Fifty years ago this past January, Time featured Daniel Berrigan and his brother, Phillip, on its cover with the headline: “Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans.” At the time, the brothers were incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, for their now infamous act of civil disobedience in Catonsville, Maryland, protesting the violence of the Vietnam War. A year later, Daniel would exit the prison, stand atop a car before five hundred supporters and say, “The spirit, when hard-pressed, grows quickly.” A half century later, both brothers have passed away, but their wisdom remains crucial for a country full of hard-pressed, growing spirits eager to build a new world. 

I met Daniel Berrigan during my junior year of high school, and he told me a story. He told me that one day, when he was a child, a haggard, hungry man approached the door of his home. His mother let the man in and gave him a warm meal without asking too many questions. Shortly after the man left, there was a second knock on the door. A couple of police officers were looking for someone who had recently escaped from a nearby prison. Daniel’s mother pointed off one way and told the police that the man couldn’t have gone far. The police thanked her and set off in that direction. Daniel watched this all happen — he was maybe four at the time — knowing full well that the prisoner had actually walked off in the opposite direction. He half-jokingly called this his first act of civil disobedience.

For those who don’t know, Daniel Berrigan and his brother Phillip were Catholic priests who became leaders of the protest movement against the Vietnam War. Notably, Daniel travelled to Hanoi with Howard Zinn and brought back the first American POWs released during the war. In May 1968, Daniel, Phillip, and seven others broke into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and used napalm to burn close to four hundred draft files to prevent kids from being conscripted into the war. The Catonsville Nine inspired other anti-draft actions, and Daniel eluded capture for months after his sentencing, even as the FBI added him to its most-wanted list. He became a lifelong activist and poet, inspiring the next generation and continuing to protest every American war until his passing in April 2016. When I read about Daniel’s death, I remembered something he’d once written: “I’d like to die with my boots on...being of use to other people. Not on the beach.” I think about those words a lot.  

Daniel and I met twice in person. On that first day, a teacher asked me to pick him up from his apartment in Manhattan, along with her partner, Sam. Daniel broke the ice by commenting on how beautiful those grand, orange gates were in Central Park. He meant the Christo and Jeanne-Claude art installation, over seven thousand gorgeous gates erected through a 23-mile stretch of Central Park in February 2005. We didn’t actually pass by the gates on that drive. But I associate the two in my memory. As if we walked right under them. We spoke for a while — in the car, at the school — and I wrote about it all for my school paper. Afterward, we spoke twice on the phone, and we exchanged letters a few times. I’d ask Daniel questions about justice in America. He’d respond with his thoughts. We repeated the drive a year later when I was a high school senior, spoke once more my freshman year of college, and then lost touch. 

Looking over these writings now, I can see how much those conversations shaped my worldview as an organizer. My deep distrust of police and prisons, my opposition to war, my conviction that people have the power to shape a more just world — it started with that drive through Manhattan. With those grand, orange gates. 

More than anything, I remember that Daniel was driven by a singular sense of justice. We should do good because it is good, he would say, not because it gets us anywhere or anything in return. What he meant is, we must codify that interpersonal creed into our systems and structures. We need to create a society that liberates, not oppresses. 

His words bring me to one of the essential paradoxes of this country. In America, interpersonal kindness is a virtue, but systemic kindness is an unthinkable sin. In the eyes of so many people, a government should rather let its people die of hunger and disease than dare spend money on food or medicine. It should rather invest in criminalizing homelessness than dare invest in housing. And this is true of both parties. If you can’t thrive in this COVID era — in an apocalypse — are you even an American? 

Perhaps the most meaningful letter that I received from Daniel was one that included a lengthy meditation on the nature of friendship. “The measure of our humanity is this,” Daniel offered, “to make friends with all the living; to make friends with the stranger at the gate, the ‘undocumented,’ the ‘illegals,’ with street people, with mental patients, with those at the bottom of the imperial pyramid, the despised and feared and forgotten. With criminals and yuppies and tyrants and victims.”  He closed the essay by declaring, “We shall undertake this work of friendship, or we shall all likewise perish.” He wrote in interpersonal terms, but what he’s imagining is a government that behaves this way, not just its people. 

What would it look like for a country to write these values into law? It would look nothing like the modern Republican Party, certainly. But it also wouldn’t resemble the largely neoliberal Democratic Party. No, what we’re talking about here is true transformation: divesting from state violence and investing in universal healthcare, housing, food, green energy. 

Berrigan wrote to me once, “War is blasphemy against the God of life and love.” When I think of the systems America erects, I see war everywhere. War on Black and brown people, war on people with disabilities, on the poor, on immigrants, on women, on queer folk, on anyone who is non-normative. In that sense, America itself is blasphemy. This country does not need reform — it needs a reckoning. 

