Pentagon Protest

In 1988, more than a thousand of CISPES activists participated in a mass civil disobedience action, surrounding the Pentagon and effectively shutting down it’s operations for part of the day.  240 people were arrested and charged with obstructing a passageway after blockading the south entrances to the building, sitting in front of moving cars and buses, and creating a sea of bodies at the building’s doorsteps.

Said peace activist Daniel Ellsberg: “We are telling the administration and the people in this building that they can’t do what they’re doing to America without arresting America.  This is different than Vietnam. We’re acting before American combat troops are sent . . . . For every person willing to get arrested now, a hundred or thousand are willing to get arrested if they escalate this war.”

The demonstration was part of CISPES’s campaign called “El Salvador: Steps to Freedom,” which sought an end to U.S. military aid, including advisers, to the government of El Salvador.  Protesters planted wooden crosses around the Heliport Entrance, symbolizing the thousands killed by U.S.-funded death squads in El Salvador

6 thoughts on “Pentagon Protest”

  1. How lucky can you get, chanting INSIDE the Pentagon,ah the good old days.And, the best part? The FMLN did win!

  2. 1988: A Year of Stepped Up Struggle

    From the launching of the first “final” offensive in 1981until the signing of the peace accords in 1992, CISPES was always proclaiming each and every year as “decisive.” Every new development in the conflict became a “critical conjuncture.” While this became something of a running joke with each new “decisive and critical” update from the National Office to the Committees, 1988 was truly a pivotal year with escalated activity by the FMLN and the popular movement as well as increased resistance to U.S. military intervention by CISPES. Here are two stories from different fronts:

    1988 was a year of growth for El Salvador’s popular movement. The UNTS (National Unity of Salvadoran Workers) brought together dozens of trade union and sector-based organizations to confront the government’s economic and military policies, leading marches of tens of thousands through the streets of San Salvador as well as conducting a wide variety of work stoppages.

    The FMLN adjusted its tactics to the U.S.-backed air war of the mid-1980s and succeeded in expanding its presence into every one of El Salvador’s 14 departments. The FMLN also increased its presence in San Salvador with a series of hit and run attacks carried out by urban commandos. The guerrillas’ ability to operate in the capital continued to increase, culminating in an attack on the General Command of the National Guard which inflicted serious damage on the military.

    In the summer of 1988, CISPES organized a large delegation of 40 activists to go to El Salvador and show solidarity with the growing activity of the popular movement. Our delegation witnessed the coming out of an important new element of the urban movement.

    While the popular movement was on the upsurge, the massive repression of the early 1980s had virtually exterminated the trade union leadership and fear was still very much a factor inhibiting even larger displays of popular discontent. Militants in the popular movement created the MPTL (Movement for Bread, Land, Work and Freedom) to take these issues head on. The MPTL sought to unite a broad mass of people around fundamental social and economic demands and to set the stage for insurrection in San Salvador by upping the level of militancy. MPTL activists were ready to defend popular mobilizations from attack as well to confront security forces seeking to block or disperse protest marches.

    The MPTL had not yet formally announced its presence, but was preparing to reveal itself with a public action. Just days before, Roberto Orellana, a key organizer of the group, had been found dead in the streets of San Salvador. His body had been run over by a car to give it the appearance of an accident, but he bore the marks and mutilations of torture and it was clear that he had been murdered by the death squads.

    Organizers with the MPTL didn’t hesitate. Immediately another activist stepped up to fill the leadership post of his assassinated comrade and the MPTL made it known that the organization would make its first public appearance at the central marketplace during the coming weekend.

    The CISPES delegation prepared, not knowing what to expect, but determined to provide accompaniment come what may. Following discussions with popular movement leaders we decided that our 40-person delegation would spend the morning at the market, ready to document events. The hope was that the presence of a large, dispersed group of U.S. citizens would help prevent an outright attack by security forces on MPTL activists.

    It’s an understatement to say that we were anxious, especially when we arrived at the marketplace and saw Treasury Police and other security forces with guns drawn, scanning the crowds for “activists.” No one knew exactly what was going to happen next or what the MPTL had planned. On the surface, it appeared that any type of demonstration or show of opposition to the regime was an invitation to suffer the same fate as Roberto Orellana just days before. Our delegation fanned out over the marketplace. With security forces all around, it didn’t seem possible that any action could be carried out.

    Suddenly, a group of activists pushed their way past security forces. They scaled up the side of a building which had a huge billboard at its top. They unfurled an enormous banner which read: “WITH OUR BLOOD WE WRITE OUR HISTORY.”

    Simultaneously more and more MPTL activists stepped out of the crowd and while some spoke to the throngs of people in the marketplace others began handing out leaflets explaining the MPTL’s program. They swiftly transformed what had been a militarized zone steeped in fear into a public space of agitation and organization. It was electrifying to watch it unfold and the courage of these activists bursting forward as they did provided a lifetime of inspiration.

    This was truly the “audacity of hope” in action, giving increased confidence to the people that resistance was possible. During the course of the next year the popular movement expanded its presence in the streets, helping to set the stage for the next phase of the struggle. Just over a year later, the FMLN ignited the November 11th offensive.

    Back in the United States, CISPES realized that we needed to expand our own protest capacities and be prepared to step up our resistance to U.S. military escalations. A massive civil disobedience action was planned for the Pentagon that fall.

    Hundreds of people pledged to blockade the Pentagon and dozens and dozens of affinity groups came together in Mount Pleasant the night before to plan for a shut down of war headquarters.

    Perhaps as many as 1,000 people were committed to shutting down the Pentagon by putting their bodies on the line and risking arrest. The Pentagon, however, was determined to keep hiding in the shadows. El Salvador’s death squad government was the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world, receiving more than $2 million a day. The U.S. military was directly involved in every phase of the war, yet U.S. involvement was virtually ignored by the mainstream media. The Pentagon was determined to keep it that way.

    Early on in the pre-dawn protest it became apparent that the Pentagon was deliberately trying to avoid making arrests. Without direct confrontation and arrests the Pentagon figured this was just another demonstration and would not merit much press coverage. Groups of determined protesters would block an entryway only to have Pentagon employees move on and seek another entry point. Protesters would be left in place as police made no move to take people into custody. After hours of blockading and resistance, only a handful of people had been arrested from the pool of 1,000 who were prepared to go to jail. Eventually, as the day wore on, 240 people were arrested for blockading the Pentagon.

    After numerous failed efforts, I finally managed to get myself hauled in for sitting right at a doorway. A group of a dozen of us was gathered up and much to our surprise we were not herded towards the “arrest buses,” but instead were taken inside the Pentagon and marched through the corridors to a holding room. We found ourselves walking along, handcuffed, deep, deep in the belly of the beast. Suddenly someone started chanting:
    F-M-L-N/EL SALVADOR IS GONNA WIN! Instantly everyone took up the battle cry and F-M-L-N/EL SALVADOR IS GONNA WIN was echoing off the walls of the Pentagon, causing people in surrounding offices to stop what they were doing and look up in surprise. We were no longer prisoners; we’d brought the struggle far behind enemy lines.

    The Pentagon protest was the kick off of a stepped up campaign to directly challenge U.S. military intervention. Just over a year later this aspect of CISPES’ program culminated in the “protest a minute” campaign where hundreds of actions were organized around the November offensive.

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