Father Daniel Berrigan, the legendary peace activist-priest who publicly burned draft cards in 1968 and subsequently eluded prison for the famous act of civil disobedience until his arrest on Block Island in 1970, died Saturday. He was 94 years old.
“We have chosen to be branded peace criminals by war criminals,” Berrigan famously said while a fugitive of justice, days before his arrest by FBI agents in a barn on Block Island.
Berrigan was a Jesuit priest who formed his own ministry in New York City. He was a committed peace activist who traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn and returned with captured American pilots. He was a socialist and a committed activist who believed civil disobedience was necessary to call public attention to American imperialism.
He was also a part-time Rhode Islander, who spent many summers on Block Island years after being arrested there. The Spring Street house at which he was captured was left in a trust for him to use. “I get out there maybe a couple times a year,” Berrigan told Steven Stycos, writing for the Block Island Times, in 2001. Berrigan wrote a poetry book called “Block Island” and the house at which he was arrested in a fairly well-known tourist attraction.
His arrest there in 1970 is very well-known. Much of America surely first learned of Block Island through media reports of Berrigan’s arrest. It was covered in newspapers across the country and LIFE magazine ran a feature story detailing the incident.
“On an ominous morning in August, with a fierce nor’easter blowing up black clouds and spattering rain over the harbor, Daneil Berrigan lay asleep in a manger on Block Island, RI,” wrote Lee Lockwood in the May 21, 1971 edition of LIFE. “…Berrigan’s Block Island routine was to rise late and breakfast lightly on coffee and a piece of bread. Afterward, with books, paper and pen, and dressed ‘in some outlandish headgear,’ he would disappear below the crest of the Mohegan Bluffs until nightfall. Reappearing for then for drinks, dinner and conversation…”
On August 11, 1970, FBI agents, posing as bird watchers, descended on the Spring Street barn and arrested Berrigan.
Berrigan had first become a household name in 1968 for one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience during the anti-Vietnam War peace movement. “Nine Catholic activists, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered a Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville and went up to the second floor, where the local draft board had offices. In front of astonished clerks, they seized hundreds of draft records, carried them down to the parking lot and set them on fire with homemade napalm,” wrote the New York Times in Berrigan’s obituary.
They were arrested and dubbed the “Catonsville Nine” by the media.
In 1980, he was arrested for breaking into a nuclear missile site in Pennsylvania and pouring blood on files. This was the advent of the Plowshares Movement against nuclear weapons.
In 2002, at his 80th birthday party, Berrigan promised to keep up his disruptive form of protest until even after his death. “The day after I’m embalmed, that’s when I’ll give it up,” he said.