It's Friday, August 19, 1988, and the Buffalo Nine is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the church bust by gathering outside the U.S. Courthouse on Niagara Square. First to arrive is reunion organizer Sharon Fischer, now married to musician Joe Rico. She immediately sets up a bulletin board of Buffalo Nine clippings on the courthouse steps, where hundreds of protesters once chanted "Stop the war!" and "Hell no, we won't go!"
Next to arrive is Gerald J. Gross, 44, sporting sunglasses and a white suit. He now lives in Eugene, Ore., has a new wife and 16-year-old daughter, and does abstract painting under the name Jeremy Ross. Gross starts snapping pictures of the courthouse and his old friends.
"Where's Golden Boy?" Fischer asks, looking around for the fair-haired Bruce Beyer.
Carl Kronberg, now 42 and wearing a sport coat and neatly trimmed beard, looks at Fischer's exhibit and speaks of the years that have gone by. After working locally as a hospital lab technician for the past 15 years, he says, he is back in school, studying urban politics and planning through Empire State College.
"All along I've been active in community politics and electoral politics," says Kronberg, who is still single. He ran a housing group, called the Housing Resource Center, on the West Side to provide landlord-tenant counseling. But when Jimmy Griffin was elected, Kronberg says the mayor shut it down. "I said it's about time I get involved in electoral politics." Today he is vice chair of the 27th Democratic Zone -- mostly under Hispanic leadership on the Lower West Side.
Edgar C. NeMoyer, who prosecuted the first Buffalo Nine trial, is now a State Supreme Court justice. "He and I became good friends," Kronberg says. "Really! In some ways he was a mentor for me."
Former defendant William Berry, 40, now a lawyer with Legal Services for the Elderly, arrives with his 14-month-old daughter, Evan, hanging papoose-style on his shoulders. Less political than the others, Berry was tried and acquitted of assault in the second trial.
"I get over here a lot," he says, gesturing toward the courthouse. "I remember which courtroom I was tried in. I do mainly Medicare and Medicaid work. It's good work, but there's not a lot of money. It's not too exciting in terms of courtroom stuff -- mainly challenging denials of Social Security benefits."
A woman stops to look at the clipping display, and Gross strikes up a conversation with her. "One of the issues is, What is the level of freedom in this country to oppose the government on various policies?" he says. "One of the frightening things is that the FBI follows you around the country. When I left Buffalo, I suspect that I was followed. Here I was actually tried twice, I was not convicted, yet the dirty tricks campaign of Nixon continued for many years."
Asked for a concrete example, he says: "Well, you know, -- you find out that the FBI is visiting an employer, because the employer tells you so. That's pretty concrete. That happened to me, on the West Coast."
Kronberg says he sometimes sees Judge Curtin, who presided over the first trial. "I happened to run into him at the Skylon Marathon and started running with him," he says. "And he and I ran together for a while. We were just jogging. He didn't really want to discuss things."
Bill Berry drops the baby's bottle of iced apple juice. While he bends over to pick it up, she pulls at his thinning hair.
The reunion then moves on to Front Park for a picnic. Fischer has marked Shelter 2 by nailing up some 1968 posters. One says, "Big Firms Get Rich, GIs Die," a familiar cry of the Buffalo Nine pickets around the courthouse. Another sign has a snake enfolded around a figure 9, and the slogan, "Don't Tread on Me -- Support the 9."
The late afternoon wind is rippling through Fischer's clippings on a picnic table. One of the items she is using as a paperweight is an old book, "Stalin by Trotsky," that was twice exchanged between her and Gross as a joke. She ended up with it when Gross left town.
Also on a table are copies of the Buffalo Nine 20th reunion statement, declaring that "history has proven us correct" and demanding that their records be "swept clean" because it was a political trial, not a criminal matter. The statement also calls for construction of a memorial in Washington to honor those who died in the struggle against the war, particularly at Kent State.
Someone is playing a tape of "Revolution," by the late folk singer Phil Ochs, who sang in Pete Seeger's style.
A black woman arrives, and suddenly she and Jerry Gross are in a long embrace.
It's Geraldine Robinson, the former girlfriend of Martin Sostre. Gross is delighted to see her for the first time since moving from Buffalo 15 years ago.
