What do you do when a child’s on fire? We saw children on fire.
       What, what do you do when a child’s on fire in a war that was a mistake?
               What do you do? Like write a letter?

With these words from Father Michael Doyle, the award-winning documentary film by Anthony Giacchino entitled The Camden 28 begins to tell the extraordinary story of a group of peace activists working to end the Vietnam War. In the early hours of 22 August 1971, this group of 28 including students, blue collar workers, clergy, and others, most of them would put into motion their direct action against the war. Several of them broke into a draft board office in Camden, New Jersey, and set about their work of destroying and removing draft records while others monitored the situation and advised from outside the buidling. Their goal was to shut the office down. With just a few minutes left before they planned to leave, they were accosted by FBI agents who had lain in wait, watching them work without interfering until they were given the order to intervene.

Since 1967, members of the Catholic Left had become more and more of a thorn in the government’s side, carrying out dozens of direct actions and destroying hundreds of thousands of Selective Service documents in the process. Just a few months prior to the Camden action, eight activists had successfully broken into an FBI office in the town of Media, Pennsylvania, emptying the office of nearly all its documents, which they proceeded to leak selectively to journalists, thereby exposing a massive program by the FBI against American citizens.

Here is the trailer from the excellent documentary, The Camden 28:

David Kairys, one of the attorneys assisting in the defense of the Camden 28, explained the significance of this action:

The FBI files they publicly released documented what many then knew or suspected but couldn’t prove: Hoover’s FBI was secretly intervening in the political process and undermining free speech, privacy, and democracy. The agency used threats, intimidation, infiltrators and informers, phony letters, violence, break-ins, and widespread wiretaps, bugs and surveillance—aimed at law-abiding Americans who were simply exercising their free speech rights. The goal, in the words of the FBI, was to “disrupt,” “neutralize,” and “enhance paranoia” in the mostly left-leaning movements Hoover detested—civil rights, anti-war, and women’s liberation.

Still stinging from this dramatically successful challenge to its power and secrecy, the U.S. government was eager to make a public example of the Camden 28, whose action they in fact helped bring to fruition. But the Camden 28 refused to bow meekly to the government, take plea bargains, and then quietly fade away from public view. Instead they chose to take their case before a jury, each defendant facing seven charges and risking up to 47 years incarceration plus fines.

From the P.O.V. discussion guide for the film:

All 28 defendants were initially offered a deal, under which they could each plead guilty to a minor offense and receive a dismissal, probation or a suspended sentence rather than jail time, but they refused the deal. On the second day, the U.S. government, the plaintiff in the case, asked that the cases of eight defendants be severed from the remaining 20, in order that the case against “the defendants more significantly involved” move more quickly. These eight and an additional three defendants were severed from the trial before it began, to be tried at a later date.

On 5 February 1973, the trial would finally begin with a conference on motions followed by a lengthy jury selection process. Opening statements would take place over two days, 13-14 February, with each of the defendants openly acknowledging their actions before the jury. From the beginning, jury nullification was seen as the primary defense, and was pursued vigorously through the highly unorthodox, historic, two-month trial.

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan would refer to the Camden 28 as “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” Just months after the close of the trial, the U.S. would end its military involvement in Vietnam.

A screening of this excellent documentary, complete with an engaging plot twist, is a great opportunity to create more fully informed jurors. I noticed the other day that I could no longer find the documentary on Netflix, but I was pleased to discover it is available for free viewing with Amazon Prime. There is also a full-length version online at the moment (though I don’t know for how long) on YouTube: