Beginning January 10, 1917, Alice Paul and the NWP began picketing the White House — the first group in the U.S. to wage a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign. They became known as the Silent Sentinels, standing silently by the gates, carrying purple, white and gold banners saying “Mr. President, what will you do for suffrage?” and “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” The first day, 12 NWP members marched in a slow, square movement so passers-by could see the banners. Over the next 18 months, more than 1,000 women picketed, including Alice, day and night, winter and summer, every day except Sunday.
At first they were politely ignored, but then World War I began on April 6 and the picketers’ signs became more pointed — often using the president’s quotes against him. One banner read: “Democracy Should Begin at Home.” They asked, how could he fight to help disenfranchised people when he had disenfranchised people at home? They became an embarrassment.
Spectators began assaulting the women verbally and physically — while the police did nothing to protect them. Then in June, the police began arresting the picketers on charges of “obstructing traffic.” First the charges were dropped, then the women were sentenced to a few days’ jail terms. But the suffragists kept picketing, and the jail terms grew longer. Finally, to try to break their spirit, the police arrested Alice on October 20, 1917, and she was sentenced to seven months in prison. The banner she carried that day said:
“THE TIME HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE IT.” (President Wilson’s words)
Alice was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks and immediately began a hunger strike. Unable to walk on her release from there, she was taken to the prison hospital. Others joined the hunger strike. “It was the strongest weapon left with which to continue … our battle …,” she later said. Then the prison officials put Alice in the “psychopathic” ward, hoping to discredit her as insane. They deprived her of sleep — she had an electric light, directed at her face, turned on briefly every hour, every night. And they continually threatened to transfer her to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a notorious asylum in Washington, D.C., as suffering a “mania of persecution.” But she still refused to eat. During the last week of her 22-day hunger strike, the doctors brutally forced a tube into her nose and down her throat, pouring liquids into her stomach, three times a day for three weeks. Despite the pain and illness this caused, Alice refused to end the hunger strike…..
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