1968, 2008: `Wars don't die'

Survivors of Catonsville Nine mark anniversary with a protest

May 17, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Forty years ago today, nine Catholic men and women - three of them priests - walked into a military draft office in Catonsville and seized the records of hundreds of young men likely to be summoned to fight in Vietnam.

They burned the papers in the parking lot, using homemade napalm to start the blaze. As the flames rose, the nine solemnly recited the Lord's Prayer and stood around waiting for the police to arrest them.

That day in the turbulent spring of 1968, the Catonsville Nine, as they became known, put the quiet Baltimore suburb on the map in a growing nationwide protest against the Vietnam War. The band of activists - whose dramatic trial drew hundreds of antiwar protesters to Baltimore that fall - inspired similar disruptions of draft offices around the country.

The Catonsville Nine also provoked an intense debate, one that has resonated across the decades as Americans challenge another unpopular war - this time in Iraq.

"I think what people are seeing is that the wars don't die," said one of group's leaders, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, now 87 and living in New York. He and his late brother Philip, also a priest at the time, became prominent figures in the peace and social justice movements.

Some saw the fire the Nine ignited - and their subsequent imprisonment - as a courageous act of conscience, inspired by Christian faith. But others have questioned the morality - or at least the effectiveness - of vandalism, no matter how noble the cause.

Today, the Catonsville Nine are down to five. Philip Berrigan, the only member who stayed in Baltimore, died of cancer in 2002 after decades of "civil resistance," repeated arrests and imprisonment for his protests against war, militarism and social injustice.

Two others predeceased him - one in a car accident before his prison sentence was to start.

The most recent of the group to go was artist Tom Lewis, who died unexpectedly last month at his Massachusetts home, a month before a planned visit to Baltimore for a commemoration of the 1968 event.

The passion lives

But the passion for peace still burns in the survivors and their spiritual heirs as they seek to rally opposition to another war.

Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan's widow, will join a group of activists who plan to mark today's 40th anniversary with a muted protest at the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base.

A decade ago, protesters attacked a B-52 bomber there with hammers. This time, they say, they'll wield only peace slogans on T-shirts as they seek to mingle in the crowd of families visiting to ogle the warplanes.

"I think actions like this create hope," said McAlister, 68, taking time from chores at Jonah House, the pacifist community she and Philip Berrigan established in West Baltimore. "And being able to share with people about that creates hope."

Catonsville wasn't the first draft office raid. Philip Berrigan and three others were already awaiting sentencing for pouring blood on draft records at the Custom House in downtown Baltimore in fall 1967. They decided to do it again.

"That was the way to show the government that no matter how many people you lock up, you're not going to get us out of your hair," recalled George Mische, another of the Nine who, like Philip Berrigan, was an Army veteran.

Mische said the group looked at three local draft board sites before settling on the western Baltimore suburb.

"There was no special signficance to Catonsville," said Dean Pappas, a Baltimore physics teacher who helped plan the draft office raid and spread the word after it happened. "It was just a target of opportunity."

Symbolism of site

But Mische and others saw symbolism in the draft board's location on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus hall, a Catholic fraternal organization. They believed church leaders were abdicating their Christian responsibilty to speak out against the war.

Mische said the group also picked Catonsville because it would be "virtually impossible" for anyone to get hurt. But one person did, albeit slightly. Mary Murphy, the head of the office, cut her finger and scratched her leg while wrestling for control of a wire wastebasket containing the seized draft records.

Mische said Murphy also ripped his pants apart, trying to pull him away from the draft files, and another clerk threw a telephone through a window after protesters thwarted efforts to call police. The breaking glass and screaming alerted a groundskeeper outside, who summoned authorities.

Meanwhile, a TV news crew and photographer, who had been tipped off to show up, captured the burning of 378 draft records on black-and-white film with shaky sound.

The Catonsville Nine might have been 10 had McAlister, then a young nun, agreed to join the group that day. "I wasn't ready," she said. "I was too young, and it was too new."

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