The Camden 28

2006, Movie, NR, 83 mins


Filmmaker Anthony Giacchino's unexpectedly poignant documentary is a bracing recollection of an era not unlike our own, when American soldiers were dying in another little-understood and unfamiliar war. But it was also a time when ordinary citizens dared to act, even if it meant taking the law into their own hands in an effort to help stall a war they felt had no justification.

"The Camden 28" was the name given to a group of antiwar activists arrested in August 1971 and charged with destroying government property and interfering with the Selective Service system after several were caught breaking into a Camden, New Jersey, federal building and destroying the draft records of young men about to be shipped to Vietnam. What made these activists stand out was that many were members of the so-called Catholic Left, a movement that found inspiration in the activities of sibling Roman Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Four of those arrested in Camden were Catholic priests; a fifth was a Lutheran minister. Deeply disturbed by the news and images streaming in from Vietnam, the members of the Camden 28 felt compelled to act, even if their actions meant breaking the law. Having come to see the futility of staging protests that only got their best people arrested, they decided on a more covert — and highly illegal — course of action: breaking into offices and destroying the draft records themselves. On August 22, after months of careful planning and surveillance to ensure that no one in the building would be injured during the break-in, the group struck. But what no one realized was that there was a spy among them, an informer who had volunteered his services to the FBI in order to stop the group from carrying out what they felt was their moral duty. And in an ironic twist that only made the already unusual 1973 trial of the Camden 28 even stranger, that spy also proved to be their savior.

Times have changed, but many of the questions remain the same: How far would you go to stop a war you felt was unjust? Would you break the law if you felt that law to be by nature unlawful? In a stroke of serendipitous timing, Giacchino shot his documentary around a 2002 reunion of the Camden 28 in the very same courtroom where their trial took place, so most of the original participants are on hand to explore those still-timely questions and share memories and feelings 30 years after the fact. Also among them are the prosecuting attorneys and the FBI agents assigned to entrap the Camden 28, some of whom have had a change of heart, as well as the historian Howard Zinn, who testified at the trial. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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