Trump’s ter­ri­fy­ing texts?

Women his­tor­i­cally push back against such scare tac­tics

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

At 2:18 p.m. on Oct. 3, most Amer­i­cans who own cell­phones felt their pock­ets buzz or purses shriek with the first ever wire­less “Pres­i­den­tial Alert.” Though it was only a test, the alert was an un­prece­dented gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion into our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. It brought to mind the now side­lined color-coded “Home­land Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sory Sys­tem” of the Bush era, which cable news net­works breath­lessly broad­cast to tele­vi­sions across the coun­try, warn­ing of “el­e­vated,” “high” or “se­vere” risk of ter­ror at­tack. Now, a pres­i­dent with au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies has the abil­ity to broad­cast sim­i­lar mes­sages di­rectly to the 95 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion that owns cell­phones. There is no way to opt out.

Of course, there is an ana­log prece­dent for such alerts. In the early 1950s, as the Cold War reached a fever pitch, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be­gan re­quir­ing Amer­i­cans to take part in an an­nual civil de­fense drill called “Op­er­a­tion Alert.” While air raid sirens wailed, res­i­dents of 60 cities had to stop what they were do­ing and “take cover” un­til the drill was over. They crammed into base­ments and tuned into civil de­fense ra­dio trans­mis­sions that would pro­vide in­struc­tions in case of an ac­tual at­tack. Fed­eral of­fi­cials hun­kered down in se­cret bunkers out­side Wash­ing­ton.

Civil de­fense drills have now be­come a part of our na­tional lore. Those who lived through the time im­part sto­ries to their chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren about what it was like duck­ing un­der their desks or rush­ing into sub­way en­trances. What isn’t part of the na­tional lore, how­ever, are the sto­ries of those who protested such au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, even­tu­ally stop­ping “Op­er­a­tion Alert” in its tracks. As his­to­ri­ans Dee Gar­ri­son, Tracy Davis and Joanne Meyerowitz have shown, the ear­li­est pro­test­ers were women and chil­dren.

When New York State passed a law di­rect­ing cit­i­zens to obey Op­er­a­tion Alert in 1955 or pay $500 and/or spend a year in jail, women who be­lieved the drill re­in­forced the idea that their chil­dren would have to grow up in a nu­clear-armed world, swung into ac­tion. On the day of that year’s drill, they printed and handed out fly­ers that read, “We will not obey this or­der to pre­tend, to evac­u­ate, to hide. In view of the cer­tain knowl­edge … that there is no de­fense in atomic war­fare, we know this drill to be a mil­i­tary act in a cold war to in­still fear, to pre­pare the col­lec­tive mind for war. We refuse to co­op­er­ate.”

At 2 p.m. on June 15, 1955, as the sirens echoed through the con­crete canyons of New York City, a hand­ful of fe­male pro­test­ers sat calmly on benches out­side City Hall. They prayed and med­i­tated as tele­vi­sion and news­pa­per re­porters swarmed around them. The po­lice moved in. They hand­cuffed 28 pro­test­ers and pushed them into po­lice vans. That evening, they came be­fore the judge, who or­dered each to pay $1,500. Then, he or­dered one of the pro­test­ers, 29-year-old Ju­dith Malina, to Belle­vue Hos­pi­tal for “psy­chi­atric treat­ment.” This set the tone for seven more years of protest.

News­pa­per and tele­vi­sion cov­er­age of the protests in­spired more women to dis­obey the drills. Mary Shar­mat, a young mother, was one of them. She de­clared to her hus­band, “Nu­clear air-raid drills [teach] fear and hate to­wards an en­emy. No en­emy [is] com­ing to at­tack New York City. … I will dis­obey a bad law.”

She knew she and her young son Jimmy would be ar­rested. She with­drew $500 from her bank ac­count for bail, packed an overnight bag with baby food and di­a­pers, then strolled Jimmy to the cor­ner of 86th Street and Broad­way, where she sat on a bench in the me­dian. When the siren sounded, civil de­fense of­fi­cers in white hel­mets streamed about. An of­fi­cer screamed, “Op­er­a­tion Alert!” You must take cover im­me­di­ately!” Mary re­fused.

The same day, Jan­ice Smith, an­other young mother and her two kids re­fused to take cover. As po­lice took them into cus­tody, she told them, “All th­ese drills do are scare birds, ba­bies and old ladies. I will not raise my chil­dren to go un­der­ground.”

By 1960, the move­ment, which be­came known as the “Civil De­fense Protest Com­mit­tee,” achieved wide pub­lic­ity. When the sirens rang that year, thou­sands stood in City Hall Park, singing “Amer­ica the Beau­ti­ful.” This time, they were joined by “fa­thers with mu­tual deep con­cerns, bach­e­lors” and “maiden aunts who had no chil­dren but were tak­ing care of the rest of us.”

News­pa­per cov­er­age of the protests spread across the na­tion. Col­lege stu­dents jumped on the band­wagon. By 1962, un­der sus­tained pres­sure and roiled by in­ter­nal di­vi­sions, the Fed­eral Civil De­fense Ad­min­is­tra­tion stopped fund­ing Op­er­a­tion Alert.

What will hap­pen now if there is a ter­ror at­tack or if an im­mi­grant deemed to be “il­le­gal” per­pe­trates a mass shoot­ing? Will the pres­i­dent de­clare a na­tional emer­gency, send­ing alarmist mes­sages into our pock­ets? Will peo­ple go to their cel­lars, get their guns and pre­pare them­selves? That out­come is much more likely now than it was just one week ago.

And who will stand up and say no? His­tory tells us that it will be women who don’t want their chil­dren to grow up in such a fear­ful world. Eric S. Singer (es­1355a@gmail.com) is an ex­pert on Bal­ti­more’s civil de­fense his­tory and the adapter of “The Un­told His­tory of the United States, Young Read­ers Edi­tion, Vol. 2, 1945-1962.”

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