Hit and Stay
The Catonsville Nine and Baltimore Four Actions Revisited
Forty years ago this week during the Vietnam War, nine Catholic peace activists took a draft office in Catonsville, and the nation, by surprise.
On May 17, 1968, the men and women who would come to be known as the Catonsville Nine entered Selective Service Local Board No. 33, located on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus Hall at 1010 Frederick Road, and removed 378 draft files. The files were mostly 1-A records, which corresponded to young men considered available for immediate and unrestricted military service. Together the men and women took the draft files to a grassy patch behind the building where tipped-off reporters were waiting for them. They then set the files ablaze with homemade napalm, recited a prayer, made statements to the press, and waited peacefully to be arrested. This was a "hit and stay" action. Simply put, this means committing an illegal act of defiance and then waiting around for the police to be arrested.
The Catonsville Nine were Father Daniel Berrigan, Father Philip Berrigan, David Darst, John Hogan, Thomas Lewis, Marjorie Melville, Thomas Melville, George Mische, and Mary Moylan. Together and with the help of a support team of about 50 close friends, they made national television, radio, and newspaper headlines. For two of them, Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis, it was not their first hit and stay. Nor was it their last.
In 1968, the sleepy suburb of Catonsville was an obscure, mostly white, mostly middle-class enclave that, like most white neighborhoods around Baltimore at the time, had a reputation for being perhaps a little racist. It was so obscure, in fact, that network news anchors reported the incident as having occurred in "Kah-tahns-ville, Maryland." The location was chosen deliberately. For one thing, the sleepier the town, the less likely it was anyone would get hurt. The particular location of draft board No. 33 also served as a nice thumb-in-the-eye-gesture to not only the Catholic-based Knights of Columbus, which owned the building and rented office space to Selective Services, but also the American Catholic hierarchy.
George Mische, then a goateed 30-year-old labor organizer from St. Cloud, Minn., wanted to draw attention to the connection between the Roman Catholic Church and the war. In the early years of the war, the Catholic Church--particularly the American branch--had been instrumental in supporting U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Recently, in an interview held after an appearance on WYPR-FM's now-defunct Marc Steiner Show, the surprisingly young looking 70-year-old explains, "With Cardinal Spellman blessing the bombs every Christmas Eve over in Vietnam, we wanted [the action] to be a multiple[-level] statement."
Around noon on that May day, James "David" Darst, a 26-year-old Christian Brother and teacher, stood lookout as the eight others entered the Catonsville draft board with two tall wire baskets. Once inside, they began filling the baskets with draft files. They knew exactly where to find them thanks to the intelligence gathering of Tom Lewis, a 28-year-old artist and teacher born in Maryland, who visited the Knights hall under the false pretense of wanting to rent the basement for a wedding. As the others went about grabbing and stuffing files into the wire baskets, Mary Moylan and Marjorie Melville occupied the office clerks, Mary Murphy and Phyllis Morsberger. The two women activists--Moylan, a 32-year-old nurse and former missionary to Uganda; and Melville, a 38-year-old recently former nun of the Maryknoll order, just returned from Guatemala with her new husband and former Maryknoll priest, Thomas--were invited to participate in the action in part to safeguard against things turning violent.
From the onset, things did not go as smoothly as some would have liked. Murphy, the head clerk, evaded Moylan and Melville and began clawing at Mische, shouting, "My files, my files!" Mische tried his hardest to continue stuffing files into the wire basket, but Murphy, who ended up with a minor scratch on her leg, succeeded in ripping his pants leg all the way down the seam. Mische now jokes, "One thing I've often told people, when you go [to do] civil disobedience, never wear chino trousers."
On the other side of the now-crowded office, Morsberger frantically tried to dial the police. But each time she dialed the number, Moylan placed her finger on the receiver buttons, terminating the call for help. When her fellow activists had finished filling their baskets, Moylan told Morsberger to make the call. Instead, the befuddled clerk flung the phone through the window in front of her desk in an attempt to attract the attention of someone below.
Once outside, the nine activists had plenty of time to empty the contents of their baskets onto the ground, apply their homemade napalm to the files, and ignite them. They were impeccably dressed--as far as peace activists go--with the Berrigans and Darst in the garb of clergy and all but Mische wearing either a suit, blazer, or dress. Symbolically, and in the interest of everyone having an equal share of the blame, they each tossed a lit match into the pyre. While the flames rose four feet into the air, the Catonsville Nine recited the Lord's Prayer. Five of them made statements that were captured by the pre-arranged news camera.
Daniel Berrigan, a 47-year-old Jesuit priest, declared, "We did this to make it more difficult for men to kill one another."
"We all are a part of this. We all had a hand in making the napalm that was used here today," Darst added.
