The Camden 28 were a group of “Catholic left” anti-Vietnam War activists who in 1971 planned and executed a raid on a Camden, New Jersey draft board.
“what do you do when a child is on fire, we saw children on fire, what do you do when a child is on fire, in a war… that was a mistake” -Michael Doyle
2006 HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL PRESS
“However galvanic the present seems for moviemakers, history brings out the best in documentaries . . . So it’s easy to be seduced by Anthony Giacchino’s The Camden 28, which takes us step-by-step through the now forgotten ‘Nam-era civil disobedience case that involved a draft-office burglary, several arrested priests, an FBI mole, and an epic trial arriving at the legal assertion that felonies committed against an immoral war aren’t felonies at all. For aging rads, it’s something of a gift; for the under-30 conscientious, it could be an inspiration.”
Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice
June 6, 2006
“If protest seems futile, “Camden 28″ shows how it can be done: this stirring film chronicles Vietnam war resistors, comprised mostly of priests and devout Catholics, who set out to burn draft records and ultimately, helped turn the tide of public opinion. While Anthony Giacchino’s debut feature doc appears on the surface to tell a standard tale of civil disobedience, a surprising story unfolds, full of twists and turns, betrayals and redemption.”
Anthony Kaufman, San Francisco Film Society
June 13, 2006
“Underlying this year’s Human Rights Watch festival is the groundswell of opposition to the war in Iraq, examined directly from three different perspectives and indirectly in several other films. The unspoken parallels between Iraq and Vietnam and the antiwar movements then and now are illustrated by “The Camden 28,” a poignant documentary recalling the all-but-forgotten trial of 28 Vietnam War opponents, mostly members of the Catholic Left, who were prosecuted for breaking into a draft board office in August 1971. Thirty-five years later, the participants, who were acquitted of any crime, proudly recall their accomplishment”
Stephen Holden, The New York Times
June 8, 2006
A parallel antiwar past
By Dwight Ott
Inquirer Staff Writer
It has been a nine-year labor of love for Anthony Giacchino, 36, and he was showing off the near-finished product.
His efforts got their first feedback Friday night: a standing ovation from an audience of about 500 who paid $28 apiece and jammed Gordon Theater at Rutgers University-Camden to see his new film, The Camden 28, about a group of Vietnam War protesters who were arrested and put on trial in the early 1970s.
“I thought it was very powerful,” said Camden Councilman Angel Fuentes, adding that he would try to have the film shown in Camden schools.
“It wasn’t just about Vietnam. It was about Camden, about encouraging the federal government to spend money on places like Camden rather than war,” Fuentes said. He said the Camden 28 were not just protesting the war but also conditions in Camden – the result of spending billions on fighting instead of on saving inner-city children.
“What I got out of this was the need for grassroots people to take a stand… against social injustice, against poverty, inadequate housing and other problems,” Fuentes said. “It really inspired me.”
When he started out, Giacchino said, he did not know that another war, this one in Iraq, would produce striking parallels to the conditions that had fueled the Camden 28.
“Because of what is going on in the world, I think people will really be interested in the movie,” the baby-faced Giacchino said in an interview before the presentation.
He previewed his unfinished documentary – he emphasized the word previewed, rather than premiered – before an audience that included a number of the so-called Catholic Left who had participated in Camden’s version of the Boston Tea Party.
The Camden 28 is the first feature-length film as solo director for Giacchino, who has worked as a producer in television and documentary filmmaking, including freelance work for the History Channel, since 1994.
Giacchino, who has a double degree in history and German from Villanova University, earned a Fulbright for study in Germany and taught there after graduating in 1992. In February, he finished codirecting The Time Bomb, an exploration of how the 1945 bombing of Dresden is remembered in Germany today.
“The inspiration to make a documentary about the Camden 28 was born nine years ago,” Giacchino said. “Dave Dougherty, a high school friend” – who later became the movie’s cinematographer – “and I had been looking for a local historical subject that would make an interesting film. I had been encouraged by a family friend to hear the story of the Camden 28 from one of its participants, the Rev. Michael Doyle.”
