Refusing to Take Shelter

By Jim Forest

[an extract from All Is Grace,  a biography of Dorothy Day (Orbis Books) / the photo was taken in City Hall Park in 1955]

In the spring of 1955, the press reported that a civil defense drill, “Operation Alert,” was scheduled for June 15. The news came with a warning: anyone refusing to take shelter — going into subways or basements, crouching in designated hallways or under desks in schoolrooms — risked up to a year in prison plus a $500 fine. The message underlying the drill was that, should nuclear war occur, if the right steps were taken beforehand, many could survive. A national shelter industry sprang to life despite warnings from those familiar with the effects of nuclear explosions that all the average buyer could reasonably hope to obtain for his investment was a larger-than-average coffin, while those who did survive underground confinement would find themselves in a radioactive wasteland better suited to insect than human life. One peace group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, responded by launching a “Shelters for the Shelterless” campaign, as a result of which thousands of small houses were built for homeless people in India. The same group printed a sign which families brave enough to risk being called “Communist dupes” put on their front doors:

THIS HOUSE HAS NO FALLOUT SHELTER. Peace is our only protection.

News of preparations for New York City’s first air raid drill caught Ammon Hennacy’s eye. He proposed to those at the Catholic Worker house and to other pacifists in New York that this was a foolish law that was well worth breaking. On June 15, Dorothy, Ammon and twenty-seven others met in met in the park in front of City Hall in lower Manhattan. “In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide,” a Catholic Worker leaflet declared. “We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb.” When the air raid sirens began to wail, cars and buses pulled to the curb and New Yorkers drained into cellars and subway stations. Within minutes, New York, playing war rather than business, seemed like a ghost town — except at City Hall Park, where Dorothy and the other pacifists (not only from the Catholic Worker but from the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation) stayed where they were, looking more like picnickers than protesters. While cameras filmed their quiet witness, police escorted ten of the lawbreakers into vans and drove them off.

“As 679 warning sirens wailed,” The New York Sun reported the next day, “millions of New Yorkers took shelter in the city’s greatest air raid drill — an exercise marred only by 29 arrests and, in spots, by errors, lethargy and defiance, but hailed nonetheless as a ‘complete success’ by authorities. An imaginary H-bomb fell at the corner of North 7th Street and Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, ‘wiping out’ vast areas of the city and claiming 2,991,185 ‘fatalities.’ Another 1,776,899 men, women and children were listed as ‘injured’ as imaginary flames roared through the area. Robert Condon, [New York] City Civil Defense Director, called the drill ‘a complete success as far as public reaction goes.’”

To most Americans, the handful of people who had openly refused to take shelter must have seemed out of touch with reality. Not only is the law the law, but surely such drills were only for everyone’s ultimate safety? The Russians were ruthless atheists, people with no principles and no respect for human life, and now they were armed with nuclear weapons. Was it not common sense to try to save as many lives as possible in the event of war?

This was not Dorothy’s view of what was going on. She saw such rehearsals as making nuclear war seem survivable and winnable and therefore not an option to be rejected. For her, refusing to take shelter was also “an act of penance” undertaken by an American whose country “had been the first to drop the atom bomb and to make the hydrogen bomb.”

At eleven o’clock that night the ten in the group who had been arrested appeared in night court. One of them, the actress Judith Malina, laughed out loud in the courtroom as the bailiff mispronounced prisoners’ names. When the judge summoned her to the bench for making the disturbance, Judith explained that she was giddy because she hadn’t had anything to eat all day. He asked if she had ever been in a mental institution. “No,” she replied, “have you?” Those in the courtroom laughed, but not the judge, who ordered that Judith be taken for observation at the Bellevue psychiatric ward. For the others he set $1,500 bail, a sum associated with crimes far more serious than sitting quietly on park benches. (“Well, it was a serious crime,” said one member of the Catholic Worker community. “We were defying the White House. We were defying the Pentagon. We were defying the governor. We were defying the national mood. We were defying the habit of war. We were refusing to get ready for war.”)

Dorothy and the others refused to provide bail, but after twenty-four hours were sent home without sentence or fine by a friendlier judge. “All we got was a slap on the wrist,” one of them said. But even a day in jail had given Dorothy time to kneel on the floor of her cell — “a bare, stark cell that would outdo the Carmelites in austerity” — and “thank God for the opportunity to be there, to be so stripped of all that the earth holds dear, to share in some way the life of prisoners, guilty and innocent, all over the world.”