"You know," Robinson says later, "when I see them, I have good feelings. They came to my aid when a lot of other people, even black people . . ." and her voice trails off. "I don't think I was that political. I was just there." Asked if her and Sostre's struggle, and that of the Buffalo Nine, succeeded in changing conditions, she says:
"It hasn't changed much, but I think it's made a lot of people aware of what's happening. We still have police brutality. A couple months ago, a friend of mine was parked in front of my house. He was an older dude, 60. It was 90 degrees. The police were bothering him. I even had to go downtown and put in a complaint. They came back to harass me; they was going to take me to jail. After all the things we went through, it hasn't changed any . . ."
Robert Beyer, father of Bruce, arrives at the pavilion with a long bread roll under his arm. "Is Bruce here?" he asks. The Buffalo Nine is still waiting for Golden Boy to arrive.
Bill Berry says Bruce Beyer just did some carpentry work for him. "He did a stairway for us," he says. "He's good. He's expensive! But he does a great job."
Robert Beyer was an elder at the Unitarian church when it voted to give sanctuary to Bruce Beyer and Bruce Cline. The elder Beyer forfeited $5,000 bail when his son fled to Sweden, and then to Canada after an appeals court upheld Curtin's three-year sentence for assaulting federal officers. In fact, while Robert Beyer was trying to raise the $5,000, a memo shows the FBI was pressuring prosecutors to present the bail case to a grand jury.
Reflecting, Robert Beyer says:
"It's been a long haul. I suppose it's always possible to have something like this happen again, but you'd hate to see it. In a sense, I think a lot of young people are turned off against expressing themselves. I did have a military career, and I believed in it and I traveled. People are different -- so what? I ended up as a major in the Army in four years. And that was World War II, and it was a war in which it was easy to serve with pride. I have nothing but understanding for the young men who went to Vietnam."
Bill Berry takes his daughter out on the lawn and tosses her in the air. Behind them, the sun casts slanting rays over the rolling hills of Front Park.
Back at the pavilion, Robert Beyer is asking, "How are you going to involve youths who have dropped out or are onto drugs?"
"There's anti-nuke groups," Gross reminds him. "There's anti-contra groups. There's a lot of little groups that add up to probably as much activity as we were engaged in -- it's just not as noisy. They don't know each other. They're not united under one big umbrella organization. So we got our work cut out for us. I'm optimistic."
At last Bruce Beyer arrives. Much heftier than he was in 1968, the 6-foot-4-inch carpenter nods at everyone and heads over to greet his father.
Bruce Beyer lived in exile in Canada rather than serve three years in prison for assaulting officers. When he returned to American soil in 1977, the political climate had changed, and he ended up serving just 11 days in jail. He says his lasting regret is that violence broke out at the church, and that he stood trial for assault instead of for defying the draft.
At the opportune moment,
Sharon Fischer calls the reunion to attention and announces the prize winners. Gross has been voted the radical who has changed most radically; Bruce Beyer, most changed in appearance; Carl Kronberg, the one who remained steadfast and nonchangeable, with Bill Berry as runner-up.
Only Jerry Gross feels likegiving a speech. He admits that he used to be dogmatic, a hard-core Marxist who didn't relate to people as human beings. He says he is glad the Buffalo Nine are together again, out of love and out of respect for their history.
"He's mellowed," Fischer marvels.
"Oh, I was a nasty SOB," Gross laughs. "Scary was the word. But I was with Youth Against War and Fascism, and basically my wife and I were thrown out for what they called Kautskyism." (Karl J. Kautsky, 1854-1938, was a German-Austrian socialist who opposed Lenin and Bolshevism as well as those who advocated revision of Marxist doctrines.)
"At the time it hurt our feelings, but it was the best thing that ever happened to us," Gross admits. "And that's when I put my effort full time into the Martin Sostre thing." Martin Sostre was arrested in New York City in May 1986 on a charge of attempted murder. But the charges were dropped. He now is 65 years old and has spent two-thirds of the past 35 years behind bars.
Sharon Fischer has a story about what became of the building where Sostre had his Afro-Asian Bookstore. In the mid 1970s, Jerry Gross' brother, schoolteacher Ronald Gross, got a city grant and opened the Fire Survival Center at 1412 Jefferson.
"When Jerry came back to town and learned where it was, he said it had gone full circle -- from Sostre's use of the building to fire up blacks, to its new use to teach black kids how to survive fires in the ghetto," says Fischer, who worked at the center one summer.