Doyle also happened to be pastor of the church to which the family drove 30 miles every Sunday – Sacred Heart in Camden. The year of the Camden 28 was 1971, a year when riots devastated what was one of the poorest cities in the nation.
Camden became a center of controversy after activists broke into the U.S. Postal Service building and the draft board’s office inside, where they shredded records related to the military draft for two hours and stuffed other documents into bags.
But as they prepared to leave, they were swarmed by FBI agents, tipped off by someone they had considered one of their own. As they were arrested, the FBI was already tracking down 20 coconspirators.
Doyle, one of those who broke into the draft board office and was arrested, remains one of the region’s most outspoken voices for the poor. At the Camden 28 trial, his eloquence helped sway the jury to acquit.
The unorthodox 1973 trial of the Camden 28 captured national headlines. The judge – Clarkson Fisher, now deceased – allowed defendants to represent themselves, one of many unusual latitudes he afforded. The judge also allowed witnesses to read poetry; play a Peter, Paul and Mary song; offer personal testimony; and juxtapose pictures of Vietnamese children burned by napalm with pictures of Camden on fire.
The 28 did not deny the charges, and the case was said to be the only one of its kind to end in acquittal despite no claim of innocence.
After nine years of work on weekends and spending close to $30,000, Giacchino and his coworkers are trying to raise another $30,000 to complete the film, which he thinks has important lessons.
As the controversy over misinformation regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has deepened, Giacchino said in the interview, “revelations about the Gulf of Tonkin, which [President Lyndon] Johnson based the whole war on,” have come to light in a previously classified report accusing officials of distorting information on the attack.
Asked about a comparison with the work of Michael Moore, Giacchino said that while Moore’s films are based on opinion, “this is a documentary.”
“The movie has particular significance for a city like Camden,” he said. “The government goes on military adventures like Iraq, spending billions, while cities like Camden are falling apart… . I hope it will rally people against war.”
Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3844 or email@example.com.
Copyright Philadelphia Inquirer
2005 All rights reserved.
back to top
Friday May 3, 2002
An acquittal that defined Vietnam era
Key players in the case of the Camden 28 will gather to revisit the historic trial.
By RITA GIORDANO
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
In the small hours of Aug. 22, 1971, eight figures in dark clothes scaled a ladder to the top of the U.S. Post Office building in Camden, the home of the federal court and the local draft board. They carried burglar tools and a strong belief that the war in Vietnam was wrong.
Once inside, they shredded draft records for two hours and stuffed other documents into bags. But as they prepared to leave, they were swarmed by FBI agents who had been tipped off by someone they had considered one of their own. As they were arrested, the FBI was already tracking down 20 of their coconspirators, many of them members of what was known as the “Catholic Left.”
The next morning, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell blasted them as criminals and threats to society.
They were the Camden 28, and their unorthodox 1973 trial captured national headlines. In the end, not only did they beat the charges, which they did not deny, but one of the jurors even thanked them. It was a charged moment in the history of a highly charged time.
Tomorrow morning, that history will revisit Camden. For the first time since 1973, players in the Camden 28 drama will meet in the third-floor courtroom where the trial was held. The Historical Society of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, with the help of two independent filmmakers, is bringing them together to create an oral and visual history that will be exhibited at the old courthouse.
“This is an opportunity for all sides to come together and discuss what happened in Camden,” said filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, who, with fellow South Jersey native, David Dougherty has been working on a documentary about the Camden 28. They will do the filming tomorrow.
But the event is not a reunion, and disagreement is likely, said U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith Wizmur, a historical society member, adding, “It’s an exercise in exploration of a very complicated story.”
The Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Camden, plans to go.
A pastor’s early mission
“It’s quite delightful that the court system itself wants to record the event as a famous trial,” he said.
Now one of the region’s most consistent voices for the poor, Father Doyle was one of those who broke into the draft board office and was arrested by the FBI. Not long after that, the maverick priest got in hot water with church higher-ups for burning a copy of the Pentagon Papers and using it in an Ash Wednesday service. At the Camden 28 trial, Father Doyle’s eloquent testimony helped sway the jury to acquit.
Like many of his codefendants, he counts that time as a defining episode in his life. And like Father Doyle, many of those who seemed so radical went on to positions of respect.
