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

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.”


Further Reading:
  • betterbegood

    I’ve been interested in getting this book. It’ll probably be my next purchase. I think posting it 3 times under “further reading” is what finally sold me

    • theamishjihadist

      I felt bad offering ‘further reading’ of other books in an interview with him. So, I thought posting his book three times would make up for it. And notice that I did not mention my book, LIVING ON HOPE WHILE LIVING IN BABYLON, which includes a chapter on the Berrigan brothers. Did you notice how I resisted mentioning LIVING ON HOPE WHILE LIVING IN BABYLON during the interview? Once again, it’s called, LIVING ON HOPE WHILE LIVING IN BABYLON. I never mentioned it. Not even once.

      That is all.

  • Dave_the_Zoo_Advocate

    Enlightening Q & A! Mr. Peters did the country a great service by chronicling the Catonsville Nine civil disobedience crime. Coincidently, I was fighting in Vietnam, against my will (military service was required by federal statute for all males over 18 years old, except for well-connected people like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Dick Chaney, etc.), on the day the Catonsville nine attacked an undefended federal government administrative office and assaulted a defenseless female civil-servant-non-combatant. I remember the incident well! The moral of the story is that nonviolence is not nonviolence when violence is used, no matter how noble the intent.

    To the substance! Q & A #3 strikes right at the heart of the hypocrisy demonstrated by many “nonviolence” movements by reaffirming that the Catonsville Nine were actually violent. Mr. Peters tells us that when the “nonviolent” Catonsville Nine concluded their nonviolent approach wasn’t working as fast or as effectively as they deemed to be acceptable, they defaulted to violence of the most despicable kind, physically assaulting an innocent woman. The worman physically assaulted, Mary Murphy, was a low-level clerk (a member of the proletariat, in lefty-speak), and she was not in any way responsible for the War that the Catonsville Nine were protesting. What makes violence so hideous is its long lasting adverse and irreversible impacts on its victims. These impacts haunt the human psyche long after the cowardly bastards who inflicted them have moved on. The below link gives the reader a glimpse of the suffering Mary Murphy experienced as a direct result of being ambushed and physically assaulted by the BIG BRAVE MEN comprising the Catonsville Nine.

    In the category of gratuitous observations, my first glance at Mr. Peters’ list of credits: PBS, CNN, Time Magazine, and the New York Times; strongly suggests that he panders to left-wing-nuts. Because his writing is so powerful, and the story he shares with us is so important to refining the moral fabric of our country, I hope he’ll consider adding mainstream media
    outlets to his credits, such as Fox News, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.)

    • theamishjihadist

      Dave, I’m positive that if Dr. Peters was offered the opportunity to speak on Fox News or with the Washington Times he would jump on it. Apparently, though, they are not exactly seeking this kind of work.

      PBS equals “left-wing-nuts”? Weird.

      • Dave_the_Zoo_Advocate

        Tripp, I found an obscure reference in’s bio of Dr. Peters that he has been featured by the Wall Street Journal. Apparently, mainstream media are seeking his work, YAY!
        PBS equals “left-wing-nuts” … YES, without question, except in academia and the Democrat Party. Accuracy in Media does an excellent job outlining PBS liberal bias
        I’m looking forward to reading “The Catonsville Nine.”

        • theamishjihadist

          How about sending the WSJ my way? I’ll interview with anyone. I’m a ho’ that way.

          I’ve only ever watched PBS when it comes to showcasing vineyards in NC, detailing the fine history of our coasts, or any of their various documentaries on ‘wildlife’. So far, at least in terms of the latter, I haven’t found very much ideology working anywhere else in the animal kingdom.
          I bet those critters think we’re suckers.