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CHAPTER 5 The stockade in mid-October continued its decline. The population swelled to 140 in a facility built for a maximum of 80. Bedlam and cruelty seemed to be the Army’s goal. Father Mark Sullivan, a Catholic priest, and regular visitor for a year, made this assessment of the situation in Ramparts Magazine. Only by visiting and talking with the men inside the stockade can you begin to grasp their torment, and even then I doubt if it’s possible to realize what it must be like to live in those conditions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The physical and psychological conditions are such that it takes an extremely strong person to keep his head straight if he is kept in the stockade for even relatively short periods. The prisoners are thought by many of their guards to be less than people and are treated accordingly. There seems to be a constant effort to break them down. The rules of the stockade are continually changed, usually quite arbitrarily, a device well calculated to increase the confusion of those who must obey or be punished. I myself asked for a copy of the rules on several occasions but so far nobody has been able to locate them. These are men on the hard edge of society under continual demonic pressure to force them over that edge. Most of the soldiers were not incarcerated because of major felony convictions. In fact, most had only been charged with simple AWOL (absent without leave) and were awaiting trial. Many had been diagnosed with mental illness and promised treatment they never received. The guards constantly baited them with confusing orders resulting in additional charges for many and further despair. Lindy and his cellmates often witnessed unstable prisoners being beaten by guards who openly believed they all should be shot. These incarcerated boys bore constant witness to suicides and attempts to achieve that end. The methods, crude and horrifying, brought success for a few but more often only further enraged the commanders, resulting in summarily treating them for their various injuries and then punishing them further. Young, confused adolescents, pushed to the brink, tried ending their misery by cutting their arms and legs, hanging themselves, drinking oven cleaner and other poisons. One private stuck a spike in his vein and drained off a quart and a half of blood before he was taken to the hospital. As penalty, survivors then spent time in “the box,” a solitary cell 4½ by 5½ by 8 feet, painted black with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Without so much as a toilet inside that cramped space, the confined had to pound on the door sometimes for hours to get the guards’ attention. Often ignored, men sometimes had to relieve themselves on the cramped cell floor and then sleep in their own filth, without the comfort of even a blanket. The tipping point came on October 11, 1968.
Almost all the prisoners suffered from unstable childhoods, broken homes, or other mental stresses. Their conditions were exacerbated by the oppressive treatment meted out by guards and officers alike. One prisoner recognized as the most mentally disturbed by his fellow inmates was a slightly built, boy-faced 19-year-old private named Richard Bunch. After joining the service along with a buddy, Bunch had second thoughts and went AWOL. For weeks, he wandered the streets of Haight-Ashbury sampling any drugs offered. One day he turned up at his mother’s house in Dayton, Ohio. She barely recognized her own son. Babbling incoherently about having died twice and being reincarnated as a warlock, she attempted to have him hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. But, no public or private institution would accept an AWOL soldier. As a last resort, she called the Army and received a written statement promising her son would receive psychiatric care if he turned himself in. Upon his surrender, he was promptly thrown into prison in Ford Meade, Maryland, and subsequently transferred to the Presidio. Contrary to what the Army had promised, he never received any care for his obvious mental illness. His already miserable fellow prisoners were further tortured by enduring Bunch sitting lotus style on his bunk for hours at a time rocking and raving about his reincarnations and claims he could walk through walls. His frantic screams at night sometimes left the whole stockade unable to sleep. One day, Bunch asked another prisoner if he knew of a foolproof way of committing suicide. “Yes,” he was told, in jest, “just run away from work detail.” On Friday, October 11, 1968, Bunch, along with Lindy and two other men, walked from the stockade to the offsite hospital for work duty. Lindy overheard Bunch ask the guard, “If I run, will you shoot me?” The guard replied, “You’ll have to run to find out.” Lindy Blake, in a sworn statement, later told the authorities that standing alongside Bunch he heard him yell, “Aim for my head,” and watched him take off running. Lindy also testified he heard a loud click come from the guard’s 12-gauge shotgun and when Bunch was only thirty feet away, the guard pulled the trigger, killing him with a bullet in his back. Later, under oath, Lindy declared, “The guard never gave Bunch an order to halt.” As word of the shooting reached others in the stockade, their rage boiled over. One of them found a note on Bunch’s bunk scribbled in his own handwriting, saying, “Well, if you’re not going to give me love at least do me the favor of complete elimination.