"Napalm which was made from information from a formula in the U.S. Special Forces handbook published by the School of Special Warfare of the United States," Lewis said.
As the flames crackled from below, Mische added, "This is a message we're bringing to the American people. That while people throughout the world and especially in Vietnam are suffering from napalm, these files are also napalmed."
"Not only are we killing people through violent physical war, but we are also killing them through the extension of our economic political empire," Thomas Melville affirmed.
Local NBC cameraman Pat McGrath filmed the action from the time the activists lit the draft files until the moment they were counted and packed into the back of a police van. McGrath's footage never made it to NBC Nightly News--or any other show--because it was quickly confiscated by FBI officials. It was not seen again until it was used as evidence in the Catonsville Nine's trial, which began the following October.
It was a tough time to be a politician in 1967 and '68. On April 4, 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at New York's Riverside Church in which he not only condemned the war in Vietnam, but also directly connected it to the civil-rights movement. King said, in part:
It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor--both black and white--through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
This came as an outrage to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who prided himself on his civil-rights record and his Great Society legislation.
The New Year greeted LBJ with even worse news. On Jan. 31, 1968, the Vietcong's Tet offensive began with 540,000 U.S. troops already on the ground in Vietnam. Despite the fact that Tet was largely a tactical failure for the Vietcong, by mid-February the damage it wrought on the American psyche, and LBJ's presidency, was highly effective. Large numbers of Americans were beginning to think that the war was a mistake.
The Democratic Party--like the nation--was also tearing apart. Fellow Democrats Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy decided to seek the presidential nomination despite, or perhaps to spite, Democratic incumbent LBJ. Both men ran on platforms that called for ending the war in Vietnam. With his military calling for even greater numbers of troops, LBJ had reached a breaking point. In a speech delivered on March 31, 1968, he announced his refusal of the military's request for 206,000 more troops and also that he would not seek nor would he accept his party's nomination for another term in office. Tragic news arrived days later, on April 4, when King's life was taken by an assassin's bullet in Memphis. The assassination sparked riots across the nation, including Baltimore.
The Catonsville Nine incident was not the first time that religious activists had registered their protests against a war their country was waging. This American tradition dates back to the Quakers during the Civil War--though most of them registered their protests by simply abstaining from combat. The Catholic Worker movement, founded during the Great Depression by Dorothy Day and French-born priest Peter Maurin as an unofficial outgrowth of the Roman Catholic Church, sought (and still seeks) to act in accordance with the teachings of Christ. To its members, this meant resisting war or violence as a solution to anything, offering relief to the poor, and performing other acts of mercy on a daily basis. Pacifists, conscientious objectors, and Catholic Workers had been working together to resist war since World War II and the Korean War.
Catonsville was not even the first time that Catholics had banded together to take a stand against the war in Vietnam. In the early '60s, Catholic conscientious objectors and pacifists began resisting the draft. In 1965, David Miller, a former student of Daniel Berrigan at Le Moyne College, became the first person to test new federal legislation that made destroying a draft card punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and five years in jail. Miller ceremoniously burned his draft card at a rally in New York on Oct. 15, for which he received a five-year sentence in federal prison.
Two years earlier, in 1963, the world was shocked when a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Quang Duc burned himself to death in front of reporters at a busy intersection in Saigon. He did so to protest religious persecution of Buddhists by the pro-Catholic, U.S.-backed Diem regime. Not quite one month after Miller had burned his draft card in 1965, two Americans followed Quang Duc's lead and became the Vietnam era's first American self-immolators. The first and perhaps most notorious was Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison, who on Nov. 2 burned himself alive. Moments before he lit himself on fire outside the Pentagon office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he handed his 1-year old daughter to horrified onlookers. Seven days later, before the sun rose in New York, a young Catholic Worker named Roger LaPorte doused himself with gasoline outside of the United Nations and lit a match.
If this seems like dogmatic religious fanaticism, it is important to note that these actions were actually in direct opposition to the Roman Catholic Church's position at the time, which had supported the U.S. government's Vietnam policy since the 1950s on the now disproved theory that it would hold communism at bay. From the discredited Dr. Thomas Dooley, a sort of early Catholic prototype of Iraq's Ahmed Chalabi, to New York's Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman, who actively supported U.S.-installed leader Ngo Dihn Diem, the Catholic mainstream had made its presence and preferences known in Vietnam. This Catholic support was extended to Diem, the first president of South Vietnam, even when his military fired on and killed Buddhist protesters. It is not surprising then that some Catholics felt they had to take a stand.
