They thought their protest against the Vietnam War would have short-lived repercussions.
Early that sunny morning 50 years ago, Les Bayless, who was 22, his brother, Jonathan, 17, and Michael Bransome, 18, entered the empty offices of the Silver Spring, Md., draft board. They turned over file cabinets, emptied their contents and poured buckets of paint and blood,including some of their own, over draft registration documents.
In preparation, they’d had their blood drawn the day before by Mary Moylan, a registered nurse and a member of the radical Catholic draft resistance group, the Catonsville Nine, led by renowned priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan.
When the three finished demolishing the draft records, they wrecked the office equipment, throwing typewriters out the windows. The destruction on May 21, 1969, took about 20 minutes.
Then they patiently waited for the police to come.
“We did the most radical thing we could think of to help stop the war in Vietnam,” Les Bayless said in an interview.
Bayless said his group, which was soon dubbed the Silver Spring Three, notified a few reporters affiliated with the radical publications Ramparts and the Guardian. The journalists took photographs of the Bayless brothers and Bransome ransacking files and pouring blood and paint in the office.
It took almost an hour for the police to arrive, followed by the FBI, who arrested and handcuffed the three, sending them to a federal jail in Baltimore. Jonathan Bayless, at 17, was considered a juvenile and was released. Les Bayless and Bransome remained in prison.
“I was very scared,” Bransome in an interview. “I knew there would be dues to pay.”
The 18-year-old had just dropped out of Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., to live in a D.C. commune filled with antiwar protesters, joining Les Bayless, and members of the Catonsville Nine, who were awaiting trial for torching draft files at a Selective Service office in suburban Baltimore. The two young men soaked up the nonviolent teachings from the Catonsville group along with writings by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
Bransome figured he’d serve about two years in prison, like other protesters he knew who were arrested for similar actions.
“You have to understand that between 1968 and 1969, thousands of young men were being drafted every day to fight and die in Vietnam,” said Bayless, who is now 72 and lives in Baltimore.
By 1969, the number of American military personnel in Vietnam had reached more than 500,000, and those killed had soared over 30,000. Just one day before the Silver Spring Three attacked the draft board office, American troops fought for 10 days to capture Hamburger Hill, one of the most famous battles of the Vietnam War.
“The war was raging all around us, and we were angry,” Bayless said.
The Silver Spring action was part of an antiwar movement called “Hit and Stay,” which the Catonsville Nine pioneered.
Participants destroyed war-related offices or equipment, and then waited for the police to arrive to arrest them. The strategy was to use the arrest and ensuing trial to gain publicity for the antiwar cause.
In 2013, Maryland filmmakers Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk made a documentary about the movement called “Hit and Stay.” To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Silver Spring Three protest, the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring will be screening the film Wednesday evening. Les Bayless will join the filmmakers at the screening.
In the days before copiers and computers, local draft boards kept Selective Service registrations on 3-by-5-inch index cards. There was no central registry in the United States, Bransome said.
“If you managed to spirit away or destroy the cards, you could keep someone from getting drafted since there was no backup system,” he said. “These actions had a very real impact on the draft.”
After their incursion, the Silver Spring draft board was closed for six to nine months, Bayless said.
The Silver Spring action was considered small by the movement’s national standards, said Kara Speltz, who lived in the commune with Bayless and Bransome. “But who knows what other person heard about it and said, ‘I can refuse to fight, too, I can stand up, too.”
After months in jail, Les Bayless and Bransome were tried separately. Bransome pleaded no contest in the fall of 1969 and was sentenced to three years at Robert F. Kennedy Youth Center, a federal prison in Morgantown, W.Va.
About 50 young people attended the trial of Les Bayless to show support. After he received nine years in prison for draft evasion, three felonies and mutilating government documents, the maximum allowed by law, U. S. District Judge Roszel C. Thomsen, who also presided over the Catonsville Nine trial, asked Bayless if he had anything to say to the court.
“Yes,” Bayless said, and he proceeded to throw his courtroom table in the direction of the judge. Guards jumped on Bayless and protesters chanted, “Right on!”
“My sister started kicking at the guards, saying, ‘Don’t hurt my brother!’” Bayless said.
Bayless was sent to a maximum security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., and ended up on the same cell block as Jimmy Hoffa.
Meanwhile, Bransome said he believed his life was in danger at the youth center in Morgantown. Two inmates accused him of being a communist and threatened to kill him just before he was to be paroled for good behavior. Bransome didn’t think the authorities could protect him if he told them about the threat. He went out on furlough two weeks later and decided to not go back.
“I was only 18, just a kid, and I just knew I couldn’t go back there,” Bransome, 68, said.
Bransome, who was raised Catholic, reconnected with the Catonsville Nine clergy who housed him in different cities around the country. While in a safe house in Cleveland, he dyed his hair blond, put on a priest collar and robe and began calling himself Father Richard Murphy. In this disguise, he crossed the border into Canada, then made his way to Stockholm in 1971. He was granted asylum in Sweden a few years later.
Bransome has been an exile in Sweden for almost 50 years now, and he has built a life there. He learned the language, went to college and eventually became a psychiatrist, treating survivors of rape and torture from around the world. And he and his wife have six children.
“For years, I missed the United States. It was my home country,” he said.
Yearning to see family and friends, Bransome unsuccessfully sought pardons from Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“I just never thought that our small action in Silver Spring, Md., would lead me into permanent exile,” Bransome said.
“But I still think it’s the best thing I ever did,” he added.
Bayless agrees. After serving four years in Lewisburg, he was released from prison in 1973 when the war was ending and he wasn’t a threat to the government anymore. He became a trade union activist and retired 10 years ago after serving as an organizer and steward for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
“I have no regrets,” Bayless said. “I stood up and said I will not go to an immoral war. I took a stand, and I’m proud of that.”
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