Much to my conservative, very Lutheran parents’ chagrin I’m sure, the image above hung prominently over the headboard of my bed when I was 16 years old. It was a grainy copy that my friend and I made secretly in my high school graphic arts class. I liked it for its shock value and because I was just starting to learn about radical groups like the Yippies and the Weather Underground thanks to another friend’s cool older brother who played in a grind-core band called Hell Nation and who collected tons of weird-ass countercultural stuff. That was around 1990. There was obviously no draft going on, further confusing my parents and making me feel pretty edgy and weird. I was far too naïve to think too deeply about the backstory of the cool piece of radical ephemera with the image of the guy burning his ticket to the Viet Nam War.
Recently though, I came across the image again while doing research for another DM piece and decided to try to learn a little more about origins of the iconic image of 60’s radicalism. It turns out that the poster has a cool pedigree, and the piece’s creator, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, born in a Japanese American internment camp in 1943 in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, was a prominent underground civil rights figure and gay rights activist. Kuromiya worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-sixties and tending to King’s children in the aftermath of his assassination. He was a founder of Gay Liberation Front –Philadelphia, worked with the Black Panther Party to advocate for gay rights, co-authored a book on a utopian future through technology with Buckminster Fuller, and was a leading pioneer in the fight to promote AIDS awareness after his own diagnosis later in life.
Kuromiya made a name for himself in radical protest circles at the University of Pennsylvania where he went to school to study architecture by pulling stunts like this bait-and-switch, anti-napalm demonstration in 1968 which he discusses in a great, hugely comprehensive 1997 interview:
A notice showed up, a leaflet showed up, signed by the “Americong” that, in protest of the horrors of using napalm on humans, there was going to be a demonstration in front of the library at Penn. An innocent dog would be burned with napalm, showing what an awful thing napalm was, O.K.? So, of course, the mayor, the police chief, everybody said whoever was perpetrating this would spend a long time in jail, etcetera. The day showed up and at noontime there were four ambulances from four different veterinary schools there. People, as a lark, brought their pet dogs. There were a lot of dogs. There were 2000 people. It was the largest antiwar demonstration in the history of the University of Pennsylvania. I had four friends of mine. I had a printing press in my basement and I was a publisher at the time. So out of the crowd, leaflets showed up. And I handed out these leaflets, Americong, you know, was a fiction. There was no group. But the leaflets showed up at this big rally and it said, “Congratulations, you’ve saved the life of an innocent dog. How about the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that have been burned alive? What are you going to do about it?”
Later in the same interview Kuromiya talks about the Fuck the Draft poster. Along with placing the image in an ad (and act that he claims got him arrested by federal marshals) he handed several copies of it out during the chaos of the riots surrounding 1968 Democratic Convention:
And then a couple years later, I published, under the name Dirty Linen Corporation, these Fuck the Draft posters with a guy burning a draft card and it said in huge letters, “Fuck the draft.” The guy was someone from Detroit who was doing prison time for burning his draft card. I was arrested at home by federal marshals and the Secret Service for using U.S. mails for a crime of inciting with lewd and indecent materials. I had run an ad that said, “Buy five and we’ll send a sixth one to the mother of your choice.” And I listed a number of places, including the White House. So I was kept at the FBI headquarters here. They couldn’t hold people overnight so they took me in chains down Chestnut Street with four guys watching me, down to the Round House and I was held there. Anyway, I took these posters to the Democratic Convention in Chicago. And everybody was told to stay away. This was going to be very dangerous. But I went anyway. I rented a car to haul these posters around. And I had a coat and tie on so I could move easily in and out of the hotels and the various delegations and caucus meetings at the convention. So I was the only one in Yippie Park, Lincoln Park, in a coat and tie. But I handed out the posters, 2000 of them, at the amphitheater just minutes before the riot where someone tried to lower the American flag.
The ad that Kuromiya talked about in the interview appeared in the April 12, 1968 issue of the Berkeley Barb and it looked like this:
1968 Fuck the Draft poster ad from the Berkley Barb
As Kuromiya mentions, you could send five dollars to get five “Fuck the Draft” posters for yourself and sixth would be sent to the “mother” of your choice. You could take your pick amongst Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, Mrs. Shirley Temple Black, Lieutenant General Lewis B. Hershey, General William Westmoreland, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, Mr. J. Edgar Hoover, Mrs. Richard Hughes, or “other.” One presumes that the “mother” in some of these cases was of the “fucker” variety.
Here’s an image of the full page on which the ad appeared:
In the 1997 interview mentioned above, Kuromiya discusses his political activism at length. He was a prominent early gay rights advocate working in and around Philadelphia to bravely advance the cause at time when the issue was still somewhat taboo, even among many in the anti-war community. In 1970, Kuromiya and the Gay Liberation Front of Philadelphia published the Gay Dealer, only one issue of which was ever released. After being denied funding by a Philadelphia community organization, the Gay Liberation Front got the money they needed for the issue by selling MMDA capsules according to Kuromiya.
Cover of The Gay Dealer, October 1970
Kuromiya and an unidentified friend from Gay Dealer, 1970
In 1977, during a long recovery from metastatic lung cancer, Kuromiya became enamored of the works of Buckminster Fuller. He began working with the futurist legend of geodesic design and Kuromiya is credited as “adjuvant” on Fuller’s book, Critical Path. From Kuromyia’s New York Times obituary:
In 1981, he assisted R. Buckminster Fuller, the architect and thinker, in writing Critical Path (St. Martin’s Press). The book sketched a vision of a bountiful future created by technological advances. In what James Traub in The New York Times Book Review called ‘‘a bizarre and often revelatory volume,’’ the authors suggested that the blossoming of technology had the potential to end war.
Buckminster Fuller and Kiyoshi Kuromiya with a copy of Critical Path
Kuromiya was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980’s and, according to the LGBT archives of Philadelphia:
In 1988/1989 he founded the Critical Path AIDS Project, which applied ideas and strategies from Buckminster Fuller’s 1981 book to the AIDS crisis. The project began as a newsletter about AIDS treatment that Kuromiya researched, wrote, edited, and distributed himself. The Critical Path AIDS Project grew to offer a 24-hour AIDS treatment hotline, a web hosting service for AIDS-related websites and listservs, and computer access for individuals in the Philadelphia area.
Kuromiya’s activism seems to have known no bounds. He was a founding member of ACT UP/Philadelphia, he was a participant an early successful lawsuit against Internet censorship surrounding the Communications Decency Act and was the leading plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, Kuromiya vs. The United States of America, calling for the legalization of medical marijuana.
Kuromiya died of AIDS related complications in 2000.
The video below features footage of William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg and Dick Gregory at the 1968 Democratic Convention protest where Kuromiya handed out 2000 Fuck the Draft posters. At around 6:38 you can see the crowd in front of the “band shell” in Grant Park and the moment that someone pulls down the American flag causing all hell to break loose. Kuromiya says that he was handing out “Fuck the Draft” posters in the crowd right around this location just minutes before the incident.