Fill the Jails!

by Brian Terrell

[This reflection was offered by Brian Terrell on July 29, 2018 to Catholic Workers gathered at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY, celebrating the 85th anniversary of the founding of the movement.]

Fifty years ago, in 1968, a time when state violence was running rampant in foreign wars and in the streets of our cities and when the reckless arrogance of insane men with power brought the world to the precipice of destruction, Dorothy Day drew from the tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World and offered a solution to the peril of the age- ‘Fill the jails!’ ‘Social betterment,’ Gandhi said earlier, ‘never comes from parliaments, or pulpits, but from direct action in the streets, form the courts, jails and sometimes even the gallows.’

Dorothy’s and Gandhi’s advice can be as well taken in these even more violent and dangerous days than theirs. Even as fewer Catholic Workers avail themselves of it, their plan offers the best chance, I think, of a practical program for the healing of our planet, for the health of the Catholic Worker movement and for the malaise that inflicts to souls of each of us.

Mark Colville, brother and friend from the New Haven Catholic Worker, now awaiting trial in Georgia for his part in the Kings Bay Plowshares, writes to us, ‘Rattling the Bars of My Cage’- ‘One of the blessings that has flowed in abundance during this time of incarceration is recollectedness – a mental and spiritual focus which I often find difficult to access with any consistency “out there in minimum security” (which seems an increasingly apt description of U.S. society these days). …A jail cell can be very effective at stripping away the illusions and delusions about what defines me, what sustains me, and what locates me in the world. It’s more than a radicalization of thought and conscience that becomes prominent (and hopefully permanent) when viewing the world from the perspective of the bottom. On a more fundamental level, with time there comes the possibility of a kind of rebooting of the self, as the desert does its work on the ego which can so easily impede the work of the Holy Spirit in a habitually unrecollected soul such as mine. The notion of discipleship in a culture of death gradually shifts from the realm of spiritual aspiration to a deeply felt invitation to move from here to there.…This is the well I have been drinking more thirstily from as the weeks have turned to months; I must remember to thank the U.S. District Court of Brunswick County for its obvious devotion to my spiritual health!’

Mark quotes Jim Douglas, ‘In contemplating prison consequences which may be measured not so much in days and weeks as in months and years, I must confront the reality of prison not as an interlude in a white middle-class existence, but as a stage of the Way redefining my life.’

Jailed as a young woman for agitating for the vote for women, Dorothy’s first experience behind bars brought her to a similar realization- ‘I lost all consciousness of any cause. I could only feel darkness and desolation all around me,’ she wrote in the autobiography, The Long Loneliness. ‘That I would be free again after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there are women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us are guilty.’

The socialist Eugene Debs was a great influence on Dorothy and other young activists of her time. Before he was sent up for 10 years in prison and stripped of his citizenship for his resistance to World War I, he told the sentencing judge- ‘Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’

It is my good fortune that I came to the Catholic Worker in New York at 19 years old in 1975, in time to be in the community there in Dorothy’s last years. In the spring of 1977, most of the young people went to New Hampshire to occupy the Seabrook nuclear power plant, then under construction, and were detained by the police and courts for a longer time than was expected. Dorothy was furious with me because I stayed behind- ‘Why aren’t you in jail with your comrades?’ she demanded. To help with the work while the others were away, I answered and she told me that it was reprehensible that I used the demands of running a hospitality house as an excuse.

I bristled at Dorothy’s scolding then, and thought it was unfair and out of line, as I still do today. A collection of her letters was published a few years ago, and a letter that Dorothy wrote to a friend in May, 1977, helped me understand her frame of mind at that time. ‘With everyone else taking responsibility, and having taken it for so long, bearing so much,’ she wrote, ‘I feel like an utter failure- wrung dry. But I am beginning to recover from the miserable state of depression… Meanwhile, I pray, listen to the radio, and thank God that the great demonstration at Seabrook is over.’

