Merlin's Parole
(Text exerpt)
It was 1969. For five years the war in Vietnam had been steadily escalating. Now protest was spreading on campuses all across the country. Several hundred of us at Marquette University had questions of our own.
"What were we doing to stop the war? Were there connections between Milwaukee manufacturers making a profit on producing war materials, the list of contributors to the Marquette University building fund and official school silence regarding the war? And what were we, a Christian university, doing with an ROTC program on our campus?"
Joan of Arc Chapel was a small, medieval building which had been dismantled stone-by-stone in France, then put back together right in the center of campus. We decided to take it over and not leave until we could enter into a dialogue with Father Reinier, the president of the university.
The demonstration had begun so unobtrusively that a casual observer might not have known what was happening. When the priest and curator of the chapel had finished saying five o’clock Mass, several of us approached him and told him what we were going to do. We reassured him that we had no intention of destroying or desecrating the building. He went his way; we stayed.
We left the wooden doors wide open, welcoming anyone who wanted to join. It was one of those early warm spring days that draw people out. People came and went. Inside, people sat in small circles on the stone floor, or leaned with backs against the walls. Everyone either quietly talking or absorbed in reading and studying.
After about an hour, a campus security officer appeared at the front door and looked in, apparently expecting to see a very different scene. He announced that he had come to deliver a message from the administration. Whisperings. Books closed. People stood up. Organizers took the envelope up to the front of the chapel and called for quiet. Seriousness replaced the relaxed atmosphere of a few minutes earlier. The message was simple. There would be no dialogue and we were to leave immediately — or face the consequences.
Several people expressed disbelief. ‘After two or three days, maybe… but after only an hour or two? The vigil had hardly begun.’
Others reasoned that it was now a matter of ‘put up or shut up.’ We were either willing to pay the price for protesting against an unjust war, or we weren’t. The discussion didn’t last very long. Those who were willing to commit themselves would stay. Those who couldn’t risk the consequences would go. Sixty-five of us shut ourselves in and locked the doors.
Word of what we were doing spread rapidly. People from all over the city began sending practical support, as well as verbal encouragement. A professor from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sent over enough hamburgers for everyone for dinner. Others sent water, blankets — even a portable toilet.
You could see what was happening outside through several narrow slit windows, but the thick glass and stone walls made communication nearly impossible. Unless someone came right up to a window and shouted you couldn’t hear them. As evening slowly turned to night, crowds and TV cameras gathered in front of the chapel. Inside, we renamed the building in honor of Camillo Torres, the Chilean revolutionary martyr.
At about 11:45 pm, the Tactical Squad of the Milwaukee Police Department arrived. We later learned that they first made an announcement. There was a bomb in the chapel, they said. Everyone was going to be evacuated "in the interest of public safety." Those of us inside knew nothing of it.
Kabam! Kabam! — they began battering their way through the wooden door at the back of the sacristy.
"Okay. Everyone sit down." Michael Coffman, who seemed to know what was about to happen, stood up in the front and began counseling us in urgent tones.
"Women, if you have earrings on, remove them."
KaBam! KaBam! — there wasn’t much time left.
"Tie-up your hair."
KaBam! KaBam!
"Don’t be afraid! Lock arms and hold on to each other."
KaBam! KaBlummmpppfff!! "Move in!! NOW!! NOW!!" Shouted commands rushed ahead of a chilly sweep of air. In the next instant, steel-helmeted, plastic face-masked police officers charged across the sanctuary. Mayhem incarnate in fifteen angry men. Raised nightsticks clenched in leather-gloved fists quickly came into steadied positions and stopped there — directly in front of the altar. For a long moment, the action froze.
"Don’t anyone move!" their leader shouted. "Stay right where you are!" They looked around, expecting — it seemed — to be pounced upon by a thousand vicious tigers. All was silent. We continued sitting on the stone floor, motionless — watching and praying — a little scared. Then, methodically, they carried us out, one by one, and carted us off into the night.
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