Kathleen Ridolfi is a law professor and director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University. Joan Reilly, wife of former Philadelphia recreation director Michael DiBerardinis, is a director of community-building Philadelphia Green.
Pillars of the community
Gene Dixon of Pitman retired as marketing director for the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort and is a poet and children’s book author. Joseph Rodriguez, one of the Camden 28’s legal advisers, is now a federal judge. Carl Poplar, another adviser, is a veteran South Jersey lawyer who helped organize tomorrow’s event.
David Kairys, a Temple University Law School professor, was lead counsel in the trial, in which Judge Clarkson Fisher, now deceased, also allowed defendants to represent themselves. It was one of many unusual latitudes afforded by Fisher, who allowed witnesses to read poetry; play a Peter, Paul and Mary song; offer personal testimony; and display pictures of Vietnamese children burned by napalm.
Although it involved one of many draft-board raids during the Vietnam era, Kairys said the Camden 28 case was the only one of its kind to end in acquittal despite no claim of innocence.
Big moments, hard feelings
“It definitely was one of the major events in my life, as much because of working with the people as working in the courtroom,” Kairys said. “This wasn’t just taking a picket sign and catching a bus to Washington. This was a decision that my country is doing something deeply wrong and intolerable.”
Robert Hardy felt that way about the war, too, but he feared his friends were getting in over their heads and might get hurt. He turned to the FBI when he learned of their plans. He said he had been led to believe the agency would help him prevent the break-in.
Kairys recalled a clandestine midnight meeting under the Walt Whitman Bridge to get an affidavit signed and notarized in which Hardy said he unknowingly had become a “provocateur,” that he had been paid by the FBI for his help, and that the raid would not have happened without his involvement. Hardy said FBI higher-ups had falsely promised that his friends would not face serious charges.
Hardy did reconcile with some of his old friends. When Hardy’s 9-year-old son, William, was killed in an accident before the trial, Father Doyle officiated at the funeral.
But some hard feelings remained, and Hardy said he did not plan to attend tomorrow.
“My part was too controversial, and if there’s any negativism, I don’t want to be there for that,” he said.
Like many of his old friends, he went on to live life by his convictions. A Roman Catholic deacon, Hardy runs a youth ministry in Delaware.
In hindsight, however, there are things he would change.
“I never would have gone to the FBI. I never would have gone to any government agency,” Hardy said. “They’re not there for us. I still feel that way.”
Terry Neist, one of the FBI agents Hardy reported to, said he had no regrets. Now a private investigator in Virginia, Neist said he planned to attend tomorrow “to be the one voice of reason so it doesn’t turn into a Camden 28 love fest.”
Neist still has high regard for Hardy, calling him “a hero for both sides at different times.” He said he does not view the Camden 28 as bad people, but rather as naive and misinformed.
“I have no patience with the anti-Vietnam people,” Neist said. “We were trying to save a democracy. How can people not see that was an honorable thing?”
It is such differing visions that the organizers of tomorrow’s event hope to bring together. They’ve reached out to jurors and others. Ronald Reisner, now a Superior Court Judge in Monmouth County, was Fisher’s law clerk. He plans to attend. So does Judge Maryanne Trump Barry of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, widow of John Barry, the U.S. attorney assigned to the case.
When they gather tomorrow, history will be heard through the voices of those who made it.
Copyright Philadelphia Inquirer
2002 All rights reserved.
back to top
Anti-war activists return to courtroom where they won acquittal
Key players in the case of the Camden 28 will gather to revisit the historic trial.
By JEFF LINKOUS
Associated Press Writer
In the same federal courtroom that was the scene of their decisive victory, a group of anti-Vietnam War activists on Saturday relived their conspiracy to destroy military draft records.
This time, Kathleen Ridolfi, Paul Couming, Gene Dixon, the Rev. Michael Doyle and 12 others who were part of the group that became known as the Camden 28 sat in the jury box, two floors below the draft board offices they burglarized nearly 31 years ago.
Under the cover of darkness on Aug. 22, 1971, eight members of the group broke into the draft board. They started taking draft notices with the plan to send them to the intended recipients with an explanation that the government no longer had their names and as such, they couldn’t be drafted into the Army and combat in Vietnam.