One year later I was vindicated in her eyes, at least for a couple of weeks, as Dorothy wrote in her column in The Catholic Worker, ‘I rejoice to see the young people thinking of “the works of mercy” as a truly revolutionary, but nonviolent program. The spiritual and corporal certainly go together, and often involve suffering. To oppose nuclear buildup has led to the imprisonment this last month of two of our workers, Robert Ellsberg and Brian Terrell, in Rocky Flats, Colorado… Meanwhile, I am confined in another way by weakness and age, but can truly pray with fervor for those on active duty, and sternly suppress my envy at the activities of our young and valiant workers.’

One of her favorite writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote ‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’ I think that to a certain extent, especially in a society such as ours experiencing historic rates of mass-incarceration, some time in prison is an essential requisite to fully understanding the world around us.

Jail, in Dorothy’s view, is a good place to be educated, but a university, on the other hand, not so much. While Dorothy valued scholarship, she wrote to Ade Bethune in 1948, ‘I do not think much of degrees and graduating.’ In her later years, Dorothy, who dropped out of the University of Illinois, was plagued by offers of honorary degrees from at least 16 universities. ‘The very offer of an honorary degree means that in a way I have failed to convey- to popularize- Peter Maurin’s teaching’ she wrote to the president of Santa Clara University in 1976.

Turning down the ‘honor’ from the Catholic University of America, she wrote in a letter to that school’s president: ‘The Catholic Worker stands in a particular way for the poor and the lowly, for people who need some other kind of schooling than that afforded by universities and colleges of our industrial capitalist system….. I have a deep conviction that we must stay as close to the poor, as close to the bottom as we can, to walk the little way, as St Therese has it.’ In that letter she expressed admiration for the theory of education promoted by Julius Nyerere, socialist Catholic president of Tanzania, who rejected university education based on the assumptions of a racist and capitalist society, designed as he saw it to transmit the values of the colonizing power. Rather than train an intellectual or technical elite for leadership slots in a hierarchical society, Nyerere advocated for an education that enlightens and informs the people of all classes. This idea clearly resonated with Dorothy and with the dictum of Catholic Worker co-founder and her fellow college drop-out, Peter Maurin, who insisted that ‘scholars become workers and workers become scholars.’

Plowshares activist and Catholic Worker John Schuchardt is remembered as explaining that there are two competing institutions of higher education – universities and prisons. Universities teach about the world at the top, looking down, while prisons teach you about the world from the bottom, looking up.

For generations of nonviolent resisters, Catholic Workers among them, jail has been an experience that has redefined our lives, as Jim Douglas put it. This does not seem to be true anymore and our movement is poorer for it, intellectually as well as spiritually. Until maybe 20 years ago, any chance collection of Catholic Workers young and old would have included at least a number of women and men, if not a majority, who had spent weeks or months, if not years, in jails and prisons. Until recent decades, there were always more Catholic Workers with criminal records than with university degrees. It is a scandalous demographic phenomenon in these times of mass incarceration, with ever larger proportions of the population of young people of color going to prison, that fewer and fewer young Catholic Workers are. This fact may be critical to understanding the generational dissonance over the recent statement on the Catholic Worker and racism, ‘Lament, Repent, Repair,’ where the convict’s perspective was not included as it was composed and then was largely ignored or dismissed as ‘push back’ by its authors when it was raised later.

Graduate school has taken the place of prison in the formation of many who have joined the Catholic Worker in recent years. Far too much time spent in school and far too little in a prison cells by too many young Catholic Workers threatens to paralyze our movement with abstractions issued in the jargon of the academic elite.

During the war against the people of Vietnam, Dan Berrigan suggested- ‘And in the course of such a war, one had to go to jail. It was an irreplaceable need, a gift not to be refused. You got arrested, were stripped, your body was searched and poked for drugs. You stood in public showers, were issued denims, were herded about, segregated, counted at odd hours, yelled at. All to the good, and after all, the scene was no Dachau: you would come out on the other side, a few pounds lighter, the skin of your soul darkened by insight- the fate of the poor, the blacks. Knowing white justice for what it is to the poor.’

Ammon Hennacy told Utah Phillips- ‘You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you’re not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, and hard angry words, you are going to have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.’