An early precursor to the Catonsville Nine was the Big Lake One, also known as "the movement that started the Movement." In the spring of 1966, Barry Bondhus, a 19-year-old Minnesotan, enacted the first hit and stay protest. His Quaker father had been particularly vocal about not allowing any of his sons to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. In preparation, his 12 sons began collecting their own excrement into two five-gallon buckets for a couple of weeks. Young Bondhus, alone, then broke into the Big Lake, Minn., draft board and emptied the two buckets of shit onto hundreds of draft files. After patiently waiting to be arrested and tried, he received 18 months in federal prison.
Closer to home, in 1967, many of the soon to be members and supporters of the Catonsville Nine involved themselves in three separate protest actions at the homes of top-ranking government officials. The list of front lawns they picketed includes: McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, generals William Westmoreland and Harold K. Johnson, and W.W. Rostow, widely considered the architect of U.S.-Vietnam policy. Many of these men resided at Fort Myer, Va. Carrying protest signs painted by artist Tom Lewis on a bitter cold day in January 1967, a group of 50 protesters were rounded up in an Army bus and gently escorted off the base. Though they returned twice later in the year with dwindling numbers, most of the protesters ultimately came away from the three Fort Myer actions feeling dissatisfied. Even on an Army base, it seemed, they could not get arrested.
Then, in October 1967, came another hit and stay action. On a cool autumn day, Philip Berrigan, Tom Lewis, United Church of Christ minister Jim Mengel, and 26-year-old Dave Eberhardt entered the Selective Service's downtown office at the Baltimore Custom House. The four were accompanied by several members of the local press who were invited along to watch them destroy draft files in a manner not unlike Bondhus' Minnesota action--only this time they used the more Christ-like symbol of blood.
The planning of what would come to be known as the Baltimore Four action seems to have evolved out of consensus and compromise. According to Eberhardt, a poet, activist, and former Boys' Latin teacher who is now teaching and counseling inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center, the idea for the action originated from a visit to attorney Phil Hirschkopf. The four had visited the civil-rights lawyer at his office in Arlington, Va., to discuss the legal parameters of the action they would take. Alarmed by Philip Berrigan's talk of blowing something up, Hirschkopf suggested pouring honey or maybe blood on some draft records. On the ride back to Baltimore, it was decided: They would pour their own blood on draft records as a symbolic act of defiance. "We could all dig it from the religious point of view," Eberhardt says in a recent interview.
The activists had met a few years earlier while working together in the civil-rights movement. Philip Berrigan, Eberhardt, and Lewis had been members of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). According to Eberhardt, who served as vice president of the local chapter, the three had been arrested together several times doing CORE actions. Berrigan reportedly left the organization around the time he had decided to embrace a more radical form of civil disobedience, in order to spare the group any backlash from his upcoming actions. Later, the three helped co-found the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission of Clergy and Laymen, a group of Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant clergy organized against the draft and the Vietnam War. Among activities such as running ads in The Sun and Afro-American proclaiming the number of war dead, the Interfaith Peace Mission also offered draft counseling to young men in the area who were opposed to being sent off to kill or be killed.
Philip Berrigan was born in Two Harbors, Minn., into a working-class, pro-union family. He was a WWII veteran who decided to become a priest like his older brother, Daniel. Philip's innate charisma drew others toward him. In 1955, he was ordained a Josephite, an order of priests and brothers dedicated to serving the African-American community. Berrigan's first post was in Anacostia, a section of Washington, D.C., that still doesn't show up on many maps. While working with impoverished African-Americans living in abysmal public housing, he began lecturing white Catholic audiences against the gradual approach to civil rights that they were comfortable with. This outraged many of his congregants but earned him invitations to speak at NAACP and Urban League events. After only one year, Berrigan's agitating earned him his first transfer, to New Orleans, where he taught at an all-black high school for the next five years. From there, his continued activism propelled his Josephite superiors to move him to a high school in Newburgh, N.Y. Berrigan came to Baltimore in 1965 after being expelled from his Newburgh post for upsetting the more conservative members of his congregation with his anti-war rhetoric. Presumably in Baltimore, he would behave himself, or at least do less damage.
The Custom House raid began at Lewis' studio apartment, conveniently located on Gay Street across from the building; from the apartment, they had a perfect vantage point of the Selective Service office's windows. Lewis was to act as the advance scout and make sure that the security guard was off duty. No one getting hurt was always a priority in these actions. Lewis was to wave a white handkerchief to signal that the coast was clear. Their plan was momentarily foiled when a janitor began cleaning the front windows with a white rag. This sent a false signal to Berrigan, Eberhardt, and Mengel, who started to advance before the guard had left for his lunch break. After some confusion, the raid was reset.
