Trial of the Nonviolent Sergeant Rock

by Tom Howard-Hastings

When, during his service in a combat unit in Europe in WW2, young Phil Berrigan saw the despicable treatment afforded black GIs, he vowed he would somehow serve those who were vulnerable. He indeed became a Josephite priest, serving in an African-American community.

This was a fellow who was known for his high school popularity; he was the captain of the basketball team, good-looking and outgoing, youngest of six boys. He was born on the Iron Range in Minnesota, though his family moved to a farm in New York when he was six years old.

After many years in the priesthood, Phil Berrigan fell in love with Elizabeth McAlister, a nun active in the nonviolent opposition to the war in Vietnam. They eventually announced that they were married and intended to begin a community of nonviolent opposition to war, weaponry and injustice. They founded Jonah House in Baltimore and, a few years later, began a family within that community. Jerry, their son, is a vital member of Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker community here in Duluth. Their daughters work for peace and justice too.

Now Phil's in jail in Baltimore, Maryland, and heading for prison for the next two and one-half years. He's 77, he hurt no one, he took nothing from anyone and he committed his "crime" intending to save lives.

With a Jesuit priest, Steve Kelly, a Catholic Worker from Philadelphia, Liz Walz, and a former schoolteacher, Susan Crane, Berrigan entered a Maryland military air base on 19 December 1999, and went to the A-10 Thunderbolt Warthog warjet. These planes shot most of the hundreds of tons of depleted uranium-tipped 30 mm "tankbuster" shells during the war in the Gulf in 1991. This aircraft, basically a jet built around a huge Gatling gun that fires 3,900 rounds per minute, was also responsible for the depleted uranium fired in Serbia and Kosovo exactly one year ago. It's been used in depleted uranium test firing in Puerto Rico (Vieques) and US domestic test ranges, thus littering the landscape with low level radiological weaponry on several continents.

Leukemia is one of the fastest developing cancers, often appearing in five years or less from the time of exposure to a carcinogen like DU. In Iraq, children have high rates of leukemia and high rates of exposure to DU, fragments of which are shiny and attractive to children playing amidst the wreckage of war. No one knows the exact figures and no one knows how many children and others will contract leukemia and other cancers from the DU fired in Yugoslavia last year.

But four people knew they simply could not countenance such weaponry fired in their names. Four people went out to perform an act of public service very publicly and are now continuing that service behind bars.

Phil Berrigan began such service even as he was still serving as a priest in the late 1960s, when he joined his brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest, and seven others in burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland 17 May 1968. They lit the records with homemade napalm, made from a Green Beret handbook recipe. That act galvanized a nation, precipitating dozens of similar actions across the land. It effectively wrecked the normal operations of the Selective Service and sent many resisters to prison in high-profile cases of robust nonviolence. Phil's been doing that service ever since, burning paper to obstruct the system that burns babies. He hammers on nuclear weapons so they cannot hammer the Earth and Her creatures.

There were hundreds of supporters in the Maryland courtroom for the March 20-24 trial and untold numbers of supporters elsewhere (we did nightly vigils in Ashland, Wisconsin all week). When the prosecutor badgered the defendants, demanding to know who drove them to the airbase, none would say, which then precipitates a threat of contempt of court. When the judge first allowed the prosecution's expert on DU ordnance to testify and then refused to hear from any of the three highly credentialed defense experts on depleted uranium, Susan Crane rose to speak for all, calling an end to the sham trial. She lifted the gag order and immediately more than one hundred supporters rose to their feet and began to say, "I drove the van!"

This kind of response to a judge's gag order is risky for all and no doubt caused the little man to go way beyond sentencing guidelines and prosecutor's recommendations (the D.A. recommended a range of probation to one year). By next year, no one will recall that judge's name. But Phil Berrigan has been called the moral conscience of a generation and he is exactly where America puts its conscience; he is locked away for years.