Forty years ago today, nine Catholic men and women - three of them priests - walked into a military draft office in Catonsville and seized the records of hundreds of young men likely to be summoned to fight in Vietnam.
They burned the papers in the parking lot, using homemade napalm to start the blaze. As the flames rose, the nine solemnly recited the Lord's Prayer and stood around waiting for the police to arrest them.
That day in the turbulent spring of 1968, the Catonsville Nine, as they became known, put the quiet Baltimore suburb on the map in a growing nationwide protest against the Vietnam War. The band of activists - whose dramatic trial drew hundreds of antiwar protesters to Baltimore that fall - inspired similar disruptions of draft offices around the country.
The Catonsville Nine also provoked an intense debate, one that has resonated across the decades as Americans challenge another unpopular war - this time in Iraq.
"I think what people are seeing is that the wars don't die," said one of group's leaders, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, now 87 and living in New York. He and his late brother Philip, also a priest at the time, became prominent figures in the peace and social justice movements.
Some saw the fire the Nine ignited - and their subsequent imprisonment - as a courageous act of conscience, inspired by Christian faith. But others have questioned the morality - or at least the effectiveness - of vandalism, no matter how noble the cause.
Today, the Catonsville Nine are down to five. Philip Berrigan, the only member who stayed in Baltimore, died of cancer in 2002 after decades of "civil resistance," repeated arrests and imprisonment for his protests against war, militarism and social injustice.
Two others predeceased him - one in a car accident before his prison sentence was to start.
The most recent of the group to go was artist Tom Lewis, who died unexpectedly last month at his Massachusetts home, a month before a planned visit to Baltimore for a commemoration of the 1968 event.
The passion lives
But the passion for peace still burns in the survivors and their spiritual heirs as they seek to rally opposition to another war.
Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan's widow, will join a group of activists who plan to mark today's 40th anniversary with a muted protest at the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base.
A decade ago, protesters attacked a B-52 bomber there with hammers. This time, they say, they'll wield only peace slogans on T-shirts as they seek to mingle in the crowd of families visiting to ogle the warplanes.
"I think actions like this create hope," said McAlister, 68, taking time from chores at Jonah House, the pacifist community she and Philip Berrigan established in West Baltimore. "And being able to share with people about that creates hope."
Catonsville wasn't the first draft office raid. Philip Berrigan and three others were already awaiting sentencing for pouring blood on draft records at the Custom House in downtown Baltimore in fall 1967. They decided to do it again.
"That was the way to show the government that no matter how many people you lock up, you're not going to get us out of your hair," recalled George Mische, another of the Nine who, like Philip Berrigan, was an Army veteran.
Mische said the group looked at three local draft board sites before settling on the western Baltimore suburb.
"There was no special signficance to Catonsville," said Dean Pappas, a Baltimore physics teacher who helped plan the draft office raid and spread the word after it happened. "It was just a target of opportunity."
Symbolism of site
But Mische and others saw symbolism in the draft board's location on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus hall, a Catholic fraternal organization. They believed church leaders were abdicating their Christian responsibilty to speak out against the war.
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Mische said the group also picked Catonsville because it would be "virtually impossible" for anyone to get hurt. But one person did, albeit slightly. Mary Murphy, the head of the office, cut her finger and scratched her leg while wrestling for control of a wire wastebasket containing the seized draft records.
Mische said Murphy also ripped his pants apart, trying to pull him away from the draft files, and another clerk threw a telephone through a window after protesters thwarted efforts to call police. The breaking glass and screaming alerted a groundskeeper outside, who summoned authorities.
Meanwhile, a TV news crew and photographer, who had been tipped off to show up, captured the burning of 378 draft records on black-and-white film with shaky sound.
The Catonsville Nine might have been 10 had McAlister, then a young nun, agreed to join the group that day. "I wasn't ready," she said. "I was too young, and it was too new."
After the episode, she secretly married Philip Berrigan and was arrested at a Delaware draft office, the first in a series of legal run-ins that at one point took her away from her children for two years. All three of their offspring, she said proudly, are activists in their own ways today.
The Berrigans and McAlister have inspired many others, including Frank Cordaro, a 57-year-old former priest from Des Moines, Iowa, who is in Baltimore this week to commemorate the Catonsville protest.
Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary, Cordaro joined four others who tried to damage the B-52 bomber at Andrews. That cost him six months in jail, less than he expected.
"The survival of the human race really depends on the human race deciding to put away its violent and war-making ways," said Cordaro, whose affable demeanor belies the seriousness of his cause. "We Christians have a major contribution to play, not least of all because in the last 100 years, we have become the best killers."
But critics like Stephen H. Sachs, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Catonsville Nine, argue that such illegal acts undermine the rule of law.
"No one can, and no one did, at the time, contest the sincerity, one might even say the bravery, of these folks," said Sachs, who later became Maryland's attorney general and ran unsuccessfully for governor.
But he described them as "true believers who believe they were Right with a capital 'R' and were entitled ... to take the law into their own hands. In a democracy, that's an intolerable position."
Brendan Walsh, who helped with the Catonsville draft office raid, said he agrees that people can't go around destroying everything they hate.
"However, if there's property that has no other reason for being than to get people killed, then maybe ... it's OK to go ahead and destroy it," said Walsh, who in 1968 helped open Viva House, a Catholic worker community in Baltimore that offers a soup kitchen, legal aid and after-school education for the poor.
Other activists, though no less committed to ending war, say they're looking for different ways to achieve that end.
Mische, for one, is more committed to change through politics than to symbolic, illegal actions. These days, he says, he's focusing on supporting the presidential bid of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. He likes the Democratic hopeful's stance on the war, as well as his background as a community organizer.
Dean Pappas, now 69, has also parted ways with the tactics of 1968. "I think that Phil and company, [spending] the last 20 years smashing nose cones on missiles and getting thrown in jail was a waste of time," he said. "I hate to put it that way, but I don't think it did much to advance the cause."
Now a teacher at Friends School and Maryland Institute College of Art, Pappas is likewise backing Obama's campaign.
McAlister, though, says she has no regrets. "I think it's right and needed," she said of the confrontations, "and the effectiveness ... will take care of itself. ... I think they make people think and question."
Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Carol Julian contributed to this article.
Click here for a video of the Catonsville Nine burning draft records on May 17, 1968.
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun