Camden 28 members Gene Dixon (far right), Milo Billman and Mike Giocondo march at a local rally in Camden. Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin
Early Sunday morning, August 22, 1971, then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell announced that 20 antiwar activists had been arrested the previous night attempting to break in and vandalize a Camden, New Jersey draft board office. Five days later, eight more plotters were indicted. Charged with conspiracy to remove and destroy files from draft, FBI and Army intelligence offices, destruction of government property and interfering with the Selective Service system, members of the “Camden 28” faced up to 47 years in federal prison. Who were these dangerous radicals that America’s premier law enforcement agency so proudly took down? They included four Catholic priests, a Lutheran minister and 23 members of the “Catholic Left.”
The Camden 28 were a far cry from bomb-planting Weathermen or even fist-waving militants. But the very difference of these “Catholic Left” conspirators — their religious motives — as shown in The Camden 28, may well have made them more dangerous opponents in the eyes of the Nixon administration. A growing Catholic and religious opposition to the war could not be dismissed as extremist to mainstream America, so they had to be brought down.
The events in Vietnam created a religious antiwar movement, who shared the belief that killing, even in war, was morally indefensible.
The Camden 28 reveals just how far the government was prepared to go in the cloak-and-dagger story leading up to the arrests, including the participation of a 29th man who was wonderfully adept at solving practical problems that otherwise baffled the well-meaning but un-handy activists. But “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” as Nixon, Mitchell, Hoover and the nation would learn from the ensuing trial.
The Camden 28 weren’t the only group to attempt to break into a draft board office. Groups like the Cantonsville 9 (left) in Cantonsville, Maryland, who included the Berrigan Brothers, both priests, had burned draft records around the country.
Participants in the religious antiwar movement shared the belief that killing, even in war, was morally indefensible. Led by the charismatic Berrigan brothers, the “Catholic Left,” though it included many non-Catholic religious and lay people, had conducted over 30 draft board raids, destroying close to a million Selective Service documents by 1971. But they were hardly a centralized or even structured movement. Actions were carried out by independent groups of activists, angered by the war’s mounting toll and its collateral effects on poor cities like Camden.
This was the case with the Camden 28. The group’s earnest dedication to stopping the war was hindered by a lack of resources, practical capabilities and the temperament to carry out a covert operation, but that didn’t stop them.
And their aspirations likely would have remained more fantasy than reality if Mike Giocondo, a former Franciscan brother, hadn’t brought a good friend, Bob Hardy, also an active Catholic lay person, into the plot. Hardy — the 29th person — was a professional handyman who had the practical skills and tools to turn the group’s ideas into action. Some members had been involved in other draft board raids and had perfected the skill of “casing” a target. But they needed to know how to get into the building. By going in with Camden 28 member Gene Dixon, Hardy managed to secure building plans, including those for security. Under Hardy’s direction, the group assembled a plausible plan of action. Even now, over 35 years later, members of the group, including Giocondo, can’t help but express the empowerment they felt as Hardy lent them the skills to throw a wrench into the gears of an “immoral and unjust war.”
Of course, after hearing what Giocondo and the others, including his parish priest, Father Michael Doyle, had in mind, Hardy had gone straight to the FBI — in the very building that housed the targeted draft office. He offered himself as an informer, and the FBI promptly accepted. The Camden 28 were allowed to get inside the building and destroy files for over two hours under FBI surveillance before the FBI moved in to catch them red-handed.
One of the fascinating aspects of The Camden 28 is hearing from so many of the participants, then and now, especially as they gather for a 2002 reunion in the very Camden courtroom where the government brought them to trial. Giocondo still can’t quite get over his excitement at taking action, and his sense of betrayal at Hardy’s double-cross. Doyle recounts his “conversion” to activism, and how weeks after the break-in and arrest, despite everything, he performed the funeral rites for Hardy’s son after the boy’s tragic death. Navy veteran John Swinglish remembers facing the stiffest penalty.
Bob Hardy (left) offered himself up as an informant to the FBI, betraying his friends in the Camden 28 during the process.
Even Bob Hardy, still unapologetic, explains why he was bound to uphold the law, which, for many of the 28 does not really explain why he volunteered for such an active role in exposing — some would say entrapping — his friends. He had been expected to be the government’s star witness. Instead, he wrote an affidavit for the activists in which he maintained that the FBI had helped carry out the action by enlisting him as an agent provocateur.
What happened in the courtroom after the arrests, however, may be the most astounding thing recounted by the film. In a trial that lasted 63 days, the plotters proclaimed their guilt. “I ripped up those [draft] files with my hands,” declared the Rev. Peter D. Fordi, adding, “They were the instruments of destruction.” In the best tradition of civil disobedience, and fully expecting to pay for their stand, the Camden activists asked the jury to “nullify the laws” against breaking and entering in this case, and to acquit them because citizens had a right to stop an “illegal and immoral” war. They also asked the jury to acquit them on the grounds that the raid would not have taken place without the help of an admitted FBI double-agent.
After three days of deliberations, a jury of seven women and five men returned a verdict of not guilty on all charges. According to The New York Times, “the defendants . . . and 200 supporters . . . burst into cheers, wept, hugged one another and sang a chorus of ‘Amazing Grace’,” a moment reenacted with gusto at the reunion.
The jury acquitted the Camden 28 of all charges, and the trial of the 28 became a landmark case.
The acquittals represented the first legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of such draft board actions and prosecutions. The jury’s verdict moved Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to call the proceeding “one of the great trials of the 20th century.”
“The inspiration to make The Camden 28 was born 11 years ago,” says director Anthony Giacchino, who grew up 15 miles north of Camden and whose parents attend mass at Father Doyle’s Sacred Heart Church. “Dave Dougherty, the movie’s cinematographer, and I had been looking for a local historical subject that would make an interesting film. A family friend encouraged me to talk to his priest, the Rev. Michael Doyle of the Church of the Sacred Heart, about his role in the Camden 28.
“What I heard made me understand how a war halfway around the world can impact a city like Camden, and that there are important lessons to be learned today from the group’s actions — and the government’s ensuing reactions.”