It was a only a tiny fire on a Catonsville parking lot 25 years ago today, but it flared into a beacon that focused a divided nation's attention on anti-Vietnam War protests in Baltimore.
Nine Catholic activists led by two priests, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, invaded a Selective Service Office on Frederick Road on May 17, 1968. Seizing a handful of draft records, they burned them with homemade napalm, then waited for police to arrest them.
The "Catonsville Nine" and their dramatic trial brought thousands of anti-war protesters to Baltimore during a year of bitter fighting in Vietnam and growing protest at home.
The trial spotlighted a small group of religious pacifists whose moral convictions have long outlasted their jail sentences and the war that brought them national attention. And it brought to the American public a vivid example of the conflict between individual conscience and the rule of law.
Six of the nine will reunite for the first time Friday through Sunday at Goucher College to talk about the past and the future.
"The need for demonstrations like Catonsville still exists. We're not even close to disarmament," said Philip Berrigan, 69, who left the priesthood but not the peace movement.
The only member of the Nine still in Baltimore, Mr. Berrigan makes his home at Jonah House, the nonviolent community he and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, founded in Reservoir Hill to work with the poor and oppose American military involvements overseas. Although he paints houses to support his family, his real vocation is still protest.
"It's an ongoing process," he said. "I don't have any second thoughts. I can't think of a better way to spend my life. I am not a martyr; I just found this the best course to follow."
He and his brother, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., have forgotten how many times they've been jailed since 1968. Just a few weeks ago, Philip Berrigan was dragged out of a federal courtroom in Virginia for applauding protesters on trial.
Daniel Berrigan, 72, who works with acquired immune deficiency syndrome patients in New York between teaching stints, is awaiting trial in connection with an arrest on Good Friday, while he was demonstrating at a StarWars research lab in Manhattan.
"Things are worse than ever. There is no letup in the military under President Clinton. There is nothing for the poor. They step over them to get in" [the research lab], he said.
But Catonsville remains the seminal link in the chain of opposition to government military policy they have forged through the years.
Now well into middle age and beyond, the Berrigans and four of their fellow participants will meet at Goucher to explain their actions and their persistence to a generation that may have forgotten them and another that wasn't yet born when they began protesting.
"We don't want to make it just a nostalgia-based, remembrance weekend," said C. William "Chuck" Michaels, the Baltimore lawyer who organized the event. "We want to examine what the Catonsville Nine meant to subsequent actions and what has happened to faith-based resistance since Catonsville."
Mr. Michaels was only a high school junior in Cleveland when the Catonsville Nine were tried, but the event inspired him.
He eventually became the peace and justice coordinator for the Baltimore Archdiocese. He met the woman he would marry, Melissa McDiarmid, at a Pentagon demonstration, and in 1985 they founded Pax Christi-Baltimore, the local chapter of the international Catholic-based peace and justice movement.
In interviews last week, the members of the Catonsville Nine said they haven't changed much in 25 years because the world hasn't.
George Mische, 55, now a labor relations consultant in St. Cloud, Minn., still takes to the streets to oppose American military ventures.
"It is a lifetime responsibility and job to build a moral and just society for our children. I believed it at Catonsville, and I believe it now," he said.
Mr. Mische marched in Washington against Operation Desert Storm and said he's worried now that President Clinton will get the United States involved in a Balkan war, just as President John F. Kennedy did in Vietnam.
Mr. Clinton, he said, "is Kennedy all over again. He's tinkering around with international affairs when he can't get his domestic plan through."
Thomas P. Lewis, 53, an artist who poured blood on draft records at the Baltimore Custom House with Philip Berrigan a month before the Catonsville raid, draws an analogy between the government's international ventures and the domestic situation.
Overseas, he said, the United States fails to take preventive action until the only solution -- such as in Somalia -- is military force. "At least we were dropping food instead of napalm," he said.
Mr. Lewis lives in Worcester, Mass. "We live with the poor and we work with them; they are our neighbors," he said. "There is a lack of jobs, and the people are left to go nowhere. We have to deal with them before the crisis occurs and the only solution is to send in troops."
He still participates regularly in demonstrations as what he calls a "radical, nonviolent Christian witness."
"I'm still doing the artwork and still resisting the bomb," he said.
Thomas and Margarita Melville, former Maryknoll missionaries in Guatemala who joined the Nine to help raise consciousness about U.S. military involvement in Central America, said they, too, still feel the call to protest. But they no longer court arrest through civil disobedience.
Catonsville was "very positive and necessary," and he "revels" in the memory, said Mr. Melville, 62, a cultural anthropologist now writing a book about Guatemala in Pinole, Calif.
He plans to attend the Goucher reunion, but his wife, a former Maryknoll nun who was known then as Marjorie, will not.
Now associate dean of graduate studies and chairman of the Chicano Studies department at the University of California at Berkeley, Margarita Melville, 63, will stay in California to attend a special graduation for 200 Chicano students.
"I thought about it long and hard, but it's important that they [her students] see us here as they go forth. They will carry this now," Dr. Melville said.
For those involved -- on all sides -- the Catonsville raid and the trial that followed were defining moments. And though the defendants and prosecution respect one another, both sides would do again what they did 25 years ago.
"It didn't stop the war but it contributed to it. I felt like that time in Baltimore called for a drastic response," said John Hogan, 58, a former Maryknoll brother who served with the Melvilles in Guatemala and is now a carpenter in New Haven, Conn.
The raid on the draft board "fit the scene of 1968 -- what was going on then. It was a necessary thing to do," he said.
1968 was a turbulent year, and the Catonsville Nine trial that October was one of its climactic events. Thousands of demonstrators converged on Baltimore, circling the Federal Court House, then on Calvert Street, to sing and chant in support of the defendants.
