Podcast (VN-E46): “Arrested dozens of times, two years in prison” – Jim Albertini
Jim Albertini is a conscientious objector, lifelong strategist, activist, author, and director of the Malu-aina center for non-violent education and action in Hawaii. On multiple occasions, his actions have had substantial impact not only in anti-war demonstrations, but in challenging law all the way to the Supreme Court. Jim’s relentless determination to defeat injustice combined with his sense of humor is an inspiration.
“…Hawaii, I mean, it really is one of the most militarized places in the world. Over a hundred military installations, over 20% of the island of Oahu, that main island, is military bases.”
“So, we announced ahead of time in June of ’84 that the ship that would be coming in…well, we would have a nonviolent swimming blockade…and we were fished out of the water, and eventually prosecuted for violation of the war zone…as the key organizer, I was given the maximum sentence, three years in federal prison for the swim.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” We mark about 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Production assistance by Stephanie Atkinson. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
“The ‘ban and bar’ letter, I think banned me from about 40 or 50 installations, some of them I’d never even heard of or never were on…most ‘ban and bar’ letters are in effect for just a year, but the military claim I’m a lifer. Mine’s good for life.”
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Right behind the major’s desk was a file cabinet marked “top secret”, and the drawers were even open. Blood was poured over those files. And when he came back into the room, the look of shock on his face. We tried to tell him, “Look, this is a nonviolent act against the war with our own blood. Call the security. We’ll sit here, wait to be arrested all the way.”
Welcome to the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter-recruitment, draft resistance, and the policies of empire. I’m your host, Matthew Breems. This episode brought to you in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort [of Veterans For Peace].
Today on the podcast longtime activist, Jim Albertini. For over 50 years, Jim has been an activist in the heavily militarized Hawaiian islands. Arrested numerous times for his involvement in the peace movement, Jim was a relentless advocate for the anti-war movement during the Vietnam conflict. His organization continues to investigate and reveal the military’s environmental impact in Hawaii.
Jim, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast for this episode of Courage to Resist. All of our guests, we want to get to know you personally. So, give us an overview of your growing up years, and what transpired that propelled you to become an activist, in your case, against the Vietnam conflict?
Well, I was born and raised in a small coal mining town of central, Eastern Pennsylvania. That town was Mount Carmel, a town of about 8,000 people. And I learned a lot about social justice there of these big companies, how they treated workers. So, I think I had a sense of social justice early on.
But the real activism in terms of anti-war was in the ’60s. I went to grammar school and high school in a small town, Catholic schools right in the neighborhood. And then I went to Villanova University from 1964 to ’68. And it was during those years with, of course, the Vietnam War growing.
Two events before that had some profound effects on me. One was the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962, when we all had to take shelter. And the real issue was, was there going to be a nuclear war? And then a positive thing after that a year later was an encyclical written by Pope John XXIII, “Pacem in Terris”, “On Nonviolence”.
So, both the Cuban missile crisis on a negative side, or maybe on a positive side to inspire coming to terms with this reality of global extinction, but the nonviolence of John XXIII inspired me to really look into nonviolence. People like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, of course in the mid sixties was a profound experience with nonviolence.
So, in college, I studied theology and economics. There seemed like strange parallels there. A lot of the people in the economics section were really into the corporate mindset. They were headed for Wall Street and “Greed is Good” type of future. And those in my theology side seemed to be into very pious, kind of religious things. And to me, the two didn’t speak to me. I saw the theology from the Martin Luther King standpoint and Gandhi, a spiritual thing for justice and peace. And I saw the economics also as a thing for social justice, what’s good for the common worker.
In college, the Vietnam war was rising. And when I graduated, I had been involved in some anti-war protests. But when we faced graduation in ’68, we had to decide what we were going to do. I had some friends left the country because of the war. Others went in enlisted or were drafted. And some of us chose a life of resistance and were eventually jailed for quite a length of time.
