By Tommy Airey
It was a cool Tuesday night in mid-June, four hours north of Detroit and forty-five days after the death of Daniel Berrigan. Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann gathered an intergenerational group from among original members and friends of the Detroit Peace Community–so named by members of Jonah House back in 1980 during a week of civil disobedience at the Pentagon. This night’s topic was the Catonsville Nine action of 1968, the mid-day, non-violent storming of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board: they took 378 draft files and set them on fire with homemade napalm in the parking lot and then waited in prayer and song for the police to show up. It sparked hundreds of similar actions all over North America. After Bill’s introduction and historical context, we read The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a reworked transcript of the trial, put to poetry by Berrigan. I was struck by how coherently these nine spoke about the theological and spiritual motivations for their hit-and-stay action. They were all speaking the same compelling language. Continue reading
Today is the anniversary of the Catonsville 9 action in 1968. Here’s how Howard Zinn chronicles it in his classic The People’s History of the United States (1980):
The following May, Philip Berrigan-out on bail in the Baltimore case-was joined in a second action by his brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest who had visited North Vietnam and seen the effects of U.S. bombing. They and seven other people went into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, removed records, and set them afire outside in the presence of reporters and onlookers. They were convicted and sentenced to prison, and became famous as the “Catonsville Nine.” Dan Berrigan wrote a “Meditation” at the time of the Catonsville incident:
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. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise…. We say: killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name. The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.