Dan Berrigan in Rochester

by Dorothy Day

Editor’s Preface: During the Vietnam War there was a debate within the pacifist and nonviolent movements about tactics, brilliantly discussed in a recent book by Shawn Francis Peters on the Catonsville Nine. [1] The Nine had made their own napalm to destroy draft files and this, and a previous protest by the Berrigans, set off a string of similar actions in which burning, pouring of blood, and various other “symbolic” means were used to destroy files. As Peters book points out Dorothy was at first hesitant about criticizing the tactic, but as the debate spread through the pacifist and nonviolent movements, despite or because of her friendship with both Phil and Dan Berrigan she took a firm nonviolent stand against the destruction of property not one’s own, which follows here. JG

Poster for showing of a film; Univ. of Kansas at Lawrence; artist unknown

Crying out in behalf of the jail population of this country which is by and large made up of blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, poor black and poor whites, in other words the poorest of the poor, Fr. Dan Berrigan has been heard from during this last month when he was called as a witness for one of the Rochester group, who are the latest to destroy draft files in government offices. [2] This group is one of the first to refuse lawyers (who must be paid sooner or later) except for one defendant who engaged only one – we presume, in order to call as character witness Fr. Berrigan from his prison cell in Danbury, Connecticut, where he is serving a long sentence with his brother Phil Berrigan, Josephite Father (dedicated to work among the blacks).

Fr. Berrigan was brought in chains to this upper New York State city where he was a character witness for Joe Gilchrist, one of the group. For some reason it took three days to transport him from Connecticut to New York State! He complained of the brutal and inhuman treatment he had received in transit. He testified also for all the prison poor in his protest.

The other defendants are remarkable in a number of ways. Two of them, Suzie Williams and DeCourcy Squires, refused bail and spent their time in prison awaiting trial. The others all showed up, not jumping bail and failing to appear as did some of those who have taken part in these actions of destruction of property.

In general the Catholic Worker takes the position of the War Resisters, Quakers and Fellowship of Reconciliation peace groups in not taking part in these actions, on the principle that, although it was only property which suffered destruction, we ourselves have suffered violence, vandalism by hostile right-wing groups, the beating of individuals, the destruction of mailing lists and records, the burning of houses and barns, etc. So we repeat the golden rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” and its contrary, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

But we take this opportunity to tell Fathers Phil and Dan Berrigan, and all those who are suffering imprisonment now, that not a day goes by that we do not think of them, and hold them in our prayers together with all prisoners, who are the poor, at Compline and Rosary at the Tivoli Farm, and at First Street, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality.

Our love goes out to them, and love, like wisdom, is the most active of all active things, according to the Book of Wisdom. You have chosen suffering for your lot, dear friends, suffering and bitterness and depression and hopelessness, which must in many ways be comparable to that which is suffered in Vietnam and in all those parts of our struggling world where the United States has military installations and personnel—in 48 of the countries of the world.

Dostoevsky in his House of the Dead, telling of his prison life in Siberia, says that once he thought that the suffering of the intellectual could not be equal to that of the poor, but he had learned that all men suffered alike. God help them in their bitterness and despair. And I do pray that they learn the reverse of the coin, that strange happiness and joy which following one’s conscience brings. I hope someone sends them The First Circle, that book of the great Alexander Solzenitsyn, who himself spent fifteen years in Stalin’s prison camps. “Happiness,” he wrote, but I quote from memory, “can be a crust of bread and a bowl of thin soup and conversation with a comrade.”

Endnotes: (JG)

[1] Shawn Francis Peters, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[2] Eight protesters destroyed draft files in a Selective Service office, Rochester, New York. Their action became known as the Flower City Conspiracy, after the nickname of that city. They were brought to trial in November 1970, and all eight were convicted and given jail sentences ranging from 12 to 18 months. Excellent, sympathetic coverage of the trial appeared in the December 2 issue of The Harvard Crimson.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is from The Catholic Worker, December 1970; pp. 1, 6; courtesy of Marquette University and the staff of The Catholic Worker.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi