Let us not forget those civilian heroes who have opposed the American military machine in the name of peace and freedom. School textbooks often detail protests at Berkeley and Washington DC as pivotal moments in the anti-war movement. But I am just now learning about Father Philip Berrigan.
Berrigan returned from army service in World War II “sickened” by the unjustified violence and institutional racism he frequently encountered while on the force. A victim of the corrupt, “nationalistic propaganda” that favors white Europeans over everyone else, Berrigan was a bold participant in the American civil rights movement, whose participation in sit-ins and bus boycotts earned him his first stint in the clink. By his death in 2002, Berrigan had spent a total of 11 years behind bars.
Philip Berrigan became a Roman Catholic priest in 1955. In the mid-Sixties, while serving an impoverished African American parish in Baltimore, he founded Peace Mission, an anti-war advocacy group. They declared their displeasure in the “American Empire” by picketing the homes of Defense Secretary Robert S McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. But people were still dying overseas.
Father Phil in 1960
On October 17 1967, Berrigan and three others, later to be known as the “Baltimore Four,” entered the Baltimore Customs House, where Vietnam draft cards were being issued. After distracting office clerks, the protesters splattered blood - made partly using their own - on the Selective Service records. While they waited for the police to come arrest them, the group passed out Bibles. Berrigan stated that the action was committed with dissent to “the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina.” It earned him six years in prison.
Six months later, Philip was out on bail and along with his older brother, Jesuit priest Rev Daniel Berrigan, the two formed the “Catonsville Nine.” A more grandiose version of what happened in Baltimore, the Catholic demonstrators set hundreds of draft cards ablaze in the parking lot of a Catonsville, MD board office using homemade napalm. Unified around the fire, they proceeded to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The press was given the following statement: “We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but also because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America. We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”
The Catonsville Nine
There is no proof on whether any lives were saved by the actions of the Catonsville Nine. It is known, however, that it inspired several similar pacifist movements across the US: the DC Nine, Milwaukee 14, Boston Eight, Camden 28, etcetera. Out on bail once more, the Berrigan brothers soon “went underground,” which earned them placement on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. Their actions would also land them on the cover of TIME.
Catholic Anarchists: Philip and Daniel Berrigan
Philip Berrigan was eventually excommunicated from the church. Ironically, it wasn’t because of his activism, but rather a love affair he developed with a nun while incarcerated. Government screening of their letters also revealed new schemes to commit the “citizen’s arrest” of Henry Kissinger. Berrigan was acquitted of all major conspiracy charges in 1972.
Even after Vietnam, Philip and Daniel Berrigan would dedicate their lives to exposing the injustices within our country. With six others, they formed the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear operation that is still active today. Its inception was marked by the raid of a General Electric plant that produced warhead nose cones. It was reported that the group hammered on two of the noses, poured blood on documents, and performed prayers for peace. They were held on ten different felony and misdemeanor charges.
Let us pay a moment of silence for those brave American heroes who have fought before us.
News footage from Catonsville Nine’s draft card burning, May 17, 1968