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How Video Footage of the 'Most Powerful Antiwar Act' in U.S. History Was Rescued From Obscurity

The actions of 9 protesters who destroyed Vietnam War draft files were filmed on tape and then held by the U.S. Attorney's office.
 
 
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Members of the military police keep back protesters during their anti-war sit-in at the Mall Entrance to the Pentagon.
Photo Credit: US Army/Wikimedia Commons

 

“It is arguably the single most powerful antiwar act in American history,” Martin Sheen once recounted about the May 17, 1968 burning of draft files in Catonsville, Md., by nine unusual suspects to protest the Vietnam War. The Catonsville Nine, as they came to be called, marked the beginning of dramatic new forms of antiwar resistance. When seven men and two women — all Catholic, including two priests, Dan and Phil Berrigan — broke into a draft office, stole files and publicly destroyed them as an act of nonviolent resistance against war and imperialism, the face of protest changed. But the iconic images and audio from that historic event were almost lost in the annals of history.

Pat McGrath, a reporter with Baltimore’s WBAL-TV – an NBC affiliate –  had been covering the antiwar movement for some time. Prior to the draft board raid, peace movement organizers reached out to him and gave him a heads up about the protest. In his new book,  The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, Shawn Francis Peters traces the carefully planned details that the activists and their supporters had arranged so that the press arrived just as the draft files were about to be burned.

McGrath, who can be seen in the footage holding the boom-mic, was the only television reporter alerted about the protest and arrived with his contact, local peace activist Greenville Whitman, just after the files had been doused with homemade napalm. Then John Hogan struck a match and the rest — the Berrigans, Marjorie and Tom Melville, Brother David Darst, Mary Moylan, George Mische and Tom Lewis — quickly followed suit, sealing their fate. Meanwhile, McGrath and his crew — soundman Ed Smith and cameraman Bob Boyer —captured almost all of it. Although in all of the excitement, Smith was a little slow to get the audio rolling.

In less than 24 hours, the film reel was subpoenaed by the federal government to make its case against the nine and it would be years before the public would see, first-hand, what happened that day. WBAL turned over the film and it was used as key evidence in the trial. Later, McGrath would be subpoenaed to testify as a witness to certify the film’s authenticity.

There had been a brief window of opportunity for the film footage to be broadcast, but WBAL general manger Brent Gunts unilaterally decided that the film footage would not be aired. The indirect explanation McGrath received from his boss was that there were concerns that the station might lose its FCC broadcasting license.

If it looked like WBAL had aided the protest in Catonsville, it might jeopardize its license — an argument with some merit, according to McGrath. In 1967, the Chicago CBS-affiliate WBBM had done a documentary on a “pot party” and was accused of having staged it. Some  suggested that the station had aided and abetted criminal activity as co-conspirators and should therefore lose its broadcast license.

Still, Gunts never cared to inquire into the circumstances of how McGrath had been there and decided that only film shot after the police had arrived would be aired. NBC’s popular, nationally-televised evening news program “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” had dispatched a producer to WBAL to get the footage but left empty-handed.

“I was very resentful that [Gunts] would make that decision [to not air the footage] without talking to me to find out how I happened to be at Catonsville,” McGrath toldWaging Nonviolence. “That was a historic piece of film that could have been — and should have been — seen not only in Baltimore, but all over the nation.”

 
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