Two hours into the sabotage, FBI agents, tipped off by one the group’s members, raided the operation. The eight inside the federal building were arrested as agents rounded up the 20 other co-conspirators.
Seventeen members of the group, charged with seven felony counts and facing 47 years in prison, went on trial Feb. 5, 1973, the same day the last soldier killed in combat in Vietnam was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Sixty-three days later, they were acquitted.
“Part of why we were acquitted was the jury that decided the case had questions about the war,” said Ridolfi, now a law professor in Santa Clara, Calif.
“What makes this important is a group of people who were guilty as the day is long got found not guilty because the jury agreed with our view on Vietnam,” said Keith Forsyth, another of the activists.
The group’s only reunion was staged for a visual history exhibit by the Historical Society of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey and independent filmmakers David Dougherty and Anthony Giacchino, both natives of southern New Jersey who began work on the project six years ago. The exhibit will eventually be on display at the courthouse.
Group members were joined by some of the authorities who prosecuted them and lawyers who helped guide the unorthodox defense in which the activists were allowed to represent themselves in court, sing a Peter, Paul and Mary tune and display images of the Vietnam War.
Also attending was Robert Hardy, who had joined the group but ultimately acted as an informant for the FBI because he feared his friends had gotten in too deep.
Hardy later said he had been used by the FBI, unknowingly turned into an agent provocateur and that authorities reneged on promises that the group’s members wouldn’t face serious charges. Hardy spelled out those concerns in an affidavit signed and notarized beneath the Walt Whitman Bridge.
Still, Hardy found himself the focus of bitter feelings Saturday. Camden 28 member Edward McGowan pointed out Hardy had been paid $7,500 by the FBI.
“To be accused of accepting blood money is beyond my ability to respond,” said Hardy, who offered an apology to Camden 28 member Mike Giocondo.
“It takes time for fractures to heal,” Giocondo said.
As the events were retold, some elements began to conflict, often running along political ideologies that divided the participants 30 years ago.
The group said authorities used their case to apply pressure to crack another case in which a Pennsylvania FBI office was burglarized and documents on anti-war and civil rights protesters were publicized. Members of the U.S. attorney’s office continued to dispute that and said the conspirators were allow to carry out their plans so enough evidence would be generated for convictions.
Copyright Associated Press
2002 All rights reserved.
back to top
Sunday, May 5, 2002
Camden 28 testimony again fills courtroom
By RENEE WINKLER
Thirty-one years ago a group of anti-war protesters climbed a ladder and a fire escape to the fifth floor of the U.S. Post Office building, broke into a draft board office at 4 in the morning and pulled the records of young men destined to be sent to Vietnam.
Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the arrests “ breaking the back of the East Coast conspiracy.” The protesters, called the Camden 28, never denied planning and carrying out the Aug. 22, 1971 burglary, and called themselves “America’s conscience.”
When they were arrested, some lugged mail bags stuffed with Selective Service forms while others waited at “safe houses” for walkie-talkie confirmation that the raid on the federal building at 4th and Market streets was complete.
The memories of that protest came back Saturday, as more than 150 people packed the Camden courtroom where the group went on trial for 63 days in 1973.
If anything, the meeting shows little has changed in the mindset of the protesters and their critics.
The attorneys who prosecuted the group insist on the need to uphold laws, the FBI sees itself as the nation’s defender and the pacifists would do it again.
The reunion of participants and others who remember the event that brought Camden to the nation’s attention was organized by the Historical Society of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.
The participants came from Minneapolis, New York, North Dakota, California and other states for the filming of a documentary about the conspiracy and the trial.
The arrests took place on the second night of a citywide riot spurred by the beating death of a Hispanic man after a routine traffic stop by city police.
Between that night and the opening of the trial, America’ s attitude toward the war in Vietnam had changed.
Msgr. Michael Doyle, now pastor of Sacred Heart Church in South Camden, was one of the most vocal of the Camden 28, both during the trial and during the filming session.
