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Patriot Acts

Recalling the country’s most notorious, and least likely, draft raiders

Patriot Acts
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville
The raiders, at the time of their trials in 1970.

(page 1 of 2)

AT THE TIME OF THEIR ARREST in 1970, about the only thing the Minnesota Eight agreed on was the value of raiding draft boards: Breaking into government offices and destroying draft cards so that young men might be spared from fighting in Vietnam. After serving their time, the activists went their separate ways.

Frank Kroncke, for instance, left Minnesota for a life in sales and marketing—for a time he was selling encyclopedias door to door. Bill Tilton became a St. Paul attorney and prominent Democratic supporter. Brad Beneke headed for Los Angeles and a career in rock music, but soon returned and is now in high-tech software sales. Don Olson helped launch the Minneapolis food co-op movement and hosts a weekly talk radio show, on KFAI, about politics.

But lately the Eight—or seven, actually, as the only member to plead guilty got out of jail time and didn’t stay in touch—have been reunited, brought together by a play about their draft-raiding days, called Peace Crimes, staged this month by the History Theatre at the University of Minnesota.

From right to left: Don Olson, Brad Beneke,
Frank Kroncke, Mike Therriault, Bill Tilton,
Chuck Turchick, and Pete Simmons.
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville

It’s a snowy evening in November, and five of the Eight have gathered at Tilton’s home to swap war stories. Apart from Olson, who sports a bushy gray beard, the men have collectively shed about eight feet of hair since the raid that put them behind bars. Tilton, a garrulous outdoors type who recently spent six weeks kayaking around Greenland, sets out bottles of wine, and soon the group is excitedly discussing President Bush and Iraq as though working themselves up for another raid.

“The culture of violence has only gotten stranger,” says Pete Simmons, who now works with Peace in the Precincts, a political group advocating national security through nonviolent means. “When people believe militarism is the same as patriotism, they give up their liberties in hope that the military will protect them.” Everyone guffaws in agreement.

“It’s essentially American to dissent!” cries Kroncke, and his fellow raiders hoist their glasses in solidarity. With a clarity they never had while burglarizing the government—“sabotage of national defense materials” would be the charge in a trial that attracted the attention even of President Richard Nixon—they are certain now of their rightful place in history, if on the wrong side of the law. “Young people resisting illegitimate authority,” says Kroncke, “that’s the American story!”

In early 1970, before the Kent State killings, before Watergate, before the release of the Pentagon Papers detailing America’s conduct in Vietnam, it was much less obvious who was in the right.

Back then, Kroncke was nobody’s idea of a radical. A former monk and seminary student, the son of New Jersey Republicans, he believed in the goodness of God and government. He was the program director at the Newman Center—the Catholic student organization—at the University of Minnesota.

Kroncke was fascinated by Father Philip Berrigan, the pacifist priest who led draft board raids along the Eastern seaboard and once even defaced Selective Service records with a red liquid made partly from his own blood. Berrigan’s organization, the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, inspired the parent group behind the Minnesota Eight: the Minnesota Conspiracy to Save Lives. Yet for a long time, Kroncke considered Berrigan an extremist, and limited himself to counseling U students on how to avoid the war.

Most of the Eight were similarly conflicted. They were ages 19 to 26 at the time of their arrest—athletes, graduate students, “sons of the Establishment,” according to Molly Ivins, who covered their trial as a cub reporter for the Star Tribune. They looked less like revolutionaries than fraternity brothers. In fact, several were. “I was middle class in a middle-sized city in the Midwest,” says Tilton, who served on the Inter-Fraternity Council at the U and as vice president of the Student Association. He cooled several confrontations on campus between protestors and police. But he also tended bar at a college hotspot. “It was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” he says of his life then. “Politics was just on the side.”

If there was a ringleader among the Eight, it was Olson. He had gone from president of his fraternity, headed for a diplomatic career in Washington, to full-time activist. At the Twin Cities Draft Information Center, he helped advise hundreds of inductees as well as draft resisters every week. He had connections throughout the radicalized West Bank of Minneapolis—“hippiedom,” as Tilton puts it—and soon enough drew Beneke, Simmons, and others into the fold.

By early 1970, after Nixon had secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia and a friend of Kroncke’s—a leader of the Chicago Black Panthers—was brutally shot to death by law enforcement, Kroncke was convinced that resistance to the government was not just patriotic. It was a good Catholic’s obligation. Though they couldn’t even agree on whether the draft should exist, the Eight began crossing over to real radicalism. “We had done everything a concerned citizen could do,” says Kroncke. “Then we moved into moral outrage: ‘Shut the system down!’ It was the best we could do.”

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Feb 7, 2008 11:55 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

This is a message for Mike - I'm sure you don't remember me but I was a friend of Bob Highfield's way back when I met you. At the time of your arrest I was shocked that you would have been involved with the break in since my impression of you was not one of an activist. Looking back, I applaud what you guys did.
Take care and God bless you!
A friend.

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