I chose to file conscientious objector status. Because I had that training in theology, I could articulate my opposition from a spiritual standpoint to the war. In fact, the week I graduated from Villanova, May 13th of ’68 was the day that the Berrigan brothers, two priests and seven others in Catonsville, Maryland, went into a local draft board, took out the 1A draft files, put them into baskets, this is in broad daylight, working hours, and went out into the parking lot, poured homemade napalm over those files and burned them, and were jailed for their resistance. They were not of draft age, but it was clearly resistance to the draft of what they called human hunting licenses of people. So, that had profound effect on me, King and the Berrigan action. Really, this was major events that you never forget.
So anyway, I started teaching school after writing my conscientious objector thing. They didn’t act on it because teaching school was a necessity at that point. They was so short on teachers that they didn’t act on my conscientious objector thing.
Here’s a significant event. The first time I was really arrested was Veteran’s Day of 1968. Myself and two other teachers in this small town of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, central Pennsylvania, we decided to picket the draft board after school that day. We were in suits and ties and we went down to the draft board.
But we made two very strategic mistakes that day. First of all, we didn’t check out the terrain, what was around the draft board. So, we didn’t realize that around the corner from the draft board was a Vets’ hall. And by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon on Veterans Day, there were likely to be several drunken veterans in that barroom of the hall. And we were attacked by drunken veterans that day and beaten with our own picket signs. And that points to the second lesson learned, never make a picket sign out of something you won’t want to be beaten over the head with.
So, the funny thing of that day is the police came to this. We didn’t resist the veterans. We didn’t fight back to them. We took some blows, serious blows. Fortunately, none of us were seriously injured. But we all were thrown in the paddy wagon and taken to the police station. And then several community people came and said, “We’re eyewitnesses to this event. And those teachers, they didn’t raise a hand to fend off the blows. They were peacefully picketing. They didn’t agitate the veterans. They were just attacked by these group of drunken veterans.”
So, we were released that day. And in fact, the police said, “You can press charges if you want against these people that attacked you.” But we said we didn’t want to do that. But when they sober up, please remind them that there’s such a thing as a first amendment that they’re supposed to be fighting for. Since then, I’ve been arrested, oh, dozens of times for nonviolent actions, and again, spent probably close to two years in prison.
What were some of the other events that took place during the Vietnam era that you were part of, some of the other activism that you were part of?
Tell you a key one. I moved to Hawaii in 1970 after two years of teaching in Pennsylvania. And I taught school in Kaneohe on the island of Oahu. And that spurred me to say… protest of the war like it was in Pennsylvania, and the rural Pennsylvania was a little bit remote. But in Hawaii it wasn’t remote at all. It was very up close. And I don’t know how much you know about Hawaii. I mean, it really is one of the most militarized places in the world. Over a hundred military installations, over 20% of the island of Oahu, that main island, is military bases. It’s a big part of the economy there, so it really rules.
Was that a strategic move for you then to move to Hawaii because of these military bases?
It was, to be more directly involved in the war resistance, because I felt the rural part of Pennsylvania was a bit remote. And I knew people in Hawaii. But anyway, the most significant resistance action I guess I was involved in in Vietnam was March ’72. And I’ll tell you what it was. In short, myself and a friend poured our own blood on top secret electronic warfare files at the headquarters of the Pacific Air Force. These were files where the targeting for Vietnam was all handled at the headquarters of the Pacific Air Force, Hickam Air Force Base.
Now I found out we could get on that base so easily. There were thousands of workers there. We were planning a Good Friday march to that base. We were going to March from Honolulu International Airport. And I got in the wrong lane of traffic. And before I knew it, I was waved onto the base. There’s so much traffic going in in the morning. I was able to walk into the headquarters of the Pacific Air Force.
So, I came back to our peace group and talked about this, how the access was so easy and what I saw there. So, that’s when myself and a religion professor, Jim Douglas, at the University of Hawaii, we decided we were going to carry blood. A doctor friend took small test tubes of blood from myself, Jim Douglas, and a number of friends where if we had access to some high level material, top secret files or something, we’ll pour our blood on there to say this is an active resistance to the shedding of other people’s blood by the pouring of our own.
