The Camden 28

by Stuart Henderson

20 September 2007


British author E.M. Forster famously claimed that, “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Stirring stuff, undoubtedly, but what’s often forgotten when we parrot this old saying is the way it began.  What Forster actually wrote all those years ago, while under the shadow of the gathering Nazi threat, was “I hate the idea of causes”; the celebrated phrase came after this pithy declaration.

The reductionist frame Forster managed to employ to such great and memorable advantage suggests that politics and causes are somehow secondary to the loyalty between brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues – i.e., those people one is tangibly connected to, rather than those people to whom we are merely symbolically related. But this is folly. Indeed, it is among the most absurdly underthought famous quotations of the 20th century (alongside the vast canon of George W. Bush’s campaign promises from the autumn of 1999).

cover art

The Camden 28

Director: Anthony Giacchino

US DVD: 18 Sep 2007

For without causes, what have we got? Apathy, sheepishness, conformity, and all the stuff Zack de la Rocha was so wicked pissed about. To be tied to a cause does not automatically imply that one must betray anything – I mean, what kind of fear-mongering-shut-up-be-happy kind of sentiment is that, Forster? To be alive for a cause is to be committed to change, to be inspired by one’s beliefs. Often those beliefs (and the causes they engender) are annoying. But they are necessary.

If there is one lesson taught by Anthony Giacchino’s excellent film on the trial of the Camden 28, it is that the politics of betrayal are a chimera.  Although all of the people involved in this story are in some way betrayed by people they trust, and although the film is ostensibly about a group of people accused of betraying their country, if we pay attention we see that to be obsessed with the idea of betrayal is to miss the point.

Jesus forgave even Judas, after all.

The Camden 28 – a group of Christian anti-war activists from New Jersey who conspired to break into a Federal Building and destroy draft records in 1971 – were idealists. In fact, they were the best kind of idealists. They were non-violent; they were driven by convictions, not dogma; and they were nurtured by a camaraderie predicated on a shared, and deeply considered, faith in a peace-loving God. Unlike the Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubins (and Eldridge Cleavers and Shulie Firestones) of the anti-establishment movement, these were gentle, quiet, church-going, “middle” Americans. They weren’t especially young, and they weren’t especially cool. Their group was vaguely hierarchical, comprising bespectacled Catholic priests and pious, tucked-in laypeople – this was hardly the picture of the radical anti-establishmentarian elite.
They were, in a word, boring.

But, the Camden 28 came together through the binding belief that the war in Vietnam was immoral, inhuman, and illegitimate. It must be stopped. This was their cause. And, in their quiet way, theirs was perhaps the most effective action against the American war machine of all the major protests in the period. Although their exploit was bungled from the start – they inadvertently asked an FBI informant to join them in the early stages of their planning – their subsequent trial and acquittal stands as among the great legal triumphs of the early ‘70s.

In their calm, measured way, these 28 defendants (facing 47 years each for their crimes) openly admitted their guilt, and then asked the jury to find them innocent. They openly forgave their informant friend, many of them rallying around him when his young son was gravely injured, underlining their commitment to peace and community, not the politics of betrayal. This gambit turned theirs into a national story, as this unassuming group of community-minded people from the burned out shell of Camden, New Jersey, was in essence forcing the jury to deliver a verdict on the War, not on their action. It was brilliant, and unbelievably ballsy.

And it makes a terrific subject for a film. In this intense, profoundly engrossing documentary, we watch as the story twists and turns like a police procedural, until the American government is embarrassed by 28 calm, Christian peace activists. It’s a stand-up-and-cheer film, built on illuminating interviews, great grainy footage from the period, and (in a conceit I rarely find helpful, but which works here to great effect) a recent reunion of all of the principles.

As the film moves along, as we get to know these friendly activists (who, the film never claims, but we know, would today be branded as “terrorists” for their action), certain parallels between the American War in Vietnam and the American War on “Terror” become apparent. What are we doing to stop this thing? More importantly, what holds us back? Is it fear of prison, of concentration camps like Guantanemo? Is it a fear of betraying servicemen overseas? Or is it the apathy of abundance, the simple pleasure of stuff and things and status quo consumerism that implores us not to rock this comfy little boat? Why are we in Iraq? I dunno – but I think Tyra is getting fat!

“We saw children on fire,” says the Rev. Michael (Mick) Doyle, perhaps the most persuasive of the 28 (possessed as he is of the most gloriously clichéd Irish priest’s accent you’ve ever heard, ever). “What do you do when a child is on fire in a war that was a mistake? Write a letter?”

Well, what do you do?

Extras include 35 minutes of useful context and further footage from the reunion of all of the principles, all of which make for interesting (if superfluous) watching.

The Camden 28


Extras rating:

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