Daniel pushed us to erect value-based systems, not profit-based systems, and he warned clearly of the dangers of failing in this mission, of failing to achieve that reckoning. He wrote to me:

I think of our so modern, so American cannibalistic appetites...the piling up of arsenals, from handguns under armpits to nukes in bunkers. I think of the presumed omnicompetence, omniscience and omnipotence of violence, as a personal and social and international method of playing God. Remove the adversary, thus solving the problem.… We are in no great need of a foreign enemy at the gates.... We need only confront the visage that appears in the mirror of the soul, to know who will destroy us.

He goes on to explain how America’s capitalist greed is shortsighted, how it will eventually ruin us all: "God has only to leave imperialists to our own devices. Give us time — one war too many, ever more piratical economics, an appetite that would swallow the world whole — and we will bring ourselves down." 

In 2021, I see Daniel’s warnings in America’s initial refusal to lift patent protections on vaccines, a profit-motivated decision that left less wealthy countries to descend into mass death. As we watch scenes of chaos and carnage in India and Brazil, we know that we could have prevented it if we had acted sooner. I also see Daniel’s warnings in our funding of the continued state violence against the Palestinian people. I know if he were alive, he would be out there on the streets today demanding a free Palestine.

As an organizer, my main takeaway from Daniel is that it makes sense to organize around values. Getting folks to agree that a country should not collapse because it can’t afford the full price of a vaccine during a pandemic, that a sick person should not die because seeing a doctor is too expensive, that the state should not be given free rein to murder and incarcerate Black and brown folks, that people should not be punished for illness — that’s a big first step. Once folks agree on those values, solving those problems is a question of vision and logistics, not will. 

And we need not look far to see such values-based organizing in action. We can look to the Navajo Nation, which has already vaccinated over half of its adult population, despite facing significant obstacles like a lack of clean water, inconsistent electricity, and limited healthcare resources. Eric Descheenie — a Navajo leader and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives — spoke with me on one the Center for Popular Democracy’s COVID Families calls, and he explained that the biggest reason for his community outpacing the US in vaccination rates is the value it places on kinship, an obligation to care for the person next to you as family, something lacking in the wider American culture. “The philosophy of Indigenous Peoples very much reorients the idea of self,” he said. “My identity is inextricably tied to family, to kinship, to the clan. There is almost no such thing as the self.” 

The Navajo containing COVID against all odds through a values-driven approach inspires me — in its anti-capitalism, in its moral view of care — but we know that moving America itself in this direction is beyond difficult. My second takeaway from Daniel, then, is that this work takes lifetimes, takes generations. Mariame Kaba reminds us, “Hope is a discipline.” And it is what this work requires. We may not live to see the new world we’re creating. Daniel didn’t. But people are still out here marching, still out here fighting. 

He wanted to die with his boots on

In spring 2020, at the start of what would be months of uprisings against police across the country, I walked through Brooklyn and into Manhattan with three friends in protest. We’d just marched through traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge with hundreds, and we were in the middle of Chinatown when the NYPD chose to attack. They grabbed a Black man and pinned his head to the ground just a few feet ahead of us, unprovoked. Some protesters threw bottles, a chair, a bottle of bleach. Others tried to free him. The cops formed a perimeter. Outnumbered, they retreated until their backs rested against a building and waited for reinforcements. Reinforcements came. A line of cops charged at us, into us, through us, and people set off running. I looked for my friends and lost sight of the man. The police dragged him off. He was arrested with his boots on. 

Why do we have to keep fighting? Because we’re still here. We survived. Others didn’t. 

Daniel reminds me of my colleague Ady Barkan, a leading national advocate for Medicare for All, who also organizes around values. Ady said once in testimony before Congress, “Our time on this earth is the most precious resource we have. A Medicare For All system will save all of us tremendous time...for patients and our families, it will mean less time dealing with a broken healthcare system and more time doing the things we love together.”

This leads me to one question, a question I’ve been wrestling with throughout the COVID era, a question I wish I could write down on a piece of paper right now and mail to Daniel, knowing he’d respond a few weeks later. Here’s the question: when we talk healthcare, student debt, incarceration, policing, rent relief, the planet itself — what systems can we tear down, what systems can we erect, to give everyone in this country some more time? Real time. Time with the person next to them. Time to rest, to love, to feel joy, to feel safety. I believe that is our mission as we build our new world.  

I pick up my mask as I get ready to leave the apartment. I’m headed to Manhattan for another rally against vaccine apartheid, hoping to convince President Biden to fast-track patent waiver negotiations at the WTO, to make an international policy decision embodying interpersonal values. There’s more work to do, more words to write, more actions to organize. I remind myself that this moment is an opportunity too, not just a burden. Before I head out the door, I put my boots on. 


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