The Camden 28

The Camden 28 is a stirring documentary recounting the trial of 28 Vietnam War opponents who broke into a New Jersey draft board office in 1971. The goal of the group was to make a bold statement in opposition to the war in Vietnam by way of sabotaging the portion of the draft process that was administered through the local draft board in Camden. Their plan was to break into the draft board offices at night and search for, collect, and either destroy or remove the records of all Class 1-A status draft registrants. It was to be both a symbolic and real blow to the process through which tens of thousands of young American men were being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. The drafted participants seemingly had no choice and were “selected” by their neighbors who sat on the local draft board. The 28 wrote in a statement before trial: “We are twenty-eight men and women who, together with other resisters across the country, are trying with our lives to say NO to the madness we see perpetrated by our government in the name of the American people – the madness of our Vietnam policy, of the arms race, of our neglected cities and inhuman prisons. We do not believe that it is criminal to destroy pieces of paper which are used to bind men to involuntary servitude, which train these men to kill, and which send them to possibly die in an unjust, immoral, and illegal war. We will continue to speak out and act for peace and justice, knowing that our spirit of resistance cannot be jailed or broken.” The group’s members weren’t stereotypical anti-Vietnam War activists. While the group did include young students and “hippies,” there were also blue-collar workers, devout Catholics and even four Catholic priests and a Protestant minister. I appreciated the depth and detail the film went into in describing the planning meetings and various tactics the Camden 28 tried to use in their efforts to carry out their action. Their various reactions to the revelation that there is a Judas among them, and the tragic loss of his son, gives a level of emotional complexity to the story. The raid resulted in a high-profile trial against the activists that was seen by many as a referendum on the Vietnam War. The FBI encouraged and enabled the raid on the draft board to take place, so the raid came across as being funded and driven by the FBI. The defense was able to argue effectively that through the FBI, the government “over-reached” in its zeal to arrest and prosecute this particular set of anti-war activists. The trial continued, day after day, as a forum for our country’s history and values. At the same time, the results of Watergate were finally etching a clear depiction of our leaders’ deception and malfeasance. The jury returned “not guilty” verdicts for all counts against all 28 defendants, acquitting them. The film presents two different arguments. The first was that an acquittal was earned due to the jury being unsettled by extensive FBI interference and facilitation of the break-in (which, we learn, led to new legal interpretations of entrapment). The second argument was that several jurors voted for acquittal in protest of the Vietnam war. The trial has many instructive lessons. One of the most important is that if you become accused of a political crime, you must represent yourself in order to legally present your motivation as evidence, and attempt to establish a relationship with the jury. Howard Zinn testified at the trial and recommended civil disobedience — the message of civil disobedience being a theme in American history – and that public opinion sometimes favors nullifying the law for various reasons.  The participants in this “disobedience” and “law-breaking” elevate themselves as “revolutionaries” worthy of heroic status. Now more than ever we need such protestors with their sense of justice and their understanding of the power of civil disobedience — Thoreau’s America in the late twentieth century. (“Resistance to Civil Government — Civil Disobedience” is an 1849 essay by American Henry David Thoreau. In it, he argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican–American War.) The Camden 28 trial was a watershed moment in our country’s history, where the rule of law was violated, but the spirit of law prevailed. This movie evokes the 1970s for me as no other. We easily forget the risks taken by noble folk powered by faith and reason. This is a dramatic and gripping documentary. Not at all boring. You need not agree with the politics of the Camden 28 to enjoy the film. I would recommend it to activists and those interested in the subjects of civil disobedience and justice. This would be a good documentary to show to high school children in history class. This is a must-see for everyone who lived through that era, whether oblivious to the war, serving in the war, and/or protesting against the war, and those who are too young to remember the times. Documentary 2007 NR 1hr 22m.

(This film notes that one reason this outrage against the war and the Draft Board was justified was because African Americans, Latinos, Hispanics and other poor disenfranchised youths were selected with a lack of any semblance to the demographics in the City of Camden. During the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon campaigned on a promise to end the Draft. He had become interested in the idea of an all-volunteer army. He saw ending the Draft as an effective way to undermine the anti-Vietnam war movement, since he believed affluent youths would stop protesting the war once their own probability of having to fight in it was gone. Thirty years later, we no longer have the Draft, but the problem remains similar. We still sacrifice those who are on the fringe of the economy to benefit those one percent who have the wealth. So the topic of this documentary is still very relevant today.)

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