How Kerry’s Group Plotted Against Statue of Liberty

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    Lefty Wilbury Active Member

    Nov 4, 2003
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    How Kerry’s Group Plotted Against Statue of Liberty

    By JOSH GERSTEIN Staff Reporter of the Sun

    In an era marked by militant demonstrations, it stands out as one of the most dramatic: the Christmastime takeover of the Statue of Liberty by angry Vietnam veterans.

    On Sunday, December 26, 1971, 15 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the group that John Kerry was a prominent member of, barricaded themselves inside the monument and hoisted an upside-down American flag from Miss Liberty’s crown.

    The action at the Statue of Liberty was front-page news at the time. It also triggered a legal effort to evict the veterans and set in motion plans to take the statue back by force, if necessary.

    The New York Sun spoke recently with many of those involved in the showdown in New York harbor and other protests staged across the country by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, known as VVAW.

    Among the group’s other actions that week were an occupation of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, an attempt to close off the entrance to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the seizure of a drug-treatment ward at Travis Air Force Base in California, and the takeover of a South Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco.

    VVAW members also burst bags of what they said was their own blood on sidewalks in front of the White House and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

    In all, more than 100 veterans were arrested, though the Statue of Liberty demonstrators escaped legal consequences when they ended their 40-hour protest after being ordered out by a federal judge.

    At the time, Mr. Kerry, a former Navy Swift boat lieutenant, remained the group’s best-known spokesman.

    Mr. Kerry’s involvement in planning the group’s nationwide “Christmas actions” is not clear. He recently conceded that it appears he did attend a November 1971 meeting in Kansas City where the group’s protests were debated. FBI informants say Mr. Kerry resigned as a national coordinator of VVAW at that session.

    There are differing accounts about why Mr. Kerry quit. The planned protests may have been a factor. He may also have chafed at the group’s extended discussion of an even more radical proposal: that they assassinate several senators who supported the war. Mr. Kerry also had a heated argument with another VVAW leader and was preparing to run for Congress.

    Mr.Kerry has been of little help in resolving the uncertainty. He maintains he has no memory of that gathering.

    Nevertheless, one of the organizers of the Statue of Liberty takeover told the Sun he was inspired to attempt the high-profile protest by Mr. Kerry’s congressional testimony earlier that year.

    “I only had one thing to live up to, that was John Kerry,” Eugene Halpern said.“He did such a knockout job there he really inspired a bunch of people.”

    “I thought if I could be as forthright about it as he was that it would be all right,” the protest leader said. “I would just like to think he was favorably impressed,” Mr. Halpern added.

    One of the federal prosecutors tasked with getting the men out of the statue said authorities in Washington wanted the protesters out immediately. The prosecutor, Alan Morrison, said he feared there was “a good chance” that using force to oust the demonstrators would result in injury to the landmark.

    “I certainly didn’t want to do anything that would potentially damage the Statue of Liberty, not to mention the people who were in it or outside of it,” Mr. Morrison said.

    Mr. Morrison said that on the day after the standoff began he rebuffed a top Justice Department official, L. Patrick Gray III, who wanted to use force to retake the statue.

    “Pat Gray called with three questions,” Mr. Morrison recalled. “First, is the press there?…Second, do you have enough troops to take the statue?…And, third, can you do it without any press around?” the lawyer said.

    Mr. Morrison, who had not discussed the call publicly before now, says he thought the questions bordered on insane. He offered no answers and sent back a message that they were handling the matter on the scene.

    “I’m not going to go out and attack the Statue of Liberty,” the former prosecutor remembers thinking. “I had some additional duty of loyalty to my superiors even if they had no brains,” he quipped.

    At the time, Mr. Gray headed the Justice Department’s civil division. A secretary at Mr. Gray’s former law firm in Connecticut said he has retired to Florida. He is now 87 and could not be reached for comment.

    In a recent interview, Mr. Morrison’s co-counsel on the case, Michael Hess, said he remembered pressure from higher-ups to end the demonstration, though he did not remember the details.

    “There was some desire from Washington to get these people out,” Mr. Hess said. He said he and Mr. Morrison decided to try to use “litigation diplomacy” by seeking a court order to evict the demonstrators.

    “We were flying a little in the face of some people at the Justice Department. They wanted it done 1-2-3. They said if you have to use force, you have to use force,” Mr. Hess recalled. “We just didn’t need that. These were not bad people,” he added. “To send in helmeted police would look terrible.”

    Mr. Halpern, the protest organizer, said he remembers seeing city police, park rangers, and even military officers mustering outside the statue.

    “At one point,we looked out there and there were military police from the 82nd Airborne with chrome helmets on and we thought,‘Oh my God,this is getting really bizarre,’” he said.“We were worried.”

    Mr. Halpern, who was then 28 and living in New Jersey, said the takeover was not a spur-of-the-moment action. He said he and a fellow veteran, Raymond Grodecki,visited the statue in the fall and took photographs as they assessed the prospects for a successful demonstration.

    “We had checked it out pretty carefully,” Mr. Halpern said.“We decided it was doable.”

    Mr. Halpern and his friend initially wanted to mount a mock assault on the statue using a boat, but their plans to borrow one from musician Pete Seeger fell through. The veterans said Mr. Seeger gave the group $200, which was used for provisions.

    Mr. Halpern said the idea of occupying the statue had been raised earlier in the year by “someone from the New York office” of the group. At a meeting in Valley Forge, Pa., in late December, more than a dozen veterans decided it “would be kind of wild.”

