Revisiting the Ambush of September 1, 1987: A Metaphor/Myth for the Epoch We Call Civilization

September 1, 2007

“But for those who saw the terror on the tracks and the witnesses who watched it on television, it was like a metaphor of what happens to those who dissent from administration policies: They get run over….”

–“Body On The Line” by Brad Kessler, October 3, 1987, The Nation

The above quotation exemplifies U.S. American historian William Appleman Williams’ thesis that, from our very origins, any force interfering with the “American” weltanshauung, i.e., prosperity through expansion, must be assimilated, or eliminated. The Indigenous, African Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, labor unions, Vietnamese, among many, come to mind.

Religious historian Karen Armstrong (e.g., A Short History of Myth) describes a myth as an event that happened once but in essence happens all the time (i.e., serves as a metaphor). An occurrence, even as it might be perceived as an historical freak, needs to be liberated from the confines of a specific period/moment and brought into contemporary lives. Otherwise it remains a unique, unrepeatable incident. A myth demands action, ceasing to be an event in the past, becoming a living reality in every moment. It transcends space and time!

The myth of the hero is not about adulation, not intended to provide icons to admire, but designed to tap into archetypal characteristics of courageous empathy and equity that reside deeply within everyone. Myth motivates replication and participation, not passive contemplation.

THE CRIME OF SEPTEMBER 1, 1987: Sending a train at three times the 5 MPH speed limit with people known to be on the tracks in plain view while violating all safety/security requirements.THE CHARGE: Assault with Deadly Weapon; Attempted Murder

Atmosphere was so unusual and frightening, base fire chief said, I had a bad feeling about this situation.

  • Train crew ordered by superiors NOT to stop outside base area (i.e., at our block location) to prevent hijack.
  • Marines (twice): We hear there is…to be violence today;…may be some violence out here today.
  • Armed Marines stood near our vigil, an unusual scene, then chose not to interfere.
  • Supervisor’s response to being told of the block: You’re crazy, I’m going to do my job.
  • Security Officer: Let them go ahead, we are going to have a confrontation sooner or later.
  • Moving train without braking knowing people or obstacles were on tracks.
  • Moving train across public highway while violating safety/security protocols.
  • Moving train without sheriff having sufficient notice to be present as required.
  • Train crew accelerated over three times speed limit, no braking, smoke pouring from exhaust stack at collision.
  • Two Spotters standing on platform above cowcatcher on front of locomotive shook their heads, NO, NO!
  • RR crossing clangers first rang after Brian hit, revealing speed far in excess of track’s 5 mph trigger.
  • Navy ambulance arrived, then quickly departed, without giving medical treatment.

But listen! This bestial behavior has been conducted by oligarchic power structures for thousands of years, including by the United States itself since its founding!

The Coverup of the Crime

  • CNWS said: (1) train going 5 MPH; (2) Brian et al. suddenly jumped; (3) train crew could not see people.
  • The CHP refused to preserve radio dispatch tapes regarding the Sept. 1,1987 CNWS assault.
  • Navy Investigation denied critical reports of Contra Costa County Sheriff and Federal Railroad Admin.
  • Contra Costa County DA: It was “an accident”, no crime or intention to hit or run over protesters.
  • The fact that train crew was ordered not to stop was NOT part of report submitted to Congress.
  • The Congressional Hearings in November 1987 refused any eyewitnesses from the assault.
  • The Congressional Hearings censored 43 of Brian’s 47-page prepared written testimony.

Listen up! This kind of lying is not new!

Facts Determined by Official Navy Investigation dated October 2, 1987

  • August 21, 1987, Willson letter to CNWS Commander: we will not move for approaching rail traffic; This is significantly different from his June 2, 1987 letter which did not mention “physically being on the tracks to stop munitions movements” as August letter did.
  • Aug. 31, 1987, CNWS Commander sent cable to Navy Sea Systems Command: Willson identified as “protest principal”. Cable: fasters will NOT move for approaching rail traffic. Local Sheriff and police offices aware of threat. Should potential interruption of rail service occur, they will be requested to remove protestor(s). Interruption of normal Station operations was not anticipated. It concluded: National media attention possible since fasters achieved notoriety during fast on Capitol steps in Washington, D.C. last September.
  • CHP talked to vigilers at 11:10 A.M., then told CNWS officials of protestors’ plans to block train.
  • Sept. 1, Civilian security officer Banta & Railroad Operations foreman Hubbard noticed absence of sheriff. Banta: You might as well let them go ahead, we are going to have a confrontation sooner or later, and said he “hoped a demonstrator or demonstrators would be on the tracks”.
  • Two vigilers told Hubbard people were about to block. “Hubbard turned away and refused to listen”.
  • Demonstrators first observable to two spotters on front of locomotive 650 feet prior to collision.
  • Train crew did nothing to brake train prior to collision, even after recognizing people on tracks.
  • Speed limit at the location where demonstrators were present was 5 MPH.
  • Train crew said they were going 5 MPH; train speed, from FBI analysis, was in fact in range 12-16 MPH.
  • Willson was prepared for arrest; he thought trains would not run, or would stop until removal.
  • Federal Railroad Administration determined that this was not a railroad accident.

