National News

Their Protest Helped End the Draft. 50 Years Later, It’s Still Controversial.

Posted May 19, 2018 3:42 p.m. EDT

They entered the draft board office near Baltimore in broad daylight and ransacked the drawers, seizing hundreds of papers as a clerk tried to wrest them back. Outside, in front of journalists they had summoned, they dumped the files of would-be soldiers in the parking lot and incinerated them with a napalm-like mixture made from gasoline and Ivory soap.

History would remember them as the Catonsville Nine: a group of Catholic activists whose protest 50 years ago this week inspired more than 250 similar actions and helped end the draft. As the files burned into ash, they distributed a statement and prayed until police arrived.

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house,” one of the nine, the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, would tell the court that convicted them of interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967, destroying Selective Service files and destroying U.S. property. “We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

The nine — Berrigan, his brother Philip Berrigan, David Darst, John Hogan, Tom Lewis, Marjorie Melville, Thomas Melville, George Mische and Mary Moylan — were each sentenced to two to 3 1/3 years in prison. Fifty years later, only Marjorie Melville and Mische were alive for the unveiling of a sign in Catonsville this month lauding them for “inspiring similar acts of civil disobedience across the country.” It was approved and paid for by the Maryland state government.

“What it says to me is maybe conscience doesn’t change, but politics does,” said Frida Berrigan, a daughter of Philip Berrigan, who died in 2002. “What it says to me, what I hope it says to my children, is to listen to the voice of conscience and to heed it.”

The Catonsville Nine planned meticulously. They knew the image they were about to provide would be powerful, because they were not the kind of anti-war activists, nor their tactics the kind of anti-war activism, to which the nation had been accustomed.

They were not students, easily dismissed as naive. They had been in Central America and Africa and seen the effects of U.S. intervention, and they were motivated by this as much as by the Vietnam War. Some of them were or had been priests and nuns. The Berrigan brothers stood by the flames in clerical attire, a tableau so striking that the two of them would forever be painted as the leaders of a protest that actually had none.

They were “clean-cut, not scruffy hippies burning cards,” said David Eberhardt, 77, one of the Baltimore Four, an earlier group that poured blood on draft files in 1967. “That was a hard image to dismiss.” In Catonsville, four of the nine went into hiding rather than turn themselves in to prison. Daniel Berrigan, who died in 2016, all but poked the FBI with a stick, popping up repeatedly to speak even as he evaded capture for months. Meanwhile, from 1968 to 1972, a flood of similar actions hit draft boards nationwide, and Selective Service officials made no secret of feeling under siege, said Joe Tropea, co-director of the documentary “Hit and Stay,” about the wave of protests.

Many of them were grouped by catchy names. There were the Milwaukee 14, who burned 10,000 draft files. There were the Women Against Daddy Warbucks, who raided eight New York draft boards and shredded documents into confetti on Rockefeller Plaza. There were the Camden 28, who were betrayed by an FBI informant but acquitted by a jury.

It is, perhaps, a measure of their significance that Americans continue to debate the propriety of these actions.

“Respect for the law is what keeps this country together,” said Stephen H. Sachs, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Catonsville Nine. “So therefore I can’t accept people who violate the law, even if their motives are, to them at least, pure. A guy who robs a bank because he wants to give alms to the poor, it’s a bank robbery.”

When Sachs wrote an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun this month, it drew passionate responses. Disagreement continues, and Joby Taylor, who helped arrange a monthlong series of anniversary events, said that was as it should be.

“The Catonsville Nine were certainly not uncontroversial in ’68, and I don’t think that they should be uncontroversial in 2018,” said Taylor, director of the Shriver Peaceworker Fellows Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It should continue to be an action in a democratic society that evokes strong and mixed responses. That’s probably a reflection of how strong an act of resistance it was.”

The Catonsville Nine drew inspiration from the Baltimore Four: a protest that was meant to be symbolic, but whose trial revealed a starkly practical consequence. When a defense lawyer for the four asked why the government did not simply go into the Selective Service archives for duplicates of the files that had been covered with blood, an officer responded that there were no duplicates. Pressed by the defense, he acknowledged that if, for example, a draft file were burned, its subject would no longer exist in the eyes of the Selective Service.

In the gallery, Mische recalled, he turned to his wife and said, “We’re going to burn the goddamn things.”

The ensuing actions may not have changed U.S. foreign policy, said Melville, now 88, but they “kept so many young men from being forced to fight in the war.” And in the long term, they provided a set of principles and tactics that still influence activists 50 years later.

“It embedded itself into our cultural fabric,” said Shawn Francis Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who grew up in Catonsville and wrote a book about the Catonsville Nine. “I don’t think that they even dreamed that it would have this kind of resonance.” Some veterans of the draft board actions are now part of the Plowshares movement, whose members have damaged military equipment to protest nuclear weapons. On April 4, the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, activists spilled blood inside a Georgia naval base that stores nuclear submarines. Among them was Liz McAlister, 78, the widow of Philip Berrigan and mother of Frida Berrigan.

“None of this is static or just for the history books,” Berrigan said.

But, like many movements, this one has split over goals and strategy. Mische skipped the anniversary celebrations and wrote a 4,700-word statement arguing that many people who claimed the legacy of the Catonsville Nine were seeking celebrity and focusing too much on symbolic action.

“What we set out to do was to have direct action,” Mische, 80, said in an interview. “Don’t take yourself as some type of prophet and something other people feel they can’t be.”