… Fuck it, it ain’t worth living. I’ve got one click and it’s over.” Quietly, the very same day, his death was declared a ‘justifiable homicide’ by stockade officials. By evening, his fellow prisoners were so overwrought that an officer caught wind of threats vowing to burn the whole place down. The terrified young boys knew Bunch had been murdered. They all wondered who would be next? Duly alerted, the 25-year-old commander came to warn everyone that if there was any more talk of trouble, consequences would be severe. They would be charged with mutiny. Some of the prisoners asked for forms requesting to meet with the press and other officers. They wanted to give their account of the supposed justifiable homicide. They were all denied. On Sunday, the memorial for Richard Bunch was not well attended by fellow inmates. In protest, some fashioned arm bands and used shoe polish to color them black. While marching to the service, guards confiscated their handiwork and returned the offenders to their cells. Bunch’s fellow prisoners that did attend were horrified when they heard the presiding chaplain say that Bunch had died while escaping and that it was nobody’s fault. That same day, a well-known San Francisco human rights attorney, Terry Hallinan, showed up at the Presidio to confer with some prisoners he represented. An additional fifty inmates stood in line to see him that afternoon, but the day before the Army had decided to severely limit access to outside counsel. While being escorted out, Mr. Hallinan loudly repeated his name and the spelling, promising to help with their cases. But, this was a story the military did not want leaked. In a futile attempt to contain the growing anger, the regular Sunday night movie was cancelled. “No big loss,” the inmates commented to each other, “The only films allowed are religious or authoritarian anyway”. But all weekend long, conversations continued among the agitated men. What did a call to action look like? In the end, they decided to take a page straight from the playbook of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. They would stage a nonviolent sit-in. Mutiny charges were brought for violent acts. they reasoned, not peaceful ones. Naively. they decided to sit down on the Monday morning detail and vowed not to move until their grievances had been heard. Surely Americans couldn’t be treated this way. They wanted some kind of official record documenting the reasons they were dissenting. All the injustices had to stop. They jointly drew up a list of seven demands. 1. Elimination of shotgun details 2. Psychological evaluation of all prisoners and guards 3. Removal of racist guards 4. Rotation of guards to prevent targeted antagonisms 5. Better sanitary facilities 6. Decent and adequate food 7. Approval of interview requests with the press to give their version of Bunch’s slaying
Monday, October 14, 1968, dawned clear and cool, the air charged with apprehension and fear. All the men shifted nervously while standing in formation for roll call. No one was sure who would actually carry this act out. After all the soldiers acknowledged their presences, twenty-seven inmates, including Lindy, left formation. Calmly they walked over to a grassy area, sat down in a circle, entwined arms, and started singing We Shall Overcome. When the commander arrived, the protesters sang louder. Standing up, their spokesman started reciting their demand list. When interrupted by the officers, who accused them of mutiny, everyone sang louder. Summoned, official Army photographers showed up and began snapping shots from all angles. Firemen, ordered in with hoses, were commanded to dampen their spirits. The inmates kept singing…and the firemen refused. Next, a company of seventy-five military police arrived in full riot gear and gas masks and started carrying off the resisters. The protesters, as they were removed, one by one, kept singing. Of the 123 in the stockade that day, 27 participated in the demonstration, a remarkable effort given the fact there might be consequences extending their sentences. The protesters were all white. While sympathetic, those of color knew full well any punishment would be harshest on them and so they cheered in silence. It’s telling that the 27 represented an accurate cross-section of military prisoners nationwide. All of the prisoners, average age 20, accused of mutiny had originally been incarcerated for being AWOL. None of them came from wealthy or well-educated families. Only five had completed high school. Many suffered mental issues from childhood and several had attempted suicide while in confinement. Most had joined the Army with the promise of being given marketable vocational training. None had received the promised assignments. All were charged with Article 94, which read, ‘Any person, who, with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance, is guilty of mutiny.’ Mutiny carries the penalty of death. Reeling in disbelief, the dumbfounded 27 dissenters couldn’t fathom how their behavior warranted that extreme decision. There had been no charge of mutiny in the U.S. military since World War II. This non-violent act of defiance would come to be known as The Presidio 27.