It was Doyle who persuaded U.S. District Judge Clarkson Fisher, who presided at the trial, to permit the introduction of film clips as evidence. Some of those showed bombed-out villages in Vietnam; others showed burned- out blocks of Camden.
The Camden draft board was the target of the 1971 raid, Doyle said, because at the time, “Camden was the best visual aid in America of what was wrong with our country, the neglect of the poor, the violence of zoning. Thirty-one people died in Vietnam from this town,” Doyle said as the filming began.
“Generally speaking, rich people’s sons did not die in Vietnam. They did not get there,” he said.
The city also had a history of dependence on a war economy, especially the New York Ship Building Corp., which was the largest shipyard in the country, once employing 37, 000 people.
The government moved industry like that shipyard, “but left the poor. There is always money for bombs but none for housing,” Doyle said.
Seventeen defendants went on trial. Charges against 10 were dismissed, and one pleaded guilty. All 17 on trial were acquitted. Some experts said it was a rare act of jury nullification.
After the verdict was announced on a Sunday morning, one of the defendants quipped the group had expanded from the Camden 28 to the Camden 40, adding the 12 jurors to the group.
Many of the former defendants brought levity to Saturday’ s session, which was moderated by Steve Gillon, the dean of the Honors College of the University of Oklahoma and a frequent moderator on History Channel presentations.
They recalled learning to pick locks by mail order, trying to elude an FBI surveillance team, glancing up with bafflement at the ceiling of the Selective Service Board, then on the fifth floor of the Camden post office, hearing footsteps on the roof, which turned out to be FBI agents. Some recalled that the agents forgot to bring enough sets of handcuffs and had to bind some of the suspects with their belts.
Defendants soon learned they had been turned in by one of their own, Robert Hardy, who agreed to work undercover for the FBI.
Hardy attended Saturday’s event, saying when he first heard about the documentary, his impulse was to stay away.
Hardy asserted he had been assured throughout a series of meetings with federal agents that arrests would be made before any actual break-in, limiting the defendants’ exposure to charges no more serious than conspiracy.
Terry Neist, a retired FBI agent who had an active role in the case and now lives in Virginia, said the decisions on the timing of the arrests lay with the U.S. Attorney.
And the three attorneys who formed the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1971 – James Finnegan, Joseph Audino and William Subin, said they were unaware of any promises made to Hardy. “It was never our job to prevent this break-in,” Finnegan said. “What you were doing was wrong and arrogant and it was our decision to arrest you on the strongest possible evidence.”
One of those who took a seat in the courtroom on Saturday was Lois Teer, now a Collingswood resident and public relations specialist, who had headed the Camden 28’s defense committee.
“People were split on the issue,” Teer said. “Some were angry. Broadway was full of vacant offices but no one would rent us one. Others were passionate and generous. We were given space on Benson Street, rent-free, for two years. We were struggling to get money for the defense, to pay for lawyers, for food, for background investigation of ( potential) jurors.
“It was more than full-time work. It was life,” she said.
Gillon, the moderator, said the Camden 28 trial had all the makings of a movie. “At the time of our long and painful involvement in the Vietnam War, men and women of principle chose to challenge the law the believed to be unjust. It was a dramatic trial with a surprise ending.”
John Lack, a Collingswood attorney, who was a Camden councilman in 1971, said of the trial:
“This was one of Camden’s highlights, along with Howard Unruh (who killed 13 people in East Camden in 1949), the prominence of (former heavyweight boxing champ) Jersey Joe Walcott, and the involvement of former Mayor Angelo Errichetti in the Abscam scandal.”
2002 All rights reserved.
back to top
A Break-in for Peace
By HOWARD ZINN
In the film Ocean’s 11, eleven skillful crooks embark on an ingenious plan, meticulously worked out, to break into an impossibly secure vault and make off with more than $100 million in Las Vegas casino loot. Hardly a crime of passion, despite the faint electrical charge surrounding Julia Roberts and George Clooney. No, money was the motive, with as little moral fervor attending the crime as went into the making of the movie, which had the same motive.
I was reminded of this recently when I sat in a courtroom in Camden, New Jersey, and participated in the recollection of another break-in, carried out by the Camden 28, where the motive was to protest the war in Vietnam.
