Nonviolent Fighters for Bangladesh Freedom
by Richard K. Taylor
My wife, Phyllis Taylor, and I feel very fortunate to have been a small part of the freedom struggle that resulted in the independence of Bangladesh. I am very sorry to say that, during the war of independence, our own beloved country, the United States of America, was secretly sending military supplies to Pakistan which were used to kill and oppress citizens of what was then called East Pakistan.
How well we remember hearing from a Bangladeshi freedom fighter during the war who said, "We knew that the U.S. government was against us, but when we heard what you did, we knew that the American people were on our side."
So, what did we do? Let me explain. In the late 1960's, I and a friend of mine, Bill Moyer, were fortunate enough to be on the staff of Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Bill and I were already committed to active nonviolence as a means of advocating for peace and justice, but our intimate involvement with Dr. King and his movement strengthened and deepened our commitment. After the tragic assassination of Dr. King in 1968, a group of us who admired him very much decided to form an organization in our city of Philadelphia that would train people in his methods of nonviolent action and also engage in such direct action. We decided to call it the "Movement for a New Society (MNS)." People came to us from all over the United States and some other countries to receive training and to be involved in direct action.
Because of our keen interest in struggles for justice and peace, we were horrified in 1971 to learn of the West Pakistani army's invasion of what was then East Pakistan and all the atrocities they committed. However, we felt helpless to do anything. Then we learned that our own country, the United States, was secretly still sending military aid to the West Pakistani government, even though a dozen other aid-giving countries had cut off such support as a protest against Pakistani army's massacres. That made us even more horrified. We realized that it was American bombs and bullets that were killing innocent people who wanted nothing more than freedom from oppression. But what could we do to make our government stop its lethal military aid?
Just as we were holding a meeting to discuss this dilemma, we learned from a newspaper report that West Pakistani ships were secretly picking up military cargoes in American ports. We learned furthermore, that one such ship, the Padma, was en route to Baltimore, Maryland (a small city just to the south of Philadelphia) to load US military goods. We began to discuss what to do. Susan Carroll, one of the founders of MNS, said angrily, but not really seriously, "We should mine the harbor! Use explosives! Blow up the ships!"
Bill Moyer countered, "Yes, that's right, we should mine the harbor; but we should mine it with our own bodies. We should get some small boats--canoes and kayaks--and paddle them in front of the ships. Obviously, a few little boats won't stop a big, ocean-going freighter. However, we should do it for two reasons: One, the action would be nonviolent and in the spirit of Dr. King. Two, it would have such drama that the newspaper and TV stations would cover it. Right now, our government is keeping our military aid to Pakistan a secret. There are no stories about it in the mass media. This action would get the story into the press and out to the American people. Three, it also would show how much some Americans oppose our government's policy and how willing they are to risk their lives to oppose it."
Everyone agreed with Bill's idea. Soon after our meeting, we learned of a Philadelphia group called "Friends of East Bengal." The group was made up of Bengalis and Americans who wanted to do everything they could to stop the slaughter in "East Pakistan." We contacted the group and were invited to present our idea to their July 7 meeting. As one of their Bengali members, Sultana Krippendorf, told me later, "At first, we thought you were absolutely crazy. What a wild scheme! Who ever heard of trying to stop freighters with canoes?!! But then, as we listened to your rationale and how you believed the action would use the press to focus public attention on what was really happening and mobilize people to resist US policy, it began to make sense. In the end, we agreed that your group could become the Direct Action Committee of Friends of East Bengal and try out this scheme."
By combing maritime newspapers and other sources of information, we learned that The Padma was expected in Baltimore on July 11. That gave us only four days to prepare. The Direct Action Committee, which now was made up of Bengalis as well as Americans, met in our living room to prepare. We organized committees to handle such matters as contacting the press, getting canoes and kayaks, making signs and leaflets, finding communication equipment, handling police and legal liaison and recruiting other participants. We reached out to sympathetic groups beyond Philadelphia, such as the Quakers and the Bangladesh Information Center. In a short period of time, we had recruited a very diverse group with a professor of medicine, a social worker, teachers, a Quaker peace activist, a school guidance counselor, four teenage students and others, about 30 people in all.
