( The author, a former resident of Dunster House, graduated from Harvard last year. )
THE testimony of Father Daniel Berrigan at the trial of eight young middle-class white Americans here on Friday, November 20, has helped focus attention on a very important yet virtually unreported political trial. The eight people facing possible sentences of up to 38 years are Joan Nicholson, 36; Ted Glick, 21; Frank Callahan, 21; Suzi Williams, 21; DeCourcy Squire, 21; Jane Meyerding, 22; Joe Gilchrist, 21; and Wayne Bonekemper, 21. They are The Flower City Conspiracy, and have been actively engaged in speaking out on the issues of American racism at home and abroad, the conduct of the empire-building war in Southeast Asia, the treatment of prisoners in American jails, and the role of the three government agencies whose offices they disrupted before their arrest at 4:15 a. m. on September 6, 1970.
It is difficult to generalize about any group of eight people in what is so often facilely called "the movement." Several things are clearly shared by all eight on trial in Federal Court here: a serious commitment to change, both in their personal styles of living and in the American society which offers its most prestigious positions to them all; and a belief that men and women can be better than they are that is tempered by the knowledge that before any person can suggest alternatives to another, he must first be living in a manner that is consistent with what he or she is advising for others. The eight are a blending of the guerrilla tactics of Che Guevara and the passionate concern for human life of Jesus Christ. They share the conviction that militant action is necessary since passive demonstration has not produced an end to the war in Asia or a real effort to abolish the institution of racism that forms one side of the American triangle with economic exploitation and male chauvinism.
The trial opened in Harold Burke's Federal Courtroom on November 16.
The defendants have been attempting, within the limits set by Judge Burke and the larger legal-political system, to cut through all of the legal jargon and the physical and psychological control of authority in the court-room. When they refused to enter any plea at their arraignment, Judge Burke entered not guilty pleas for all eight of them. Seven of the eight are conducting their own defense. Their message is a relatively simple one-to open to the judge, the jury, to those in the courtroom and to those beyond, the facts of their lives which led them to feel compelled to take an action against three very oppressive institutions: the Selective Service System, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the United States Attorney's Office. They are striving consistently inside the courtroom and out to have people judge both their actions and the reasons that motivated them to destroy government property. It is an effort to go beyond the legality or illegality of what they openly admit to having done. Similar efforts have been made in the past in American courts of law, beginning with the trial of the Catonsville Nine-the priest brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan and seven other Catholics who burned draft records with home-made napalm at the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville in May of 1968. But something new and different is happening in Rochester's Federal Building, even if the result for the eight defendants is the same as it has been for other defendants in the past-the expected long prison terms.
BY presenting a long, technical, dollars-and-cents-of-destruction prosecution the assistant U. S. Attorney has brought to public attention for the first time in a court of law some facts about the operation of the Selective Service System that many people had suspected were true but could not prove. In her testimony for the prosecution. Mrs. Emma Hibbard, Rochester Draft Supervisor, was asked about the reason for certain notes that were attached to individual draft files introduced into evidence for the prosecution. Her response confirmed that Special Agent Joseph Cain of the Kochester FBI office had investigated one draft registrant because he was suspected of being delinquent and of having taken part in anti-draft demonstrations. Over the agent's note was one in Mrs. Hibbard's handwriting directing that both notes be removed should the registrant appear and ask to see his file. The file of another registrant, Robert Osborne, had a similar FBI memorandum attached noting that investigation had turned up the fact that Osborne was a "known draft counselor." Mrs. Hibbard also acknowledged that information on registrants that is received from anonymous sources but considered "relevant" is kept on file in the part "to be removed should the registrant ask for his file."
Judge Burke has allowed extensive cross-examination by the seven defendants who are representing themselves-he calls it giving them some "latitude" when the prosecution objects-and they have made good use of it to ask probing questions. Another FBI agent has been seated at the prosecution table since the beginning of the trial, working closely with prosecutor Walford in formulating questions and making note of certain testimony on the part of defense witnesses. His name is Thomas Moore, and he testified about the damage done in the office of the FBI. Under cross-examination, Suzi Williams pushed him hard about possible FBI investigation into an August 26 National Women's Day demonstration in Rochester, and about FBI surveillance of Radical Women's Groups in general. His plea of "sensitivity" and "national security" to Judge Burke was finally upheld, but ten minutes of dodging Suzi's questions left small room for doubt that Women's Liberation has special significance for Mr. Hoover's investigators.
