Camden 28: What Would You Do to Stop a War?
Canadian Premiere of a New Film on a Significant Act of Nonviolent Resistance to the Vietnam War
Wednesday, October 25, 7 pm, Innis Town Hall, PWYC
"We are twenty-eight men and women who, together with other resisters across the country, are trying with our lives to say "no" to the madness we see perpetrated by our government in the name of the American people &endash; the madness of our Vietnam policy, of the arms race, of our neglected cities and inhuman prisons. We do not believe that it is criminal to destroy pieces of paper which are used to bind men to involuntary servitude, which train these men to kill, and which send them to possibility die in an unjust, immoral, and illegal war. We stand for life and freedom and the building of communities of true friendship. We will continue to speak out and act for peace and justice, knowing that our spirit of resistance cannot be jailed or broken."
In the early-morning hours of Sunday, August 22, 1971, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell announced that FBI agents had arrested 20 antiwar activists in and near a draft board office in Camden, New Jersey. Five days later, Mitchell made public the indictment of these individuals and included eight others who were linked to the break-in. The major charges against the group were conspiracy to remove and destroy files from the draft board, FBI office, and the Army Intelligence office; destruction of government property and interfering with the Selective Service system. If convicted, some of the indicted faced up to 47 years in federal prison. The men and women arrested that summer of '71 in Camden called themselves "America's conscience." The government called them the Camden 28.
Surprisingly, included among the Camden 28 were four Catholic priests and one Lutheran minister. All but one of the remaining 23 were Catholic laypeople. All were part of a nonviolent antiwar movement the government and the media referred to as the "Catholic Left." One of the most dramatic tactics utilized by this movement was breaking into Selective Service offices across the country to remove and destroy government draft records that identified young men available for military service. The activists claimed that their civil disobedience was meant to call attention to their belief that killing &endash; even in war &endash; was morally indefensible. They targeted the draft for the simple fact that it was the clearest symbol of that immorality because it compelled citizens to kill. Between 1967 and 1971, members of the "Catholic Left" claimed responsibility for over 30 draft board raids and the destruction of close to a million Selective Service documents. By 1971, the "Catholic Left" had become one of the most inventive forces of the antiwar movement.
The surprise arrest and unorthodox trial of the Camden 28 is a story of friendship and betrayal played out against the backdrop of one of the most turbulent periods in recent American history.
During the more than two months the defense took to present its case, each of the defendants spoke at length, often with moving eloquence. In an unusual arrangement three young lawyers aided the activists who chose either to act as their own lawyers or to have "co-counsel," in which defendants could both speak for themselves and have an attorney speak for them. Far from pleading innocent to the charges, they proudly proclaimed their guilt. "I ripped up those files with my hands," declared the Rev. Peter D. Fordi, adding, "They were the instruments of destruction." The Camden activists asked the jury to "nullify the laws" against breaking and entering and to acquit them as a means of saying that the country had had enough of the "illegal and immoral" war in Vietnam. They also asked the jury to acquit on the grounds that the raid would not have taken place without the help of a self-admitted FBI informer and provocateur. The defendants emphasized that they had given up their plan, for lack of a practical means, until the informer-provocateur had resurrected it and provided them with the encouragement and tools to carry it out.
After three and a half months, the case went to the jury. Judge Fisher's charge broke new legal ground. Despite the fact that the defendants admitted plotting the action before the informer appeared, Judge Fisher informed the jury they could acquit if they felt government participation in setting up the crime had gone to "intolerable" lengths that were "offensive to the basic standards of decency and shocking to the universal sense of justice." However, he added that although it was in their power, it would not be proper to decide the verdict on the issue of the war, and that "protest is not an acceptable legal defense, as sincerely motivated as I think they were." After three days of deliberations, a jury of seven women and five men returned a verdict of not guilty on all charges against the antiwar activists. According to The New York Times, at that moment, "the defendants . . . and 200 supporters . . . burst into cheers, wept, hugged one another and sang a chorus of Amazing Grace." The acquittals represented the first complete legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of such draft board actions.
(from the website for the Camden 28 Film: more info at www.camden28.org
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