Once the guard was gone, the four men went into action with reporters trailing them. Mengel stood watch at the front door, while the three others entered under the pretense of wanting to look at draft records because they were draft counselors--a partial truth. Once they had access to the files they poured a mixture of their own blood and duck's blood purchased from Broadway Market onto some 600 draft files. The previous evening, the four men had a nurse draw their blood, but she was unable to get very much from them. According to Eberhardt, "Mengel almost fainted."
With the action under way, Mengel then entered with the reporters behind him and nervously offered a free Bible to one of the clerks. Having emptied his container of blood, Lewis began to read aloud a passage from the Bible. At this point, one of the more indignant and frustrated clerks took the Bible Mengel had given her and hit Eberhardt over the head with it. "That was as violent as it got," Eberhardt says.
Finished, the four men seated themselves on a bench and awaited arrest. Within a few minutes city police arrived. The officers waited for federal agents, who slowly and methodically took the four men into custody. Afterward, for some unclear reason, the FBI tested the blood used in the raid, which the activists had transported in emptied-out Mr. Clean bottles. The conservative-leaning Baltimore News-American "got a kick out of saying it was chicken's blood, to make us look like chickens, you know," Eberhardt contends.
After facing the openly hostile Judge Edward Northrop and a lengthy appeals process, the Baltimore Four were sentenced on May 24, 1968. Berrigan and Lewis faced six years in prison. Eberhardt received three years, while Mengel was released on his own recognizance and scheduled for sentencing but never serving a day in jail for his participation in the Baltimore action.
The question of who came up with the idea for the Catonsville Nine is easier to answer: It was George Mische. Prior to Catonsville, Mische, a labor organizer who worked in Central America and the Caribbean, engaged in meetings with like-minded people interested in civil disobedience aimed at draft boards. From his home in Washington, D.C., at 1620 S Street, to Rochester, N.Y., where his sister lived, and beyond Mische set up retreats where he would "simply put forth possibilities and let others come to their own conclusions. I never directly asked anyone to go into an action. That's not my style of organizing," he says during a recent interview.
Mische looked at the blood-pouring action and the subsequent April '68 trial, in which he says the federal prosecutor, Stephen Sachs, "overbuilt the case against the Baltimore Four." Mische says he had an epiphany. In an attempt to prove that $5,000 in damages had been done, making the crime a felony, the prosecutor exposed a major weakness of the Selective Service system. It occurred to Mische that there were no backup copies of the records held at draft offices. "A light bulb went off over my head," he recalls. "I said, `That's it. We'll go ahead and burn the damn things.'"
While Mische was busy visiting different parts of the country attempting to bring people together for another draft-board raid, Thomas Melville and Marjorie Bradford, who were not yet husband and wife, were on their own unique cross-continent adventure. In Guatemala, Melville and Bradford began to feel uneasy about their work as missionaries for Maryknoll, a Catholic mission movement based out of Ossining, N.Y. They began to notice that their government was taking a similar role in Guatemala--with military advisers--as it had been in Vietnam since the 1950s. By their estimation, Guatemala's military was simply a surrogate for the U.S. military, which attempted to keep its interference hidden. Unable to sit idly by, Melville and Bradford's dream of living and working in Guatemala for the rest of their lives was looking less likely.
The burden of staying neutral began to seem more absurd to them. As Thomas Melville explains in a recent interview, "the traditional idea among missionaries is that foreigners don't mix with politics. Well, that's fine except that if you represent the same country that is supporting a repression against the people you are working with, it's not such a clear-cut decision to stay out of politics."
Four days before Christmas '67, the two were expelled from Guatemala for meeting with guerrillas--a perceived communist activity. As far as Guatemalan and U.S. military officials were concerned, Melville and Bradford had gone native. Asked to leave by their Maryknoll superiors, who were gently passing along the request from the Guatemalan government, the couple flew into Miami and then decided to trade in their tickets back to Maryknoll in New York for tickets to Houston. From Houston, they traveled by bus to Mexico City where they reconnected with friends, a small network of Guatemalan students and exiles. Having long since stopped worrying over what their Maryknoll superiors would think, the couple, realizing they had fallen in love, decided to get married in Mexico City.
Considered missing by top officials back at Maryknoll, who went as far as to release a press statement saying that they were unsure of the whereabouts of their renegade missionaries, the two finally resurfaced on the cover of every major Mexican newspaper in Mexico City. One of the more absurdly delusive stories claimed that the Melvilles had 35,000 guerrillas ready to invade Guatemala from the Mexican border. A small network of Guatemalan exiles and expats had been turned into an invading army of thousands by the red-crazed media. Taking the advice of a friend, a former high-ranking Guatemalan official who was exiled in Mexico, the Melvilles headed back to the States. At home the more salacious, less political U.S. headlines read, "Guerrilla priest marries guerrilla nun."
