Berrigan's Last Stand

The 76-year-old activist has always chosen the path of greatest resistance. If a prison sentence for damaging warplanes means the end of that road, he will go without regrets.

March 25, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Philip Berrigan is the great enduring figure of resistance to his admirers, who gather at his trials like a vast extended family. He is the non-patriarchal patriarch of a clan whose totem might be the dove of peace.

A kind of shudder ripples through his supporters in the courtroom when Judge James T. Smith sentences Berrigan to 30 months in prison with the crisp dispatch with which he imposes a life sentence on a murderer.

Berrigan is 76 years old, so you ask Elizabeth McAlister, his wife of 31 years, if she's ever thought he might die in jail, perhaps alone.

"He could," McAlister says. She has a clear, handsome face as strong as a peasant woman in a Breughel painting. She's probably never worn makeup. Her extraordinary white hair frames her face like a Jeanne D'Arc helmet.

"There's a level on which if that happens he would say `That must be.' And he will have given his life. He will die as he lived, giving his life."

She almost intones the words, her face is a little tight as she tries to answer plainly no matter how painfully.

"No one will take his life from him," she says. "Because it's already been given over. And it's been given more and more deeply over these years of non-violent resistance.

"I try not to think beyond the gift that is today and what we have to do in this moment. And if we can do that as faithfully as we can, well, we'll get enough for tomorrow."

On Friday, Berrigan was in the Baltimore County Detention Center, awaiting transfer to a state prison. He looks fit and cheerful and unlikely to pass away very soon.

"I don't think there's any danger of that," he says, bemused by the suggestion. He's sitting in a glass-enclosed booth talking through a phone to a visitor.

"But if I do, that's OK. I couldn't spend my life better. It's what the Christian gospel is all about. It's about bringing justice out of love. In my limited fashion, I've tried to do that. You love people and so you are just to them.

"My health is terrific," he says. He does 25 sit-ups and about 50 push-ups every morning -- but not all at once. And he watches his diet. "It's hell on wheels in jail if your health isn't good."

Arrest record

He knows. He's been imprisoned 60 to 70 times in the 35 years since he was arrested for pouring blood on draft records at the Baltimore custom house in one of the first anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. He became internationally famous for the 1968 Catonsville Nine raid on a draft board.

Few question Berrigan's commitment or integrity, but even on the activist left critics wonder if his direct-action raids on military targets are not irrelevant and outdated in the year 2000. In this era, when "draft" is a way to order beer, many wonder whether the symbolic pouring of blood on airplanes then bending their fins has any practical value. Even "progressives" get bored and ask if anyone hears the protest.

At the Baltimore County jail, Berrigan wears blue jail coveralls that hang as if they were cut for somebody a couple sizes larger. Except for the fit, he looks pretty much as he did during the brief period he was in court during the trial. He sat a bit hunched over in bib overalls, a work shirt and a red sweater, perhaps nodding some during the duller periods. He looked more like the three jurors in blue jeans than the suit-wearing officers of the court.

But that didn't stop them from convicting Berrigan and his three companions on charges of conspiracy and damaging A-10 Warthogs at the Maryland Air National Guard base at Essex. The Guard toted up the cost of aircraft parts they damaged at $88,622.11.

"The amount of the destruction in this case takes it out of the guidelines of the typical malicious destruction of property case," Judge Smith said in imposing sentence.

The Rev. Stephen Kelly, 50, a Jesuit priest from New York City, and Susan Crane, 56, a member with Berrigan of Baltimore's Jonah House community, both received 27-month sentences. Judge Smith ordered Elizabeth Walz, 33, a Catholic worker from Philadelphia, to serve 18 months in the Baltimore County jail. She asked to be allowed to stay in the women's section of the jail where she thought she could help alleviate conditions she found deplorable.

The four walked out of Judge Smith's court on Thursday and never went back. They listened to the verdict and sentencing over loudspeakers in the prisoners' "bullpen."

"If we had conformed and bent our necks," Berrigan says, "our sentences would have been much different.

"The judge didn't understand what he was doing. He thinks if he uses a club on people he'll get them to submit. Some may get frightened and will submit, and others will say `No!' "

He's not sure if they'll appeal. That's a group decision, and he disclaims any undue influence.

"If I wield a little edge, it's because, it's because I've been at this a long time. We strive strenuously to be equal, to be community."

Another last protest

He thinks "realistically" this will be his last protest.

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