Nine is Better than None (5 Questions with Shawn Peters)


August 29, 2012

No time for a lofty introduction this week, here’s all you need to know:

-Shawn Peters, from Catonsville, MD, is a scholar who has been on PBS, CNN and featured in Time Magazine and The New York Times. He has written the authoritative book on The Catonsville Nine.

-Daniel Berrigan, in his early 90’s, is far cooler than you can ever hope to be. Seriously. Far cooler.

-Shawn Peters, while not the world’s greatest comedian (see question number one, which isn’t a question–so, I guess this is 4 questions not 5), exhaustively engages a one particular rocking act of civil disobedience that thoroughly angered all those pious folks who were so carefully protecting the precarious arrangement they had created with their beloved nation-state.

For some reason, it all just sort of reminds me of Daniel and Nebuchadnezer.


1) Finish this joke: Philip and Daniel Berrigan walk into a bar . . .

The whiskey bottles nervously eye one another and start to edge toward the nearest exit.

2) Why do you think the actions of the Catonsville Nine are largely lost (ignored/forgotten) on today’s public?

Even for historians of the period, it’s hard to keep track of the many significant peace and social justice protests that occurred throughout the 1960s. There were marches and demonstrations all over the place, and for a variety of causes – most of them profoundly important. Unfortunately, in our collective consciousness, these often are lumped together (purely for the sake of convenience) and labeled “The Movement” or whatever. In this enormous jumble, smaller protests, like the one staged in 1968 by the Catonsville Nine, sometimes are forgotten. Of course, that’s unfortunate because the Nine were captivating people who had a variety of fascinating motivations.

3) One thing that is often argued in our circles revolves around the legitimacy of property destruction by those who are advocates of nonviolence. How do you think the Catonsville Nine (or, even just the Berrigans) attempted to resolve this dilemma?

I think that most of them believed that traditional forms of nonviolent protest had proven ineffective against the seemingly intractable problems facing American society. Almost all of them said, at one point or another, something along the lines of: “We tried marching, we tried writing letters, we tried everything – and none of it worked. So we had to try something a little more drastic.” Their targeting of draft files fit into this evolution in their thinking. The Nine argued that some kinds of property deserved to be destroyed because they facilitated even greater violence. (Of course, none of this squared with the manhandling of one of the clerks in the Catonsville draft office, a woman named Mary Murphy.)

4) One aspect that I’ve always found so compelling about the Berrigans is their ability to name well the religious rituals involved in courtroom politics. That is, they seem to understand that there is a counter liturgical process that underwrites the manner by which the state sees itself, and this seems to play itself out most prominently in the courtroom. Would you agree with this assessment? (Feel free to agree with me.)

I agree, and they seem to have understood this well before the Catonsville Nine trial. The warm-up for those proceedings was the trial of the Baltimore Four, whose ranks included Phil Berrigan and Tom Lewis (another member of the Nine). That earlier trial really enraged Phil – not necessarily the legal outcome but rather the nuts and bolts of the legal process — but it showed him how the courts could be used to accomplish extralegal ends. Having learned this lesson, the Nine saw the importance of their trial in its potential to be a peace and social justice spectacle. They really never thought about “winning” in the narrow sense of attaining a favorable verdict from the jury.

5) Finally, and what is undoubtedly the most important question of all: How the hell did you get Noam Chomsky to blurb your book?

Don’t sound so shocked! My publisher, Oxford University Press, approached him, and he was gracious enough to provide something. He’s been interested in the Nine since their trial; he spoke at one of the evening rallies held in conjunction with it.

“Tripp, all you have to do is ask . . . annnnnnd have Oxford University Press as your publisher.”