Under Reagan “Terrorism” Became Pretext For Repression (preceding Bush II by 20 years)

From the moment President Reagan took office in 1981, he began signing Executive Orders, National Security Decision Directives, and Intelligence Findings that essentially revived COINTELPRO. It was said that he had authorized a “go anywhere, do anything” policy. The National Security Agency, the CIA, and the FBI were granted wide authority to conduct domestic surveillance, collect domestic intelligence, and to disrupt and destroy efforts of individuals and groups perceived as “terrorists”, especially those opposed to his policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Congress funded domestic surveillance. Research indicates at least 200 serious break-ins of private homes and organizational offices, that 1,600 groups were targeted, and that nearly 7,000 U.S. citizens were seriously investigated as “terrorists”, the “hook” being their support of foreign governments.

Personal Activities Prior to September 1987: Labeled a “Terrorist”

I had made five trips to Nicaragua and El Salvador where I had made speeches and broadcast radio programs, as well as doing the same in the U.S., condemning our policy of lawless aggression including the commitment of systematic murders and maimings. I had made contacts with guerrillas in El Salvador and officials of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. I had gathered voluminous evidence of U.S. crimes, as had many other U.S. citizens, from personal “on the ground” investigations. I decided to declare myself a tax refuser to the IRS based on the Nuremberg Obligation that requires me to disobey laws and orders that make me complicit with the government’s commission of crimes.

In September 1986 I participated with three other veterans in a two-phased, open-ended, water-only fast on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the Veterans Fast For Life, protesting Reagan’s terrorism policies against the restive impoverished in Central America, with complicity of Congress. Nearly six weeks into the fast we were jolted by a declaration of U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee member, Warren Rudman (R-NH), that we were similar to “the terrorists who are holding our hostages in Beirut,” inferring, we speculated, that he felt we were holding the U.S. government hostage. About that time both our office, and separate residence, was broken into with records taken.

We ended the fast after the 47th day, as one of our members was seriously ill. Nicaragua’s foreign minister personally joined us on the steps as we declared knowledge of 500 national solidarity activities with our fast, and announced plans to organize more observers in the war zones.

Unknown to us at the time, but only 20 days after Rudman’s statement, the FBI initiated a domestic terrorist investigation of the four fasters. This enabled the FBI to conduct ever more surveillance, mail openings, phone taps, etc. In the first part of 1987, I spent two months in the war zones of Nicaragua with other veterans gathering additional evidence of U.S.-funded and directed barbarism. We sent detailed letters to President Reagan, the Congress, and the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua. I continued to speak at events with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

I sent additional letters to the IRS stating my intention to continue refusal of payments with reasons given, that I no longer possessed assets, and was prepared to go to prison as a consequence. During one meeting with the IRS, I was ordered out of the office when I refused to sign a payback schedule.

Not long after nearly being murdered on September 1, 1987, an FBI agent in the Midwest was fired for refusing to investigate six people, the four fasters among them, as “domestic terrorist suspects.” In December 1987, FBI Director Sessions admitted that the four members of the “Veterans fast For Life”, “were developed as suspects,” and that the FBI conducted a “preliminary inquiry…under the domestic security/terrorism caption.” From the pattern of conduct “it was reasonable to conclude a political motive, by two or more persons engaged in activities in violation of Federal law…an enterprise for the purpose of furthering political or social goals, wholly or in part, through activities that involve force or violence and a violation of the criminal laws of the United States.”

What “force or violence” the FBI claimed as a basis for their investigation remains unknown. Did they claim the fasters “held the government hostage,” and that was “illegal” force? One of the other men on the tracks was WWII veteran Duncan Murphy, who also had been one of the four fasters. So, there were two “domestic terrorist” suspects on the tracks that day.

Explanation for the Crime

The decision to run the train was irresponsible and dangerous. It was extraordinarily criminal. No similar decision had ever been made at CNWS, though protests dated to the mid-1960s, including trains being blocked. If we were “terrorists,” a la “the Middle East,” the train could have been blown up.

One can only surmise that government officials’ paranoid fears of a “hijacking” emerged from briefings from unknown sources that Duncan and I were “terrorists” and that under no circumstances was the train to stop to assure our removal from the tracks, as was the historic protocol. In other words, it was attempted murder, since they acknowledged they knew we would not voluntarily move.

The first question asked of me in the hospital by investigator Sheriff Ed Nunn was, “When did you begin planning to hijack the train”? I was shocked. The sheriff’s report was never made public.