The Melvilles decided that Washington, D.C., was the best place for them to draw attention to their cause. There they could petition members of Congress and publicize the injustices going on in Guatemala. As if by fate they ended up staying with George Mische, whose brother, a Maryknoll priest, vouched for the couple as "good lefties."
Like the Melvilles, Mary Moylan ended up at Mische's S Street house. Similarly, she too felt misused by the Catholic Church. Moylan, a registered nurse, was living in Washington when she decided in 1959 to go to Uganda and work as a midwife. She stayed for six years before losing her position and being asked to leave the country for quarreling with her superiors. Moylan had been insistent that Ugandans should be given more training and more responsibilities by her hospital's white Catholic administration.
Back in D.C., Moylan took up residence at an African missionary house, not far from Mische's communal abode on S Street, and became the executive director of the Women Volunteers Association of Washington. Moylan's missionary house quickly became a meeting place for the Catholic Left in the city, which inspired the Washington archdiocese to clear its property of these troublemakers. And when Moylan needed a new place to live, her old friend Mische did not hesitate to invite her to his home.
The final soon to be member of the Catonsville Nine to take up residency at Mische's place was John Hogan. Hogan joined the Maryknoll order as a brother in 1953. Like the Melvilles, he, too, was assigned to Guatemala. There he labored as a carpenter, helping to build a hospital and organizing co-ops among poor farmers. Soon he began to notice similar problems as the Melvilles had. Hogan, too, was asked to leave Guatemala by the Maryknoll order because of meetings he had held with guerrillas. And like his soon to be fellow activists, the time he had spent in Central America convinced him that poverty and oppression, which seemed to be intimately connected to U.S. foreign policy, could only be eradicated through revolutionary means.
In the early months of 1968, Mische began holding meetings in his basement to discuss further draft board actions. According to Thomas Melville, "They were talking about Catonsville without saying [exactly] where it was going to happen. I was really crushed about having to leave Guatemala, and when [Mische] talked about burning draft files, I thought, If I can get them to talk about Guatemala in this statement, I'll jump at the chance to go."
Marjorie Melville was not at all thrilled about her husband's agreement to join a hit and stay action. "You'll be going to prison, you know? Don't you know what it means to be married?" he recounts her scolding. "When you're married, you don't make decisions that involve both of us!" She then left the house and walked toward DuPont Circle. After three hours of walking and crying, she returned home.
"Count me in," she told Tom.
There was still one other person who needed convincing to join the action: Philip Berrigan's older brother Daniel. Ordained a Jesuit priest in 1952, Daniel Berrigan was an award-winning poet by his mid-30s. A prolific author, he has since written nearly two dozen books, including Time Without Number, for which he won the 1957 Lamont Prize, and the well-known Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which went on to become a film produced by Gregory Peck as well as a play consistently in production somewhere.
In 1965, Daniel was teaching at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. When comments that he had made about David Miller's draft-card burning made their way back to Cardinal Spellman, Berrigan was singled out by the cardinal--one of the most politically juiced Catholics of this or any other era. Spellman, on official business in Rome and still angry over Miller's public display, became incensed when he heard that one of his Jesuits had spoken at a memorial service held for Roger LaPorte. He decided to make an example of Berrigan for this very public stance against the Vietnam War by banishing him to South America.
Back in the United States not quite two years later, Daniel Berrigan again made national headlines in 1968 by going on an unofficial diplomatic mission to Hanoi along with Boston University historian Howard Zinn to retrieve three downed American pilots. North Vietnamese officials had decided to return the American POWs, but only to dedicated peace activists like Berrigan and Zinn. In Night Flight to Hanoi, Berrigan poignantly records the nerve-racking and frustrating experience of bureaucratic red tape and U.S. bombs exploding around him as he witnessed a city and a people ravaged by war.
While some had noted that the priest had arrived home a changed man, he was not quite ready to jump straight into an action that involved destroying government property and almost certain jail time.
Philip Berrigan traveled to Cornell University, where his brother was now teaching, a few times in early '68 to garner support. On his final trip in early May, the two brothers stayed up all night one night--drinking, talking, and soul searching. By morning, Daniel had committed himself to the action. In a lecture the priest gave in 1994, he proclaimed, "In the end, I couldn't not do it."
If the idea for the Catonsville action originated in a basement in Washington, Baltimoreans can at least take pride in the fact that much of the logistical planning took place in the Charles Village rowhouse of William O'Connor. O'Connor, a professor of literature and sociology at University of Maryland, Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission member, and dedicated peace activist, who died in August 2006, chaired many of the planning meetings and helped make the napalm in his basement with fellow support member and physics teacher Dean Pappas. After mixing the soap flakes with gasoline, O'Connor and Pappas yelled upstairs to the others, "Alright, come down. You want to see what this stuff looks like?"
