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 daughter 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, Mary 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. . . .”
Published in The Progressive • July 2, 2002