It was the summer of 1971 when a group of men and women, ranging from young to middle-aged, including a few Catholic priests, carefully worked out a plan (going over building diagrams and armed with walkie-talkies, just like the Ocean’s 11) to break into the draft board offices on the fifth floor of the federal building in Camden and make off with thousands of draft records. It was an act of symbolic sabotage, designed to dramatize the anguish felt by these people over the death and suffering taking place in Vietnam.
Yes, a crime of passion, not the sort Hollywood is likely to make a movie of. But a young documentary filmmaker named Anthony Giacchino has decided to tell the story. It happens that his family in Camden attends the Church of the Sacred Heart, whose priest is Father Michael Doyle, one of the Camden 28.
This spring, I received a phone call from Anthony, who asked if I could show up in Camden on May 4 for a retrospective of the event. I had been a witness in the 1973 trial. He told me most of the twenty-eight defendants would be there, as well as David Kairys and Martin Stolar, who had helped them in acting as their own attorneys in the trial. The judge who presided in the 1971 trial, Clarkson Fisher, was dead. So was John Barry, who prosecuted the case. But a representative of the FBI would be present, and one member of the jury.
We would all be meeting in the same courtroom where the trial took place, two floors below where the Camden 28 made their way into the draft board office and stuffed draft records into mail bags. This surprising arrangement was possible because the Historical Society of the Federal District Court for New Jersey had decided to do video histories of the important trials that had taken place in that courthouse. And it would start with the most famous of those trials, that of the Camden 28.
On August 22, 1971, “eight figures in dark clothes scaled a ladder to the top of the U.S. Post Office Building in Camden, the home of the federal court and the local draft board,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “They carried burglar tools and a strong belief that the war in Vietnam was wrong.”
It was about 2:30 in the morning, and they had decided to do it then so there would be no encounter with people working there, no chance of violence. But they encountered 100 FBI agents, tipped off by Robert Hardy, who had been a friend of some of the defendants. Hardy was an informant and agent provocateur, supplying the group with the necessary equipment for the break-in. In the midst of the trial, Hardy’s son was killed in an accident. He asked Father Doyle to perform the funeral service. It was, in some sense, a turning point in Hardy’s role. Finally, he decided to testify for the defendants that he had acted for the FBI to entrap them into their action.
What was unusual about the trial was that the defendants were able to do what had not been possible in the previous trials of draft board raiders (the Baltimore 4, the Catonsville 9, the Milwaukee 14, and many others). In those trials, the judges had insisted that the war could not be an issue, that the jury must consider what was done as ordinary crimes–breaking and entering, arson (where draft records were burned, as in Catonsville), destruction of government property.
In Camden, Judge Fisher did not forbid discussion of the war. The defendants were allowed to fully present the reasons for their action–that is, their passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam. And they made the most of this.
Father Doyle, at the time a newly arrived immigrant from Ireland, persuaded Judge Fisher to allow the jury to see film clips. Some showed Vietnam villages bombed, in flames; others showed sections of Camden looking like a bombed out city. He talked about Camden, a city of poverty and violence, where thirty-one of its young men were killed in Vietnam. “The sons of the rich never went there,” he said.
Called as a witness, Daniel Berrigan read a poem he had written while in Vietnam, “Children in the Shelter,” which ends with these lines:
I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (His sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down)
In my arms, fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.
Another defense witness, surprisingly, was Major Clement St. Martin, who had been in charge of the state induction center in Newark, New Jersey, from 1968 to 1971. He described in detail how the draft system discriminated systematically against the poor, the black, and the uneducated, and how it regularly gave medical exemptions to the sons of the wealthy.
Major St. Martin said he thought all draft files should be destroyed. Asked, under cross-examination, if he thought private citizens had a right to break into buildings to destroy draft files, he replied: “Probably today, if they plan another raid, I might join them.”
A Vietnamese woman named Tran Khanh Tuyet testified for the defendants, describing her life in South Vietnam, and told a hushed courtroom: “In the name of liberty you have destroyed my country.”
One of the defendants, Cookie Ridolfi, at that time a working class young woman from Philadelphia, now a law professor in California, put it bluntly: “We are not here because of a crime committed in Camden, but because of a war waged in Indochina.”