Unlike the anti-war protest that sparked riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago a few months before, there was no violence and only one arrest.
But the most dramatic and poignant moment came after the jury left the courtroom to deliberate, when the defendants and the late Judge Roszel Thomsen engaged in a half-hour dialogue. Judge Thomsen said he would not impugn their motives, but said the protesters had violated the law deliberately and would have to suffer the consequences.
However, he granted the defendants an unusual request that became the key moment in a play about the trial that Daniel Berrigan wrote later.
Donald K. Joseph, a young lawyer who clerked for Judge Thomsen, recalls it now: "The scene, unprecedented before or after, just before the rendering of the obvious verdict of guilty, of an entire courtroom standing to say the Lord's Prayer."
A resolute conservative who was a part of the system, Judge Thomsen was nonetheless moved by the defendants' sincerity, said Mr. Joseph, 51, now practicing in Philadelphia.
"In perspective, this was one part of an education that brought an end to the war. It showed the depth of feeling," he recalled. "What they did was not particularly horrible . . . it may have been one of the few times when civil disobedience was appropriate. They did bring a focus on the issues."
Margarita Melville also recalled Judge Thomsen's performance as remarkable: "There were many other trials later around the country but nothing like that was ever permitted," she said.
William M. Kunstler, 74, who won fame for his flamboyant defense of protest groups around the country, calls Catonsville Nine "one of the most inspiring trials I was ever involved in. It was a thrilling moment for any lawyer."
He plans to attend the Goucher get-together.
The Catonsville Nine case reflects an ageless philosophical struggle between moral passion and the rule of law, said Stephen H. Sachs, then the U.S. Attorney, later attorney general of Maryland and now a private lawyer in Washington.
Like the defendants, Mr. Sachs opposed the war in Vietnam. "But the heart of the matter is that you can't take the law in your own hands. Lawlessness in a democracy is tyranny," he said. "They were courageous, but the other side of that is arrogance -- that they and only they are Right, with a capital 'R.' That attitude is fundamentally contrary to the perception of American democracy."
The issue still troubles him: "How do you cope with the 'True Believer' in a democracy, which depends on compromise to operate successfully?" he asks.
He had prosecuted Mr. Berrigan and Mr. Louis a month earlier in the blood-pouring case, but he decided to have someone else try this one.
He picked a rookie assistant who didn't want the job -- Barnet D. Skolnik -- figuring it was better to have a moderate than a prosecutor who wanted the activists drawn and quartered.
To this day, Mr. Skolnik -- who later won fame in the corruption prosecutions of former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and former Gov. Marvin Mandel -- says he takes no pride in the Catonsville Nine case.
Mr. Skolnik, now practicing privately in Maine, said their action had to be discouraged, but called the Justice Department heavy-handed in applying criminal laws to the case -- instead of other legal sanctions.
The prosecutors' remarks come as no surprise to Tom Lewis.
"The people who prosecute us usually end up being our supporters," he said.
The 25th anniversary commemoration of the Catonsville Nine's draft board raid is aimed mainly at peace activist groups, but the public may attend the events Friday through Sunday at Goucher College. A $25 registration fee includes all activities and meals. Those who wish to attend a specific event will be asked for a donation at the door.
The major events are:
Friday, 8 p.m. Opening prayer service, Chapel.
Saturday, 10 a.m. A talk session with the six members of the Catonsville Nine who are in the Merrick Lecture Hall of the Kraushaar Auditorium.
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. A panel discussion on the Catonsville Nine raid and the future of the resistance movement in the Merrick Lecture Hall.
Information on these and other events is available at (410) 235-8797 during the day and in the evening at 235-8772, 254-2332 or 467-4611.
The program is sponsored by Pax Christi/Baltimore and the Catonsville Nine 25th Anniversary Coalition in cooperation with Goucher's Peace Studies Program.
Six of the surviving eight members of the Catonsville Nine are to be in Towson Friday through Sunday for the 25th Anniversary celebration of their burning of draft records to protest the
Those scheduled to attend:
*Philip Berrigan, 69, a former Josephite priest who married Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun, lives in Baltimore, where he works as a house painter and continues to protest U.S. military intervention.
*The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, 72, Philip's brother, is a Jesuit priest in New York, where he works with AIDS patients and the poor and continues the protest movement.
*George Mische, 55, who worked in South America with the Alliance for Progress, is a labor relations consultant in St. Cloud, Minn. He continues to join demonstrations.
*Thomas P. Lewis, 53, an artist who works with the poor in Worcester, Mass., continues to protest U.S. military operations.
*Thomas Melville, 62, a former Maryknoll missionary, is a cultural anthropologist who lives in Pinole, Calif. with his wife, Margarita, another member of the group. He is still active in protests but says he no longer engages in civil disobedience.
*John Hogan, 58, of New Haven, Conn., is a carpenter and former Maryknoll brother who served in Guatemala with Mr. Melville and his wife, Margarita.
Surviving members not scheduled to attend:
*Margarita Melville, 63, a former Maryknoll nun, is associate dean of graduate studies and chairman of the Chicano Studies department at the University of California at Berkeley. She will attend a graduation ceremony for Chicano students at Berkeley instead of the Goucher reunion.
*Mary Moylan, 58, a nurse, teacher and midwife in Africa before joining the protest movement, was last reported living in Denton, but organizer Chuck Michaels said she has moved and left no
The other member of the Catonsville Nine was James Darst, known in the religious community as David. Brother Darst, a Christian brother and former high school teacher in St. Louis, was killed in a car crash at the age of 26 on Oct. 31, 1969. He was on his way to meet a group of protesters who had burned draft records in Milwaukee.