When I was your enemy by Joel Preston Smith

A friend asked me a while back if I thought it was true that some Morton County Sheriff’s Deputies had resigned over the treatment of protestors at Standing Rock, during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota last year.

I said I thought it was possible, because I used to stand on their side of the line. The reason I stepped across to the other side 27 years ago has a lot to do with why I now work with Frontline Wellness United, which provides healthcare for activists and nonviolent civil resistance movements. I wasn’t a sheriff’s deputy. I was a soldier at the Presidio of San Francisco Army base — a journalist, but also a riot-control troop.

In riot control we faced off against citizens protesting U.S. arms shipments to Central America, those opposed to the Army’s plan to break the legs of greyhounds at Letterman Army Medical Center (to test a new bone-cementing compound), demonstrators livid over the alleged abuse of female inmates at a nearby women’s federal correctional center … And more.

Being both a military journalist and a riot-control troop created unusual problems. Some soldiers saw me as a kind of personal confessor, as if I was a priest in battle fatigues. I was a person whose job it was to listen to soldiers’ stories, and they had grim things they wanted off their conscience. They talked about crimes they’d committed under orders, abuses they’d seen or been a part of, crimes they regretted. Or, in rare instances, crimes they believed (at the time) were necessary for the ‘preservation’ of the nation.

One, a non-commissioned officer in a personnel office, confessed that he’d left behind tens of thousands of M-16 rifles in Honduras during a training exercise in the mid-80s. He’d been ordered to help supply the Contras, in defiance of a U.S. Congressional directive to stop such shipments. He was in charge of the manifest for the weapons, and was ordered to alter the paperwork to hide the crime.

Another soldier walked into my office one day and handed me a business card emblazoned with the word “Spy” in bold print, the name of the division he was assigned to, his telephone number. An intelligence officer who said he was investigating foreign students in the State of California higher-education system. Another crime. The U.S. military cannot, by law, conduct investigations of civilians. That’s the role of the FBI (which still is bound, or was then, by a mandate for probable suspicion).

There were other stories, other crimes, but none of them sickened me as badly as being trained to infiltrate and destroy protest movements repelled me. One that stands out vividly — send an infiltrator to a protest dressed as a ‘hippie,’ wrapped in a diaper made of the American flag. Make sure he’s scruffy, loud, abrasive. Make sure his cardboard sign (DOWN WITH THE USA! or some offensive, ‘Leftist’ slur) would enrage your ‘average’ viewer.

Devious beyond belief, but it works. Why? Because he’ll be the featured protestor on tonight’s broadcast, tomorrow’s front page. It’s ingenious, really. The media focus on such people because they’re iconic; they’re certain to draw attention, and attention means viewership and newspaper sales.

It works because viewers will see that dirty, abrasive, America-loathing protestor as the essence of the movement itself. Regardless of whether the protest is about ending torture, stopping arms sales to repressive regimes, halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or virtually any reasonable, conscientious, peaceful cause whatsoever.

The protest, and those supporting it, will be boiled down to a 15-second clip of a nearly nude lunatic dancing around in his Stars-and-Stripes diaper on NBC Nightly News in America’s living room, where millions of ‘good, decent, patriotic folk’ are reeling in horror at these ‘dirty, maniacal Commie hippies who want to destroy our freedoms,’ etc., etc.

What’s fundamentally wrong with this? It’s an attempt, by a military sworn to defend the Constitution, to suppress the freedom to assemble, and wilt the will of Americans to exercise their right to free speech. It’s an attack on the fundamental principles of the nation itself.

I carried these stories, this knowledge of how to destroy the very things we’d sworn to defend, to the line with me as a riot-control troop, along with my helmet, shield and baton. I’d be standing my ground against someone screaming in my face, against hundreds of furious civilians who believed that the U.S. military and the president might be running a private war in Central America, might be abusing the power they’d been granted, and might themselves be a threat to U.S. citizens and democracy.

And there’d be this plaintive, mournful voice in my head, recounting those crimes and confessions, grieving what I was doing, saying back to these protestors in silence, “You have no idea how right you are. You have no idea how badly we need you here, in the streets, fighting for what you believe in. You might be the only thing stopping us.”

I was on the wrong side of the line, but I stayed there for a long time. Usually there’s a final straw. There were two for me. The first was the flag-as-diaper training. The second and final straw was a training in which we were told how to beat protestors legally with a baton. How to inflict the maximum pain, but avoid a lawsuit against the U.S. government.

There are five lethal areas of the body you can’t legally strike with a weapon: directly over the heart, in the armpits (busted lymph nodes can kill a person in minutes), the kidneys, the temple, the throat (crushed windpipe — asphyxiation).

A fellow riot-control soldier asked if we were allowed to strike a man in the groin. The training sergeant said yes.

Another soldier asked, hesitantly, if we could strike women in the groin. I’ll never forget his exact words. “Yes, you can strike a woman there. It’s not covered by the book, and anything not covered by the book is a legal target.”

Sick. A wave of revulsion washed over me. Drowning in it. I imagined my mother on the other side of the line. Women I loved. Any woman who felt compelled to voice her objection to … something objectionable. War. Nuclear weapons. Animal cruelty. Does it really matter what? What matters, when you think about such things … as the things you’re willing to die for — is defending those very things.

Whatever nobility I might’ve assigned to my military service vanished in the instant I was told that as a soldier, I had the legal right to beat civilian women in the vagina with a club because no one had had the foresight to say otherwise on paper.

In early of 1991 I filed for conscientious objector status, and was honorably discharged that April.

My application included a 26-page single-spaced list of stories I’d been told of the crimes soldiers said they’d committed. I finished it off by saying I did not believe, could not possibly believe, that I could do much good for the country by helping the U.S. Army destroy free speech and beat up civilian women.

I believe they were happy to see me go without a trial — especially given that my statement, and therefore that list of crimes, would have become public record.

So what I want to say to people who question whether some police or soldiers break ranks out of conscience is that yes, absolutely, some of us cross that line, turn around and face the other direction. Because sometimes it does the country more good to be in rebellion than in compliance, or obedience, or to fall mute when conscience compels you to scream.

I’m utterly sure now that it’s better to be seen as the friend and compatriot of loud-mouthed, ‘unpatriotic’ hippies (undercover or not) than to be the most clean-cut, upstanding, baton-wielding uniformed destroyer of freedom of expression and freedom of speech — one of those freedoms being the right to be scruffy, and loud, and defiant, and to say, loudly and defiantly, that you will not tolerate abuse of power and privilege.

If there’s some essential message I’d want people to take away from this story, it would be, “Don’t let anyone convince you that protest isn’t patriotic.”

Sometimes the best defense a country has is its vocal, conscientious, contentious citizens. What we have now that truly matters — the rights and privileges we enjoy and treasure — came from ‘ordinary’ people who were extraordinarily driven to oppose violence, racism, corruption, the abuse of human rights, the destruction of the natural world and the lives dependent on its sanctity. Those rights weren’t handed out as ‘gifts’ from the government or the military.

They were won through struggle — most of it sans starched uniforms, spit-shined boots, clubs and batons. They were won by peaceful protest, by men, women, and sometimes children, brave enough to stand, without weapons, against abuse and oppression.

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