MotherJones SO93: Still radical after all these years

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This past May, a silver anniversary weekend of the “Catonsville Nine Action” was held at woody Goucher College near Baltimore. When old film footage was shown, the audience entered a time warp: The film was black and white, and the sound tinny, but the tension was still real as nine neatly dressed Catholics–including Phil and Dan Berrigan– formed a semicircle around two trash baskets in a parking lot. The baskets held Selective Service files that these apostles of nonviolence had just liberated from Draft Board #33, Catonsville, Maryland. With a prayer, they doused them with homemade napalm, set them afire, and waited for the police.

The 1968 Catonsville event marked a new phase for the growing antiwar movement, in which resistance moved from mere demonstrations to burning draft cards, inciting civil disobedience, and using the courtroom as a platform. Their leader was Phil Berrigan, a strapping Josephite priest who’d been an army officer in World War II but was determined to stop the slaughter in Vietnam. His brother Dan, a Jesuit priest-poet, was also involved; after Catonsville, Dan went underground, evading J. Edgar Hoover’s minions for months. “It allowed me to focus on the important things,” he recalls.

Now, many of the heads are gray or snowcapped, but the rhetoric is evergreen. Unlike most of the sixties’ antiwar movement, which collapsed when the war ended, the Berrigans and their fellow warriors are in it for the long haul. They’ve soldiered on all these years, almost unnoticed by the media, protesting the military buildup and going to jail for their actions, buttressed not by ideology but by a core of religious beliefs and a Zen-like conviction that patience is the only revolutionary virtue.

They call their post-Catonsville pacifist efforts “Plowshares,” from the Biblical injunction to “beat your swords into plowshares.” Since “Plowshares Eight” (1980), when the Berrigans and six others broke into a Pennsylvania defense plant to pour blood and hammer on nuclear nose cones, there have been “Pershing Plowshares” (1984), “Silo Plowshares” (1986), and more than forty other such “witnesses” worldwide. During April 1993’s “Good News Plowshares,” three Catholics sneaked onto a nuclear submarine construction site in Virginia and disarmed two cruise missile launchers.

Phil Berrigan, now a hale sixty-nine, figures he’s spent a total of seventy-three months in jail for such shenanigans, and “I don’t suppose I’m finished yet.” He and his wife, Liz McAlister, a former nun, raised three kids, taking turns getting arrested so that both wouldn’t be in the slammer simultaneously. Their loose national league of Plowshares communities, small nuclei of war resistance and service to the poor, has attracted hundreds of young, altruistic followers, and the movement quietly continues to grow.

The reunion, having begun with a prayer and a song, concluded with a Sunday-morning peace action at defense contractor Martin Marietta Aerospace, a prime Plowshares target through the years. Nine young resisters knelt earnestly before MM’s plate-glass entrance, singing, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” Of course, no one was home. Police later arrested the demonstrators, then released them on personal recognizance. Trial is set for October. Is anyone paying attention?

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

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