It was Ridolfi who had phoned me one day in 1971 to ask if I would appear in the Camden trial as her witness. I had just returned from Los Angeles, where I testified in the Pentagon Papers trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo.
To my surprise, Judge Fisher allowed me to testify for several hours. I recounted what the Pentagon Papers told us about the history of the Vietnam War, and discussed in detail the theory and history of civil disobedience in the United States. I said that the war was not being fought for freedom and democracy; the internal memoranda of the government spoke instead, again and again, of “tin, rubber, oil.”
In my previous appearances as a witness for defendants in draft board cases, judges had strictly forbidden testimony relating to the war or to civil disobedience. In fact, when I testified for the Milwaukee 14 the year before, and began to talk about Henry David Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience, the judge stopped me cold, with words I have not been able to forget: “You can’t talk about that. That’s getting to the heart of the matter.”
The day after my testimony in Camden, one of the defendants, Bob Good, called his mother, Betty Good, to the stand.
Mrs. Good was a conservative woman, a devout Catholic. She considered herself a patriot. One of her sons, Paul, had been killed in Vietnam.
On the witness stand, she told the jury, “I’m proud of my son because he didn’t know. To take that lovely boy and to tell him, ‘You are fighting for your country’–How stupid can you get? Can anybody stand here and tell me how he was fighting for his country? I can’t understand what we’re doing over there. We should get out of this. But not one of us, not a one of us, raised our hands to do anything about it. We left it up to these people, for them to do it. And now we are prosecuting them for it. God!”
Michael Giocondo, who had been a Franciscan priest in Costa Rica before he joined the Camden group, asked the jury: “What is more important, the pieces of paper that were the draft records, or the children of Vietnam?”
The jurors reacted in remarkable ways. Samuel Braithwaite, a fifty-three-year-old black taxi driver, a veteran of eleven years in the Army, sent questions up to the bench (a right that jurors have but almost never exercise) to be put to the witnesses. One of his questions, which he said was directed to “all men of the clergy,” was: “Didn’t God make the Vietnamese? Was God prejudiced and only made American people?” Another of Braithwaite’s questions: “If, when a citizen violates the law, he is punished by the government, who does the punishing when the government violates the law?”
At the reunion in Camden, Peter Fordi, once a Jesuit priest, told how he and the other defendants stood in the courtroom, linking arms as the jury filed in, after two days of deliberation. His voice broke as he recalled the verdict, “Not Guilty” on all charges, and how then there was pandemonium in the courtroom, cheering and weeping and people hugging one another. And how then everyone stood, including the court marshals and the members of the jury, and sang “Amazing Grace.” And how the word spread out of the courtroom into the street where a crowd had gathered and now cheered the verdict.
Mary Good also came again to Camden, and reenacted her earlier appearance as her son’s witness. When she finished, the entire courtroom, including the FBI man, stood and applauded.
The acquittal of the Camden 28 was a historic event. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan referred to it later as “one of the great trials of the twentieth century.” It was the first time, in the many trials of anti-war activists who had broken into draft boards, that a jury had voted to acquit.
Why? No doubt because it was the first of these trials in which the jury had been permitted to listen to the heartfelt stories of fellow citizens as they described their growing anguish for the victims, American and Vietnamese, of a brutal war. And the jury was led to understand how the defendants could decide to break the law in order to dramatize their protest.
Most importantly, the year of the trial was 1973. By now the majority of the American people had turned against the war. They had seen the images of the burning villages, the napalmed children, and had begun to see through the deceptions of the nation’s political leaders.
As today we watch with some alarm a nation mobilized for war, the politicians of both parties in cowardly acquiescence, the media going timorously along, it is good to keep in mind that things do change. People learn, little by little. Lies are exposed. Wars once popular gradually come under suspicion. That happens when enough people speak and act in accord with their conscience, appealing to the American jury with the power of truth.
When the Camden trial was over, the black taxi driver on the jury, Samuel Braithwaite (now dead), left a letter for the defendants: “I say, well done. . . .”
Copyright The Progressive
2002 All rights reserved.
Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States.”