Admittedly, privilege follows us white people even into jail. It is an extraordinary privilege to have some control over when one goes jail (not always!) and a privilege even to decide to go to jail rather than pay a fine or to go bail. This past January, after an action calling for the closing of the prison at Guantanamo at the White House, the police in Washington, DC, found a warrant from Nevada and while my comrades were released with citations, I found myself the only white man out of about a hundred held in the Metro Police Department’s central cell block. I spent more than 24 hours there and in the cells of the Superior Court while they decided whether or not to extradite me to Las Vegas. Everyone there, guards and inmates alike, immediately assumed that I was a protester, as if there were no other possibility. Washington is, of course, a city full of white men committing the most heinous of crimes, but everybody knows that the only way that a white man makes it into central cell block is to protest!

A statement on racism by Catholic Workers who have largely chosen to refuse the gift and avoid the redefinition of their lives that prison offers them, who have, incidentally, kept their privilege intact and their options for upward mobility open and their resumes unsullied by criminal convictions, is by necessity limited in its prophetic potential.

Phil Berrigan once admitted, under some duress I imagine, that not everyone needs to do nonviolent direct action that leads to jail, but he insisted that a lot more people need to than are doing it! Let me be clear that I am not saying that everyone in the Catholic Worker needs to go to jail. Each one of us must discern the role we are to play and no one among us should feel coerced into nonviolent resistance out of rote ‘group-think’. It makes a difference, though, and it hurts us in our deliberations, discourses and clarifications of thought together that there are so few young convicts among us.

Neither do I presume to dismiss the many contributions made to our movement and its work by the academics among us. Dorothy did not disown Catholic Workers who choose to pursue academic accreditation and she sometimes encouraged especially those who went after formal studies toward potentially helpful professions such as law and medicine and educating children.

Our host here at Nazareth College, Professor Harry Murray, admirably practices what he calls a ‘Scholarship of Resistance’ and has creatively managed even to turn his resistance to a professional advantage, padding his CV, so to speak, with published articles of first hand direct actions. ‘Resistance,’ Harry says, ‘can also lead to a much wider range of writing and presentations which, I will argue, have scholarly value in themselves, even if a rank and tenure committee may not agree.’ If it is not always necessary to quit ones job, it might often be necessary to risk losing it.

I am not romanticizing the prison experience. No one who has lived it can. Far from imputing any exceptional glamour onto it, I offer that going to jail from time to time should be viewed as commonplace, ordinary and prosaic, as no more special nor less essential to our lives and work than, say, doing the laundry, chopping vegetables, tending the garden.

More than our personal spiritual recollection and the integrity of our movement, the lives of hurting brothers and sisters, the fate of our planet are at stake. Nonviolent direct action, as taught to us by Jesus, Gandhi, walkers and peace volunteers in Afghanistan, to name a few, is the most likely and practical way out. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, the choice is no longer between nonviolence and violence, it is between nonviolence and nonexistence.

The resurgence of the Poor Peoples Campaign around the country this summer has been exciting and energizing, not the least of its revival of old protest and civil rights songs. ‘Everybody’s got a right to live’ is one of these songs, for sure. One recent evening over supper with some Code Pink and Voices for Creative Nonviolence activists, however, some discomfort was expressed with the lyrics of this song, that go ‘And before this campaign fails, We’ll all go down to jail.’ With appreciation and apologies to tradition and recognizing that it spoils the rhyme scheme, a more accurate and hopeful way to put it might be, ‘And before this campaign SUCCEEDS, We’ll all go down to jail!’

Phil Berrigan could have been speaking to our present dilemma when he offered that, ‘In this morally polluted atmosphere, we believe that imprisonment could hardly be more to the point. We shudder under the blows of a society permanently mobilized against peace. Duplicity, propaganda, media indifference, institutional betrayal mark our plight. Our people are confused and hopeless. Let us not give up. Let us continue to nourish each other by consistent and prayerful presence at military installations, in courts and lock ups. Indeed, we need to be free enough to go to jail. We need to fill up the jails. Nonviolent revolution will come out of the wilderness, as it always has. And be assured, dear friends, one formidable wilderness today is the American prison.’