So that day again, it was March 2nd, 1972, we drove onto the base in the midst of all the traffic, and walked into the building and entered the electronic warfare office. And there was a major sitting at his desk. And Jim Douglas handed him an envelope with our statement in it. And the major looked at it, didn’t say a word. It was directed to the commanding officer. And he went into the back room, I guess, to deliver it to the commanding officer.
Right behind the major’s desk was a file cabinet marked “top secret”. And the drawers were even open. Blood was poured over those files. And when he came back into the room, the look of shock on his face. We tried tell him, “Look, this is a nonviolent act against the war with our own blood. Call the security we’ll sit here, wait to be arrested all the way.”
How did the military respond to that action?
Well, we were charged. FBI got involved, and we were charged with destruction of government property and conspiracy to destroy, 15 years imprisonment facing. But anyway, we’re charged with these things, and our trial is scheduled. And it was an amazing thing. We had two former Nuremberg prosecutors volunteer to defend us in the court. During the whole week of the trial, every night was a big forum with hundred, up to a thousand people attending, and it was very moving.
But the long and short of that trial, the military, even though we acknowledged pouring the blood on the files, they had to bring these top secret files into the courtroom and introduce them as evidence. And once they did that, those top secret files become public. And we said that would be our evidence against the government on war crimes. The whole issue of electronic warfare, sensory devices, anti-personnel weapons, all of that kind of stuff will come out. So, the military knew they were in a problem. So, they said, “We’re going to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor where we don’t have to bring the files into evidence.”
And a very unusual thing happened in the criminal case. The defendants, we opposed the reduction of charges against us from felony to misdemeanor. Now you don’t usually have that happening in criminal cases. So, we wanted the files into evidence. But they reduced the charges, found us guilty of a misdemeanor. Wouldn’t allow any of the Nuremberg prosecutors to testify and any of that kind of stuff. Kept the war issue as remote as they could.
We were sentenced to a year probation and a $500 fine. We refused to pay the fine openly, but they didn’t do anything until the year later. And the year later when I was supposed to appear in federal court to answer for why I didn’t pay the fine, I said, “Well, it makes more sense to do another resistance action instead of going to court.”
So, I ended up amazingly in the office of the Commander in Chief of the Pacific. And I had an envelope addressed to the commander in chief. I said, “I’m here to see the Commander in Chief.” They said, “Oh, yes sir. Follow me.” And they took the envelope and escorted me through the mahogany doors down the hall right into the foyer of the Commander in Chief’s office.
And they gave the envelope to the major or colonel, I think it was in that day, colonel at the desk. And he opened it up, and it had a warrant to arrest the commander on charges of war crimes, Commander in Chief Pacific. And this colonel picked up the phone, and I could see his hand shaking, and he said, “Legal team, you better get up here. We have a problem.” And within a few minutes, lawyers and armed guards were in the office.
And I said I wanted them to call U.S. marshals to have the Admiral arrested for war crimes. I had a list of the charges in the envelope there all based on Nuremberg and other things. But instead of the Commander in Chief being arrested, he was Noel Gayler, I was hauled out of the office, but never arrested. For refusing to pay the $500 fine, I was given 90 days in jail and a $250 fine. I refused it. I did the 90 days in jail, refused to pay the $250 fine. And I thought I was going to be put back in again, but that’s still outstanding today.
After the Vietnam war, I was fired from my teaching job for that blood pouring. It was interesting. The University of Hawaii provided me office space to run a peace organization, do peace education work. So, I did that from ’72 ’til ’80 to when I started this peace farm over here on the Big Island. But that’s what I worked, doing research in education there for eight years. And while I was there, we wrote a book called, “The Dark Side of Paradise” about Hawaii and the nuclear world. It was all about the military presence in Hawaii, especially the nuclear weapons systems in Hawaii.
