What, what do you do when a child’s on fire in a war that was a mistake?
What do you do? Like write a letter?
With these words from Father Michael Doyle, the award-winning documentary film by Anthony Giacchino entitled The Camden 28 begins to tell the extraordinary story of a group of peace activists working to end the Vietnam War. In the early hours of 22 August 1971, this group of 28 including students, blue collar workers, clergy, and others, most of them would put into motion their direct action against the war. Several of them broke into a draft board office in Camden, New Jersey, and set about their work of destroying and removing draft records while others monitored the situation and advised from outside the buidling. Their goal was to shut the office down. With just a few minutes left before they planned to leave, they were accosted by FBI agents who had lain in wait, watching them work without interfering until they were given the order to intervene.
Since 1967, members of the Catholic Left had become more and more of a thorn in the government’s side, carrying out dozens of direct actions and destroying hundreds of thousands of Selective Service documents in the process. Just a few months prior to the Camden action, eight activists had successfully broken into an FBI office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania, emptying the office of nearly all its documents, which they proceeded to leak selectively to journalists, thereby exposing a massive program by the FBI against American citizens. David Kairys, one of the attorneys assisting in the defense of the Camden 28, explains in Slate the significance of this action:
The FBI files they publicly released documented what many then knew or suspected but couldn’t prove: Hoover’s FBI was secretly intervening in the political process and undermining free speech, privacy, and democracy. The agency used threats, intimidation, infiltrators and informers, phony letters, violence, break-ins, and widespread wiretaps, bugs and surveillance—aimed at law-abiding Americans who were simply exercising their free speech rights. The goal, in the words of the FBI, was to “disrupt,” “neutralize,” and “enhance paranoia” in the mostly left-leaning movements Hoover detested—civil rights, anti-war, and women’s liberation.
Still stinging from this dramatically successful challenge to its power and secrecy, the U.S. government was eager to make a public example of the Camden 28, whose action they in fact helped bring to fruition. But the Camden 28 refused to bow meekly to the government and go quietly away. Instead they chose to take their case before a jury, each defendant facing seven charges and risking up to 47 years incarceration plus fines. From the P.O.V. discussion guide for the film:
All 28 defendants were initially offered a deal, under which they could each plead guilty to a minor offense and receive a dismissal, probation or a suspended sentence rather than jail time, but they refused the deal. On the second day, the U.S. government, the plaintiff in the case, asked that the cases of eight defendants be severed from the remaining 20, in order that the case against “the defendants more significantly involved” move more quickly. These eight and an additional three defendants were severed from the trial before it began, to be tried at a later date.
Here is the trailer from the excellent documentary, The Camden 28:
On 5 February 1973, the trial would finally begin with a conference on motions followed by a lengthy jury selection process. Opening statements would take place over two days, 13-14 February, with each of the defendants openly acknowledging their actions before the jury. From the beginning, jury nullification was seen as the primary defense. These excerpts from defendant Edward McGowan’s opening statement comes from his book Peace Warriors: The Story of the Camden 28:
If I were to see a house in flames with a family on the second floor in immediate need of help, no one would accuse me of breaking and entering if I broke down the front door to bring them to safety. Or if I destroyed a slave ship, or chains of bondage, or concentration camps, or hunting licenses when the hunt involved human beings. Draft cards in the instance of this war, I submit, are hunting licenses to kill.
It began for me in a classroom in Rochester and culminates in a courtroom here in Camden. Three of those high school boys are dead. Four in VA hospitals for life. One in a mental ward. Two were founders of Vietnam Veterans against the War in Rochester. Many others were conscientious objectors. (You should know that from May 1970 to May 1971, 103,000 kids filed for conscientious objector status.) It’s been seven and a half years of turmoil and pain. But some of the best moments of our lives.
I wish to repeat what David said yesterday, ‘I envy you. You can realize your best moments now by acquitting us, and thus liberate yourselves.’ For you must know that the war is not over either in fact or in policy. We have circled mainland Asia in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Pacific. We have continued the bombing in Laos and Cambodia. We are still militarily present in Southeast Asia. And in policy we haven’t learned at all.
For approximately two months, the Camden 28 would themselves make their case before their jury with assistance from three lawyers. This unorthodox trial would include testimony from Howard Zinn, who describes his role in the trial in this video footage from a Camden 28 reunion, made available by Anthony Giacchino:
The remarkable trial would wrap up with closing statements, spanning four days, again with each of the defendants as well as the lawyers making statements to the jury. Here is Camden 28 peace activist Father Michael Doyle reading from his closing statement from the trial:
63 days after the trial began and nearly two years after their direct action the fate of the Camden 28 would be settled by their jury. On 20 May 1973, concluding an historic trial, the jury who had listened and deliberated over the case for two months declared each and every one of the defendants Not Guilty on every count against them. This jury exercised its right of jury nullification to vacate more than 100 charges en masse in this single trial.
Subsequent to this abject defeat in court, the government dropped charges against the other defendants who had been severed from this trial. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan would refer to the Camden 28 as “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” Just months after the close of the trial, the U.S. would end its military involvement in Vietnam.