Philip Berrigan: A Life of Fearless Resistance

Revolutionary Worker #1184, January 26, 2003, posted at

After a life-time of fearless resistance against the injustices of war, poverty and racism, Philip Berrigan died on December 6, 2002 at the age of 79. He gave his whole heart to the people and never relinquished his dream of a future world inhabited by "a free and caring people."

Philip Berrigan, the youngest of six sons of working class parents, became famous in 1968 when he led a group of nine people in a raid on the draft files of a Selective Service Center in Catonsville, Maryland.

Phil was out on bail for his first act of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War--pouring blood on draft files--when he persuaded his brother, the Jesuit Fr. Dan Berrigan, to join a group of resisters he was putting together. The group--who became known as the "Catonsville Nine" wanted to do something symbolic and imaginative--and at the same time, aimed at actually stopping the U.S. war machine.

On May 17, 1968, the group entered the draft board building and, with the staff screaming in their faces, they filled wire trash baskets with 600 draft files and carried them to the parking lot where the media waited. Phil and Dan were wearing their clerical collars, revered in the church as a sign of obedience to the authority of church and state. They stood over the baskets and poured a mixture of gasoline and Ivory soap flakes, destroying the draft files, government property. This picture, a symbol of the atrocities the government was calling upon Americans to commit against the people of Vietnam, appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. According to the Baltimore Sun , the Catonsville Nine's bonfire "ignited a generation of anti-war dissent."

Drafted into the army in 1943 at the age of 19, Philip Berrigan fought in World War 2 as an artillery man in the bloody battles against the Germans. He became a "90-day wonder" Second Lieutenant, a kind of battlefield commission, and later described himself as "a gung-ho young jerk, an eager warrior."

After the war, Berrigan went to Holy Cross College outside Boston. There he began to reflect more seriously on his war experiences. While in basic training he had been jarred by "marching past little tarpaper shacks," seeing Black people "working like mules," and by the vicious racism within the military. He remembered thinking, "there was nothing better I could do with my life than devote myself to helping Blacks."

He decided to join the Josephite Order of priests, whose mission was to minister to the needs of African-American Catholics. In the late '50s, the Order sent Berrigan to New Orleans where he joined in the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating in the daytime and reading and studying through the nights-- teaching, writing, preaching, and distributing food and clothing to the poor. He learned, in his words, that the police undermine democracy and justice and that "the state is the enemy, not the champion, of ordinary people."

His efforts became well-known and Berrigan's religious superiors were displeased with what he was doing and saying--like calling out the Southern Catholic bishops as a bunch of racists--and tried to shut him up, moving him from New Orleans to New York, and then to Baltimore. On the other hand, the Civil Rights and Black Power leader Stokeley Carmichael said Berrigan was the only priest he trusted.

It was while working in a ghetto parish in Baltimore that Berrigan set his sights on the overwhelming need to stop the imperialist, racist war against the people of Vietnam.

The four-day trial of the Catonsville Nine in October 1968 was an international media event. It drew thousands of supporters, young and old, who marched through the streets, jammed the courtroom, and met at night to listen to people like Noam Chomsky, I.F. Stone and the Harvard Divinity professor Harvey Cox, and to exchange ideas about the war and the need for mass resistance.

The trial of the Catonsville Nine ended in convictions. But the defendants, out on bail, decided to go underground rather than give themselves up. J. Edgar Hoover, a devout Catholic, was incensed by the defiance of the Berrigan brothers, and the two Catholic priests made the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list. Hoover ordered a massive manhunt to bring them in.

Philip turned himself in to authorities at a Manhattan church and was hauled off to prison by Hoover's agents. But Dan remained at-large for months, in Phil's words, "showing his sly Jesuit mug in unexpected places...popping up like a proverbial fox, dodging well-laid traps, making fools out of J. Edgar Hoover's agents." (Dan escaped one entrapment by hiding in a huge puppet made to resemble one of the twelve apostles.) All the while, prison authorities harassed and mentally tortured Phil, trying to get him to break and publicly announce that he had come to his senses, was contrite, and to beg Dan to give himself up. Instead, using a channel the government couldn't uncover, Phil kept urging Dan to stay underground.

