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Date: Mon, 01 Jul 2002 13:34:06 -0700
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: A Break-in for Peace [Howard Zinn]
A Break-in for Peace
By Howard Zinn
The Progressive July 2002 http://www.progressive.org
In the film Ocean's 11, eleven skillful crooks embark on an
ingenious plan, meticulously worked out, to break into an
impossibly secure vault and make off with more than $100 million
in Las Vegas casino loot. Hardly a crime of passion, despite the
faint electrical charge surrounding Julia Roberts and George
Clooney. No, money was the motive, with as little moral fervor
attending the crime as went into the making of the movie, which
had the same motive.
I was reminded of this recently when I sat in a courtroom in
Camden, New Jersey, and participated in the recollection of
another break-in, carried out by the Camden 28, where the motive
was to protest the war in Vietnam.
It was the summer of 1971 when a group of men and women, ranging
from young to middle-aged, including a few Catholic priests,
carefully worked out a plan (going over building diagrams and
armed with walkie-talkies, just like the Ocean's 11) to break
into the draft board offices on the fifth floor of the federal
building in Camden and make off with thousands of draft records.
It was an act of symbolic sabotage, designed to dramatize the
anguish felt by these people over the death and suffering taking
place in Vietnam.
Yes, a crime of passion, not the sort Hollywood is likely to make
a movie of. But a young documentary filmmaker named Anthony
Giacchino has decided to tell the story. It happens that his
family in Camden attends the Church of the Sacred Heart, whose
priest is Father Michael Doyle, one of the Camden 28.
This spring, I received a phone call from Anthony, who asked if I
could show up in Camden on May 4 for a retrospective of the
event. I had been a witness in the 1973 trial. He told me most of
the twenty-eight defendants would be there, as well as David
Kairys and Martin Stolar, who had helped them in acting as their
own attorneys in the trial. The judge who presided in the 1971
trial, Clarkson Fisher, was dead. So was John Barry, who
prosecuted the case. But a representative of the FBI would be
present, and one member of the jury.
We would all be meeting in the same courtroom where the trial
took place, two floors below where the Camden 28 made their way
into the draft board office and stuffed draft records into mail
bags. This surprising arrangement was possible because the
Historical Society of the Federal District Court for New Jersey
had decided to do video histories of the important trials that
had taken place in that courthouse. And it would start with the
most famous of those trials, that of the Camden 28.
On August 22, 1971, "eight figures in dark clothes scaled a
ladder to the top of the U.S. Post Office Building in Camden, the
home of the federal court and the local draft board," the
Philadelphia Inquirer reported. "They carried burglar tools and a
strong belief that the war in Vietnam was wrong."
It was about 2:30 in the morning, and they had decided to do it
then so there would be no encounter with people working there, no
chance of violence. But they encountered 100 FBI agents, tipped
off by Robert Hardy, who had been a friend of some of the
defendants. Hardy was an informant and agent provocateur,
supplying the group with the necessary equipment for the break-
in. In the midst of the trial, Hardy's daughter was killed in an
accident. He asked Father Doyle to perform the funeral service.
It was, in some sense, a turning point in Hardy's role. Finally,
he decided to testify for the defendants that he had acted for
the FBI to entrap them into their action.
What was unusual about the trial was that the defendants were
able to do what had not been possible in the previous trials of
draft board raiders (the Baltimore 4, the Catonsville 9, the
Milwaukee 14, and many others). In those trials, the judges had
insisted that the war could not be an issue, that the jury must
consider what was done as ordinary crimes--breaking and entering,
arson (where draft records were burned, as in Catonsville),
destruction of government property.
In Camden, Judge Fisher did not forbid discussion of the war. The
defendants were allowed to fully present the reasons for their
action--that is, their passionate opposition to the war in
Vietnam. And they made the most of this.
Father Doyle, at the time a newly arrived immigrant from Ireland,
persuaded Judge Fisher to allow the jury to see film clips. Some
showed Vietnam villages bombed, in flames; others showed sections
of Camden looking like a bombed out city. He talked about Camden,
a city of poverty and violence, where thirty-one of its young men
were killed in Vietnam. "The sons of the rich never went there,"
Called as a witness, Daniel Berrigan read a poem he had written
while in Vietnam, "Children in the Shelter," which ends with
I picked up the littlest a boy, his face breaded with rice (His
sister calmly feeding him as we climbed down)
In my arms, fathered in a moment's grace, the messiah of all my
tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.
Another defense witness, surprisingly, was Major Clement St.
Martin, who had been in charge of the state induction center in
Newark, New Jersey, from 1968 to 1971. He described in detail how
the draft system discriminated systematically against the poor,
the black, and the uneducated, and how it regularly gave medical
exemptions to the sons of the wealthy.