A year later, the drill was repeated, as was the protest, this time in Washington Square Park. This time the demonstrators were ordered to pay a fine or serve five days in jail. (One of those who opted for the fine was David Caplan, a physicist, who tried to convince the judge that civil defense preparations in a prime-target city like New York were dishonest: one would need to be far deeper — not in a subway tunnel just under the street — to have any hope of survival.)

Dorothy chose jail. The poor couldn’t pay fines, she said, which was one of the reasons the jails were full of the poor. Also, Jesus had said, “I was a prisoner and you came to be with me.”

Dorothy was jailed again in 1957. By then her disobedience seemed a kind of annual urban ritual, like painting a green stripe down Fifth Avenue on Saint Patrick’s Day. In a leaflet, Dorothy sought to explain the Catholic Worker’s small act of witness: “We know what we are in for, the risk we run in openly setting ourselves against this most powerful country in the world. It is a tiny Christian gesture, the gesture of a David against a Goliath in an infinitesimal way. We do not wish to be defiant, we do not wish to antagonize. We love our country and are only saddened to see its great virtues matched by equally great faults. We are a part of it, we are responsible too. With this small gesture we want to atone in some small measure for what we did in Hiroshima, and what we are still doing by the manufacture and testing of such weapons.”

The press, in greater numbers than ever, came to watch the pacifists get loaded into paddy wagons, not at City Hall Park this time but on Chrystie Street, the Catholic Worker’s own neighborhood. The judge, a Catholic, advised Dorothy to read the Bible and said that those who disobeyed the civil defense laws were a “heartless bunch of individuals who breathe contempt.” He imposed a thirty-day sentence.

Putting Dorothy Day in jail was akin to throwing a rabbit into the briar patch. “It is good to be here, Lord,” Dorothy wrote from her cell in the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, not far from the saloon where, in earlier times, she had spent many an hour with Eugene O’Neill. “We were, frankly, hoping for jail,” Dorothy admitted to readers of The Catholic Worker. Being in jail, one could come closer to real poverty. “Then we would not be running a house of hospitality, we would not be dispensing food and clothing, we would not be ministering to the destitute, but we would be truly one of them.”

Her month-long jail stay was a shocking, grinding experience — “crushing, numbing and painful at the same time.” It wasn’t just the abrasive, sack-like clothing, the constant assault of the mind by noise, the small and crowded cells, or the sexual harassment being suffered by so many of the younger inmates. What was most difficult was the deep sadness and despair that filled the prison. So many prisoners could look toward the future only with dread.

Dorothy left prison in a state of mental, physical and even spiritual exhaustion, she told her readers, yet grateful for the experience and ready to face the same consequences again next year. “It is a gesture, perhaps, but a necessary one. Silence means consent, and we cannot consent to the militarization of our country without protest. Since we believe that air raid drills are part of a calculated plan to inspire fear of the enemy, instead of the love which Jesus Christ told us we should feel, we must protest these drills. It is an opportunity to show we mean what we write when we repeat over and over that we are put here on this earth to love God and our neighbor.”

The longer jail term made Dorothy think again of the need for a completely different response from society to those convicted of crimes. She had witnessed the ways in which prisons damage those who live or work in them, making many inmates only more angry and dangerous than they were before, while reducing others to an awful, passive brokenness, and harming the guards as well. Would not much more be accomplished in small, more homelike settings in which prisoners were recognized as persons of value and promise? In prison, staff was mainly hired to guard inmates, “not to love them.” She envisioned rural centers at which the inmates raised much of their own food, baked their own bread, milked cows, tended chickens, engaged in creative activity and shared responsibility for the institution so that it wasn’t a static environment but was, “in its own way, a community.” Prison as it exists, she found, was the opposite of community. The prisoner is simply an object which can be stripped and searched in the crudest possible ways — in the case of women prisoners, “even to the tearing of tissues so that bleeding results.”

Why, she asked, were Christians so blind to Christ’s presence in the people it locked away and regarded without compassion? “Christ is with us today, not only in the Blessed Sacrament and where two or three are gathered together in His Name, but also in the poor. And who could be poorer and more destitute in body and soul than these companions of ours in prison?”