In 1973, Phil Berrigan and his wife, Liz McAlister, started Jonah House, modeled on the Catholic Worker tradition, where they raised their three children among neighbors and friends in this environment of "extended family." Phil said that Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement she organized was his main inspiration, with its tradition of non-violent direct action and living among and in service of the poor. Phil Berrigan's religious and pacifist view guided his life and participation in the struggle. But at the same time, he worked together with many other people, including revolutionary Communists, who did not share those views, but were united in fighting against injustice and for a better world.

In 1980, as the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened nuclear war, Philip Berrigan helped found the Plowshares movement, pursuing the biblical injunction to "beat swords into plowshares." It began when eight resisters entered a General Electric factory in Pennsylvania by stealth and symbolically spilled blood on and actually took hammers to the first strike nuclear weapons being produced there. This was the first of what became 79 Plowshares actions in six different countries.

In all, Phil Berrigan spent 11 years of his life in prison. This experience left him disbelieving at the "misery and ugliness of life in jail," where most are there for non-violent crimes, "yet they were being treated like assassins."

Phil Berrigan had an unshakable sense of mission and perseverance in the struggle and learned from his mistakes. He once entrusted another prisoner, who was also an FBI informant, to smuggle letters with incriminating information between himself and his wife. These letters that ended up in the hands of the FBI explored the possibility of future acts of civil disobedience, like making a citizens' arrest of Henry Kissinger, and they supplied information that led to Dan's capture and that of a number of draft resisters. The letters became the basis for federal criminal indictments and the subject of contention within the Catholic left.

But as Mao is said to have told W.E.B. Du Bois, "Everybody makes all kinds of mistakes. The important thing is not to make the mistake of giving up." At the end of the Vietnam War, arguing that the '60s was over, friends did try to persuade Phil to give up his direct actions and work within the democratic process of voting and lobbying. Phil countered by saying he was very certain that the "revolution isn't over," and that revolutionaries are not dinosaurs, "extinct without our even knowing it." He kept to his utopian vision of "a new order of love, justice, and equality," based on his belief in a God that has created people as brothers and sisters, and whose plan and will was for them to live as such.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Berrigan was in the Elkton Federal prison in Ohio, serving time for his sixth Plowshares action. The authorities immediately put him in solitary confinement. As he watched the U.S. moves after 9/11, both from prison and after his release in December 2002, he felt the world scene to be shifting with amazing rapidity, and that this country "is leading the whole world into madness."

In an interview with revolutionary Vietnam veteran Joe Urgo, Phil said, "It seems to me we're at a very, very critical point in our history and the only check upon what's happening is not any of the bureaucracies or institutions, but only the American people... So we only have one another and we have almighty God and that's enough. That's enough to turn it around, but it's not going to be easy." (Interview originaly posted on the "Not in Our Name" website.)

Phil Berrigan wanted especially to speak to young resisters, who gave him hope, who he thought were doing great work and "taking their risks." He wanted to draw the links between globalization, empire, and war. He said most students are being channeled away from activism, like the draft in the Vietnam War channeled youth into the service. He felt there is an extraordinary need to find the ways to convey the truth to youth, and for them to hear the need to struggle. He said, "So I say, don't be a slave. Don't be a slave. I don't think young people are hearing that from too many quarters."

Phil sent a message to the October 6 Not In Our Name anti-war protest in Central Park where 25,000 took the Pledge of Resistance. He was sorry he could not be there and said, "Keep the Pledge and put flesh on it. And please, please, please don't get tired."

Philip Berrigan gave his whole life to the people and never tired in his fight for a better world. We will miss him and remember his fearless determination as we carry on the struggle.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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