November 29, 1997

Philip Berrigan: From Prison, Old Militant Struggles On


SOUTH WINDHAM, Maine -- At 74, Philip Berrigan is in prison, again; convicted, again, of damaging weapons of war, and staining them with his blood, in the name of peace; sentenced, again, to the confinement he endures to confront what he sees as the militaristic sins of the United States.

A full generation on, slowed by age but not halted, Berrigan continues the activism that he and his brother, Daniel, began during the Vietnam War, when the two Roman Catholic priests became household names as the court-defying, church-defying, war-denouncing Berrigan Brothers who first went to prison in 1968 for burning draft records.

Philip Berrigan is aware that he appears frozen in time. He acknowledged in a recent public letter that even sympathizers would say his peace group, Plowshares, "looks ridiculous now, a sermon to the converted, ignored by Government and media, the public no longer listening."

"Most Americans would agree that Plowshares is a Theatre of the Absurd," the letter continued.

Yet it goes on acting out the Biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) to "beat swords into plowshares." Philip Berrigan sees it as a requirement of his faith, he said in the visiting room of the Maine Correctional Center here recently, to "confront the institutions of injustice" by fighting nuclear weapons and demanding a shift in spending from defense to social needs.

"You have to struggle to stay alive and be of use as long as you can," Mr. Berrigan said. "You have to sacrifice yourself. I don't want to make a big deal about it, but you have to pay your dues. I wouldn't have it any other way."

There is no dispute that in their constancy, the Berrigans "are remarkable," said the radical historian Howard Zinn.

"When the energy of the '60s began to dissipate," Zinn said, "and the civil rights movement foundered and the war in Vietnam ended, a lot of people -- it's not that they turned against their ideas or changed their values, but a lot of people just didn't find a very powerful central issue to occupy their energies.

"But the Berrigans and others -- the religious community of pacifists -- just continued. They just went on, they didn't stop. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, and in 1980 the first Plowshares action took place."

Since then, there have been more than 50 of the antiwar Plowshares actions around the country. The pattern was set in 1980, when Philip Berrigan and seven others were jailed for pounding on nuclear missile nose cones in Pennsylvania; in 1988, he was jailed for pounding on cruise missile launchers aboard a destroyer in Virginia; in 1993, he was jailed for pounding on an F-15E fighter in North Carolina.

In February came the raid that earned Berrigan his current two-year sentence. On Ash Wednesday, he and five others -- now known in the group's literature as the Plowshares Six -- easily broke into the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Bath, Maine, and boarded an Aegis destroyer. They pounded on the ship's control panels with household hammers and splashed the ship with baby bottles of their blood, trying to symbolize the evil it represented to them.

Late last month, the six were sentenced in federal court in Portland to prison terms of 6 to 27 months for conspiracy and destruction of government property. Daniel Berrigan, 76, whose health suffered significantly during previous incarcerations, lives in New York City and leads retreats on weekends, writes books and gives lectures, but he is not one of the Plowshares Six and did not participate in the raid in Bath.

Judge Gene Carter appeared unfazed by the argument of Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general, that peace protesters were different from ordinary criminals because of their "unique contribution to humanity." Certainly, Judge Carter's attitude differed from that of Joseph Field, the district court judge in Maine who had said at Berrigan's arraignment: "Anyone of my generation knows Philip Berrigan. He is a moral giant, the conscience of a generation."

Carter disallowed the defendants' arguments that their faith, international law and moral imperatives justified their actions. When he sentenced Berrigan, he remarked that he was responding to a violation of the law, not judging the morality of the Plowshares action. Prosecutors took a similar by-the-book stance.

"We looked at his conduct and we thought it was worthy of prosecution and charged him based on what he did," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Helene Kazanjian. "He caused a substantial amount of damage to the ship, and that warranted prosecution."

By the end of his current sentence, Berrigan will have served more than 10 years in prison.

No one claims that Plowshares actions have changed the Pentagon's mind.

"Did they succeed?" asked Murray Polner, the author, with Jim O'Grady, of a book on the Berrigans, "Disarmed and Dangerous" (Basic Books, 1997). "Well, we're more armed than ever in this post-cold-war world, we may even be going to war soon in the Middle East. They certainly didn't show us how, in terms of institution-building, to get from here to there, politically, economically and spiritually. But our judgment is that they honor the country and the world in this, one of the most awful, bloodiest centuries in recorded history."

Polner continued, "Many people have forgotten the Berrigans by now, but we think they need to be remembered and their work honored, despite their imperfections and their inability to bring about change."

Among the several dozen supporters who have coalesced around the Plowshares Six, some also described an effect more spiritual than material.

"I don't think anything since the gulf war has focused the peace movement as the Plowshares has," said William Slavick, coordinator in Maine for Pax Christi, a Roman Catholic peace group. "I'd always been cool to the approach because it seemed to me a lot of good men and women were spending their time in jail instead of doing good. They were ineffective."

But now, Slavick said, "I think the action has a way of focusing your mind and heart on the reality of what they've done and the hope they have in making that sacrifice. You start to hear the message that the important thing is being faithful, not effective. That they're doing it as penance for the evil the rest of us are involved in, and in hopes of changing."

Through the trial and in its wake, supporters have held regular street protests at the Bath Iron Works. One recent rainy Wednesday, a half-dozen Plowshares members, mostly young people, chained themselves to the plant's gate and were matter-of-factly cut from their shackles and carried away to jail by the police.

Singing "We Shall Overcome" and carrying peace signs were two dozen supporters, many in their 50s, 60s and 70s, so many of them white-haired that a security guard wisecracked that they seemed to have been bused in from a nursing home. Many went to their first peace protests 30 years ago; some came to Plowshares only recently.

In a tableau fraught with 1960s images, shipyard workers in hard hats watched from behind the fence with a mix of bemusement and hostility. One heckled, "You better learn how to speak Chinese!"

But this is not the '60s. There is no draft; the cold war is over. And one could not but ask Berrigan, as he sat at a bare table in his orange prison jumpsuit: Is this really the time to go to jail? Now, when the world is mostly at peace, when most people his age are relaxing in retirement? And when, though his health is all right, he does not know how much longer he has to spend with his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun who is his comrade-against-arms, and their three children?

Berrigan did not bridle at the question. Now more than ever, he said, he feels the need to protest, as American weapons get more sophisticated and American arms merchants fuel small wars around the world. Despite the end of the cold war and crying social needs, the United States still spends hundreds of billions of dollars on defense.

"We need to say no," Berrigan said. "We need to say no! You don't do that with my tax dollars; you don't do that under my name."

When his resolve threatens to falter, Berrigan said, he is kept going by his small community of pacifists, Jonah House, in Baltimore. "So if I were to say I'm getting too old and I want to slack off and go low-profile, that would be challenged by them."

He does not seem tempted to quit.

And though he does not think often about mortality, he said, he does know, "I'd like to die with my boots on.

"I'd like to die being of use to other people, writing or speaking some truth, or maybe even during the course of an action."

"Not," he added, "on the beach."

Other Places of Interest on the Web
  • Letter From Philip Berrigan, from the Plowshares Page
  • History of Plowshares Disarmament Actions

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