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Mary Sharmat's Statement Regarding Her Civil Defense Protest

1959-1961
During the Eisenhower Administration, compulsory air raid drills were conducted annually in dozens of cities throughout the United States. By the end of the decade, citizens began to organize protests against those civil defense exercises. Mary Sharmat was one of the organizers.

By Mary Learson Sharmat

I read on a back page of the New York Times that a civil defense drill would be held the following noon. The public would be expected to "take cover". There would be a "danger signal". After an appropriate lapse of minutes, an "all clear" signal would be sounded. The public was asked to cooperate. Upon reading the item, somewhere in the back of my mind a memory or nine pacifists took form. They had refused to take shelter the year before and had been arrested in Ninth Avenue by the police. I then informed my husband that I, also, would refuse to take cover during the annual "Operation Alert" being held the next day. He took it standing up. I invited him to join me, but he said "no."

The reasons for my decision were not scientific, although it was clear to me that New York City would become a desert in the event of nuclear war. Or, the Hudson River would run into a great big hole. I felt that nuclear air-raid drills taught fear and hate towards an enemy. No enemy was coming to attack New York City, and I could not hate an unknown enemy in a nuclear age. I would disobey a bad law.

I telephoned and asked a few of my newfound friends in SANE to join me, but they declined my invitation. SANE was the first and only organization I belonged to, so it looked like I would have to go it alone with my young son, Jimmy.

My husband and I discussed the implementation and implications. As I had read about the nine pacifists being arrested, we could assume that refusing to take shelter was against the law. We got five hundred dollars out of the savings account for bail money. I prepared an overnight case for jail including baby foods and plenty of extra diapers for my baby son. I called the City Desks of all the newspapers informing them of my intentions and the location. The location was to be on the bench by the Civil Defense truck at the center island of Broadway and 86th Street. I prepared a roast beef for my husband and his brother, who would be joining Bill to see me off for civil disobedience. If I were to be in prison for awhile, they would have plenty of roast beef for sandwiches.

For the occasion, I wore a black and white checkered cotton suit with matching red accessories. Jimmy wore a new blue linen outfit that looked adorable. When arrested, we would appear our very best. Newspapers could never identify us as "beatniks."

At 11:30 AM Jimmy, snug in this stroller, and I headed up 86th Street and Broadway, two blocks from home. I found an empty seat right in the center of the island and practically on the bumper of the Civil Defense truck. I tried to look innocuous. I pushed Jimmy's stroller back and forth to keep him happy and gritted my teeth in determination not to become a coward and return home.

At 12:00, the siren started blowing. I sat. Men in little what helmets came out of doorways and frantically ordered people to take cover. People then crowded into the doorways and stood under the subway entrance domes. The Civil Defense men had noticed me sitting alone, but would first save the rest of the population. All the people were cleared off the sidewalks, pushed into hallways or under entrance canopies, and cars and traffic was halted. There was only Jimmy and I, two policemen safe in a police car, an elderly lady, and fifty men in little white helmets. All other human life was under cover.

The elderly woman was first approached. She explained that she was waiting for a friend for a luncheon date. If she left the bench. she would miss her friend, as they were to meet at 12:00 promptly. She appeared quite confused by all the commotion. The man in the white helmet screamed over the sound of the siren that was "Operation Alert," and that she must take cover immediately! Two men forcibly helped her across the street to the subway entrance and safety. She resisted all the way.

Then, a man came to Jimmy and me. He demanded that I take shelter, I said, "I can't take shelter. I do not believe in this." I had prepared my statements of length but at this point, I was in a state-of-semi-shock. These were the only words I could utter. He said "You are nuts," and then declared that unless I took shelter, he would call the police, I said, "Call the police." Another Civil Defense man came over to argue sense to me, and he screamed over the sirens. I just kept repeating, "This is wrong, I refuse to take cover." He was terrified of me, and I of him. Jimmy was frightened also. The sirens were unbearably loud. I gave Jimmy his bottle but nothing would stop his crying. Then a policeman got out of his car. He walked over and said, "Lady, we are going to give you a ticket." I said, "Give me a ticket." That was the least of my worries. He threw up his hands and got back int his car. Both he an other policemen waved and smiled at me. The Civil Defense men were furious.

