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50 Years Later, 'Catonsville 9' Burning of Vietnam Draft Notices Continues to Inspire

"Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children."

Tom Melville puts more fuel on the burning draft cards at the Selective Service office in Catonsville on May 17, 1968. (Photo: William L. Laforce/Baltimore Sun)

Fifty years ago today—on May 17, 1968 in the small town of Catonsville, Maryland—nine Catholic Worker and anti-war activists made history, and inspired a wave of popular resistance, for their stance against the Vietnam War as they used homemade napalm to torch a pile of draft notices they had seized from the local federal office.

"Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house," declared Father Daniel Berrigan in 1968 as he explained the group's action. "We could not, so help us God, do otherwise."

Despite knowing full well they would be arrested and likely imprisoned, the group did not flee the scene, but stayed as they prayed over the burning notices and waited for the police to arrive.

Watch:

Along with Daniel, and his brother his brother Philip Berrigan, the other seven who made up the group included: David Darst, John Hogan, Tom Lewis, Marjorie Bradford Melville, Thomas Melville, George Mische, and Mary Moylan.

May 17, 1968: The Catonsville 9: Rev. Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Lewis, Thomas Melville, Marjorie Bradford Melville, Brother John Hogan, Brother David Darst, Mary Moylan. (Photo: William L. Laforce, Baltimore Sun)

In their column this week, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan recount the original protest and how it's been commemorated this year:

The 50th anniversary of the Catonsville Nine action was recently held, just blocks from the site where these committed activists burned the draft records. In 1968, the local draft board rented an office on the second floor of the local Knights of Columbus building. The Knights is a conservative Catholic organization and wanted nothing to do with the commemoration, so the official Maryland state historical roadside marker sits about 100 yards away, in front of the public library.

At the marker's dedication ceremony, one of the only two surviving members of the Catonsville Nine, Marjory Melville, walked with us to the scene of the "crime." When asked if, in retrospect, she would have done anything differently, she surveyed the empty parking lot, smiling, and said, "I would do it all over again." Her commitment was reminiscent of Dan Berrigan's, when he was finally arrested after being underground. A reporter asked, "What are your future plans?" Smiling, in handcuffs, Berrigan flashed a peace sign and shouted, "Resistance!"

Fifty years later, the action of the so-called "Catsonville 9" continues to inspire those opposed to the violence and suffering produced by U.S. empire and militarism. As the Baltimore Sun recently reported:

Frida Berrigan [daughter of Phil Berrigan] said the fearlessness and teamwork of the Catonsville Nine have informed her own activism. In 2005 and 2015, she and others traveled to Cuba in defiance of U.S. law, to protest the detention of terror suspects at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

"We certainly felt like we were going in the spirit of Catonsville," she said.

Last month, a group of Catholic Workers infiltrated the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary's, Georgia in order to protest the nuclear submarines stationed there and the U.S. imperialism and wars abroad they represent. Calling themselves the "Kings Bay 7," the group specifically cited the Cantonsville 9, as well as the example set by Martin Luther King Jr., as a source of strength and a model for their direct action.

"The Trident and all nuclear weapons are the cocked gun held to  the head of the planet," wrote Clare Grady, one of the Kings Bay 7, in a recent letter from jail. "These omnicidal weapons embody all three of the triplets [of  racism, extreme consumerism, and militarism] Dr. King spoke of, seeking global dominance for resources. This always has a racial dimension effecting people of  color. Black, Brown, Indigenous Peoples are always on the receiving end of deadly force as empire seeks to maintain its global dominance." 

And Mary Anne, another member of the group, added, "We must encourage each other to be the resistance needed to end empire. The U.S. government is  gearing up to spend over a trillions of dollars on more nuclear weapons. And the U.S. government's ongoing airwars, like lethal and illegal use of MQ9 Reaper drones  over Afghanistan and elsewhere is another continual killing many are blind to."

Also commemorating the "Cantonsville 9" is the 2014 documentary, "Hit and Stay." Watch the trailer:

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