Camden, New Jersey, is one of the poorest cities in the nation. For most residents of South Jersey, the city is to be avoided — a ride down any of its broken streets will tell a thousand stories of despair. But at Broadway and Ferry Avenue, hope beats in the form of Sacred Heart Church, its community and its pastor, Father Michael Doyle. Father Doyle, one of the conspirators in the raid on Camden’s draft board in 1971, has lived in the small city of 79,000 people since 1968. Camden was poor then and is worse off today: The total annual amount of taxes collected in the city of Camden is just able to pay medical coverage on the city employees. Not a cent for a light bulb or a pack of chalk for a public school classroom. As Father Doyle wryly asserts: “In Camden, the mayor’s hat is not for the head, but for an outstretched hand.”
In 1970, Father Doyle attended a peace gathering of local Catholic priests and lay people, who came together to brainstorm ways the diocese should respond to the controversial war in Vietnam. Doyle’s idea was simple, yet radical: “I would suggest that we gather up a bunch of bricks from broken-down buildings in Camden. And that we get the names of all those in the diocese who have been killed in Vietnam, and we type them up and we wrap the bricks in the names of the dead. And then we toss the bricks through the windows of every military installation in South Jersey.”
No one went for the bricks.
But the word did go out that this priest in Camden was serious about making a strong statement in opposition to the war, and he was asked to join an action against the draft.
Although I grew up 15 miles north of Camden, I didn’t know anything about the Camden 28 until 1996. It was at that time that David Dougherty — the film’s director of photography — and I were looking for a local historical subject that would make an interesting film. Dave and I had been friends since attending Holy Cross High School in Delran, and we had both studied at area universities (Dave studied communications at Temple, and I, history and German at Villanova). A former high school history teacher, Terry Egan, had encouraged me to speak with Father Doyle about the story of the Camden 28. I had known Father Doyle because he was the pastor of my parent’s church, but I had no idea that he had broken into Camden’s federal building to destroy draft files during the Vietnam War. This was a story we had to hear.
Documenting the Camden 28’s action, arrest and trial took 10 years. When the film was finished, the country was in another controversial war. But soldiers aren’t being drafted this time. Although the majority of Americans now oppose the Iraq war, members of the Camden 28 believe the absence of the draft is the reason you don’t see antiwar activism at the levels it hit during Vietnam. There’s certainly something to that argument: Five weeks after the Camden 28 trial ended, the draft was abolished.
In poring over more than 100 hours of interviews, the masses of FBI files and the 9,000-page trial transcript, I found myself most intrigued by the individual personalities that made up the event: from the activists themselves — priests, social workers, an auto-factory worker and students — to the committed FBI agent, who was unwavering in his belief that the group simply broke the law, to the grieving, yet transformed mother on the witness stand.
I also thought it was crucial to highlight what was then called the Catholic Left, because most commentary about religious politics today paints Christians — Catholics included — as uniformly conservative. But when you look at members of the Camden 28, it’s hard not to make the connection to today’s so-called Religious Right, whose adherents claim to have a monopoly on the teachings of Jesus. I had always been taught that Jesus instructed his followers to “put away the sword, for he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” As the film demonstrates, the actions of the Camden 28 were motivated by their deep commitment to the Gospels and, as I see it, were basically their answer to the recently marketed phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”
“Camden is surely a casualty of war,” says Father Doyle. “And there’s always plenty of money for building weapons and not money for restoring homes. Well, children don’t live in weapons. They live in homes. And they have only one childhood. And so Camden was the perfect place to attack the draft board because we were saying this place, Camden, should be rebuilt. And it’s still true. In fact it’s more true today, and we’re still wasting the money on the weaponry, and we still have Camden the way it is.”
He who lives by the sword…
I can’t help but think that the Camden 28’s action in 1971 and Father Doyle’s continuing plea for Camden today bring that phrase into sharp relief and update it for our times.
— Anthony Giacchino, filmmaker