But I was feeling drawn more to the grassroots rather the academic setting. And one of our supporters said, “We have this piece of land on the Big Island. 22 acres we’d be glad to donate if you could make use of it.” And I said, “Sure.” So, we set up a non-profit organization called Malu ‘Aina Center for Non-violent Education and Action. https://malu-aina.org/
In 1978 when we were preparing, doing this book research, I found out that the military, the Navy, was building a major nuclear weapon depot at West Loch of Pearl Harbor, to relocate weapons from other depots around the island. They weren’t doing an environmental impact statement to look at the possible effects of airplanes crashing into that side. It’s very close to the takeoff and landing at Honolulu International Airport. What about hijacking or thefts or terrorist actions, or just accidents in general?
So, we filed a suit. And a federal judge dismissed the case out of hand. “Oh, this is military, nuclear weapon, secrecy. Case dismissed.” So, we were stuck. How are we going to… What are we going to do from here? Well, we’re fortunate. We got the Center for Constitutional Rights out of New York City. They volunteered to take the case on appeal free of charge. And they said to take this case, if it goes up to the Supreme court, this will cost a million to two million dollars. But they said, “We’ll take it because it’s an important case on the issue of environmental impact statements, national security, and secrecy.”
We won at the Ninth Circuit Court level, and they appealed it to the Supreme court. And the Supreme court ruled against us. They ruled that national security, secrecy, national security trumps all. The basic ruling said that the people of Hawaii have no right to know and nothing to say about nuclear bombs stored in their backyard. I was on the Big Island now since ’80 and full time since ’81. And in 1984, we had a nonviolent blockade of a nuclear warship coming into Hilo Harbor.
Now what makes this interesting is that in 1981, Hilo, not only Hilo, Hawaii island, which is called the Big Island. It was the first county, first municipality in the entire U.S., to pass a law declaring itself a nuclear free zone. But the military said, “Nobody’s going to tell us where we can go with our nuclear power or nuclear armed warships.”
They used to have these warships come in twice a year. One was for this Hawaiian festival in March, a Hula festival. And another one was for the Chamber of Commerce Festival in July of every year. They have open houses on board the warship. The Navy would participate in the parades during those events. So, it was a junket. Well, we had appealed to the Navy to please respect our law. Come as citizens if you want. Participate in the parade even as military people, but leave your nuclear warship in Honolulu. Well, they refused.
So, we announced ahead of time in June of ’84 that the ship that would be coming in for the Chamber of Commerce Festival, well, we would have a nonviolent swimming blockade. What happened first is the Navy asked the Coast Guard to declare Hilo Bay “federal security zone”, really in effect martial law, on the day that ship arrived. Anybody who put their toe in the water with a protest sign against that nuclear warship was subject to a felony.
That day, we had 500 people down on the Hilo docks. Three of us entered the water. We jumped in the harbor and swam toward the ship, which was still a quarter of a mile or more away, hands up to signify “Stop”. And we were fished out of the water, and eventually prosecuted for violation of the war zone. And the maximum penalty was three years in prison.
And as the key organizer, I was given the maximum sentence, three years in federal prison for the swim. Ended up in federal prison at Terminal Island in California and eventually Lompoc Prison near Santa Barbara. Fortunately, I was kicked out of prison after a little more than a year because of international protest. But still, over a year was a… it’s still a long time for a swim.
Another case that went up to the Supreme Court involves a free speech case. This is an interesting one on military bases. It was 1981. Again, at Hickam Air Force Base. Remember, Hickam was where the blood pouring was in ’72 on the files.
In 1981, Armed Forces Day, so that was May 20th of 1981, Hickam was going to have an open house event there and inviting the members of the public to come to their open house. 50,000 people attended that event. Seven or nine of us decided we’re going to go to the open house. And we’ll break into small groups and hand out leaflets as people are lining up to visit the warplanes.
