Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Preemptive Arrest, Karen's Day in Court

During summer ‘66, my brother Jeff Sharlet lived and worked in Indianapolis (Indy), capital of Indiana. He was then studying for his BA degree at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington and needed income from a summer job. He found one as a locomotive fireman in the Indy freight yards. I asked my research assistant, Karen Grote Ferb if she remembered any stories of Jeff from that summer; here’s one of them she told me in her own words:

I set out one summer day to join a peaceful protest against the President of the United States’ Vietnam War policy, but never made it – I was preemptively arrested. This is what happened.

On July 21, 1966, the New York Times carried a front page story mapping a Midwest campaign swing President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) would be making for the off-year congressional elections. It would begin in Indianapolis, the very heart of that patriotic part of the country. The next day the IU chapter of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) circulated a flyer on campus calling for an antiwar demonstration planned for LBJ’s speech in Indy, 50 miles to the north.

The flyer read, “Since Lyndon B. Johnson has chosen to honor the citizens of Indiana with his presence, we feel that IU students who oppose his policy in Vietnam should show Him (sic) that we exist.” A copy of the flyer and related material found its way to the office of IU’s president, Elvis Stahr. It had been sent to him by the university bookstore with a note: “We found [these documents] … on one of our cash register[s] … and are sending them to you” [in case copies haven’t already reached your office]. The note went on: “We would like to add that we are strongly against the policies and opinions expressed in these communications and hope the University can curtail these as much as possible.”

I had planned to join the protest that weekend. I had already been in Indianapolis many times since Jeff started working on the railroad that summer. I knew he’d want to participate and went up that Friday after classes to stay with him at the house where he boarded. However, Jeff was scheduled to work that sultry Saturday so he dropped me off quite early at Monument Circle in the center of the city where LBJ would speak. About 100 activists began arriving from IU about 10:30 AM. By then the preemptive arrests had already begun. State troopers had relayed the license plate numbers of the cars from Bloomington to the Indy cops who were working with the Secret Service. Although the IU group had a permit and were assured they could peacefully demonstrate, the Indy police began arresting them as they arrived.

Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial, Monument Circle, Indianapolis

The few of us there early had staked out a spot a block from the circle—the pro-war John Birch Society was setting up opposite us. We were chatting while awaiting the arrival of the IU group and others when policemen told us we’d have to move back a block out of sight of the President, the press, and the crowd. Someone produced our permit and we remained in place. The cops went away so we figured we were OK. Talk about being lulled into a false sense of security! The police returned led by Chief Jones, a good-sized older man wearing a standard tan gabardine trench coat, a brown Fedora, and an annoyed expression. We asserted our right to be there when the walkie-talkies came out and three more men in trench coats and hats appeared. They were Secret Service.

LBJ addressing the crowd at Monument Circle*

A few moments later, police flooded into the area, and a paddy wagon pulled up. I stood quietly watching the scene, holding a sign upside down, resting it on the street, when a youngish, mild-mannered officer walked up, put me under arrest, and led me to the paddy wagon. I burst into tears, stunned and frightened, the first one arrested. Not long after that any of my group who refused to leave and move out of sight of the circle, were also arrested. As the paddy wagon filled up, each load was taken to a sheriff’s bus on a nearby side street, out of view of the President’s podium, where we were held until LBJ’s departure for a luncheon talk in which he delivered the ironic line “We will abide civil protest.” At that venue, a girl was arrested for littering after obeying an order to put down her sign. Six others were taken into custody for entering Monument Circle after LBJ and entourage (which included Indiana’s senior US senator who opposed the war) had left. Ironically, some of the arrestees were carrying one-word signs with merely the senator’s name, Hartke.

As time wore on, it became insufferably hot in the bus. Adding to the misery was a guy throwing up. He’d been arrested by mistake; he was carrying a pro-war sign. At the city lockup we were put into holding tanks, one for men, the other for the eight women, and given a slice of bread and some watery bean soup. When someone needed to use ‘the facilities’ (the only seat in the place, so we mostly stood, finding the floor a dicey option), we made a human shield for privacy. “We Shall Overcome” seemed like the right thing to sing, so we did.
Oh, deep in our hearts we did believe that we would overcome some day.
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) immediately protested the arrests, stating, “We will carry this all the way to the President.” In a letter to Indy Police Chief Jones, copied to the mayor and the governor, the ICLU president wrote:

It is incredible that responsible public officials would utilize the power
of their position in such a flagrant suppression of the efforts of the citizens to exercise their fundamental right of freedom of expression. Let us hope that this kind of harassment arrests will never happen again in Indianapolis.
The chief, on the other hand, said he kind of thought the roundup was a good idea, “Those people had some pretty lousy signs.” By mid-evening we were all finally released . A small crowd of supporters awaited us outside the jail. Jeff was outside waiting for me, quietly outraged. He seemed to intuitively understand how frightened I’d been and how anxious I was about the pending court case. What if I received a jail term? Would my acceptance to graduate school be in jeopardy? Jeff had to work the next day, Sunday, so I just hung out at the house awaiting Monday’s court appearance.

That Sunday’s New York Times gave our story brief coverage in the back pages preceded by how the President had vigorously defended his Vietnam War policy before a crowd of several thousand at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis, continuing:
Between 25 and 30 peace demonstrators were placed in a sheriff’s bus today and taken to the city building after President Johnson had spoken at Monument Circle. A sheriff’s deputy said the demonstrators might be kept overnight on a ‘charge of breaking up a public meeting’. The group had been kept a half-block from Mr. Johnson during his speech. One of the pro-testors….was Professor James Dinsmoor, Indiana University psychologist who was an unsuccessful candidate for a Democratic nomination for Congress this spring. Police Capt. Charles Sherman said Mr. Dinsmoor had been charged with interfering with the police.
At the time of my arrest, the officer charged me with disorderly conduct, but later at the trial when he testified, I learned I had also been charged with resisting arrest; he blatantly told the court that I had hit him with my sign. I was nonplussed and felt little satisfaction in my eventual verdict of not guilty. At the continuance on August 26th (the ICLU had filed a motion, overruled by the court, to quash the police affidavits), two of the 13 co-defendants were found guilty with judgment withheld; the rest of the cases were scheduled to be heard before a jury in early September ‘66.

The day after the arrests, one of the Indianapolis papers carried a larger story including the names of those arrested and a photograph of me front and center. I thought I’d better notify my parents in Michigan rather than have them hear about it second-hand from our Indiana relatives. My father, not known for taking time away from his high-powered position but for the direst emergency, immediately flew to Bloomington, demanding to know what I was up to and what all the fuss about Vietnam was. He listened intently, had nothing to say, but clearly was displeased with me. It took some time, but he finally came to understand.

Karen at the Indianapolis courthouse, July 25, 1966

Back at the university, Jeff asked me to relate my experience to an audience of our activist friends at the local coffeehouse. Sitting on a tall stool under a spotlight, I couldn’t see the audience beyond in the dark. I spoke maybe five minutes.

Karen concluded her story, “I had thought there’d be questions, but there was only stunned silence.”

*LBJ Library photo


  1. The IU CEWV held a demonstration and teach-in on Aug. 5 to protest the abridging of the participants' contstitutional rights. The group also established a legal fund for bond for the arrestees and for recovering losses inflicted by the Indianapolis police. Bond ranged from $100-$250, hefty sums in those days, especially for students.

  2. “The younger [Andrew J.] Jacobs [then an Indiana congressman] was tart when asked by a reporter for the Indianapolis Star whether there was any law that allowed arrest for holding such signs. ‘If there is, then I wasted my time crawling over half the mountains in Korea.’”


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.