Disruption from the inside: Using privilege to fight injustice

William A. Smith/AP/File
The Rev. Daniel Berrigan (right) and defense lawyer William M. Kunstler of New York talk with reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 9, 1968, after Father Berrigan and eight other Catholics were sentenced to prison after being convicted of burning Selective Service records to protest the Vietnam War.

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On May 17, 1968, at the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, nine Roman Catholic anti-war activists, known today as the Catonsville Nine, stole and destroyed the records of those most likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As they expected, they were arrested and tried, and each one was sentenced to prison.

Superficial similarities exist between the Catonsville Nine and the Capitol rioters: Both involved an all-white or mostly white group who broke into a federal space and destroyed federal property. All nine in 1968 and many in 2021 claimed they possessed a holy mandate.

Why We Wrote This

What is a “norm”? Our commentator argues that sometimes it’s nothing more than a cluster of unearned privileges that need to be examined – and possibly repurposed.

But the differences are far more striking:  

  • The Catonsville Nine were rooted firmly in facts, not lies or conspiracy theories.
  • They made explicit their intention of ceasing violence, not fomenting it.
  • They fully expected legal consequences, not special immunity.

The Catonsville Nine are helping me answer the question of what to do with whiteness – with this broad constellation of ill-gotten privileges and benefits accrued simply by being deemed white.

Whiteness is never neutral. But it becomes a mechanism for bringing about justice when white people use their unearned power and privilege to undercut whiteness, when we use the system’s trust in us to fracture racism and oppression.

An all-white group trespassed and ransacked a federal office. The flustered protestations of a few clerical workers notwithstanding, the nine-member group gained entry unimpeded and stole what they had come for. Toting two large wire bins full of their loot, the nine descended the building’s staircase and exited onto an adjacent parking lot, where they started a fire. Standing shoulder to shoulder at its edge, two women and seven men (two in clergy collars) made the sign of the cross, joined hands, and prayed. They were a picture of midcentury, white, middle-class domesticity: clean-cut men in suits and ties; sleek women in belted sundresses and flats.

But this was no suburban backyard barbecue. The kindling was 378 draft files. The igniter fluid: homemade napalm, a recipe lifted from the U.S. Army’s “Special Forces Handbook.” When the police arrived, an officer sprayed the contents of a fire extinguisher onto the flames, sending shards of charred paper swirling into the bright spring air. The nine were then loaded into the back of a police van.

This was May 17, 1968, outside the local Selective Service office in the Washington suburb of Catonsville, Maryland, where nine Roman Catholic anti-war activists stole and destroyed 1-A files, the records of those most likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. This group of lay people and clergy came to be known as the Catonsville Nine; the most well-known among them were the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel, priests long involved in the peace movement. In a highly publicized federal trial, the nine were found guilty of destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967.  Each member was sentenced to two or more years in prison. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” Daniel Berrigan told the court.

Why We Wrote This

What is a “norm”? Our commentator argues that sometimes it’s nothing more than a cluster of unearned privileges that need to be examined – and possibly repurposed.

The Catonsville Nine vs. the Capitol rioters

On Jan. 6, 2021, and in the days following the assault on the Capitol, my thoughts turned to the Catonsville Nine. A longtime admirer of Daniel Berrigan and his writing, especially his blistering commentary on American violence during the Vietnam era, I returned to his account of Catonsville; I watched and rewatched black-and-white footage of the event. The contrasting visions of justice, the contrasting deployments of whiteness, between the events of May 17, 1968, and those of Jan. 6, 2021, are dizzying.

The surface similarities make the contrasts that much more significant: Both involved an all-white or mostly white group who broke into a federal space and destroyed federal property. Also, all nine in 1968 and many in 2021 claimed they possessed a holy mandate.

But it’s how the two groups radically depart from each other, their divergent moral visions and methods, that I find so compelling and instructive as a white person living in America today searching for a useable past:  

  • The Catonsville Nine were rooted firmly in the facts, not lies or conspiracy theories. By 1968, America’s fraught involvement in the Vietnam War was no secret, including the use of chemical warfare (napalm), the killing of innocents, and the drafting of non-affluent American men to prop up the war effort.
  • Unlike the Capitol rioters, the Catonsville Nine were not attempting to overthrow democratic processes. Nor was their goal to destroy people in some apocalyptic showdown. Their action had no encouragement from a powerful figure; rather, a humble commitment to conscience motivated each individual. They considered it their somber duty to try to stop American killing, to prevent the deaths of American soldiers and Vietnamese alike.
  • The unarmed Catonsville Nine made explicit their intention of ceasing violence, not fomenting it. Their action emerged from self-conscious commitments to the nonviolence traditions of Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, King. At the fire’s edge, Daniel Berrigan declared, “We make our prayer in the name of that God whose name is peace and decency and unity and love.”
  • The group fully expected legal consequences, not special immunity. They knew that their trespasses would not be forgiven, that their lives would only get harder in the time-honored tradition of Thoreauvian civil disobedience.

Whiteness is never neutral

I have gravitated to the Catonsville Nine, in these days especially, because I need to see a group of white people telling the truth with their mouths and their actions. I need to be in the presence of white people who bring justice in their wake, not death or its denial, not pomposity or passivity. I desperately need to see them, especially the ones who are religiously motivated, with skin in the right game.

Representation matters, the recovery of a useable past matters – even, or perhaps especially, for white people in America for whom strong traditions of collective justice-making among our ilk are few and far between. This is not a matter of sorting out “good” white people from “bad” in some tedious parsing of discrete individuals (although individuals do need to be held accountable). The larger target is whiteness – the elevation of white people, culture, and customs as the norm, and the patterns of domination this elevation licenses.

The Catonsville Nine are helping me answer the question of what to do with whiteness – with this broad constellation of ill-gotten privileges and benefits accrued simply by being deemed white.

Whiteness is never neutral. I know no insurrectionists or avowed white supremacists and could never imagine myself or my white friends participating in such mayhem and violence. Yet as an inheritor and carrier of whiteness, I do know what it is to look the other way, to rationalize, to downplay injustice. I know a lot about not rocking the boat, going along to get along – about the will to make things quiet rather than make them right. I know a lot about not fracturing a certain order meant for my benefit at the expense of others.

The fact is there could not be an all-Black Catonsville Nine. Suspicion would be raised, alarm bells sounded, access denied, deadly force threatened or used. The scene at the draft board was distinctly white – a group presumed innocent, assumed benign to the authorities. Beforehand, one of the nine, Tom Lewis, had scouted the building where the office was located, under the pretense of wanting to rent the basement for his wedding reception – a scenario nearly impossible to imagine in that almost all-white suburb had Tom been Black.

Disrupting the order from the inside

The Catonsville Nine used their access to do what they were uniquely positioned to do because of their whiteness: to upend and disrupt the order from the inside.

And this is the central and perhaps only great hope of being white in America – to subvert presumptions about being white, to undermine notions that we will “play nice,” to be a turncoat: a traitor to whiteness who uses the oppressor’s prejudice against itself.

Whiteness becomes a mechanism for bringing about justice when white people use our unearned power and privilege to undercut, to rebel against, whiteness. We must use the system’s reflexive trust in us to reveal that we are not to be trusted with being white, that we will fracture the “good order” of racism and every form of oppression – from the sanctuary to the statehouse, the boardroom to the ballot box. That we prefer the burning of paper instead of children.

Enacting this great hope will come at a cost. Daniel Berrigan described the “revulsion” they endured as “ecumenical” – from all sides. The upshot, however, might be the preservation of our souls.

Lynn Casteel Harper is an author and ordained Baptist minister serving older adults in her New York City congregation.

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