He has been one of the nation’s leading anti-war and anti-nuclear activists for over 35 years. He was the first U.S. Catholic priest to be jailed for political reasons and he was among the nation’s first priests to participate in the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. And he helped found the Plowshares movement which took literally a line in the Book of Isaiah that calls for swords to be beaten into plowshares. He has spent over 10 years of his life in prison stemming from convictions for more than 100 acts of civil resistance to war.
We are talking, of course, about Philip Berrigan.
Berrigan, 79, is quietly dying of cancer right now at Jonah House in Baltimore, the non-violent resistance community he helped found in the early 1970s. Over the past few days, his family and community have been gathering by his bedside.
As the U.S. prepares to go to war against Iraq, we are going to spend the hour talking to friends and family of Philip Berrigan and we will rebroadcast excerpts of an interview Democracy Now! conducted with him inside the Petersburg federal penitentiary in West Virginia in March 1998. At the time he was serving time for breaking into a U.S. military base and helping to destroy two nuclear warheads.
Berrigan was first jailed in Baltimore in 1967. But he may be best known for an action he conducted a year later with his brother, Father Daniel Berrigan, and seven other activists in Catonsville, Maryland. The group became known as the Catonsville Nine. In May 1968 the group entered a Maryland Selective Service Board, snatched up draft records, carried them outside and set them ablaze with homemade napalm.
At the time of their arrest, the activists released a statement that read in part:
“We use napalm on these draft records because napalm has burned people to death in Vietnam, Guatemala and Peru; and because it may be used in American ghettos. We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men, but because these records represent misplaced power, concentrated in the ruling class of America. Their power threatens the peace of the world.”
The Catonsville action sparked a nationwide series of draft-file burnings aimed at halting the Vietnam War.
Philip Berrigan was sentenced to three and a half years in jail and he would continue to serve prison sentences up until 2001. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks he was in jail. And at the age of 77 officials immediately placed him in solitary confinement. But after his release last year he continued protesting. In January he led a Raleigh, N.C. march against war. On April 20 he spoke at a major anti-war rally in Washington. And just a month ago on Nov. 5 he spoke at West Chester University in Pennsylvania alongside his wife, the former nun Elizabeth McAlister. At the university he told the packed crowd, “For a long time I’ve been astonished by the fact that the human family has not caught on, not caught on at all, to the bankruptcy of violence and killing. Violence is, was, always will be, bankrupt, anti-human, criminal–always!”
- Jerry Berrigan, Philip Berrigan’s son.
- Frida Berrigan, Philip Berrigan’s daughter.
- Philip Berrigan, a leading anti-war activist and a founding member of the international Ploughshares group, which organizes non-violent direct action against first strike nuclear weaponry.