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How the Catonsville Nine Survived on Film
“It is arguably the single most powerful antiwar act in American history,” Martin Sheen once recounted about the May 17, 1968 burning of draft files in Catonsville, Md., by nine unusual suspects to protest the Vietnam War. The Catonsville Nine, as they came to be called, marked the beginning of dramatic new forms of antiwar resistance. When seven men and two women — all Catholic, including two priests, Dan and Phil Berrigan — broke into a draft office, stole files and publicly destroyed them as an act of nonviolent resistance against war and imperialism, the face of protest changed. But the iconic images and audio from that historic event were almost lost in the annals of history.
Pat McGrath, a reporter with Baltimore’s WBAL-TV – an NBC affiliate – had been covering the antiwar movement for sometime. Prior to the draft board raid, peace movement organizers reached out to him and gave him a heads up about the protest. In his new book, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, Shawn Francis Peters traces the carefully planned details that the activists and their supporters had arranged so that the press arrived just as the draft files were about to be burned.
McGrath, who can be seen in the footage holding the boom-mic, was the only television reporter alerted about the protest and arrived with his contact, local peace activist Greenville Whitman, just after the files had been doused with homemade napalm. Then John Hogan struck a match and the rest — the Berrigans, Marjorie and Tom Melville, Brother David Darst, Mary Moylan, George Mische and Tom Lewis — quickly followed suit, sealing their fate. Meanwhile, McGrath and his crew — soundman Ed Smith and cameraman Bob Boyer —captured almost all of it. Although in all of the excitement, Smith was a little slow to get the audio rolling.
In less than 24 hours, the film reel was subpoenaed by the federal government to make its case against the nine and it would be years before the public would see, first-hand, what happened that day. WBAL turned over the film and it was used as key evidence in the trial. Later, McGrath would be subpoenaed to testify as a witness to certify the film’s authenticity.
There had been a brief window of opportunity for the film footage to be broadcast, but WBAL general manger Brent Gunts unilaterally decided that the film footage would not be aired. The indirect explanation McGrath received from his boss was that there were concerns that the station might lose its FCC broadcasting license.
If it looked like WBAL had aided the protest in Catonsville, it might jeopardize its license — an argument with some merit, according to McGrath. In 1967, the Chicago CBS-affiliate WBBM had done a documentary on a “pot party” and was accused of having staged it. Some suggested that the station had aided and abetted criminal activity as co-conspirators and should therefore lose its broadcast license.
Still, Gunts never cared to inquire into the circumstances of how McGrath had been there and decided that only film shot after the police had arrived would be aired. NBC’s popular, nationally-televised evening news program “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” had dispatched a producer to WBAL to get the footage but left empty-handed.
“I was very resentful that [Gunts] would make that decision [to not air the footage] without talking to me to find out how I happened to be at Catonsville,” McGrath told Waging Nonviolence. “That was a historic piece of film that could have been — and should have been — seen not only in Baltimore, but all over the nation.”
When the charges were originally brought against the Catonsville Nine, one of the charges was conspiracy and the U.S. Attorney’s Office wanted to know who tipped off the press. In a meeting between McGrath, WBAL’s lawyers and a U.S. assistant attorney, the station asserted its right to keep sources confidential. But shortly after that meeting, during the summer’s pre-trial hearings, McGrath began organizing WBAL workers for a union representation election.
Gunts called McGrath into the office and said he had a change of heart — McGrath would be aiding and abetting criminal activity and would have to reveal his source or be dismissed. McGrath asked for 24 hours to think it over; Gunts agreed and the first thing McGrath did was call the local union. In short order, the national executive secretary of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists phoned U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to tell him that McGrath was involved in union activity and was about to lose his job over the conspiracy charge.
Clark called U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Stephen Sachs — who was prosecuting the case — and had the conspiracy charges dropped. In an email to Waging Nonviolence, Sachs wrote that there was “some interest on the part of the FBI in pursuing, at least by grand jury subpoena, the press’ prior knowledge of the actions at Catonsville,” but added, “I remember being unsympathetic to pursuing an investigation of any press involvement.”
Sachs, who didn’t want to see someone like McGrath lose his job over something not critical to the case, withdrew the source request and Gunts had to back off.
“I’ve always thought that Gunts used this as an excuse to try and fire me because of my union activity,” said McGrath. Station workers did end up going on a one-month strike for their union contract, which happened to be during the trial of the Catonsville Nine in the autumn of 1968.
The theatrical trial consumed Baltimore. In his book on the Catonsville Nine, Peters observed that during the week-long trial before Federal Judge Roszel C. Thomsen, thousands of supporters came to the city for solidarity protests, educational events and other festivities. Viva House, a Catholic Worker community started by Willa Beckham and Brendan Walsh, were making 2,500 dinners a night. Throughout the week, over 40 young men were said to have burned their draft cards.
Within the next three years, many of those who were in Baltimore for the trial of the Catonsville Nine would participate in other draft raid-like actions such as the Milwaukee 14, the Camden 28 and the D.C. Nine. In 1969, McGrath actually filmed the D.C. Nine protest, where nine men and women — including priests and nuns — broke the office windows of Dow Chemical Company and tossed files out into the streets of Washington, D.C.
Having learned his lesson from Catonsville, McGrath and his crew immediately sent the footage out to NBC where some of it ran on “The Frank McGee Report.” Unfortunately, that archival footage seems to have disappeared and McGrath’s efforts to find it in D.C. courthouse records were unsuccessful.
After the Catonsville Nine were convicted and sentenced to prison, McGrath retrieved his film footage from the United States Attorney’s office. But rather than returning it to WBAL’s archives, which he described as “derelict” in its archival upkeep, McGrath turned the film over to people in the movement so that it would be preserved and get some exposure.
From then after, the footage has taken on a life of its own. When Dan Berrigan’s play “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” was performed off-Broadway in New York City, the black and white footage was projected for the audience at the end of the show. Eventually the reel made its way back to McGrath.
At some point Tom Lewis — one of the Catonsville Nine, who died in 2008 — got his hands on the footage from McGrath and put together a version for Dan Berrigan’s 75th birthday in 1995. The VHS copy of the edited footage that Waging Nonviolence has obtained and digitized (which can be viewed above) came from that event.
Similarly, documentary filmmaker Lynne Sachs (no relation to Stephen Sachs) also received some footage from Lewis which inspired her to go looking for McGrath. In 1999, Sachs met with McGrath in his home. After talking with her for some time, he asked, “Are you wondering where that film footage is?” “Yes, I am,” Sachs responded. McGrath then went down to his basement and came back with the 16mm original reel, which Sachs then borrowed and copied.
The first time that much of the footage was made publicly available was in her 2001 documentary Investigation of a Flame. Recently, Baltimore filmmakers Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk utilized the 16mm footage for their new film Hit and Stay to explore the significance of Catonsville and the subsequent spin-off protests it inspired.
After 45 years and many different hands, McGrath still houses the original film reel that he rescued from obscurity. In the future, he hopes to place the historical artifact in the hands of university archives, but is not sure where yet. What can be said, though, with certainty, is that the Catonsville Nine inspired a generation. Recall the testimony of Dan Berrigan, who while on trial in Baltimore, noted that “from the beginning of our republic good men [and women] had said no and acted outside the law when the conditions so demanded.” In doing so, the Catonsville Nine set into motion a movement that, no doubt, hastened the end of the Vietnam War.