts cause Marquette security. His fellow protesters are similar to him, mostly older Catholics.
It’s not like it used to be, he says. “The young people are different in Milwaukee.”
He talks about “us” and “them” a lot, “them” being the mainstreamers who have lived to be OK with war, “us” being those who still protest.
For the 50th anniversary of the Milwaukee 14, coming this September, Graf hopes to reunite the survivors once more. “The spirit is what I try to keep alive,” he says.