"I kept a picture of Martin on my desk the whole summer," she confides. "It was the only time I could feel a part of him except for his being in prison. He was tried only on the non-political dope charge; not on arson or inciting to riot. Just like the way the Buffalo Nine was charged on assault charges, instead of for the real reason they were arrested -- for opposing the draft and the war."
Still, it's difficult to prove the FBI handpicked the Buffalo Nine defendants.
Former FBI Agent Richard F. Schaller used to spend most of his hours on bank robberies, but he was called in to help manage the crowd at the Unitarian church that day. During the struggle to subdue Beyer at the pulpit, the agent was struck in the nose and began to bleed.
Schaller recalls that rushing down the center aisle, surrounded by a church full of screaming activists, was "one of the most frightening things I've ever gone through in my life." He felt at the time that if the chanting youths had spilled into the aisle, "it would have been mass bedlam -- they would have trampled us." But he didn't consider them dangerous as individuals.
"My feelings about them haven't changed much," says Schaller, who has been a state investigator since retiring from the FBI 12 years ago. "People can demonstrate all they want. That's the only way we ever do have change in our society. But to use violence -- not just against me, but against agents sent to enforce a court order -- that's attacking the system. You can't have any civilized society without a system of justice."
Schaller says he never held a personal grudge against the Buffalo Nine and, smiling, says he "would be happy to have a beer with them" if invited to their reunion. He even admits to having mixed feelings today about the Vietnam War.
"The anti-war movement probably did us a favor," Schaller says. "You know, I had two daughters in college at the time, and they were picketing against the war. One of them was a student at Kent State and saw the shooting."
Despite their non-violent ideals, there was only one Buffalo Nine defendant who wasn't accused of some violence at the church -- Bruce Cline. He surrendered peace-fully and was the only defendant actually tried for refusing the draft. The Eden Central High School graduate testified that serving in the military violated his conscience. However, Cline (like Beyer) couldn't legally qualify as a conscientious objector because he didn't profess a belief in God. Found guilty, he was placed on probation and served 2 1/2 years of civilian service as a hospital orderly.
"Violence is absurd," Cline said in his defense.
But today, 20 years later, Cline is an inmate at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, where he was sent after experiencing hallucinations and wounding a fellow boarder with a shotgun on March 18, 1986.
According to papers on file in court, Cline was "living a marginal existence" and "started becoming suspicious and complaining that people were watching him, talking about him, and following him sometime in 1985." A psychologist at Gowanda Psychiatric Center who examined him two years ago wrote:
"Mr. Cline's illness seems to, at least in part, stem from his activities in the late 1960s in the Vietnam anti-war movement, and it is possible that some therapeutic gains can be made through intensive treatment, focusing particularly in this area."
In the second Buffalo Nine trial, Raymond Malak and William Yates were found guilty of assaulting officers and served three years in prison. Malak, now 45, and Yates, now 60, also were held in contempt for refusing to rise for Judge Henderson in his courtroom. Both were unavailable for interviews.
Three of the men arrested at the church never stood trial. Richard DeLotto, James McGlynn and Thomas O'Connell were Vietnam veterans who had shown up to support the draft resisters, but they had no FBI record of previous protests or radical leanings. The Buffalo Nine defense has always held that the dismissal of assault charges against these three "non-political" defendants revealed the "selective prosecution" of those who did stand trial -- most of them dissidents whom the FBI had long been watching.
McGlynn was said to have gone to the church to meet a girl whom he knew would be there. DeLotto, who had served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy, had attended Bennett High School with Bruce Beyer and thought he'd go to the church to lend moral support.
"And the FBI arrested me," DeLotto says. "I was on the steps. Oh, they had me dead to right. They had pictures of me on video -- I was arm-in-arm locked with the others, and this big, big cop came up to me and picked me up."
DeLotto says he was the only defendant who immediately hired his own lawyer. Most of the others shared a team of activist lawyers.
Asked how the church bust changed his life, DeLotto says: "I think of it often. It's something I'll never forget. I feel I did something that I felt worthwhile at the time."
The Buffalo Nine didn't invite DeLotto to the reunion.
"A lot of them people didn't like me, because I got my own lawyer," DeLotto says. "If push came to shove, I said, 'Screw this -- you know -- it was fun while it lasted, but I'm out of here.' "