One night in August 1971, 28 people (including four Catholic priests and a Lutheran minister, the rest Catholic laypeople save one) entered the U.S. federal building in Camden, New Jersey. While some acted as lookouts and others served as communications coordinators, the rest of the group raided the offices of the draft board, spilling out hundreds of cards containing information about young men slated for conscription.
Planning had taken months. Using experience from previous acts of civil disobedience intended to stop the Vietnam War, they carefully considered all the details necessary to pull off this dramatic event. It would be the biggest, most extensive ruin of draft files yet, which was the simplest and most direct way to compromise the war system.
What they didn't count on was that one of their friends and co-conspirators would be an FBI informant. Their dismantling of the draft board files was interrupted by federal agents, and all of the participants (except the informant) were arrested and charged.
That event of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, along with the participants' subsequent trial—a fascinating court case, its details sadly forgotten today—is lovingly studied in Anthony Giacchino's new film, The Camden 28. Footage includes recent interviews with several of the activists, the FBI agent assigned to the case, and the FBI informant, plus grainy photos, newspaper clippings, and film from the early 1970s, including the trial.
Left unsaid, but obvious to any observer, are the clear parallels between the frustration of the antiwar movement of the early 1970s and the nearly identical distress of those who challenge the U.S. government on its Iraq policies today.
Inspired by their faith, many of those involved in the August 1971 event had already been arrested in civil disobedience actions, part of the "Catholic left" movement whose primary luminaries were brothers Dan and Phil Berrigan. Through draft card burnings around the country, the movement protested not only the war—which by the early '70s was increasingly out of favor among the general U.S. population—but also tried to connect the spending of the war machine with the abandonment of U.S. urban centers.
In one of the recent interviews on the film, participant Michael Doyle, a Camden diocesan priest, said, "Doing this action was really expressing the point of view that damaged cities—which destroy children—was a casualty of a policy that put weaponry before homes and children and people. I always saw the connection between the condition of Camden and the waste of the military."
Giacchino's 83-minute film includes photos that Doyle was allowed to show in his defense during the trial, a silent slideshow with alternating pictures of destruction in Vietnam with burned-out buildings and decay in Camden.
THE FILM ALSO touches on the issue of interpersonal forgiveness, as the FBI informant was a friend to many of the Camden 28, someone they trusted and considered an ally. A horrific family tragedy experienced by the informant immediately following the August arrest forced several of the activists, facing as much as 47 years in prison for seven felony charges, to consider the boundaries of friendship and support for the person who betrayed them.
Presenting the story of the Camden 28, their commitment and faith, and the extraordinary court case that followed, along with the peek into the motivations of the FBI, is a worthy subject, and Giacchino tells the story with both suspense and respect. As a member of Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace movement, I'm disappointed that before viewing this DVD I'd never heard the story of the Camden 28. Is this due to my own ignorance, or are we not telling our stories? Why not? What happened to the Catholic left of the Vietnam era? Certainly some of them remained engaged on peace and nonviolence issues, but did the others burn out, much like Cindy Sheehan?
Though the story is gripping and interesting, what's missing, unfortunately, is any analysis of how or if the actions of the Camden 28 (and the rest of the Catholic left) affected the church in the U.S. What's missing is the state of the progressive Catholic activist world, the ongoing efforts since the mid-1970s to not only end Vietnam but to stop all militarism and violence. (One example would be the School of the Americas Watch movement and its annual demonstrations at Fort Benning, Georgia, where every year groups of dedicated people, often people of faith, risk arrest and usually receive three- to six-month federal jail sentences.)
The film is definitely worth viewing, sharing with students and other young people for a crucial and often overlooked history lesson, but additional materials should be made available for more information about the work for peace and nonviolence today.
Judy Coode is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.