Support members like O'Connor, Pappas, and others like them are the less-heralded backbone of the Catonsville Nine action. Without them it's unlikely that such actions would have gone down as smoothly as they did--or even gone down at all. But while they were willing to put in the time and energy, many of them were not yet ready, or willing, to do the time. Hosting and chairing meetings--even turning his basement into a makeshift napalm lab--was one thing, but O'Connor, for instance, was unwilling to fully join the action. "I've been in jail a couple times. Felt I could do other things. Make other contributions," O'Connor told an oral historian in 1974. "I thought that the priests could use their celibacy for a change. That it was easier for them to get arrested.
Other logistical planning was necessary, too. The problem of how to get nine bodies to the Selective Service board without filling the parking lot full of cars, which could have possibly exploded if something went wrong with the fire, had to be solved. Brendan Walsh, support member and co-founder of Viva House, one of Baltimore's two Catholic Worker houses, explains, "We used a St. Peter Claver [church] car to drive to Catonsville. We left from Tom Lewis' parents' house in three different cars. I was supposed to be the driver for the car that had Phil and Dan. When it came time to go, Phil took the keys and he drove."
After delivering their payload, the support crew kept lookout to make sure everything went down as planned. Watching the flames rise from a block and a half away, Walsh and the others knew it was safe to mail the press releases, which they did from the post office across the street from the draft board.
In a bizarre twist of legal double jeopardy that involved being tried separately by the federal government and the state of Maryland for the Catonsville incident, and with the federal trial set to begin Oct. 7, 1968, Daniel Berrigan was arrested by Baltimore County officials on Friday, Oct. 4. The unexpected arrest, as well as plans to arrest six other members of the Nine, were made by county officials on behalf of the state because of separate state charges for the May 17 Catonsville incident. Daniel's arrest took place at Towson State College (now Towson University), where he was delivering a speech in which he expressed his certainty that he would be found guilty in federal court. According to The Sun, he also told the audience that perhaps people ought to stop burning draft cards and "go out and burn draft files. If you're going to go to jail, you might as well do something big."
The following Sunday, the night before the trial, county police arrested Thomas Melville and George Mische in Towson. They had appeared at a rally held at St. Ignatius Church on St. Paul Street, where 600 to 1,000 demonstrators had gathered. The two nearly escaped police altogether thanks to the protective crowd of supporters who formed a blockade around the men, allowing them to drive away, if only temporarily. Concerns that the arrests would interfere with the defendants' ability to plan for their looming federal trial were expressed by the Nine's legal defense team, led by high-profile radical lawyer William Kunstler. These concerns went ignored by county officials.
In the meantime, a group called the Baltimore Defense Committee planned rallies and demonstrations. Celebrities and intellectuals of the anti-war movement--including Rennie Davis of the Chicago Eight, who was later tried for inciting a riot during the '68 Democratic National Convention, professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, poet Robert Bly, and Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement--signed on and appeared to show their support. The Baltimore Defense Committee went out of its way to let officials know that they planned to keep their marches and rallies peaceful and calm. Grenville Whitman, spokesman for the Baltimore Defense Committee and publisher of Peace and Freedom News, an alternative newspaper run out of 2525 Maryland Ave., met with lead U.S. prosecuting attorney Stephen Sachs to assure him that there would not be any attempts to disrupt the courtroom proceedings. Meanwhile, support members like Brendan Walsh and his wife, Willa Bickham, continued to work tirelessly behind the scenes to accommodate the visiting and local supporters. "Every night of the trial, at St. Ignatius Church we were part of the group that had taken responsibility for feeding those people. And I think every night we planned for 2,500 or so," Walsh says.
On the day that the trial began, The Sun reported, 1,400 demonstrators--a light estimate considering the photo that ran with the story--marched nearly three miles from Wyman Park to War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall. The city added 800 extra police officers, according to The Sun, nearly doubling the size of the city's force. In a scene reminiscent of civil-rights marches, officers guarding the War Memorial wore riot helmets and carried gas masks and heavy riot sticks. Some were accompanied by German shepherd police dogs. The Sun also noted that a few officers had even illegally removed their nameplates. Signs that read peace creeps go home and hang the nine symbolically battled signs that read free the nine and end the draft. For the most part things stayed calm, however, and no violence broke out.
Inside the courthouse, the Catonsville Nine and their legal defense team commenced with an unconventional defense. First, they abstained completely from jury selection. To say this resulted in a homogenous group of peers is a massive understatement. According to Daniel Berrigan's account in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a play culled from the 1,200 pages of the trial's transcripts, every member of the jury had either served in the military or worked for the military-industrial complex. Next, the nine defendants unanimously admitted they had burned the draft files in Catonsville. What came next seriously tried the patience of a judge who could reasonably be described as sympathetic to the defendants. The Catonsville Nine attempted to turn the tables on the federal government. They would try the case against U.S. policy in Vietnam.
