PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Camden 28

Stuart Henderson

In their quiet way, theirs was perhaps the most effective action against the American war machine of all the major protests in the period.

The Camden 28

Director: Anthony Giacchino
Distributor: First Run
MPAA rating: Unrated
US DVD Release Date: 2007-09-18
First date: 2006

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).

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.