One spring day, some 40 years after the turmoil of the Vietnam Era had died down, Ayuko Babu found himself in Venice Beach, examining a memorial dedicated to veterans of the Iraqi-Afghan War then under way.
Also present were several middle-aged African Americans who had come of age during the Vietnam War, many of them homeless, and eventually the conversation turned to these men’s experiences as combatants in that conflict, and the misfortune that had befallen them in the interim.
In recalling the events that led to their current destitute situation, Babu, a draft resister, questioned the rationale behind their compliance in obeying the call to arms. Their basic explanation was the desire to “not get into trouble.” Babu then noted that this wish to avoid punishment was actually the root cause of their decades-long condition of physical privation and emotional misery.
In some circles, the draft is associated with class inequity, as the working and lower class are disproportionally represented among the actual combatants in a given war. This sentiment has been echoed recently, during the course of the military intervention in the Middle East, by Korean War veteran and U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has suggested a return to the draft to create a more equitable make-up of the armed forces, more accurately reflecting the U.S. population.
To drive this point home, it might be helpful to peruse a brief list of notables who avoided participation in the war that caused so much dissension on the home front:
John Ascroft, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, and Karl Rove, student deferments; Pat Buchanan, Pete Coors, Clarence Thomas, and Donald Trump, medical and student deferments; Mitt Romney (exempted to spend his time as a Mormon missionary in Paris, France); Sylvester Stallone (Rambo himself) who fled the country to go to Sweden to coach girl’s volleyball; and Ted Nugent (classified “4-F,” not qualified for physical, mental, or moral standards).
Babu agrees with Rangel’s assessment: “It’s become a mercenary army—made up poor people and foreign people eager to get their green cards and citizenship, and bring their families into the USA.”
Of course, the most famous figure to emerge from the draft resistance movement of this era is Muhammad Ali. His landmark statement “No Viet Cong ever called me nr,” resounded among a generation of disenfranchised Black youth, helped lift him to the mantel of cultural icon, and the statement itself was propelled into the strata of mythology, where even historians are not sure these were the exact words the champ said.
Babu’s upbringing in Wyoming and experiences as an athlete (he came to Los Angeles as a basketball player for Cal State L.A.) increased his awareness of the racial realities and social injustice existing in the United States. These feelings were accelerated with the increase of hostilities in Indochina, and the push for equality across America.
His first formal conflict with institutional racism as expressed through the law came during a March 1965 “sit-in” (a form of nonviolent protest popular during those times) at the Federal Building downtown to protest the beating and tear-gassing of civil rights workers on “Bloody Sunday,” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. As one of the deputized officials kicked a female African American student, Babu grabbed and pushed the man away to prevent the woman from further injury.
“I was outraged that that this racist cracker would do something like this, and I was outraged that society would give him license to feel free to kick a Black woman in the stomach! This time, on my watch, this was not going to happen!”
He, in turn, was arrested and charged with a felony. Presiding Judge Charles Carr challenged the prosecution’s case, asking “why are you trying to give this kid a felony for what is essentially a fight?”
Instead, Carr administered a misdemeanor of simple assault and a six-month sentence for attacking an official on government property.
Babu spent his jail time on his bunk, eager to avoid the guards’ efforts to write him up for any infraction and extend his sentence ala “Soledad Brother” George Jackson.
After his release in November (four months and 18 days for good behavior), he immediately received a draft notice—since he’d lost his student deferment while in jail, a coincidence that suggests collusion between the state correctional system and the draft broad.
He, in turn, refused induction, joined the Freedom Draft Movement led by Levi Kingston, and his activities expanded to include passing out leaflets at the Armed Forces Center on Broadway in downtown, which instructed potentially service-bound men on how to avoid armed service. He also counseled draft-age African American men.
The next few years found him being drafted seven times, enduring multiple arrests, and a 90-day stay at the Wayside Honor Ranch in Castaic.
A reprieve came with his 26th birthday, which meant that he was no longer eligible for the draft.
Norman Otis Richmond’s parents, like scores of other Black folks, were taken aback by the brutal murder of Emmitt Till and similar incidents in the 1950s. Militancy was a trait that resonated throughout their family.