On the morning of July 11, we drove from Philadelphia to Baltimore with our small boats strapped to the roofs of our cars. Since we had informed newspapers and radio and TV stations about what we were going to do, we began to hear news reports about us on the radio even before arriving in Baltimore. Upon arrival, we went to the harbor pier where The Padma was expected to dock and set up a picket line. The Padma did not arrive on July 11, so we spent the next days keeping up press attention by such means as paddling our boats out into the harbor to "do maneuvers, just like the Navy does before a sea battle." We explained to reporters that we needed to familiarize ourselves with the tides and currents of the harbor and to decide which "formation" of boats would be most effective to block the big freighter. A doctor from Johns Hopkins University called our small flotilla "the first Navy of Bangladesh."
During all this time, our American government kept denying that it was sending military aid to West Pakistan. A statement from the US Department of State said: "No arms have been provided to the government of Pakistan since the beginning of this crisis." We were about to demolish those denials by revealing what really was happening.
In all of our actions--picketing, marching, paddling in the harbor, giving press interviews--we did all we could to maintain a nonviolent attitude in the spirit of Dr. King. For example, we met with Baltimore police officials, explained our purpose, and told them we would be strictly nonviolent. That meant that, not only would we refrain from any verbal or physical violence, but if anyone tried to harm the police, we would put our own bodies in front of the officers to protect them.
When The Padma finally arrived on July 14, we paddled our small "fleet" out into the harbor, determined to get in front of the freighter. We were met with Coast Guard cutters and a large police boat called "The Intrepid." A policeman on board used a bullhorn to shout to us that we were breaking harbor regulations and would be arrested if we didn't turn back. He warned us that the ship's wake would flip over our small boats and the enormous propellers would chop us up into little pieces.
I shouted back , "You have to do what you have to do, but this is a death ship. It is picking up military cargo that will kill thousands of innocent people. We are here to prevent it from docking."
Soon, we noticed that two of the motorboats in the harbor were not police or Coast Guard craft, but were filled with reporters, one with a TV crew that took footage as it sped in for a closer view.
One of the young people with us, who was paddling a canoe with her father, was only 12 years old. She heard workmen on the pier yelling: "Get the hell out of here. That ship won't stop and you'll go drown like ants from its suction." She admits that she was frightened, but she was encouraged when she saw the motorboat with the TV crew. "I realized we were making a point; I was afraid no one would know what we had done and nothing would come of our efforts."
All of us paddled as hard as we could toward The Padma, while the police in the Coast Guard cutters tried to cut us off and keep us back. Sally Willoughby, another young paddler said, "I was scared, but I was really determined to stop that ship. I think I was really willing to die for this."
Finally, an order came for the police to arrest us. The cutters pulled alongside us and the police hauled us out of our boats and placed us under arrest. We spent the night in the Baltimore city jail and were sentenced to a year's probation, but in the morning we were happy to see that the story of the blockade got good TV coverage and was in newspapers and on the radio. A reporter from Reuters told me: "This demonstration is going to hit the papers from here to Singapore." Years later, a Bangladeshi freedom fighter told me that he had heard the story on BBC.
So, we accomplished what we set out to do. No longer could our government deny that we were sending military equipment to a military dictatorship. More and more people spoke out against US policy. The Beatles held a concert in favor of Bangladesh. Sympathetic members of the US Congress spoke out. Our Direct Action Committee did many other nonviolent direct actions: We blocked other Pakistani ships in other ports. We lobbied Congress. We demonstrated in front of the White House. We helped Bengali sailors jump ship from West Pakistani freighters where they feared for their lives, and much more. When our government finally did cut off military aid to West Pakistan, Phyllis, I and the others were happy to feel that we had played a significant role in turning our own country around and helping a new nation--Bangladesh--be born. And now, here we are, celebrating the 40th anniversary of that new nation's birth. How grateful I am to God for giving us the courage to put our bodies in the way of the death ships. And how grateful I am to Bangladeshis who supported us and joined with us in the blockade for Bangladesh.