Philip Berrigan is 70, in jail and still in the trenches THE WAR HAS JUST BEGUN

July 27, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

EDENTON, N.C. — Edenton, N.C.--At age 70, Philip Berrigan doesn't retire, he does jail time.

Defrocked priest, civil rights activist, anti-war protester, constant thorn in the side of the American defense establishment, Berrigan deals in theology, symbolism and action.

He will not be silenced, and he will not go away.

So here he sits inside the Chowan County Detention Center on the banks of Albemarle Sound, serving part of a one-year sentence for taking hammer and blood to a fighter jet last Dec. 7 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.

He appears an old man with white hair, deep facial lines and black-and-blue tinged circles under his eyes. He wears jail-issued orange sandals, loose-fitting dark green pants and a not-quite-matching green shirt. His voice is strong, his words stronger.

He remains a true believer.

"War is the biggest question that faces the human family," he says. "We have to dismantle these weapons and outlaw war if we are to survive on this planet. It's not because I say so, it's because it is."

Berrigan doesn't just speak -- he acts.

By his own count, he has been arrested more than 100 times and served more than seven years for various offenses, nearly all aimed in one manner or another at blocking the gears of the American defense establishment. The activist whose base is Jonah House in Baltimore has bashed missiles and warships, burned draft cards, dug mock graves on the White House lawn.

Do not call him a relic of the 1960s, though, an era when he and his brother the Rev. Daniel Berrigan emerged as high-profile protesters of the Vietnam War. Philip Berrigan doesn't tell stories about the "good old days," when he was one of the Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine. His focus is fixed firmly on the future.

But he is famous for his past, which is why the Chowan County Detention Center, with 11 cells and 34 prisoners, has become an unlikely backdrop for a national news story.

The television networks have trooped here to interview "the patron saint" of the peace movement. Two or three clergy a week stop by to visit. Actor Martin Sheen even detoured to this town of 5,000.

Why, Berrigan has even forged a friendship with the chief jailer, Mike Chinsolo.

"I admire him for sticking up for what he believes in," Mr. Chinsolo says. "But he violated the law. You're not going to destroy government property."

Mr. Chinsolo says of Berrigan: "This is all he knows. This is what he's going to do till the day he dies. I tell him, though: 'You're 70 years old. You've got a 12-year-old daughter. You can do so much good on the outside.'

"He believes in what he is doing," Mr. Chinsolo says. "That was hard for me to understand."

Berrigan's devotion to causes comes from family -- he is the sixth son of a Socialist labor organizer father and a stolid German immigrant mother. It also comes from experience as a soldier of American occupation at the end of World War II and as a Josephite priest, ministering to the poor, engaging in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and, finally, opposing the Vietnam War.

But even though his causes may be worthy to some, his actions can be maddening all the same. He blew off a sentencing hearing over a misdemeanor charge at the Pentagon -- painting on the walkways black shadows like the ones seen after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima -- to engage in this latest action in North Carolina. For failing to appear in court, he may pay dearly and could receive additional jail time based on federal sentencing guidelines. Sentencing in that case is now scheduled for next Wednesday in Alexandria, Va.

But Berrigan is unrepentant. To critics who say he goes too far in his quest for disarmament, he says, "Look, do you have a better idea?"

Berrigan's way is this: Spirit of Life Plowshares. With nothing more than hammers and blood, the group targets America's mightiest weapons.

Berrigan has taken on warships, warplanes and missiles.

Sometimes he has been arrested quickly.

Other times, he and his band have been forced to call for the military police.

"The prophet Isaiah speaks of beating swords into plowshares," Berrigan says. "The hammer becomes a symbolic tool, then. It is a tool of construction that becomes a tool of conversion. You convert an implement of war to one of peace. And with blood, you emphasize the price of war, that the machinery is killing people."

It's tough to be an activist, though. You never know what you will encounter.

Last Dec. 7, Berrigan and three others decided to act against a bomber jet in North Carolina, to give new meaning to the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

As they walked over a rise overlooking the Johnson Air Force Base at about 2 o'clock in the morning, they expected to drop in on a sleepy scene.

Instead, they walked right into war games.

Still, the foursome quickly spotted an F-15E jet that was unattended and went to work, bashing the jet's underside.

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