Richmond remembers, “My parents feared that I might [grow up to] be one of those Black boys that would be outspoken. Being outspoken is part of my DNA.”
This motivated the Richmonds to relocate with their 6-month-old son from Louisiana to Los Angeles, reasoning that the South was no place for a Black man likely to speak freely in the presence of White people. Life in Southern California was, to say the least, a different world culturally from the one they’d left. Young Norman was, by turns, swayed by the rhetoric of the Black Muslims via his attendance at Temple No. 27, and regular discussions about political events on the African continent. The assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961 especially impacted him.
Aside from these challenges to his political consciousness, the transplanted Californian cultivated talents in athletics (running the sprint relays in the Junior Olympics with future L.A. Dodger Willie Crawford) and music (singing first tenor and recording local hits) through his maturation at Fremont High and beyond.
Around this time, Richmond realized that ideologically he was closer to the tenets of Malcolm X than to Elijah Muhammad, whose teachings he’d been exposed to at Temple No. 27 at 56th and Broadway. These sentiments were nurtured by his enrollment at Los Angeles City College where he joined the Red Guard, a Marxist study group, and the presence of future Black Panther Alprentice “Bunchie” Carter, a sharp dresser with a flock of admiring girls, and whose willful defiance and natural charisma made him an icon for all the young Black men in the campus’ social circle.
In this circle, contemporary jazz musicians held a place of reverence far beyond that of mere entertainers; the 1967 death of saxophonist John Coltrane rocked the psyche of Richmond and his pals when they learned about it over the car radio while “cruising” Santa Barbara (now Martin Luther King Boulevard).
By the time he received his induction letter, the native Louisianan had come to believe that he and his kin were bona fide colonial subjects who were being actively persecuted. In this case, they were being maltreated by the very forces that wanted them to deploy and subjugate Asiatic peoples, who were more like Blacks than the former slave masters hell-bent on putting them in uniform to fight an unjust war.
“I knew the state would first sic their forces on my family. I, therefore, did not approach any family members. Most of my family felt I was right, but their thinking then was, ‘you can’t beat City Hall.’”
This mind-set led him on a bus jaunt to Detroit, a hitch into Canada hosted by a sympathetic Black family, and arrival in Toronto where he stayed for 11 months.
Yorkville, the Toronto district where Richmond landed, at that time was a bohemian mecca where he could renew his interests in broadcasting, journalism, and politics. Quakers, the local hippies, and a Jewish family aided his settling in. But his failure to pass the immigration test required to qualify for citizenship got him deported to Detroit in 1969.
Detroit, in turn, had always been a place Richmond had admired for its musical pedigree and the progressive nature of its radical politics. In short order, he joined the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which sought to address the anger manifested by the 1967 riots in that city (ironically started with a police raid on a party welcoming the return of two Black Vietnam veterans), and came under the influence of “General” Gordon Baker Jr., the well-known labor organizer and the first American to refuse induction to fight in Vietnam. “Let’s say I learned a lot in Detroit,” he says.
Curiously, Richmond never experienced persecution for either his draft evasion or his radical politics, he reckons, because they “had bigger fish to fry.”
In short order, the League fell apart, and he returned to Canada where he gained permanent residency in 1975. He worked as a computer operator and continues his musical interests in the recording industry (in 1983, he formed the Toronto chapter of the Black Music Association with Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records fame). Beginning in 1975 with his first publication in “Contrast,” an Afro-Canadian newsweekly, he has gone on to write for various publications, and worked for the United Nations during a cultural boycott of South Africa.
New Jersey native Wesley Jenkins was more preoccupied with chasing women and partying than politics during his initial stab at college at Tennessee State. His father, who’d noticed the stream of body bags that had started to filter in from Southeast Asia, however, met his alternative for military service with strict opposition. His parents’ own involvement with leftist politics was revealed to their son only after Jenkin’s radical activities attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Parental advice led him to Los Angeles, where his true radicalization began. An antiwar rally near Century City opened his eyes to police brutality in an urban area.
