A Break-in for Peace
mikedf at amnh.org
Mon Jul 1 23:04:41 MDT 2002
It Seems to Me
A Break-in for Peace
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
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," he said.
Called as a witness, Daniel Berrigan read a poem he had written while in
Vietnam, "Children in the Shelter," which ends with these lines:
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
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
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 country."
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
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
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 it.
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
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 States."
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