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The Underground Railroad Rides Again

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Agenda Publications
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ANN ARBOR- The route from my house to my aunt and uncle's house takes me past a pre-civilwar era home which served as a way station on the underground railroad. In the front yard is a hitching post. Folklore has it that a ribbon attached to the post indicated it was safe for the conductor to drop off African people escaping from forced labor. They would be sheltered for a day or two until another conductor carne to carry them on to the next way station on the road to freedom in Canada. The house contains a hidden room where these people, who were stolen from their families and societies, could be concealed if necessary from authorities and bounty hunters. Every time I drive by that house on Pontiac Trail I experience a tingle of pride that I live in a community where some people were progressive enough , over 130 years ago, to be willing to risk their own freedom to assure that of others. In the 1960s I lived in Detroit and worked with the Resistance an anti-draft organization of young men who intended to refuse induction into the military, and their supporters. The Resistance engaged in numerous acti vities against the war including draft counseling, draft card burnings, civil disobedience at induction centers and draft board offices, destruction of selective service files, and the harboring of military résisters who were on their way to freedom in Canada or circulating through the underground in the United States. I was also proud to know and work with these neo-abolitionists. As the situation in the Middle East has heated up, more and more members of the military have chosen the course of resistance by going AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). And the underground has come to life to meet their needs once again. "The underground" sounds somewhat mystical and romantic. But it's really fairly uncomplicated. The AWOL soldier contacts a friendor organization they thinkmightbesympathetic. If the friend or group can't provide the service, chances are they know someone who can. Once underground, the soldier is delivered to someone willing to provide them with couch space and meáis for a few days and then pass them on to someone else who has agreed to do the same and so on. , The penalties for harboring a fugitive from "justice" can be up to five years in prison. But thechancesofgettingcaughtareslimiftheharborer exercises simple precautions. Only those who need to know should be advised of the visitor's true identity. To all others, he or she is simply a friend from out of town who has come to visit for a few days. The visitor is only kept in one place fora few days before being passed ontosomeone elsesothatthe authorities can't easily pinpoint the AWOL's location. The host at the next way station has been advised befo reh an d about the nature of the operation so that no one is deceived into risking the penalties; but in each case the person is simply passed on as a friend nceding a place to stay for a few nights so that the host can honestly claim no knowledge of the guest's illegal status. Homcs of middle class friends make the best shelters. The authoritics are less likely to have them under surveillance than those of known activists. Sending an AWOL through a small network of friends in the same order each time is also likely to arouse suspicion from those trying to break up the railroad. If one AWOL goes from House A to House B, and the next from House A to House Z, a discernable pattern isn't established. The larger the network, the less obvious it becomes that a particular house is a way station on the railroad. Eventually infiltrators are likely to be used as the authorities try to break down the network. They can generally be avoided by only accepting trusted friends of trusted friends. But some AWOLs are going to be people with few contacts. The individual host has to decide how much risk they are willing to take. They might be saving a life by taking in a stranger. And they might be risking their own freedom. With discretion and commitment an underground railroad can be built to serve during the U.Syiraq conflagration that is as effective as that which helped captive African people before the Civil War and the résisters during the Vietnam War. lts development has already begun. Reprinted from the Industrial Worker (February 1991), 1095 Market St., Suite 204, San Francisco, CA 94103 Every time I drive by that house on Pontiac Trail I experience a tingle ofpride that I live in a community where some people were progressive enough, over 130 years ago, to be willing to risk the ir own freedom to assure that of others. The penalties for harboring a fugitive f rom "justice" can be up to five years in prison. But the chances of getting caught are slim if the harborer exercises simple precautions.


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