The Presidio Mutiny

During the Vietnam War, San Francisco's Presidio was the location of the minimum security Fort Scott stockade. Here were held military prisoners who had gone AWOL, deserted, resisted the war, were found with drugs, or other similar offenses. Conditions for this military work prison could only be described as awful. The old stockade was filled to over twice its intended capacity, there were bugs in the food, prisoner beatings by military guards were not uncommon, as were other forms of humiliation and mistreatment such as spraying inmates with urine. Though the Army denied this, suicide attempts were common.

In this environment, in 1968, a 19-year-old soldier who was being held for going AWOL was shot in the back and killed for teasing a guard. A mini-riot occurred in the stockade, with prisoners breaking windows damaging other property. The following day, October 12th a large anti-war march took place in San Francisco. At the head of the march were four AWOL soldiers serving as a symbol of the growing anti-war sentiment among military personnel. At the end of the march the four soldiers gave themselves up to waiting military police officers and were transported to the Fort Scott stockade. Upon their arrival at the stockade, these four soldiers began to organize a protest within the stockade itself. Most inmates were still upset at the murder of their fellow prisoner a few days earlier. The following Monday 27 of the prisoners refused to take part in the manual labor they were assigned, and instead sat down singing the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome" and reading a list of demands. Most of the protesters were working-class whites, only five of whom had graduated from high school. None of the 27 were active politically before they joined the Army. Refusing the orders of their commanding officer to get back to work, they were taken back to their cells and charged with mutiny - a charge which could lead to execution.

A military court initially sentenced each of the participants to up to 16 years of hard labor. Three of the defendants were able to escape to Canada. The serious charge of mutiny and harsh sentences led to public outrage. Demonstrations were held through the country, including one in the presidio itself where thousands of GIs, veterans and civilians protested the case. Through further legal actions, the charge of mutiny was reduced to "willful disobedience", and none of the men served more than one and a half years in prison.

The publicity this case received helped bring the tension within the military to the public eye. There was a strong anti-war current within the military ranks which much of the public had not heard of. Many servicemen and women opposed the war, and tens of thousands ended up deserting throughout the war years. Nor had the public been aware of the terrible conditions those who refused to serve were held in. Many of the protesters were willing to face the charges of mutiny due to their belief that Americans would not stand for other Americans being treated the way they were being treated at the stockade.