In 1958, Dorothy and Ammon, with seven others, again stayed above ground as an imaginary nuclear explosion occurred above New York. This time the judge suspended sentence. In 1959 there were fourteen. Ammon, Dorothy, and her friend and co-worker Deane Mower were sentenced to fifteen days in jail. The judge was a kindly man, but found that they were failing to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. “Caesar has been getting too much around here,” Ammon replied. “Someone has to stand up for God.”

For Dorothy, among the benefits of taking part in an act of civil disobedience was the opportunity it gave for practicing one of the most neglected of the works of mercy, visiting the prisoner, and doing so not just for a short time but for days on end, and not as a visitor but as a fellow-prisoner.

In the diary entries she kept while back at the Women’s House of Detention that spring, Dorothy reflected on the struggle it is “trying to see Christ in our sisters and loving them in their suffering… [In doing so,] we are not oblivious to their faults, their sins. This is true love because primarily we love them because Jesus loved them — He came to call sinners, to find the lost sheep…. [Many of them] are beautiful, young, tall, of good carriage, strong, graceful, etc. [Here in jail they] are also sober. Outside, stupefied with drugs or ugly with drink, they would be hard to love. They showed [Deane Mower and me] pictures of their children and their faces were alive with love and longing. Afterwards, they lay sorrowful on their beds. But many times too they were triggered by some affront or injustice, screaming or flaring into temper or foul language, and their rage was such that others kept silent until their mutterings died down like the thunder of a summer storm. Arguments, shouting, cursing, laughter. Some nights the arguments on the ward were hideous, sometimes there was wild gaiety, and most vulgar humor.”

Imprisonment confronted Dorothy not only with the clandestine sexual activity that occurred among her fellow prisoners in the shadows of jail, but made her reflect on her own sexual past. “I felt myself assaulted by memories of my own sex life, my life with Forster, of the sins of my past life,” she wrote “I suddenly realized that this was in the air and if I, a woman of 61, felt this at a time of life where … temptations are of the mind more than of the flesh, how much more so in these young ones, whose flesh must cry out fiercely for consummation and fruition.”

One of the early hints that the sixties were going to be very different than the fifties was the crowd that gathered with Dorothy in front of City Hall on May 3, 1960. When the air raid sirens howled, five hundred stood in the park and another five hundred on the sidewalks across the street. Laughter greeted police orders to take shelter. In the arrests that followed, it seemed obvious they were under orders not to arrest Dorothy Day. The twenty-five who were arrested were punished with five-day sentences. This time the demonstrators were no longer a subject for editorial ridicule. The New York World Telegram said that the war drills were “an exercise in futility.” Civil defense would work, the paper added, only if “the enemy’s plan is to drop marshmallow puffs.” An article in The New York Post was headlined, “Laughter in the Park.” Clearly the politicians were increasingly uncomfortable with this annual spectacle. Being scolded is one thing, being laughed at another.

The following spring a good two thousand people gathered in cheerful disobedience at City Hall Park. The police arrested a symbolic forty. The protest was not only in front of the mayor’s office. All over New York there were individuals and groups refusing to take shelter. The air raid sirens seemed to call people onto the streets rather than underneath them. For Civil Defense officials and politicians, it was a stunning defeat. Not only in New York but elsewhere in America, there were no more compulsory drills. (It happened that Dorothy missed the final round; at the time she was traveling in the Southwest on a speaking trip.)

While the New York press gathered annually to watch Dorothy and others sitting quietly on park benches during air raid drills, no journalist had been present to witness an act of unauthorized sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress and a devout Christian much respected in Montgomery’s black community, declined to give up her seat to a white man in a segregated bus in which blacks were required to sit in the back. Tired from her day of work and tried of all the rituals of racism, she stayed where she was. The driver summoned a policeman, a man who seemed embarrassed at the job which had come to him. “Why didn’t you stand up?” he asked Mrs. Parks. “I don’t think I should have to,” she replied. “Why do you push us around?” “I don’t know,” said the policeman, “but the law’s the law, and you are under arrest.” He drove Mrs. Parks to the jail, where she was then locked up. “I don’t recall being extremely frightened,” she said afterward, “but I felt very much annoyed and inconvenienced because I had hoped to go home and get my dinner, and do whatever else I had to do for the evening. But now here I was sitting in jail and couldn’t get home.”