“I saw the LAPD mow down women and children and hitting everyone with billy clubs in sight, without any provocation at all. This terrorist action led to my understanding of the role the police played in protecting the interests of the state, and the ruling elite which controlled it.”
A pivotal point of this experience was the fact that the people beaten were White; a factor that continued to haunted the budding militant.
A 1967 speech by Ron Everett (aka Maulana Karenga) led to what he called “a spiritual-type conversion.”
“He spoke on the Seven Criteria for Culture,” Jenkins remembers, “and I felt this was a comprehensive approach to resolving Black issues and concerns.”
This led to an embrace of US, the Black nationalist organization headed by Karenga (creator of the African cultural celebration Kwanzaa), and entry into the Simba Wachanga, the group’s paramilitary arm for self-defense.
At this point in his life, Jenkins determined that he was not joining the mass movement to Indochina, and began to examine his options. As he was by far not the only one with this mind-set, an informal network had evolved to aid in avoiding the draft by leaving the country, a sort of modern-day “underground railroad” similar to the one that helped escaped slaves make their way to Canada in the pre-Civil War era. For Jenkins, this last resort was one he had never utilized.
US had its own counseling program for conscientious objectors, but his actual arrival at the induction center prompted him to take other, drastic measures. He relates this episode here:
“At first I told them I had flat feet, and was the only child of my parents, and there was no one else to carry our family name. They just moved me down the line with other recruits. Thus, while donning my Malcolm X sweatshirt, dark shades and bald head, I began to go into a spontaneous tirade, stating that I didn’t leave anything in Vietnam, and that I was not going to Vietnam to shoot and kill people who look more like me than the people sending me. I didn’t have any enemies in Vietnam. All of my enemies were in Vermont and Virginia. Ho Chi Minh is my hero, and I am against unjust wars. I conscientiously object to this war on the grounds of self-determination and creativity. Give me a gun to fight my enemies in Virginia, who are hanging Negroes.”
The prospect of a menacing, 6-foot-tall, 200-pounds-plus Black man sealed the deal, and got the would-be draftee what he wanted. In the span of one year, his selective service status morphed from “2-S” (student deferment), to “1-A” (eligible for military service), and finally to “1-Y” (a permanent deferment).
Jenkins, now officially Mwalimu Kabaila, channeled his social concerns into the political arena by moving east to link up with celebrated writer and activist Imamu Amiri Baraka (ne’ LeRoi Jones) to form the coalition that propelled into public office two Black Councilmen, and the eventual election of Kenneth Allen Gibson as mayor of Newark, N.J., in 1970.
All of this drew the scrutiny of the FBI, and this, in turn. cast light on the activism of his parents, who’d been involved with the iconic Renaissance man Paul Robeson some 20 years before, a fact they’d never shared with their only son. A contemporary act of consciousness uncovered a hidden family history.
A post-millennium recap…
All three of the resisters continue their participation in the social and political discourse. Ayuko Babu traverses the globe in his role as executive director of the Pan African Film Festival (see his page at https://www.facebook.com/ayuko.babu?fref=ts). The commitment to diversify the cinematic landscape is only one of this activist’s continuing pursuits. Norman Richmond is committed to endeavors related to activism, journalism, and music, and is about to embark on a foray into the exciting world of self-publishing (see his page at https://www.facebook.com/norman.o.richmond). Mwalimu Wesley Kabaila remains a frequent contributor to various blogs, and is an active commentator about events locally and around the African Diaspora (see his page at https://www.facebook.com/Simbamaat?fref=ts). When we last spoke, he was celebrating the graduation of his daughter, Mashariki Kabaila, from law school.
The individuals included in this narrative by no means represent a cross section of dissident voices of this era. They, more or less, emerged unscathed from the epoch, and have gone on lead productive lives. Others of their generation, subjected to government persecution, or just the stigma of bearing the label of “deserter,” wound up with emotional and psychological scars arguably as damaging as the physical ones suffered by their brethren, who actually set foot on this subtropical enclave, which was not even in the vocabulary of most Americans 75 years ago.