The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Catonsville 9

Apr 30, 2018

May 4th is the 50th anniversary of the anti-war action known as the “Catonsville Nine.” On that date in 1968, nine Catholic activists walked into the Catonsville Selective Service office, in a suburb of Baltimore. They pulled out files of draftees eligible to serve in the Vietnam war, took the papers into the parking lot, set them on fire with homemade napalm, and waited for the police to arrest them.

The commemoration takes place over the next several days and weekends, with talks by current and previous anti-war activists. It is sponsored by a Peace Organization of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, along with the Maryland Historical Society and other local churches and organizations.

The resulting trial of the Catonsville Nine received a good deal of publicity, which the draft protesters were trying to direct against the U.S. war in Vietnam. The best known among the nine were Fathers Phil and Dan Berrigan, brothers and Catholic priests located in Baltimore and New York.

Perhaps the best known remarks of the trial were Father Dan’s: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order ... for the burning of paper instead of children ... our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children.” (He was referring to the massive U.S. napalm firebombing of the civilian population in Vietnam.)

The Catonsville Nine were sentenced to prison terms for destruction of U.S. government property. And Father Phil went to jail, repeatedly during the Vietnam era, and in later years for protests against the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Father Dan helped AIDS victims in the 1980s, before new drugs helped slow the death toll.

The Catonsville Nine actions were not the first against the Vietnam war and were followed by dozens of other protests at Selective Service offices and in one case, against the FBI itself, which directed harassment of anti-war protesters. These were a part of the thousands and then millions who demonstrated throughout the U.S. against the Vietnam war.

All the protests were part of an era including, first and foremost, two decades of civil rights protests by black activists.

Catholic activists, like so many others from 50 years ago, laid out the precise nature of the problems. But neither they nor very many others saw the reasons to get rid of capitalism, a system that garners profit off the most atrocious circumstances and especially the wars that we remain mired in.