MotherJones SO93: Still radical after all these years

This past May, a silver anniversary weekend of the “Catonsville Nine Action” was held at woody Goucher College near Baltimore. When old film footage was shown, the audience entered a time warp: The film was black and white, and the sound tinny, but the tension was still real as nine neatly dressed Catholics–including Phil and Dan Berrigan– formed a semicircle around two trash baskets in a parking lot. The baskets held Selective Service files that these apostles of nonviolence had just liberated from Draft Board #33, Catonsville, Maryland. With a prayer, they doused them with homemade napalm, set them afire, and waited for the police.

The 1968 Catonsville event marked a new phase for the growing antiwar movement, in which resistance moved from mere demonstrations to burning draft cards, inciting civil disobedience, and using the courtroom as a platform. Their leader was Phil Berrigan, a strapping Josephite priest who’d been an army officer in World War II but was determined to stop the slaughter in Vietnam. His brother Dan, a Jesuit priest-poet, was also involved; after Catonsville, Dan went underground, evading J. Edgar Hoover’s minions for months. “It allowed me to focus on the important things,” he recalls.

Now, many of the heads are gray or snowcapped, but the rhetoric is evergreen. Unlike most of the sixties’ antiwar movement, which collapsed when the war ended, the Berrigans and their fellow warriors are in it for the long haul. They’ve soldiered on all these years, almost unnoticed by the media, protesting the military buildup and going to jail for their actions, buttressed not by ideology but by a core of religious beliefs and a Zen-like conviction that patience is the only revolutionary virtue.

They call their post-Catonsville pacifist efforts “Plowshares,” from the Biblical injunction to “beat your swords into plowshares.” Since “Plowshares Eight” (1980), when the Berrigans and six others broke into a Pennsylvania defense plant to pour blood and hammer on nuclear nose cones, there have been “Pershing Plowshares” (1984), “Silo Plowshares” (1986), and more than forty other such “witnesses” worldwide. During April 1993’s “Good News Plowshares,” three Catholics sneaked onto a nuclear submarine construction site in Virginia and disarmed two cruise missile launchers.

Phil Berrigan, now a hale sixty-nine, figures he’s spent a total of seventy-three months in jail for such shenanigans, and “I don’t suppose I’m finished yet.” He and his wife, Liz McAlister, a former nun, raised three kids, taking turns getting arrested so that both wouldn’t be in the slammer simultaneously. Their loose national league of Plowshares communities, small nuclei of war resistance and service to the poor, has attracted hundreds of young, altruistic followers, and the movement quietly continues to grow.

The reunion, having begun with a prayer and a song, concluded with a Sunday-morning peace action at defense contractor Martin Marietta Aerospace, a prime Plowshares target through the years. Nine young resisters knelt earnestly before MM’s plate-glass entrance, singing, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” Of course, no one was home. Police later arrested the demonstrators, then released them on personal recognizance. Trial is set for October. Is anyone paying attention?


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