By this time, the people in the doorways and the hallways, from under the subway entrance domes, offices and restaurants had all come out from under cover to see what the disturbance was all about. There must have been several hundred people lining the streets all watching the incident on the island in the middle of 86th Street and Broadway. The men from the local stockbroker's office left the stock tapes and came out from Loew-Neuberger. This is most unusual. The Civil Defense men ran and took cover. Jimmy cried and I sat.

The "all clear" signal sounded at 12:15 PM. At that moment, all traffic proceeded as usual. Commerce commenced and people continued their interrupted shopping. I picked up a pair of shoes at the repair show and ran a few other errands and then went home. My husband was surprised to see us. He had anticipated a call from the jail. He went up to the bank and returned the bail money to our savings account. I unpacked the overnight case and put back the extra diapers and baby foods. Jimmy fell asleep in his crib.

Later in the day, my husband picked up the early edition of the New York Times. There, right on the front page, was the picture of another young mother and her two children being arrested at City Hall Park by the police. Her name was Janice Smith and she had refused to take shelter at City Hall Park. Her statement read "All these drills do are scare birds, babies and old ladies. I will not raise my children to go underground." Certainly not a brilliant statement but many more words than I could have uttered. The story continued to tell how the police had arrested her and brought her to the police station and after a lecture about disobeying the law, released her. Eleven pacifists were arrested elsewhere in City Hall Park and were sentenced to five days each in the house of detention. The pacifists received neither a picture in the paper nor much attention in the wordage of the news story. Janice Smith and her children were featured on the front pages of four New York dailies.

My husband encouraged me to contact Janice Smith. "Find her." He felt that she was a woman who knew a great deal about public relations as well as feeling the same as I did about air-raid drills. She certainly knew how to obtain sympathetic and effective press coverage.

The next day, I proceeded to phone all the Smiths in the phone directory. I started with the A. Smiths. There are hundreds of Smiths listed in the Manhattan phone directory. Each Smith I called I asked, "Does Janice Smith who refused to take shelter live here? You can imagine some of the reactions. Well, Janice Smith was finally found. Her husband's first name is Jack. Therefore, I didn't have to go through the entire alphabet and call all the Smith's in the phone book. I was thankful that J for Jack is located in the first half of the alphabet.

It was a wonderful experience to speak with Janice. We both felt so completely alone. We told each other, in detail, just what had happened to us. Neither of us could stop talking. We were kindred spirits. There was not one woman who had refused to take shelter. There were two. And, if I wasn't alone, and there were two of us, certainly there were other women in this vast city who had refused to take shelter as well. Perhaps they had stood with children in the playground, the local park, and the neighborhood shopping area and likewise disobeyed what they believed to be a bad law. These women must have been seeking others to speak with, to join with, to share a belief with that civil defense was a moral wrong.

Janice and I would ferret our friends out. We had a strong weapon in the hand of any woman; the telephone. We felt that if we devoted an hour a day on the telephone for the next year, together our efforts would be able to locate eight, maybe ten, mothers who would agree to refuse to take shelter together in a group. Our goal at the end of our first telephone conversation was eight women for the 1960 "Operation Alert." Janice's husband was employed by the United Press International press service. Thus, our project would have to receive nationwide attention.

Then we found Pat McMahon. Pat and I traveled to the same playground at 83rd Street and Riverside Park. Pat had four children. We were chatting one day while the children were playing in the sandbox. Pat explained to me that she was a follower of the philosophies of Gandhi. She believed in the theory of non-violence. She belonged to an organization called "The War Resister's League." I told her about Janice's and my project. She would proudly join us.

And then, there were three.

Pat was able to obtain lists of names and telephone numbers of women from her organizations' mailing list. These women might be like-minded to the cause. We composed a letter addressed to "Dear Mother." Not being writers, the letter took weeks to compose. And-uneducated in the ways of Madison Avenue - it was three pages long. The letter was terse, emotional but sincere.