So, we go on the base, waved on just like everybody else. And within a few minutes of us trying to hand out leaflets, we’re all handcuffed and taken into custody and kept for the whole day of the open house. Released about 5:00 PM that day. The military said, “Well, you can’t be leafleting here.” We said, “It’s an open house. The public’s invited. Free speech should apply.” “No, no, no. It’s our event.”
Anyway, about two months later, a friend drives into our farm and said, “Hey, it’s on the radio that there’s a warrant out for your arrest. They’re going to prosecute you for leafleting at that Armed Forces Day event. The charge was violating a “ban and bar” letter that was issued to me in 1972 for that anti-Vietnam War protest.
Now this is interesting. The “ban and bar” letter, I think banned me from about 40 or 50 installations, some of them I’d never even heard of or never were on. I think it included Wake Island or Midway Island. But I was given a “ban and bar” letter. Now most “ban and bar” letters are in effect for just a year, but the military claim I’m a lifer. Mine’s good for life.
Anyway, I was found guilty. And the ACLU in this case, they handled the case on appeal. My conviction was overturned at the Ninth Circuit Court this time. They said the only reason you even knew Albertini, out of one of 50,000 people, had a “ban and bar” letter was because he was exercising free speech rights at an open house event. Ninth Circuit said to the military that, “You, in effect, turned that portion of the base into a public fairgrounds for the day where free speech rights will have to apply. And Albertini didn’t go beyond the confines of that public area, so he had the right to be there to exercise free speech. So again, a victory. Conviction overturned.
And the military appealed that to the Supreme Court, and it took several years. So, that was ’81. I think it was ’85 when the Supreme Court, again, reversed and upheld my conviction, and basically giving the military carte blanche power to issue these “ban and bar” letters to anybody, whoever they want, for whatever reasons, to be kept in effect for as long as they want, and even to be used at basic public events where the public’s invited onto the base to suppress free speech.
So Jim, what’s some of the ways that you’ve remained active in the more recent decades?
Every Friday, since 9/11, we’ve held the peace vigil in downtown Hilo at the federal building. I think I have the leaflet, yesterday’s leaflet right in front of me here. It was the 1,059th week. Every week I write a new leaflet. And we post them on our website and social media. They’re sent out broadly by email all around the world. Sometimes they’re published in peace journals in Europe, put them on Facebook. And we hand out a few hundred copies at the post office, although I’m trying to get people more to subscribe to our website so I don’t have to print out so many. Save paper. But that’s one of the things we’re doing. Still a lot of concern on nuclear arms, climate change.
And then the issue I would focus on here, the biggest military installation in Hawaii is called the Pōhakuloa Military Training Area. It’s 133,000-acre live fire area for Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. And they’ve used all kind of weapons up there since the ’40s, including depleted uranium weapons.
And this DU, it’s a metal. And when it’s hit with high explosive, it burns and turns the metal into DU oxide particles, these tiny dust particles that can be carried all over the island by the winds. And they’re very serious cancer causing substances. We’ve documented not only various high explosive type weapons, but chemical, biological weapons have been used here on this island, including Sarin nerve gas tested here.
So, the military has done an awful lot here under the cover of secrecy. We want to shut that base down, that Pōhakuloa training area. We want to force the military to clean up the island, because they don’t clean up after themselves. One of the things we research, our organization here, I’ve documented 57 present or former military sites on this island that are really toxic sites. Former bombing ranges, some of the ones where they use that chemical, biological weapon site. And the military just walks away from these sites and doesn’t do anything.
Well, Jim, I just wanted to thank you so much for taking time to speak with me today and on the podcast about this, and thank you for your important activism that you’ve done for all these many, many years.
You’re welcome, Matt, and thanks for sharing. And I hope it gives some inspiration. We need the next generations of activists to carry forward, to complete the work that we can’t get done in our lifetime.
This podcast is Courage to Resist production recorded and edited by Matthew Breems with special thanks to executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.