A Tribute To Phil Barrigan by John Patrick Liteky

Several years ago, in the mid 1990's, it was my privilege to participate in a nonviolent resistance action along with 3 others, outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. It took place on Sept 30, the anniversary of the kidnap and subsequent imprisonment of Mordechai Vanunu by the Israeli Government's secret service. Vanunu is soon coming to the end of his 16 year sentence of solitary confinement, for his courageous act of displaying to the world the lies the Israeli government used regarding the development and possession of nuclear weapons by the Israeli/U.S. military complex. The other three people originally indicted with me were a young man known as "Red Feather," Reverend John Bell, and our recently departed brother and mentor, Philip Berrigan. We were arrested for our using our own blood to put our hand prints on the white walls of the entrance way at the Israeli Embassy here in D.C. There was a crowd of supporters with us, with signs demanding the immediate release of Vanunu. I don't remember if the protest, a nonviolent piece of street theater, received any media attention. We were duly arrested, the 4 or us, taken in to be processed, and stayed overnight in the infamous downtown D.C. tank, which was crowded, cold, noisy, smelly, and roach infested. I made the mistake of eating what was served as a meal - a lukewarm baloney sandwich on white bread - no condiments. I threw up about an hour later. I was told later, by a veteran of such encounters "you never, never eat what they give you - you don't know where that baloney's been!"

We were given a court date, supplied with a free attorney for our defense. We opted to go pro se, but the attorney stayed with us. When we were about to go into court for the arraignment, prior to a trial - or maybe even it was the perfunctory trial itself - my memory's' fuzzy - the attorney said to us "The charges against Philip Berrigan have been dropped. You three will have to report...." At which Phil spoke up, rather heatedly, but with that inimitable grace and calm be had, mixed with the Jeremaic fire of rebuke "Hey, I was there! I did it too - you can't just release me, I want...." And he was quickly let go. He came to court at the appropriate time for our sentencing - we three each got two months - in the county slammer - Phil stood up in court and confronted the judge and repeated "Hey, I was there with these guys!" The judge ignored him and turned us 3 over to the gendarmes for immediate incarceration. I had said, just prior to that sentencing hearing, to our court appointed attorney, "Hey, how come Phil's charges got dropped and ours didn't?" The attorney, I'll never forget his nonchalant demeanor and sort of surprised look that I would ever even ask such a question - and with a sort of a smirk, simply said: "Well, you're not Philip Berrigan."

Pad ump pump!

I remember also, back in 1991, when I was about to be released from Terminal Island prison in Long Beach, California, after serving 6 months for participation in my first nonviolent protest against the S.O.A. in GA, back in 1990, one of the prison guards asked me what I did this for, why I would go to jail willingly, and so on. The guard had been, in my time there, somewhat of a "hardass" in regard to us inmates' behavior, good, bad or indifferent. I tried to naively explain: "Well, Jesus did this, Gandhi did this, Martin Luther King did this - " and before I could finish, (he was Afro-American, by the way, and I thought I'd score more points by referring to MLK Jr.) he interrupted me, and said, rather like a harsh teacher with a recalcitrant child: "You ain't no Jesus Christ, you ain't no Gandhi, and you sure ain't no Martin Luther King Jr!"

"Well," I said, humbled and amused at the same time, "They're all my brothers, you see, and you're right - I'm none of those people - I'm just one more guy trying to follow in their footsteps." The guard, I'll be damned, stopped, his whole demeanor changed as if jolted by a kind of instant reality check on his own part. He looked at me, reached out his hand to shake my own - I was just leaving the gate to join a friend of Martin Sheen who'd come to pick me up and drive me to the L.A. Airport. I was to fly back to Baltimore and return to the Jonah House Community. I looked into the guard's eyes. He was crying! I swear to God. This was a big man, in excellent shape, at least 200 lbs of solid muscle. He said "Oh. Well, look, uh, don't you be comin' back here..." and I smiled, taking his hand in friendship (not the kind of hand shake where you grab, then let go, then bounce each other's fist on top, then grab the hand again, whatever...) and I said "Well, I don't at the present time plan to, but ya never know what God may ask us to do." (My mind was already on the drink I would buy on the plane.) In a few hours as I would be winging my way back to Jonah House, catch up with Phil and Liz and the community and get back to work.


Phil Berrigan, Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. - all of them are up there now, but by no means only up there. They're all - and so many others - right here with us, in our daily lives, thoughts, actions, words, if we listen.

To be sure, I'm no Phil Berrigan, I'm no Jesus Christ, I'm no Gandhi, I'm no Martin Luther King Jr. I'm no Oscar Romero, no Sr Jean Donovan, no Sojourner Truth, no Rosa Parks, no Andrew Schwerner, no Stephen Biko, no Nelson Mandela, no Dan Berrigan, no Steve Kelly, no Ardeth Platte, no Carol Gilbert, no Jackie Hudson, no Mordechai Vanunu, no Sam Day, no Ladon Sheats, no Richard McSorley, no Liz McAllister, no Michel Obed, no Dorthy Day, no Harriet Tubman, no prophet living still among us or up there in what's now called the band of "Cloud Resisters." (I love that name!) No, but they're all my dear sisters and brothers who gave and give their entire lives to the cause of justice, truth, freedom, love. These names I've just mentioned are but a small number of others like them - you can add more names to the litany of these saints, living and so called "dead."

There was/is only one Phil Berrigan, just as there was/is only one Jesus Christ. But, if you and I want hard enough to be sort of a re-incarnation of these heroes, martyrs, and saints, and still be who we are as individuals, we can do that. We can follow their lead, adding our own personal touches to the words and deeds we do, as long as we keep ever in mind what it's really all about. And you and I know what that is, or we wouldn't be here - in jail, on his soup line, in this hospital, in this classroom, driving these people in need to some service, helping these people seeking sanctuary, marching in this prayerful body of people seeking justice, crossing the lines of barriers put up by those who shun the light of God's Word. We do what we do because we've been inspired by these other humans, Christ among them, who so beautifully and simply showed us the way. It ain't easy, that's for sure. Pain, torture, loneliness, abuse, misunderstanding - God will not give us more than we can bear. He/She just wants of us, as Phil used to say - still does - is for us "to be found willing." God will take care of everything after we just say "I'm willing." "Engage your faith," Phil would say, "and you'll be amazed at the doors which will open to you!"

John Patrick Liteky, #83275-020, Cell C-3
Crisp Co. Jail - 197 Hwy 300 S - Cordele, GA 31015

Background Photo By Ed Quinn for The New York Times

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