I called a Dr. Robert Gilmore, Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee here in New York City. I had met him once at a SANE meeting and he appeared to be a man who liked women. I explained to him that we had a desperate need for a mimeograph machine. After much hesitation, he agreed to see us. And, after several conversations and sessions together, he finally agreed to let us use the Service Committee mimeograph machine. This was a big break for us as we would be able to mass-produce copy to distribute to the public. Dr. Gilmore was very supportive!!

We had our "Dear Mother" letter mimeographed in bulk. Each afternoon Pat and I would fill her baby carriage full of copies and hand them out at the Riverside Park playground. We walked from playground to playground with the five children, her four and my one and attempted to enlist followers to the cause. Reactions varied.

Meanwhile, the three of us were also hitting the telephones. We discovered two mothers who had refused to take shelter by standing in the middle of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

We found, or she found us, Adrienne Winegrand, who took over the coordination of material distribution in Central Park playgrounds. Adrienne had a dynamic personality and was most successful at recruiting Central Park West women in joining a civil disobedience demonstration.

In six months, we were fifty.

1960 "Operation Alert" drew near. A series of meetings began to be held. At these meetings, we discussed how to dress (as if one were going to business or an afternoon tea. No shorts, slacks or sneakers). Also, how to behave (as ladies), what to do when arrested (cooperate if possible) and bail (a personal decision).

Each individual had the choice of three actions: 1. To join the protest, but to leave when the sirens sounded. These people could give out literature in the shelters and serve as baby sitters for arrested mothers who had to spend time in prison. 2. Two stay when the sirens sounded, but leave when personally asked by an officer of the law to take shelter, therefore avoiding arrest. 3. To refuse to take shelter under any circumstances, even when threatened with arrest.

We girls felt that no individual should feel qualms about a last minute hesitation and retreat. Arrest is a serious matter. Certainly our demonstration should be open to as many individuals as wished to participate to whatever extent they felt they could be involved. If a man or woman had a large family to support and worked for the government, this person was courageous to show up in the protest area and even for a few moments join with lawbreakers would certainly have a good reason to avoid arrest.

Two weeks before "Operation Alert," we had in hand 250 signed pledges of women who would refuse to take shelter at City Hall Park. Several Volkswagen buses were contributed to help us with transportation. We set up a series of bus stops to carry women and children to City Hall Park. One main bus stop was set up at Central Park West and the 93rd Street playground. Adrienne Winegrand organized this particular playground. Nine mothers who spent afternoons there were pledged to travel to City Hall Park to commit civil disobedience.

An orientation meeting was held at my house. Twenty-one women attended. Everything was discussed from what to wear to what to do when riot squad arrived and turned on the hoses.

Janice Smith sent our a mailing of maps. It would be a disaster, if the pledges got lost on the subway while trying to find City Hall Park and the chosen place of protest. Janice composed an eye-catching and meticulous map. Every subway and bus stop from all areas of the city was carefully labeled. No one with the map in hand could get lost on the New York Transit System. All roads led to City Hall Park.

I receive a phone call from the police headquarters. A letter had been written to the correct police authorities informing them in full of the project and our plans. Now, they wished to have further information. I was nervous, but the police chief on the other end of the wire was shaking with tension. He said that the police did not wish to arrest any ladies. He begged us to stay home. He was sincerely concerned about the children. He asked if there would be any resistance to arrest as the police found it most embarrassing to "manhandle" a woman. He was so relieved to hear that we did not plan to go "limp" and that we liked the New York City police force. The police were worried that in case of forced arrest they would grab a woman in the wrong physical area. I told him about the time the police had ben so cooperative in attempting to locate some lost jewelry for me. I tried to make clear to the police chief that we did care for them, we had no bone to pick with the police. We were sorry they were compelled to be involved with Civil Defense, and that our fight was solely with the Civil Defense authorities and the war effort.

Phone calls were being made until the last moment in the hopes of recruiting every last person who would be interested. Surprisingly, reactions on the other end were seldom hostile. Many women disagreed with the tactics but after discussion, they offered to baby-sit in case of arrests. Several husbands were very hostile, though, when various phone bills were opened. We had to set up a special fund to help pay phone bills.