Across the street from the courthouse, the Presbyterian church serves as a center of community support. On the evening of the second day of the trial, Attorney William Kunstler spoke to a crowd of 700 in the church hall. Of the defendants and their action he said:
They are the lucky ones. They have found it. They are right and good and clean and strong-and they can live with themselves even in jail. Is it better to be on the outside and live a lie than to be on the inside and live with yourselves? They have made a choice. Others have made it in the past. They will spend their lives-or a portion of them-in a federal penitentiary or go underground and live their lives in perpetual fear of apprehension. . . They will always be able to say to themselves I hope I was a man or I was a woman, and that I loved my brothers and sisters.
David Dellinger, the following night, spoke movingly of the myth of the fair trial and of the possible years in jail that are ahead for the eight:
Is it fair that they have on trial the people they have on trial and they don't have on trial the people they don't have on trial? The people who damaged the files, they are on trial, but nobody is asking the draft boards to justify what they do.
THE HIGH moment of the first week, however, was undoubtedly the appearance of Father Berrigan, who is serving a three-and-one-half-year sentence for destroying draft files. Brought from Danbury "Correctional Institute" to testify as a character witness for Joe Gilchrist, who was a student at Cornell during Berrigan's chaplaincy there, the priest was on the stand for three hours. Over the frequent vehement objections of Walford, who was openly outraged that Berrigan should even be there to testify, "Father Dan" forcefully and movingly related to the court the content of frequent conversations he had with Joe during the two years they were together in Ithaca. He told of the experience of seeking shelter underground as protection from a B-52 bombing raid on Hanoi while he was there in 1967 on a mission of mercy to bring back to America three POW's. He spoke of the children he saw in North Vietnam who had been burned with napalm, and of the total destruction of the countryside and food supply of that small nation. He told of his growing concern that Americans were unaware of the things being done in their name by the Johnson and Nixon administrations inVietnam. He told how he came to believe that speaking out against the war and injustice here at home were not sufficient, that one had to risk suffering and persecution, jail and maybe even death if he were serious about wanting an end to the killing. This gentle man, who has been such a clear and consistent voice against the institutionalized killing which America has promulgated both in Southeast Asia and in the ghettos and on the campuses at home, struck to the heart of what had moved the eight young people to do more than simply speak against injustice. His presentation was soft and he faltered at times. Sounding very tired and drawn, constantly asking for water as he spoke, several times he apologized to those in the courtroom for "not being very sharp today." Each time he tried to explain that he'd been kept in solitary for three days, the judge would silence him and order the remarks stricken from the record. Finally, Dan burst out to tell the packed room that he would neither eat nor drink until he was back in Danbury, as a way of protesting the brutal treatment given to prisoners who are in transit from one jail to another. He had been taken from Danbury on Tuesday, and was not told where he was going or for what he was being taken away. He spent three days and nights either traveling or in solitary confinement, never permitted to mix with other prisoners in the jails where he was kept. It was not until the night before he testified that he was permitted to know where he was being taken.
At one point in his testimony, after a thirty-minute battle between the prosecution and the defendants as to the propriety of entering scripture as testimony, Joan Nicholson introduced into evidence Matthew 5:1-12, from Christ's Sermon on the Mount. This was after the government had objected to entering the Holy Bible as evidence, claiming it to be irrelevant. Judge Burke sustained the objection. The beatitudes were not ruled objectionable, however, and Father Berrigan slowly read through the ancient teachings of Christ. In the crowded courtroom, the old words took on new meaning to those who understood how much the government detests the kind of testimony that men of the church like Berrigan can offer about the effects of national policy. Near the end of the passage he read:
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.
Rejoice and be exceedingly glad; for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
THE TRIAL is still going on. After the Thanksgiving recess, five defendants gave closing statements on Monday the 30th of November. Final arguments were presented yesterday, and the case went to the jury. The government has pressed hard to deflate the significance of the raids on the FBI and U. S. Attorney's offices, but their very obvious uptightness has shown through. The defendants have still not issued a public statement as the contents taken from the FBI office were removed from the bags of evidence by FBI agents before they were brought into court. Even a court order for their presence would not produce them. They have been described by the FBI as having to do with "racial relations" and are described as "too sensitive to be the object of public perusal." One thing remains clear here in this affluent Western New York city, regardless of the immediate outcome. People here have for the first time had to confront the issues of the war, the draft, and racism, in a way that will not easily be repressed. Eight very serious young Americans are so deeply concerned over the course their nation is taking that it may cost them 38 years of their lives.