The presiding judge, Roszel Thomsen, a former city school board member during Baltimore's pre-Brown v. Board of Education desegregation days, was far more tolerant of his subjects than his predecessor in the Baltimore Four case. At one point early on in the case, he allowed the defense to introduce a book highly critical of U.S. policy in Vietnam, In the Name of America, to be proffered as evidence of Philip Berrigan's reasonableness. Assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur Murphy, handpicked by Sachs to lead the case, responded, "Your honor, we say that a reasonable man could have [Berrigan's] views."
Attempting to explain the intent of his actions, David Darst testified, "To raise a cry. An outcry at what was clearly a crime--an unnecessary suffering. A clear and wanton slaughter. An outcry against the fact that our country can spend 80 billions [sic] a year chasing imaginary enemies all around the world."
Mary Moylan added, "To a nurse, the effect of napalm on human beings is apparent. I think of children and women bombed by napalm burned alive by a substance, which does not roll off. It is a jelly. It adheres. It continues burning. This is inhuman."
"I just want to let people live. That is all," John Hogan testified.
The trial ended as strangely as it had begun. "I can understand how you feel," Judge Thomsen said after closing arguments were made. "I think the only difference between us is that I believe the institutions can do what you believe they cannot do." Daniel Berrigan then asked if it would be permissible to recite the Lord's Prayer, and the judge not only agreed but also joined them in reciting it.
To no one's surprise, the jury found the nine defendants guilty. Their sentences ranged from two to six years. Philip Berrigan and Tom Lewis received three and a half years, which were to run concurrently along with their six-year Baltimore Four sentences. Three-year sentences were handed to Daniel Berrigan, George Mische, and Thomas Melville, while David Darst, John Hogan, Marjorie Melville, and Mary Moylan were each handed two-year sentences in federal prison.
Walking through the tree- and gravestone-strewn grounds of Jonah House, located at St. Peter's Cemetery in Northwest Baltimore, on a warm April 2006 afternoon, Elizabeth McAlister, widow of Philip Berrigan (the two were married in 1973), recalls the eloquence that the Nine evinced during their trial. "I remembered going to the trial and being profoundly grateful that I wasn't up there with them," she says, then pauses. "Because they were so articulate. They were so clear, and I would have been a burden to them."
With all of their appeals denied by the spring of 1970, it was time for the activists to begin serving their sentences. But rather than obediently reporting to prison to do their time, four members of the Catonsville Nine--joined by Eberhardt of the Baltimore Four action--decided not to go quietly. They turned yet another negative into a positive, and in the process garnered more headlines for their cause. The Berrigan brothers, Mische, and Moylan went underground instead.
In an interview at the time, Eberhardt, who had joined Philip Berrigan on his short-lived, 10-day refuge, explained that, "Our going underground is a form of peace education. That is worth bail money and shorter sentences."
Forty years later, Mische explains it in even simpler terms: "I'll be damned if I was going to risk 10 years in jail and not tell people about it."
By autumn 1970, all but Moylan had been apprehended by a posse of federal agents. The Berrigans and Eberhardt were arrested in a relatively peaceful manner. In late April, Philip Berrigan and Eberhardt were picked up by eight FBI agents at the rectory of St. Gregory's in Manhattan, where they were planning to attend a peace rally. On Aug. 11, Daniel Berrigan was finally taken by the FBI at the home of his friend, lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow, on Block Island, R.I. On the other hand, Mische was apprehended in Chicago by gun-wielding federal agents who seemed to take great zeal in their work as G-men. Surrounding the building and brandishing handguns, the agents who took him in acted as if they were on a manhunt for a dangerous criminal. Moylan, who as Mische puts it "went underground to show that women were just as good revolutionaries as men," stayed underground for nearly a decade. In 1978, she finally surrendered to authorities that had all but forgotten about her.
Much has been written and argued about the fact that four members of the Catonsville Nine went underground rather than turning themselves in on time to begin serving their sentences. Some, like Catholic priest and author Charles Meconis, hold it was one in a series of clumsy moves that contributed to the splintering of the Catholic Left. Destroying government property was one thing, but evading capture from federal agents was too much for some activists. Others, like Catholic pacifist and historian Gordon Zahn, have claimed that it was a grandstanding distraction.
Zahn was not the only critic who charged that distracting elements had emerged from the Catonsville action. Already a well-known author and public figure before Catonsville, Daniel Berrigan was joined by his brother in the limelight. The two immediately became unwitting poster children of the Catholic Left. Mainstream media appearances on The Dick Cavett Show as well as the cover of Time magazine in June 1971 sealed the deal. Some who were even closer to the Berrigans began to criticize them and even feel resentful.
