Lessons of protest from the late Father Berrigan

berriganLost to some in the tragi-comedy-farce that is the U.S. Presidential race, and the sudden death of music magician Prince, was the death of Father Daniel J. Berrigan. For those of you much younger than my contemporaries, a short history lesson. Father Berrigan, along with his brother Phillip, defiantly, forcefully and demonstrably, led demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam War, racism, capitalism and other social injustice. Perhaps the Berrigan brother’s most enduring image is the burning of Selective Service draft records in Catonsville, MD, for which they were arrested and were among what were known as the Catonsville Nine, tried and convicted for the action. Over the years Father Daniel Berrigan was arrested many more times for standing up for his convictions.

I bring this up not just to remember the late Father Berrigan, but to create a contrast with the protesters we now see demonstrating against Donald Trump and other causes. In this world of quick hits, 140 characters, Snapchat and Facebook, protests are mainly conducted by taps, clicks and swipes. Anything in person is just as ephemeral and utterly without passion. TV cameras gone? So are we. Get arrested? Inconvenienced? Uh, no. Gotta be somewhere else at 7 where I can check in. Where the likes of the Berrigan Brothers had actual followers, today the act of following is as benign as clicking an icon and waiting for updates to pop up on screen.

You can laugh off this comparison by scoffing that I’m an aging Baby Boomer stuck in the 60’s and early 70’s. But what I have found in the workplace and in society, is a paradox, where the older members of the group are much more open to change, risk and invention and they are not shy about vocalizing and acting to make it happen.

I was a freshman in college during the student strike against the Vietnam War in the spring on 1970. We didn’t use that time to screw off. We marched, we protested, history and political science professors at our university gave their time to hold seminars and deliver lectures so we could learn more about the history and roots of the war against which we were protesting. You see, it wasn’t just about hollering and marching and carrying signs. It was about education and self-improvement while standing together for a common cause that we now better understood.

During the first Gulfwar in 1991, as a correspondent for CNN, we covered a class at Michigan State University where students were taught how to protest. We had no lessons. We listened to our hearts and conscience. At an attempted protest again the war, those marching started humming when they forgot the words to “We Shall Overcome.” Somehow, we were able to figure it out, led by those who instilled passion. I suppose today you could just read the lyrics on your smartphone without really knowing what they mean.

Have I come across as a crotchety old fart, lost in time? I don’t care. Father Berrigan died at age 94 and never stopped standing up for what he believed was right and never once concerned about the risks of doing so.

In my life, I’ve taken plenty of crap for coloring outside the lines, especially at work, and despite suffering indignities from co-workers who are cowards, jealous or scared, growing up with brave leaders of dissent like Father Berrigan has given me the strength  and will to always stand up for my beliefs. If you don’t agree…get up and protest.




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