Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family, and Community

The Price of Nonviolence
By Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Doing Time for Peace coverDoing Time for Peace:
Resistance, Family, and Community
Edited by Rosalie G. Riegle

2012, Vanderbilt University Press,
408 pages, $29.95 paperback

This is oral history at its most inspiring, stories of people who have willingly gone to prison for declaring war on war, told in their own words and in the words of their partners, their children, and the members of their communities.

The first of a projected two-volume series on conscientious lawbreakers, Doing Time for Peace includes interviews with the famous — like Voices in the Wilderness co-founder Kathy Kelly and (many) Berrigans — among a larger number of less well-known resisters. (Rosalie Riegle is a colleague of mine on the National Committee of the War Resisters League, and a number of her interviewees are also friends or colleagues.) There are first-person accounts of refusing to go to war or to register for the draft and of stepping across a line onto the grounds of the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas.

But the book is primarily concerned with those who have done hard time for peace. Riegle and her interviewees distin-guish between protest, even civil disobedience protest, and resistance—between getting arrested at a demonstration and serving a few days in jail, on the one hand, and on the other undertaking actions that result in long prison sentences. By far the largest part of Doing Time for Peace is given to Plowshares (and Plowshares-like) activists: people who have broken into military installations, symbolically disarmed weapons of mass destruction, and served years in prison for their actions. The book is about their actions and what makes those actions possible, the networks that support them, before, during, and after the action. In it, dozens of resisters talk about their motives, their actions, their time in prison. Their family members describe visiting days in prison and life outside, waiting for the sentences to end. Some assess critically the impact — or lack thereof — of their actions on the war machine.

The late Sister Anne Montgomery, RSCJ (Religious of the Sacred Heart) describes the long, serious preparation for the 1980 “Plowshares Eight” action in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, the first to use the word “plowshares.” Darla Bradley, who at 22 was one of the youngest Plowshares activists, talks about the sense of powerlessness of being in prison: “They try to break down everyone at some point or other,” she says. Some resisters speak of solidarity with non-political prisoners, and a few, like Kathleen Rumpf of Syracuse, New York, detail the grim conditions prisoners face, including fatal neglect of illnesses. Nor does the cruelty end with a prisoner’s death: “When you die, they shackle you before they put you in a body bag ... for 24 hours, in case you’re faking it.”

As its subtitle implies, a particular focus of Doing Time for Peace is resistance families and communities. An entire chapter is devoted to Catholic Worker communities, and another on com- munities in Syracuse, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, and family is ubiquitous throughout. Indeed, in this book, the family that breaks the law together stays together. Most prominent of these are the Berrigan and Grady families.

Liz McAlister is interviewed, as are all three of her children, Frida, Jerry, and Kate Berrigan. Liz’s late husband Phil Berrigan and his brother, poet/activist/priest Dan Berrigan, make guest appearances, Phil in a lovely short memoir by Frida, Dan with his famous poem about the “fracture of good order,” written at the time of the 1968 Catonsville draft board action. (Editor’s note: See in this issue Riegle’s review of The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, page 8.) As to the Gradys, Mary Ann Grady Flores talks in the first chapter about seeing her father in prison when she was 14, after he had committed the last of the Vietnam-era draft board actions. Then in the last chapter, her daughter, Ana Grady Flores, describes organizing (with two cousins, also John Grady’s granddaughters) a die-in at a recruiting station at the age of 16: “The young people have to be the ones to say no,” she says. Other couples also talk about the stresses long imprisonment of one or both partners puts on their relationships, and parents discuss the ways in which their activism was hard for their children.

Finally, a relative few of the resisters look back at their actions and assess their effectiveness. Kim Wahl, of Seattle, who participated in a 1982 Peace Blockade in which small boats attempted to prevent the arrival of Trident nuclear submarines at a naval base, speaks, perhaps for all of them, when she notes sadly that, although she doesn’t regret the action, the Trident “is still there. In spite of it all.”

If anything, the interviewees’ frankness, their willingness to look at the price of their actions and even to question their effectiveness, make Doing Time for Peace more, rather than less, inspiring. These are courageous people, even heroic, yet somehow not so different from the rest of us; their testimony makes us believe that we, too, could commit such acts if the moment required them.

But I have two questions about the book’s focus. In her preface, Riegle declares flatly that her interviewees’ “resistance decisions spring from a Christian or Jewish faith.” The great majority of the people in the book are indeed motivated by religion, the largest number of them by deeply felt Catholic faith, including many nuns and priests.

It’s true that, since the Vietnam War, many of those shaping the very concept of “doing time for peace” have been Catholic— but not all of them, nor have all of them been faith-based activists, and there’s the rub. A substantial number of Riegle’s interviewees, while admitting to having been raised as Catholics or Protestants or Jews, also declare clearly that religion was not what made them resist. “I haven’t identified as a Catholic since puberty,” says Ed Kinane. “There wasn’t a directly religious basis, although I am Jewish,” says Andy Mager, adding, “I grew up thinking that Judaism was hypocritical. (I think much other religion is, too.)” Others, like Robert Wollheim and Brad Lyttle, make no mention at all of religion. Having read Riegle’s unequivocal declaration in the preface, the contradictions are somewhat jarring.

Along with that contradiction is another focus question: With so much of the book given to Plowshares-type actions, other kinds of “doing time for peace” get rather short shrift. The Introduction by Dan McKanan of the Harvard Divinity School attempts to provide a broad historic context for the Plowshares actions, including the resistance of those who refused to serve in two world wars.

But Riegle substantially narrows that context in the first chapter of Doing Time for Peace. “Pre-cursors to the Plowshares Movement” rushes over conscientious objection to World War II and draft refusal during the Vietnam War before getting to the draft board actions (in Catonsville, Maryland, and elsewhere) that were true precursors to the Plowshares actions. Positioning conscientious objection that way almost suggests that its primary importance lies in having inspired the Plowshares, rather than as significant historical resistance in its own right. War tax resistance, with its attendant risks, gets little mention in the book (although there are far more war tax resisters than Plowshares activists), and the actions of the thousands who have served many short sentences for lesser offenses are barely mentioned. Riegle might have been better off looking only at Catholic Plowshares activists, rather than trying to fit other resisters into the same mold — or, of course, making it clear that many but not all of the resisters are faith-motivated, and that not all resistance incurs long sentences. A broader range of resistance might also have diversified the resisters in the book; the Plowshares movement having been virtually all-white, so,
with few exceptions, are the people represented here.

That said, however, Doing Time for Peace belongs on every activist’s bookshelf, as an important document of the history of resistance. It’s good for all of us to ponder on the idea that, as Tom Cornell puts it, “[T]here are times when you just have to do what you have to do and say what you have to say. Because it’s true. That’s all. And you do it.” And Frida Berrigan, assessing her father’s life, ends by quoting a favorite song of his by Charlie King: “Count it all joy,” she says. “All of it.”

Paris-based writer, journalist, and former WIN editor Judith Mahoney Pasternak has written for decades about politics, history, popular culture, and the intersections among them.