Peace and War in the Heartland - Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb 6, 2008

Heartland activists reunite

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Three members of the Minnesota 8, from left to right, Don Olson, Bill Tilton and Frank Kroncke. They have formed a new organization called Peace and War in the Heartland, which will include campus discussions, exhibits and a play about their lives month sponsored by the History Theatre.

A group of 1970s war protesters known as the Minnesota 8 are back together with a message of activism. The men hope to inspire young people to speak about their convictions and get involved politically.

 

Seven of the 8, circa 1970

Cheryl Walsh Bellville

By JON TEVLIN jtevlin@startribune.com   Wednesday, February 6, 2008 Minneapolis Star Tribune

In 1970, they were young idealists, "sons of the establishment" who were fed up with the war in Vietnam and fueled by a radically changing culture.

Today, more than three decades after being caught raiding draft boards, charged with "sabotage of the national defense" and sentenced to prison, the protesters who became known as the Minnesota 8 and drew national attention are back, sans one.

Led by former monk and seminary student Frank Kroncke, the group has formed a new organization called Peace and War in the Heartland, which will include campus discussions, exhibits and a play about their lives this month sponsored by the History Theatre.

They hope to link Vietnam to the war in Iraq and provoke discussion and activism by young people.

The group will launch with a fundraiser Thursday at the Cabooze bar in Minneapolis, and later will sponsor a discussion with Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Ellsberg, who testified in one of the trials, says he was inspired to turn over the documents partly because of the actions of the Minnesota 8.

Bungled burglary

On July 10, eight men broke into draft board offices in Little Falls, Alexandria and Winona, intending to destroy records and save draftees from service in Vietnam.

But the feds were waiting. Kroncke, Bill Tilton, Chuck Turchick, Mike Therriault, Brad Beneke, Don Olson and Pete Simmons were charged with "sabotage of the national defense." They were convicted of burglary and each served 14 to 20 months in prison.

Another burglar, Cliff Ulen, pleaded guilty and was placed on parole; he's not involved in the current project. Others successfully destroyed records elsewhere and were never caught.

Several of the defendants also "took moral responsibility" for earlier raids in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where as many as 10,000 draft records were destroyed. They were never charged for those raids. But the federal government took notice, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reportedly sent 100 FBI agents to Minnesota to investigate.

The arrest of the eight prompted large demonstrations on their behalf. But there was also wide criticism. The tide had not yet turned against the war, and some people carried signs that read: "Hang the Minnesota 8."

Thor Anderson, who later became a district judge, prosecuted some of the cases and recalls the intense coverage of the event. Now retired, Anderson said they tried the case dispassionately and tried to keep politics out.

"We tried to keep the Vietnam war out of it," said Anderson. "A person's political views are not an excuse for criminal behavior."

While Anderson acknowledges some jurors may have sympathized with the defendants, he did not. "These people did a lot of damage," he said. "They really screwed things up.''

Disappointed in protesters

John Abrahamson was the deputy director of the Selective Service for Minnesota at the time, but knew several of them from campus debates.

"We held opposite views," said Abrahamson in a recent interview. "It was a healthy situation. I was disappointed when I found out who did the damage."

Even though the raids were foiled and despite Anderson's intentions, the Minnesota 8 trials focused on the war and its morality. Kroncke argued his religious beliefs obligated him to try to upend the conflict.

"We caught a crest,'" he said.

"We were nonviolently trying to raise the stakes of our opposition to the war," said Olson, who counseled draft resisters. "We'd been demonstrating for years. This was one more thing we could do."

Ironically, the raids were considered "violent" acts, and the seven were sent to prison. Tilton became a leader in prison and read voraciously. "I came out a better person," he said.

Olson said time behind bars exposed him to different kinds of people, but also taught him to put up a protective shield.

"The whole trial-and-prison thing crushed me," said Kroncke. "I lost my church. I lost my country. In prison I stopped taking visitors. I didn't read. I went into the dark night of the soul" which lasted for 10 years.

Going their separate ways
Kroncke eventually went on to sell encyclopedias and into business. Tilton became a lawyer. Olson stayed active in progressive movements. One of the Minnesota 8 even became a professional gambler.

Life may have worn away some of the sharp edges, but vestiges of the radical rhetoric and passionate philosophy remained during a recent meeting with three of those convicted in the draft raids.

Olson is prone to rant about "corporate overlords" and Kroncke, a large man with a booming voice, is passionate about drawing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq.

"One of things that happened in the '60s is people in families stopped talking to each other," Kroncke said. "It was painful to talk about the Vietnam war like it's painful to talk about Iraq today.

"What I hope the play can do is start families talking and provide a context for intergenerational dialogue."

The play, "Peace Crimes: the Minnesota 8 vs. the War," is based on a memoir by Kroncke. It opens Feb. 22 and runs through March 9 at the University of Minnesota's Rarig Center.

"We needed to keep telling this story," Kroncke said. "I hope, as small as it is as a catalyst, the play and other things we are doing will begin to set a fire somewhere."

Jon Tevlin 612-673-1702

 

 

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