We are as close to you as your telephone.
—J. Edgar Hoover
I hope that people can see the parallels with the Boston Tea Party—activists who destroyed property are in every American history textbook as patriots. I think the Camden 28 should be thought of the same way.
“It was meant to make a statement.” More than once, those remembering the story of the Camden 28 assert the importance of speaking out, of being heard. In August 1971, the antiwar activists who came to be known as the Camden 28 initiated that process by breaking into a Camden, New Jersey draft board office. Their effort to stop the war in Vietnam, “to stop the bombing,” as Father Edward Murphy puts it, was amplified by their arrest and the trial that followed. Anthony Giacchino’s The Camden 28, airing tonight as part of PBS’ outstanding POV series, considers the complexities of the crime, the arrest, and the trial, as all these aspects “make a statement.”
The facts of the case were never much in doubt. A group of activists who self-identified as members of the Catholic Left planned and attempted to execute the destruction of official documents and property at the draft office. Inspired by previous protestors against the war—the Baltimore Four, the Catonsville 9, Philip and Daniel Berrigan—a group including sociologist John Grady, social worker Michael Giocondo, Navy veteran John Swinglish, and college student Joan Reilly planned to raid the draft board, imagining they would draw attention to their cause. Parish priest Michael Doyle says they chose the draft board because it “was a point of contact between the human being, between Mr. and Mrs. America and their son John, and the possibility of him coming back in a body bag. It was how the tentacle of power reached down into your house and took your son.” The action was intended to showcase the power “that had such control over lives, that could actually demand of you your life for some insane reason, that you would be killing somebody else’s son in a delta in Vietnam.”
The Camden 28 helpfully illustrates this “insane reason” with footage that will look familiar: U.S. troops in rice paddies, Vietnamese victims bloodied and distraught, overhead shots of bombs exploding. “Our big effort then,” says Murphy, “was to stop it.” Doyle adds that he was especially upset by the allocations of money: “I always saw the connection between the condition of Camden and the waste of the military,” he says, as the film cuts between decrepit buildings in New Jersey and destruction in Vietnam. Emphasizing the moral grounds for the protest, the Camden 28 uncover here another way to think about how “religion” might inform political protest and governing processes. Given current media emphases on the Religious Right, it’s bracing to remember that these other inflections exist.
The group’s focus in 1971—the Fall of Saigon was still nearly four years away—was insistent. wrongs were being wreaked by the U.S. administration, the group figured, could be sorted out later. The immediate goal was an end to hostilities in Southeast Asia. While the film doesn’t hammer the parallel between then and now, it’s hard not to think again when you hear a salient bit of Lyndon Johnson’s now infamous 1964 “Gulf of Tonkin response”: “Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.” (Now, his language seems both prescient and familiar, even insidious.) Laying this rationale for the war alongside the introductions of the Camden 28 interviewees, the film underscores the official efforts to mislead citizens and drum up support for a political and military endeavor.
Despite the group’s focus on stopping the war their arrest quickly uncovered another aspect of the case. Namely, one of their own, painting contractor Bob Hardy, was an FBI informant. What may be most remarkable about their story, however, is how he fits into it. Though the “conspirators,” as the government called them, were horrified by his betrayal, he saw his intervention, at first, as righteous. As Hardy explains here, he was also moved by conscience. Also convinced that the war was wrong (he recalls weeping as he saw caskets arriving from Vietnam), he nevertheless believed that he had to stop his friends from breaking the law.
By the time the trial began in 1973, however, the “sides,” even the “law,” were unclear. Hardy, being a “handyman,” had helped the group with specific elements in the plan—surveying the Post Office where the draft board was housed, cutting glass, breaking locks. The trial revealed that indeed, the FBI informant had trained the criminals in the conduct of the crime, and had, using FBI money, paid for the materials they used to commit it. This dubious practice (briefly connected here to J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO‘s outrageous domestic surveillance and other illegal activities) enhanced the Camden 28’s legal argument that they had in fact committed no crime. Defense attorney David Kairys explains their use of nullification as a strategy, as witness Howard Zinn declares their action was in fact patriotic (likening their civil disobedience to working against the Fugitive Slave Act), giving the jury a chance to make their own statement—against the war as well as the government’s overstepping.
Throughout the trial, the defendants (many legally listed as co-counsels, others as pro se) made statements, against the war, against the FBI, and in support of peace. While the film makes much of this process, as well as the jury’s verdict as another sort of statement made by Camden citizens, the most powerful moment belongs to Elizabeth Good, mother of Camden 28 defendant Bob Good and another son killed in Vietnam. During a reunion of remaining parties to the trial, she reads the statement she made at trial. She submits that U.S. citizens who did not speak out against the war should be ashamed. “I am ashamed,” she says, with Bob standing near her, in tears, at the 2004 reunion (in the courtroom where they were tried),
of the day I took my son to that airplane and put him on. I’m ashamed of any pride that I had when his “Taps” were played and I did have pride in my country. To tell that lovely boy, “You are fighting for your country.” How stupid can you get? He was fighting for his country. Can anybody stand here and tell me he was fighting for his country?
Amid the many intelligent, poignant, infuriating and angry arguments made in The Camden 28, Mrs. Good’s expression of grief, guilt, and horror is, at last, complex and devastating, a profound statement of self and community.