I was unable to convince any of my neighbors to join me. My girlfriends here in my buildings were intrigued with the idea and followed the progress of the demonstration but at the final moment, all had excuses to stay home.

April 1, 1960: The weather was beautiful, a good omen for a big turnout for a demonstration on such an early spring day. I wore a large white hat trimmed in lace, a pink and white checkered dress with a wide full skirt. Jimmy and I took a taxi to City Hall Park even though we lived on the Upper West Side and from here to there, it was an expensive haul. I had the compulsion temptation to say to our cab driver, "Guess what? You are bringing passengers to City Hall Park to disobey the law. How do you feel being an accessory to the crime of fighting for peace." I wonder what his answer would have been to that question?

Well, everyone knows what happened on April 1st. I was not alone. Janice was not alone. The two mothers from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx were not alone. Over five hundred friends gathered in City Hall Park. Many men came down. Our skirts gave them courage. We loaned out extra babies to bachelor's who had the misfortune to be childless. Dozens of children played in an area designated "Stay off the Grass." Some of the students brought their musical instruments and softly played folk songs such as "We Shall Overcome" and "We Shall not be Moved."

At noon, the sirens sounded. We stood. Mothers with children, fathers with mutual deep concern bachelors who had hopes and a borrowed baby, maiden aunts who had no children but were taking care of the rest of us. We stood. There was dead silence throughout the park. Those who had planned to leave did not. Those who planned to leave upon being requested to do by police never were asked. My husband Bill, and his best buddy had traveled down solely to wish me good luck. They had no intentions of being arrested. They were never asked to leave by the police. The crowd was just too big and therefore stayed through the entire drill. So many others were in the same situation, therefore lending numbers to a mass. Across the street, on Park Row, stood at least two thousand spectators, all having left shelter to watch the arrests of those who refused to take shelter.

Twenty-eight arrests were made at random. The police were instructed to arrest those who appeared disreputable. We were not prepared for token arrests. The one woman who had attended the meeting at my house and who had not dressed "as if going to business" was arrested. She wore shorts and sneakers. Several women who were arrested panicked and went limp. More arrests would have been made, but the police only had two paddy wagons. One policeman was overheard to say, "Next year, we'll bring ten wagons."

Every New York daily carried the event in headlines. It was the lead news item on television news programs. It remained top news for a week through the trials, the sentencing, and the picket lines outside the Women's House of Detention at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. Civil Defense at last had become an issue. It was no longer ignored as an unimportant nothing to put up with because it was easier to do so. Legislators for more drills and shelters introduced Civil Defense bills. Other drills were introduced by legislators for the absolution of drills and shelters. Voters came back home at the polls began to care.

1961: Operation Alert" was held nationally and protest was held nationally with arrests made in nine states. Over two hundred and fifty people were arrested by token arrest in cities on the East Coast alone. Civil Disobedience against Civil Defense made headlines in every small town and metropolitan newspaper. The Manchester Union of New Hampshire had eighteen headlines concerning the arrests of nine students who had stood in the middle of the street on campus during the drill. New Hampshire State Governor Powell went on television (he paid for the time out of his own pocket) to ask for their expulsion from the University of New Hampshire. The President of the University refused to expel the students. He was soon replaced as President. At the next election, Governor Powell was replaced as Governor.

In 1960, compulsory Civil Defense was somewhat discarded by Civil Defense authorities. No "Operation Alert" was held in New York City. No more pictures of Mayor Wagner walking the deserted Times Square area with a walky-talky in his hand. We were informed by rumors that the fact that the 1962 protest was to be held in Times Square and gained the police on our side. The New York police could not abide the thought of thousands of women refusing to take shelter in Times Square. They dreaded having not abide the thought of thousands of women refusing to take shelter in Times Square. They dreaded having to arrest a woman who might go "limp." The police held a conference with us answering their questions, and we had to answer that we could not speak for every individual. At a later date, the police held a conference with the heads of Civil Defense, begging that 1962 "Operation Alert" to be cancelled.

The 1962 "Operation Alert" was cancelled. No compulsory drill has been held to this day.

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