Major St. Martin said he thought all draft files should be
destroyed. Asked, under cross-examination, if he thought private
citizens had a right to break into buildings to destroy draft
files, he replied: "Probably today, if they plan another raid, I
might join them."
A Vietnamese woman named Tran Khanh Tuyet testified for the
defendants, describing her life in South Vietnam, and told a
hushed courtroom: "In the name of liberty you have destroyed my
One of the defendants, Cookie Ridolfi, at that time a working
class young woman from Philadelphia, now a law professor in
California, put it bluntly: "We are not here because of a crime
committed in Camden, but because of a war waged in Indochina."
It was Ridolfi who had phoned me one day in 1971 to ask if I
would appear in the Camden trial as her witness. I had just
returned from Los Angeles, where I testified in the Pentagon
Papers trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo.
To my surprise, Judge Fisher allowed me to testify for several
hours. I recounted what the Pentagon Papers told us about the
history of the Vietnam War, and discussed in detail the theory
and history of civil disobedience in the United States. I said
that the war was not being fought for freedom and democracy; the
internal memoranda of the government spoke instead, again and
again, of "tin, rubber, oil."
In my previous appearances as a witness for defendants in draft
board cases, judges had strictly forbidden testimony relating to
the war or to civil disobedience. In fact, when I testified for
the Milwaukee 14 the year before, and began to talk about Henry
David Thoreau's ideas on civil disobedience, the judge stopped me
cold, with words I have not been able to forget: "You can't talk
about that. That's getting to the heart of the matter."
The day after my testimony in Camden, one of the defendants, Bob
Good, called his mother, Mary Good, to the stand.
Mrs. Good was a conservative woman, a devout Catholic. She
considered herself a patriot. One of her sons, Paul, had been
killed in Vietnam.
On the witness stand, she told the jury, "I'm proud of my son
because he didn't know. To take that lovely boy and to tell him,
'You are fighting for your country'--How stupid can you get? Can
anybody stand here and tell me how he was fighting for his
country? I can't understand what we're doing over there. We
should get out of this. But not one of us, not a one of us,
raised our hands to do anything about it. We left it up to these
people, for them to do it. And now we are prosecuting them for
Michael Giocondo, who had been a Franciscan priest in Costa Rica
before he joined the Camden group, asked the jury: "What is more
important, the pieces of paper that were the draft records, or
the children of Vietnam?"
The jurors reacted in remarkable ways. Samuel Braithwaite, a
fifty-three-year-old black taxi driver, a veteran of eleven years
in the Army, sent questions up to the bench (a right that jurors
have but almost never exercise) to be put to the witnesses. One
of his questions, which he said was directed to "all men of the
clergy," was: "Didn't God make the Vietnamese? Was God prejudiced
and only made American people?" Another of Braithwaite's
questions: "If, when a citizen violates the law, he is punished
by the government, who does the punishing when the government
violates the law?"
At the reunion in Camden, Peter Fordi, once a Jesuit priest, told
how he and the other defendants stood in the courtroom, linking
arms as the jury filed in, after two days of deliberation. His
voice broke as he recalled the verdict, "Not Guilty" on all
charges, and how then there was pandemonium in the courtroom,
cheering and weeping and people hugging one another. And how then
everyone stood, including the court marshals and the members of
the jury, and sang "Amazing Grace." And how the word spread out
of the courtroom into the street where a crowd had gathered and
now cheered the verdict.
Mary Good also came again to Camden, and reenacted her earlier
appearance as her son's witness. When she finished, the entire
courtroom, including the FBI man, stood and applauded.
The acquittal of the Camden 28 was a historic event. Supreme
Court Justice William Brennan referred to it later as "one of the
great trials of the twentieth century." It was the first time, in
the many trials of anti-war activists who had broken into draft
boards, that a jury had voted to acquit.
Why? No doubt because it was the first of these trials in which
the jury had been permitted to listen to the heartfelt stories of
fellow citizens as they described their growing anguish for the
victims, American and Vietnamese, of a brutal war. And the jury
was led to understand how the defendants could decide to break
the law in order to dramatize their protest.
Most importantly, the year of the trial was 1973. By now the
majority of the American people had turned against the war. They
had seen the images of the burning villages, the napalmed
children, and had begun to see through the deceptions of the
nation's political leaders.
As today we watch with some alarm a nation mobilized for war, the
politicians of both parties in cowardly acquiescence, the media
going timorously along, it is good to keep in mind that things do
change. People learn, little by little. Lies are exposed. Wars
once popular gradually come under suspicion. That happens when
enough people speak and act in accord with their conscience,
appealing to the American jury with the power of truth.
When the Camden trial was over, the black taxi driver on the
jury, Samuel Braithwaite (now dead), left a letter for the
defendants: "I say, well done. . . ."
[Howard Zinn is the author of "A People's History of the United
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