Moral passion still burns among 'Catonsville Nine' 6 to mark protest's 25th anniversary

May 17, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

It was a only a tiny fire on a Catonsville parking lot 25 years ago today, but it flared into a beacon that focused a divided nation's attention on anti-Vietnam War protests in Baltimore.

Nine Catholic activists led by two priests, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, invaded a Selective Service Office on Frederick Road on May 17, 1968. Seizing a handful of draft records, they burned them with homemade napalm, then waited for police to arrest them.

The "Catonsville Nine" and their dramatic trial brought thousands of anti-war protesters to Baltimore during a year of bitter fighting in Vietnam and growing protest at home.

The trial spotlighted a small group of religious pacifists whose moral convictions have long outlasted their jail sentences and the war that brought them national attention. And it brought to the American public a vivid example of the conflict between individual conscience and the rule of law.

Six of the nine will reunite for the first time Friday through Sunday at Goucher College to talk about the past and the future.

"The need for demonstrations like Catonsville still exists. We're not even close to disarmament," said Philip Berrigan, 69, who left the priesthood but not the peace movement.

The only member of the Nine still in Baltimore, Mr. Berrigan makes his home at Jonah House, the nonviolent community he and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, founded in Reservoir Hill to work with the poor and oppose American military involvements overseas. Although he paints houses to support his family, his real vocation is still protest.

"It's an ongoing process," he said. "I don't have any second thoughts. I can't think of a better way to spend my life. I am not a martyr; I just found this the best course to follow."

He and his brother, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., have forgotten how many times they've been jailed since 1968. Just a few weeks ago, Philip Berrigan was dragged out of a federal courtroom in Virginia for applauding protesters on trial.

Daniel Berrigan, 72, who works with acquired immune deficiency syndrome patients in New York between teaching stints, is awaiting trial in connection with an arrest on Good Friday, while he was demonstrating at a StarWars research lab in Manhattan.

"Things are worse than ever. There is no letup in the military under President Clinton. There is nothing for the poor. They step over them to get in" [the research lab], he said.

But Catonsville remains the seminal link in the chain of opposition to government military policy they have forged through the years.

Now well into middle age and beyond, the Berrigans and four of their fellow participants will meet at Goucher to explain their actions and their persistence to a generation that may have forgotten them and another that wasn't yet born when they began protesting.

"We don't want to make it just a nostalgia-based, remembrance weekend," said C. William "Chuck" Michaels, the Baltimore lawyer who organized the event. "We want to examine what the Catonsville Nine meant to subsequent actions and what has happened to faith-based resistance since Catonsville."

Mr. Michaels was only a high school junior in Cleveland when the Catonsville Nine were tried, but the event inspired him.

He eventually became the peace and justice coordinator for the Baltimore Archdiocese. He met the woman he would marry, Melissa McDiarmid, at a Pentagon demonstration, and in 1985 they founded Pax Christi-Baltimore, the local chapter of the international Catholic-based peace and justice movement.

In interviews last week, the members of the Catonsville Nine said they haven't changed much in 25 years because the world hasn't.

George Mische, 55, now a labor relations consultant in St. Cloud, Minn., still takes to the streets to oppose American military ventures.

"It is a lifetime responsibility and job to build a moral and just society for our children. I believed it at Catonsville, and I believe it now," he said.

Mr. Mische marched in Washington against Operation Desert Storm and said he's worried now that President Clinton will get the United States involved in a Balkan war, just as President John F. Kennedy did in Vietnam.

Mr. Clinton, he said, "is Kennedy all over again. He's tinkering around with international affairs when he can't get his domestic plan through."

Thomas P. Lewis, 53, an artist who poured blood on draft records at the Baltimore Custom House with Philip Berrigan a month before the Catonsville raid, draws an analogy between the government's international ventures and the domestic situation.

Overseas, he said, the United States fails to take preventive action until the only solution -- such as in Somalia -- is military force. "At least we were dropping food instead of napalm," he said.

Mr. Lewis lives in Worcester, Mass. "We live with the poor and we work with them; they are our neighbors," he said. "There is a lack of jobs, and the people are left to go nowhere. We have to deal with them before the crisis occurs and the only solution is to send in troops."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.