By Shawn F. Peters, who teaches writing and U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Reverend Daniel Berrigan is still at it. Though slowed a bit by age and infirmity – he’s 91 years old now and in failing health – the firebrand Jesuit priest recently appeared in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to speak out against Trinity Church. The Episcopal parish was backing the criminal prosecution of several protesters who had occupied one of its empty lots – a move that, in Berrigan’s view, seemed equal parts petty and pointless. In characteristically poetic fashion, he prodded the reporters and supporters who had assembled around him in the park, asking, “What is real about real estate, and what is unreal about real estate?”
For many of those who have participated in Occupy movement protests over the past year, Dan Berrigan is a kind of patron saint. With a commitment to peace and social justice stretching back more than half a century, he repeatedly has placed himself on the front lines of protests against racial discrimination, income inequality, and war. Few public figures in our time – religious or secular – have matched either the breadth or the depth of his devotion to such causes.
This dedication often has put the indefatigable Berrigan at odds with all manner of local, state, and federal legal authorities. His protest activities have resulted in numerous arrests and several stints in prison. Berrigan has been branded a “holy outlaw,” and not without reason. Whenever the letter or spirit of secular laws or public policies have conflicted with his understanding of the Christian scriptures, he has held true to his religious principles – often at enormous personal cost.
My new book, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Oxford University Press), chronicles what might be regarded as the apex of Berrigan’s fabled career as an activist: his participation in a raid on a military draft board in suburban Baltimore on May 17, 1968. In a bold demonstration, Berrigan and eight other Catholics (including his brother Philip) seized and burned more than 350 draft files from the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md. Their subsequent trial in federal court (at which they all were found guilty on all counts) was so singularly dramatic and intense that a play and film later were based on it.
I am a native of Catonsville, and as I grew up there in the 1970s I heard many stories about what Berrigan and his compatriots had perpetrated at the town’s draft office. In piecing together their fascinating story for my book, I realized that a lot of what I heard was incomplete, or simply wrong.
Two misapprehensions stood out. First, the Catonsville raid almost always was described to me as being purely a protest against the ongoing debacle of the war in Vietnam. But my research showed that this was only partly true. Although they were indeed hoping to strike a blow against the war, all of the Nine were motivated to act by their concerns with a broad range of peace and social justice issues. Poverty, imperialism, and militarism – these affected people across the globe, from Vietnam to Central America to the streets of America’s troubled inner cities.
The second mistaken belief concerned Dan Berrigan’s role in organizing the Catonsville protest. It’s often assumed that he and his brother Phil, the two most prominent members of the Nine, were the architects of the famous draft board raid. (This is reflected in a widely-reproduced photo of the event, in which the brothers are shown bowed over the burning draft files – with their seven accomplices cropped out the frame entirely.) Phil Berrigan in fact was the driving force behind the demonstration, but I learned in my research that Dan was a last-minute addition to the line-up, and a reluctant one at that. As he later admitted, Dan was afraid to risk his status in his religious community by taking a radical step that was almost certain to land him in federal prison.
It took some arm-twisting from his brother before he agreed to join in the Catonsville protest. Phil Berrigan spent an entire night talking with his brother (and plying him with whiskey) before Dan agreed to take part.
Berrigan’s experience in becoming the final member of the Catonsville Nine might be illuminating for activists of all ideological and political stripes. Although he’s now regarded as an iconic radical (some fans even refer to him as a living saint), the priest had to grapple some very real fears before he joined the protest. But his struggles ultimately proved worthwhile. The Catonsville raid became one of Berrigan’s signature achievements, cementing his reputation among radicals and giving him an unparalleled public platform – one that he still has not relinquished.