Back in late 1992, when I was a staff writer at Baltimore City Paper, I convinced my editor that tracking down the Catonsville Nine on the 25th anniversary of their revolutionary protest against the Vietnam War and other US military incursions of the era (including Guatemala) in 1968 would make a good article.
Part of the reason that I wanted to write it was the outsized influence that the incident had in my own childhood and teenage years in suburban Philadelphia. I was precocious enough to follow the heated discussions in the Catholic community -- both in my family and in larger circles -- about the Berrigan brothers and their forthright campaign of civil disobedience against US military and foreign policy -- a line that went from the Baltimore and Catonsville actions in 1968 through their decision to go underground as fugitives after their convictions to later actions against nuclear war in the 1970s and 1980s.
Little did I know that it would be one of the best articles in my journalistic career --and one of the most cited pieces in subsequent literature about 1960s protest and the mobilization of American Catholics against Vietnam.
I managed to track down seven of the nine men and women who stormed into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, MD in 1968, seized draft records, dragged the out into an adjacent lot and burned them with napalm. (One protester, David Darst, died in a car crash shortly after the group's trial and conviction; the second, Mary Moylan, had spent years underground before turning herself in to authorities in 1978. I was not able to convince her to be interviewed.) I also managed to track down the officer who arrested them, the prosecutor of the case and numerous others involved in the saga.
The best part of the reporting and writing of the story was getting to know the ringleader of the action: Phillip Berrigan. History is going to judge him as an important figure in the history of civil disobedience and forceful, confrontational nonviolence. He was a towering personality, fierce in his convictions, and yet possessed of a personal gentleness and generosity. He made some mistakes but even those foibles and errors bring to mind Nietzsche's notions that the errors of great men are more venerable than the truths of little men. There was a lot to learn even in Phillip Berrigan's missteps.
I reminisce about this long-ago story of mine because the play that Phillip Berrigan's brother, poet and activist Daniel Berrigan, wrote about the action and the subsequent trial -- The Trial of the Catonsville Nine -- will be given a staged reading on Monday night, November 3, as part of a reading series on War and Ethics organized by Journeyman Theater and Theatre J.
The staged reading is directed by Rahaleh Nassri (who readers of this blog may recall was the widely-praised Romeo in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female Romeo and Juliet) and the performance will be followed by a panel discussion that features the host of this here blog.
If you've got the pre-election night jitters, what better way to shake them off and prepare for the act of voting then hearing the tale of one of the great acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in American history? The reading starts at 7:30 pm.
More info on the reading here. More information on the Catonsville Nine here. Video of the protest is here.