"The story was told wrong--Dan and Phil could have done a better job at correcting the record. Some people went on to do eight or nine actions. That's the story that needs to come out," Mische says at an interview held before a recent lecture at UMBC in Catonsville. "Mary [Moylan] and I were against Dan writing the play in the first place because the message of Catonsville was not that we were some heroes or martyrs or super special kind of people. The idea was to say, `Anybody can do what we did.'"
While many young people were tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, others were boisterously and sometimes violently taking to the streets to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. They were easy for some to dismiss as reckless youth in an irrelevant movement that would burn out. But when priests, nuns, and missionaries, older people ranging in ages from 26 to 47, chose to commit a felony act of civil disobedience, America took notice, and the peace movement gained greater legitimacy. Even more was gained when returning veterans publicly turned against the war. But legitimacy was welcome at a time when the movement seemed to be imploding on itself and groups of frustrated, violent activists like the Weathermen, who planted bombs in government buildings from 1969 to '75, were beginning to emerge.
Rather than recklessly putting their heads between police riot sticks and the street, or blowing stuff up, the activists of the Catonsville Nine and Baltimore Four actions chose to exercise nonviolent civil disobedience--the destruction of property that they believed had no right to exist. They knew that they would serve jail time. In doing so, they built a community that continued to grow for years to come.
"After Catonsville, there were 50-some actions across the country, and between 3 to 4 million draft files were destroyed," Mische estimates. A short list of the subsequent actions includes the Boston Two, the Milwaukee 14, the Chicago 15, the Pasadena Three, the Silver Spring Three, Women against Daddy Warbucks, the Rochester Flower City Conspiracy, the Beaver 55, the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives in Philadelphia, the DC Nine, the Manhattan Five, the New York Eight, the Boston Eight, the Minnesota Eight, and the Camden 28.
Actions like the Baltimore Four and Catonsville Nine sparked a progression of left-wing and religious-based activism that was highly influenced by the clergy leadership of the civil-rights movement. With its origins rooted in the struggle for citizenship rights of individuals in the United States, as evident in Philip Berrigan, Eberhardt, and Lewis' work in CORE, the focus shifted to global rights for all individuals of all nations. From a struggle for the right not to have napalm dropped on one's village, the struggle expanded to the right to feed one's family, or even to stake a claim in one's government, as evident in Moylan, Hogan, and the Melvilles' work in Uganda and Guatemala.
Perhaps the two most tangible examples of what activists learned can be done are found in two contemporary movements: the Plowshares movement and the Catholic Worker movement. Both have close connection to the members of the Baltimore Four and Catonsville Nine and their supporters.
The Plowshares movement, with its name taken from the often-repeated line in the Bible that reads--in some variation or another--"Beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks," has sounded the call for nuclear disarmament since its inception in 1980. On Sept. 9 of that year, the Berrigans and six others illegally entered the General Electric nuclear missile factory in King of Prussia, Pa., where they hammered on two nuclear nose cones and poured blood onto the company's records. Since then, over 80 similar actions have occurred throughout the world, reaching as far as Europe and Australia. Elizabeth McAlister, then wife of Philip Berrigan, and Lewis, who also lived at Baltimore's Jonah House after serving his time in prison, both participated in subsequent Plowshare actions. Berrigan and McAlister took turns doing jail stints for their activism in order to raise their three children, who also grew up to become peace activists.
The Catholic Worker movement, which is composed of over 185 communities throughout the world, continues to connect service, poverty, and war by helping to feed those members of society who exist on its margins. Viva House and Jonah House not only serve as support communities for activists who plan to commit further hit and stay-type actions, which will likely earn them jail time, but also work with student groups on a regular basis. On a recent visit with a group of UMBC students, Viva House's Walsh and Bickham, who run a soup kitchen out of their home on Wednesdays and Thursdays, explain to the surprised students that most of their free meals "don't go to the homeless, but rather go to the working poor."
Today, in the midst of another endless war, this bit of local history is very much worth revisiting not only because it lent legitimacy to a movement that floundered on the brink of absurdly falling apart and highlighted the connection between the peace, poverty, and civil-rights movements, but also because many of these same activists are still working among us. As Mische says, anyone could do what the members of the Baltimore Four and Catonsville Nine did. And even at a time when there is no draft to motivate young people into taking action and an African-American man has a better than average chance to take the Democratic Party nomination and become president, rather than congratulate ourselves on how far we've come, it might benefit Americans to remember just how connected things like poverty, race, violence, prison, and war in fact are and how far we still have to go. H
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