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Radical Catholic Boomers Are Rising Up

The Catholic Worker Movement and Plowshares belong to a long tradition of radical religious activism in the U.S. Now, in response to the protests spreading across the country, they’re reckoning with their complicity in racism and police violence

After nearly four long weeks, 75-year-old activist Martin Gugino is out of the hospital and on his way to rehabbing the brain damage that makes it hard for him to walk and speak normally.

Gugino became an unlikely symbol amid the protests that rocked America after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. All it took was 20 seconds of video of the Buffalo, New York, native stepping into the path of marching riot police during a demonstration, only to be savagely shoved to the ground. He was trying to confront law enforcement with questions about their response to a peaceful event.

Instead, he became the stuff of viral nightmares. Everyone saw the image of Gugino getting pushed, stumbling backward and slamming his head on the concrete. No one could forget the image of him bleeding from his ear, crumpled on the ground, with officers blithely marching past, nary a care for the senior citizen at their feet. It wasn’t the same as Floyd’s murder, but it emphasized the horror of it all.

The two officers responsible for the shove, Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski, have been suspended from the force and charged with second-degree assault. For so many white people stuck on the fence about whether the police really were as violent as Black Lives Matter claimed, the visage of Gugino being struck down served as a tipping point. (For the rest of us fed up with endless, careless police violence, watching 57 Buffalo cops resign in bitter solidarity with their punished peers proved, once again, that it really was a culture war rather than a few bad apples.)

The batshit garnish on the whole fiasco was President Donald Trump desperately claiming Gugino could be an “antifa provocateur.” He’s not, of course. Instead, Gugino is a follower of the Catholic Worker Movement and the Plowshares movement, both of which were born in the 20th century as a reaction to growing wealth inequality, wars with foreign nations and worker exploitation. His previous life as an activist provides a glimpse into the fascinating world of older white Boomers who have been standing staunchly against state violence for decades. They belong to a long tradition of radical Catholic activism in the U.S. And they’re now reckoning with their complicity in racism and police violence, even despite their dedication to social change.

The Catholic Worker Movement was, in many ways, an anarchist groupcomplete with decentralized leadership, autonomous agendas and a dedication to supporting communities through civil disobedience, direct action and mutual aid. It was born in 1933 as the brainchild of leftist journalist Dorothy Day and French worker-scholar Peter Maurin, who founded a newspaper, Catholic Worker, to serve as a manifesto amid the Great Depression and escalating global tensions. The duo created “houses of hospitality” to take care of the poor, sick and cast-off, believing that people on the margins of society needed the most direct help. Over time, the number of houses grew, as did the number of believers. Many of them had recovered in a “house of hospitality,” and devotees often committed themselves to a life of “voluntary poverty,” in order to focus on mutual aid and nonviolent protests against government sins.

Day and Maurin called for “a new society within the shell of the old — a society in which it will be easier to be good.” And they envisioned that their teachings could inspire a world with no economic exploitation, war and discrimination. They saw that extremes of wealth and poverty, built upon endless state violence, were killing working people.

A half-century later, eight men gathered and decided that the ultimate fulfillment of the Catholic call would require a far more aggressive dedication to nonviolent intervention. Led by brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the men called themselves the “Plowshares Eight.” They vowed to stand in the way of America’s nuclear armament programs, by whatever means necessary. It referred to a radical idea borne from the Book of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The eight snuck into a General Electric site where critical parts for the Minuteman III missile were manufactured, damaged missile nose cones with hammers, poured their own blood on company documents and awaited arrest. And despite the fat stack of federal convictions levied against the men, the Plowshares Eight inspired others to use direct action to vandalize and damage military property while shedding light on the endlessness of war.

A priest and two veterans broke into an E-9 Minuteman missile facility in North Dakota and painted the words “It’s a sin to build a nuclear weapon” on the silo in 2006. In 2008, Plowshares activists in New Zealand infiltrated a base and deflated a dome in protest of the country’s involvement in the Middle East. (One of the men, Friar Peter Murnane — a self-described “shy introvert” — was previously caught painting a cross of his own blood into the carpet at the U.S. Consulate in New Zealand, in protest of the Iraq War.)

In 2012, three Plowshares activists (ages 82, 63 and 57) made national headlines when they waltzed into a high-security Department of Energy facility in Tennessee, hung banners, poured out their own blood and spray-painted the walls. The federal government basically prosecuted them as terrorists, despite the incident proving the activists’ point about how dangerous and poorly run these facilities are. And most recently, a group of seven activists dubbed the Kings Bay Plowshares broke into a naval base in Georgia, causing about $30,000 in damage, hanging banners and, yes, smearing human blood around the place. The ages of the activists ranged from 57 to 79, and many of them had lengthy histories of civil disobedience.

Despite this history, however, many involved in radical Catholic activism are facing a reckoning on the whiteness of the movements — and their blind spots on ideas such as anti-Blackness and how everyday people perpetuate white supremacy. Some have asked whether the Catholic Worker Movement is “inherently racist” because of its relative inaction on issues its supporters claim to support, namely racial justice.

Things are slowly changing, evidenced by how a number of white Catholic activists are listening to Black and Brown organizers and collaborating rather than merely staying in their own lane. In Minneapolis, Catholic Worker activists teamed up with Black Lives Matter and the Black Liberation Project to block access to a Twins baseball game. The cause was twofold: calling on stadium sponsor Target to end exploitation of Black and Brown workers, and to criticize Minneapolis police for the shooting of Jamar Clark, an unarmed young black man.

“Prompted in large part by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement began to challenge itself to look at the way we have been not only ignoring the war on Black people in our own cities, but even perpetuating racism within our predominantly white communities,” wrote one of the protesters, Brenna Cussen Anglada, a farmer and co-founder of the St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in southwest Wisconsin.

And many of the perceived problems were laid bare in a letter the Midwest Catholic Worker published in fall 2017. Titled “Lament. Repent. Repair. An Open Letter on Racism to the Catholic Worker Movement,” the letter pointed toward specific deficiencies in perspective and action, noting that the whiteness of the movement was a problem in and of itself. “Those of us who have committed our lives to social justice work often believe racism is a problem we have ‘solved’ in our personal lives and thus fail to explore the experiences and realities of whiteness. Without seeing whiteness, we ignore our continued complicity and participation in racism,” the editorial board wrote.

It will take more than this small sect of Catholics to unravel the sins of the church itself, which stretch back centuries thanks to a lineage of racist, oppressive policies and leadership. There are glimmers that mainstream Catholicism can and will confront racism again — the 2018 publication of a pastoral letter on race, the first in 40 years, was some small form of progress. Activists, meanwhile, are realizing that their biggest cause isn’t just nuclear armaments, but everyday violence that Black and Brown people cannot escape.

“Dr. King spoke of ‘the triple evils’ of racism, poverty and war, and that they’re tied together,” Clare Grady, one of the Kings Bay Seven, said in an interview last year. “Nuclear weapons are state-sponsored violence, and they’re above the law. Our action and the court trial are stages to examine the legal justice system and what it actually protects. Part of our witness is to bring to light what’s hidden in plain sight.”

You can replace “nuclear weapons” with “police killings,” and the parallels still remain. It’s no wonder that Gugino felt a drive to show up at the protest. His resistance, and the brutality he experienced as a result, is a small but vital act that helped paint a picture of irredeemable policing in America. Amid all the chaos and entropy, radical Catholic Boomers are learning how to be better allies — and showing us that the work never truly ends.