    As the group drove in a convoy across New Jersey, they drew the attention of police, who stopped them for a moving violation. “We were all wearing fatigues and looked kind of crazy,” Mr. Halpern said. They escaped with a warning, he added.

    The group later covered their fatigues with civilian clothes.They stuffed sandwiches in their pockets, had change for the pay phones, and even buckets in case there was no access to the toilets. Then they mingled among the tourists headed for the statue on a day that many recall was cold and miserable.

    One of the veterans, Robert Barracca Jr., said the information from the earlier scouting mission was not 100% accurate. “None of the stuff we had planned worked out. There was no place to hide,” he said.

    Improvising, a couple of the veterans faked a minor injury while several others bent a partially locked grate leading to the statue’s arm, which was closed to tourists in 1916 due to structural damage.

    “We had 16 people standing on this ladder”in the arm,Mr.Barracca said.The extra man was reportedly a WBAI radio reporter the veterans invited along. When the statue closed for the day, the veterans descended and barricaded the doors with construction supplies on hand for an ongoing museum project.

    Mr. Barracca recalls that the protesters received messages of support from all over the world. “It was a big deal to us. We thought we were having some sort of impact,” he added.

    According to the New York Post, among the missives was a “congratulatory message” from Le Mai. Le Mai was then a negotiator in Paris for the communist Viet Cong. He later became Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister. He died in 1996.

    At a hearing on the government’s request for a court order to end the protest, the veterans were represented by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge, Lawrence Pierce,issued a “show cause”order that required the men to explain to the court at a 9 a.m. hearing why they should not be evicted from the monument.

    In a written statement, the veterans struck a defiant tone,calling on President Nixon to end the war.“Mr. Nixon: You set the date.We’ll evacuate,” they wrote.

    The next morning, the veterans backed down. Some said they didn’t want to go to jail. Others said the takeover had achieved its goal by winning publicity for the anti-war cause. The deluge of press attention continued for several days, as the veterans were featured on nationally broadcast programs, such as the Today show.

    The only reported damage was to the grate to Lady Liberty’s arm. The Park Service called it “minor.”

    One participant in the protest, Stephen Juli, said he believes the veterans’ takeover of the statue was justified.

    “I think history has proven that what we did was of conscience and the protest was legitimate,”said Mr.Juli.He said he served in the Marines in Vietnam and is a “priest-monk” in rural Virginia.

    Another demonstrator said he has mixed feelings about some of the group’s tactics.

    “We did probably go a little too far sometimes but with all those people dying it was kind of hard not to,” said Mr. Barracca, who said he was wounded as an Army artillery gunner in Vietnam. “When you see all that death, it makes you angry,” he said.

    The veterans’ group targeted several other historic landmarks that week. In an interview, a former director of the Betsy Ross House, William Kingsley, said he was present when VVAW members commandeered the house on December 27, 1971. “Somebody approached me and said he was part of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War and he was taking over the house,” recalled Mr. Kingsley, who is now 69.

    “They locked themselves in the house,which is pretty easy to do.I asked them not to smoke. They shouted, ‘The man wants us not to smoke.’ I asked them not to do any damage,” he said.

    “They were very calm, almost accommodating,” Mr. Kingsley said. A police lieutenant who handled civil disobedience arrived. A short time later, Mr. Kingsley opened the front door with a key and the police went in and arrested about two-dozen men who were inside.

    “There was no resistance,” Mr. Kingsley said.He said the group did minor damage to a lock and that a 13-star American flag atop the house was turned upside down by the veterans. A report in the Philadelphia Inquirer said a crowd in the street cheered as the flag was righted.

    Mr. Kingsley said he thought the group and the press were disappointed because the veterans were taken away before reporters made it to the scene.

    “The whole thing was over before the TV crews made it,” he said.

    The demonstrators were released without bail and some of them traveled to Washington to join in a larger protest. There, more than 80 veterans were arrested for blocking the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and for splattering bags of what they said was human blood on a White House sidewalk.

    A few days later, the New YorkTimes noted the press savvy of the protesters in a story titled,“How Are We Doing on the Networks?” Mr. Kerry told the newspaper he was raising bail money for some of the demonstrators. Mr. Kerry said he had resigned from the executive committee of VVAW but he remained a member of the group.The story says Mr. Kerry “conceded in an interview that the departure of moderates such as himself had contributed to the organization’s shift towards militance.”

    A spokesman for Mr. Kerry, David Wade, did not respond to questions about Mr. Kerry’s views on the December 1971 protests. Late last month, Mr., Wade told the Sun, “John Kerry served America and his fellow veterans when he spoke his conscience after he returned home after fighting in Vietnam.”

    Many of those involved in the Statue of Liberty standoff and other protests have had noteworthy careers. Mr. Morrison joined with consumer activist Ralph Nader to start the Public Citizen Litigation Group, a liberal nonprofit law firm. Later this month, Mr. Morrison is expected to argue before the Supreme Court in one of the mostwatched cases of the session, a dispute over access to the records of Vice President Cheney’s energy policy task force.

    Mr. Hess went on to become corporation counsel for New York under Mayor Giuliani. He is senior managing director at Mr. Giuliani’s management consulting firm, Giuliani Partners.

    Mr. Gray became acting director of the FBI in 1972.He resigned in 1973 following disclosures that he had destroyed files belonging to Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt.

    And Mr. Kerry became a senator from Massachusetts and is the apparent Democratic nominee for president.
    LADY LIBERT Y TAKEN HOSTAGE Members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War raise clenched fists on December 28, 1971, shortly after ending their 40-hour occupation of the Statue of Liberty, which can be seen behind them. AP

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