The orders to run the train went up at least three levels of the chain of command, but which higher officials were involved has never been determined.

The Trauma of Civilization: A Long, Long View

The human invention of urban “civilization” about 3500 BC, some 300 human generations ago, emerged from the new concept of “surplus” enabled by the agricultural revolution. This coincides with the advent of patterns of systematic violence previously unknown (Mumford), as surplus led to another new idea, greed, manifesting initially in kings, city-states, and early empires. Patriarchy replaced Goddess cultures. Reportedly, 14,500 wars have occurred since. Massive civil obedience has been required to enable vertical authority structures to prevail. Over the eons popular obedience (always with exceptions) has become a habit, generally void of conscious memory of autonomous freedom of pre-civilization tribal groups. All civilizations, including ours, fit this historic pattern.

Class and stratification ripped people from the historical pattern of living in small tribal groups. This separation of people from their intimate connections with the earth produced deep insecurity and fear. Ecopyschology suggests that such fragmentation created a primordial breach, resulting in severe trauma and insecurity in the human psyche (Roszak). Psychologists describe creation of “defense mechanisms” to avoid addressing painful inner “shadows.” Arrogance rather than humility, denial rather than awareness, and violence against “others” rather than mutual respect, became major mechanisms to relieve anxiety created by these insecurities (Millburn and Conrad). Authentic freedoms defer to belief in authority structures and their controlling ideologies (De La Boetie, Eisler).

This pattern of accepting one’s class position contributes to deep shame (invalidation), recognition of which is pre-empted by seductive belief systems. Many successive generations of shame-based upbringing (Miller) and shame-ethics has led to systemic patterns of violence (Gilligan). Ancestral memories yearning for a high, or “rush,” from experiences of rallying around collective defense to a common enemy (Ehrenreich), and search for meaning in a culture of void, suggests today that “war is a force that gives us meaning” (Hedges).

Tyranny is inherent in concentration of political, social, and economic power, whether achieved through elections, force of arms, or inheritance. The method of rule is essentially the same: achieving massive consent in hierarchies and bureaucracies, either through fear or propaganda/myth. People have deep yearning for meaning and autonomy, remnants of their evolutionary memory, but the void is at least temporarily fulfilled through name-calling and violence with a “cause” (De La Boetie).

United States Civilization, A Long View: The Plundering Metaphor

The U.S. nation does not represent a breakthrough from this pattern of class and violence in the history of civilization, despite the fact that citizens are taught to believe otherwise. Our nation continues to be primarily ruled by white male hierarchies of wealth and power (oligarchs and plutocrats), committed to “prosperity” through expansion (exploitation), with consent of the people under the veil of a “constitutional democracy.”

What happened on September 1, 1987 was but a snapshot (a metaphor) of our nation’s history of eliminating threats to its entrenched ethos of plundering for prosperity, within the larger context of 5,500 years of vertical power systems controlling resources and stifling threats of people power. Lethal weapons were destined to eliminate autonomous, democratic people movements. The imperial train was rolling on tracks to preserve its hegemony.

Our nation is founded on racist arrogance and violence expressed in at least three holocausts: (1) theft of land by force, resulting in the murder of millions of indigenous peoples; (2) theft of labor by force, resulting in the murder of millions of African Americans (and others); (3) theft of resources by force, resulting in the murder of millions of impoverished people throughout the “Third World,” all conducted with virtual total impunity. This has created a cultural attitude of superiority as we laud our prosperity, virtually all a result of violent theft.

The Myth of the Hero: Not Icons to Admire But for Unique Replication by Everyone

September 1, 1987 was not a freak, but a dramatic example of a historical pattern whose existence has been generally insulated from middle-class frames of reference: the evil policy, the good resister. It was a ruthless, visceral experience of Reagan’s “go anywhere, do anything” policy. But this is a normal experience for millions of people around the world who have been victims of U.S. policy when they organize against their own repression. We are not worth more; they are not worth less.

Many of us understand how incredibly delusional is “American exceptionalism.” Disobedience to our system is a no-brainer as we participate in re-localizing sustainable communities where we live. Each of us is a hero-in-process. Though the train sought to eliminate us, our yearning to express passionate empathy is so deeply embedded within us it simply awaits access. Dignity trumps longevity. Our spirit seeks to re-claim humanity from patterns of conditioned obedience to anti-human economic and political systems which ironically are destroying life itself, including our own.

Tradition influences humans by circumscribing behavior within certain bounds. But it is equally true that humans make the traditions. Thus, humans make ourselves (Childe). What we have created we can uncreate, then remake in new forms supporting dignified survival in an earth community of biocracy. Each of us is a hero with an evolutionary archetypal track to ground us as we create community justice alternatives to the extraordinarily violent American Way Of Life (AWOL).


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