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Seizing the Statue of Liberty 1971: Three Days With A Lady
By Don Bristow-Carrico
I was on a VVAW operation at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during Christmas break of 1971. I went down from Massachusetts with a bunch of vets. I was busy working in the kitchen helping to feed everyone, as I had done on our march from Concord to Bunker Hill the previous fall.
During the night, a friend of mine from the Cambridge office took me to a big tent that contained a number of vets sitting in a semicircle. A few more came in, and we were asked to be quiet. Two vets from New Jersey started showing pictures of the Statue of Liberty and talking about taking her over as a protest. We were all sworn to secrecy and given the option to leave, but I, along with most of the others, chose to stay.
The next morning I boarded a van with a few of my Massachusetts brothers and Vin Maclellan from The Boston Phoenix, and set off for the "Lady." I asked Vin what he thought we would accomplish in terms of media coverage. He said that we would probably be arrested in fifteen minutes and it might make page nine of the Times if we were lucky. We arrived at the ferry terminal having been briefed on what we were going to do next. We went in two or three different boats so as not to be too obvious, and we dressed in civvies so that we would blend in better.
I took a recon on the island and found a huge column in the base that I could hide behind. I looked around and saw another brother behind the next column with his hand up to his mouth giving me the quiet sign, so I acknowledged him, sat down and waited. I could hear people going by on the tour only feet away from me. Peeking from behind the column I could see the spiral staircase practically above me. Finally, I saw a group come down followed by a female park ranger. I noticed some of the brothers that were in the tent were in the group. I thought for sure it was all over before it even started, but I hunkered down and waited for them to find me.
After a while it got very quiet and the lights started to go out. Wow, we made it! We had agreed to meet at the main desk area at the bottom. When we met each other we were all very excited and shared how we had hidden. Some had been hiding in the arm. They pulled the grate back and crawled in. I heard someone running toward us saying that a man with a flashlight had seen him, dropped the flashlight and ran. As the man left he opened up a door to the employees' lounge that we didn't even know about. This would prove vital later.
The man must have called the police, because the New York City Police showed up, but not before the New York Times arrived on a rented barge. The police told us that they had no jurisdiction on the island since it is a national park, but they did ask us to leave. We had set up phone communication between the island and the New York office of VVAW. When we took count there were fifteen vets and one radio disc jockey from an underground New York station.
We ended up staying for three days eating food we found in the lounge refrigerator. I suggested that we leave them some money for the food, and we left a note to the National Parks staff on the blackboard thanking them for the accommodations. We had turned all the American flags upside down as a distress symbol. A reporter from France told us that if we took a flag up to the head he would get it in every paper in the world. We put it up there and he did it! He rented a helicopter and got a great shot.
Since we had only expected to be at the "Lady" for a few minutes, we didn't have any demands. We only had a statement that said "we support anyone who refuses to fight" - in hopes of extending the Christmas cease-fire. The press was hungry for more information, but that was all we had. One person from the New York office claimed that we would stay until the war ended. No thanks, not me. We were told that the National Parks Service was mobilizing in DC and would be up in two days. Our lawyers told us we could stay and get arrested or walk out free. They felt that we had milked the press as much as we could and it would end up costing a lot to defend the "Liberty Fifteen."
We walked out to a press conference and a good meal and then crawled back into obscurity. An interesting sidelight was that the disc jockey just walked out with the lawyers during one of their sessions and the authorities didn't have a clue. We had also barricaded the doors from the inside, and it looked very fortified, but the doors opened outward. If they had tried to come in after us, the barricade would have fallen easily.
We all received Christmas cards from John and Yoko. I lost mine, as well as a lot of VVAW memorabilia, in a fire.
Don Bristow-Carrico was a member of the Cambridge MA VVAW Chapter.
He currently resides in Maine.