John Swinglish was a great man. I met him in 1973 when we were both involved with the Catholic Peace Fellowship near Catholic University in DC. During this time, he put his life on the line to oppose the Vietnam War.
I lost track of him about 10 years ago until I learned he died suddenly in early April. His friends will miss him for the quality of his friendship, his easy rapport, and unmistakable laugh. The world is a better place for his witness. It is a story that must not be forgotten.
John Swinglish was born March 25, 1944 and grew up in Lakewood, Ohio near Cleveland. He attended St. Edward High School, and in the early 1960s, he served in the Navy with Attack Squadron VA-42 at the Naval Air Station in Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Following his military service, John came to DC to work for a defense contractor doing research on nuclear guided-missile destroyers. But he became more and more disillusioned with the country’s war effort and became active with the DC Catholic Peace Fellowship around 1968, attempting to influence the Catholic Church to re-establish its priorities.
In 1971, John was indicted, along with 27 other antiwar activists, for conspiracy to break into a Selective Service office in Camden, NJ and destruction of government property. The group came to be known as the Camden 28.
Following a landmark trial that lasted 63 days, the 28 were found not guilty on all charges. The acquittals represented the first legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of such draft board actions and prosecutions. The jury’s verdict moved Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to call the proceeding “one of the great trials of the 20th century.”
John returned to DC and formed a neighborhood social service center which he directed until 1982. He later worked for the American Red Cross, providing emergency and disaster services, and founded his own wedding photography business. He says, “I’ve finally figured out a way to get people to pay me to go to wild parties every week. It’s really not a bad life.” After retiring, he devoted his life to befriending dogs of all kind as a dog sitter.
by Harry Schwarz, gleaned from a number of sources
The Shrine 6, arrested for nonviolent resistance
On Monday night, November 10, 1969 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the U.S. bishops [attending a meeting in Washington DC of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops] were attending a Mass in honor of the military. Billed as a “Peace Mass,” it featured military men carrying guns and swords around the Shrine as if it were one of their armories.
Outside, members of the Center for Christian Renewal and the Catholic Peace Fellowship were distributing leaflets and displaying large photographs depicting Viet Nam war atrocities. The leaflets protested “the prelates of the church which claims to have been founded by Jesus Christ walking hand in hand with the ‘Masters of War’ through the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.” The Christian Peace Message being distributed further protested the contemporary U.S. bishops acting as “the voice of Christ today,” yet choosing to “lie low, safely refraining from any strong statement condemning the hate, killing, and total dehumanization of our war-programmed society.”
The peace messengers had been displaying the photographs and distributing the leaflets for about· a half an hour when they were told by a Shrine usher that he was authorized by the administrator of the Shrine to halt any demonstrating or leafleting on Shrine property. A police officer then read the D.C. Code stating that they were subject to arrest if they did not stop at the usher’s request. “Our argument was that we, as Catholics, have a right to speak out on moral issues on Catholic Church property,” stated John Swinglish; “however, at his request, we did cease distributing literature, and we removed the photographs.”
Approximately fifteen minutes later, Joseph Coleman and John Swinglish, of the Catholic Peace Fellowship were arrested while standing in front of the shrine talking to two other members. The Shrine usher and police officer approached them and told them to leave since they were in possession of the peace literature. They refused to leave, stating that they “are Catholics and have a right to be on church property.” The usher stated that he had the right to tell anyone whom he did not want on Shrine property to leave. The officer read the D.C. Code and asked Coleman and Swinglish if they were going to leave. When they refused, they were arrested.
from The Catholic Peace Fellowship Bulletin, June 1970
The Camden 28
From a pamphlet that the defendants published about themselves
“We are twenty-eight men and women who, together with other resisters across the country, are trying with our lives to say no to the madness we see perpetrated by our government in the name of the American people the madness of our Vietnam policy, of the arms race, of our neglected cities and inhuman prisons. We do not believe that it is criminal to destroy pieces of paper which are used to bind men to involuntary servitude, which train these men to kill, and which send them to possibility die in an unjust, immoral, and illegal war. We stand for life and freedom and the building of communities of true friendship. We will continue to speak out and act for peace and justice, knowing that our spirit of resistance cannot be jailed or broken.”
The Camden 28 (documentary film – 2007)
Written, directed, and produced by Anthony Giacchino
The Camden 28 recalls a 1971 raid on a Camden, N.J., draft board office by “Catholic Left” activists protesting the Vietnam War and its effects on urban America. Arrested on site in a clearly planned sting, The Camden 28 reveals the story behind the arrests — a provocative tale of government intrigue and personal betrayal — and the ensuing legal battle, which Supreme Court Justice William Brennan called “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” Thirty-five years later, the participants take stock of the motives, fears, and costs of their activism — and its relevance to America today.
Interview with The Camden 28 director Anthony Giacchino and defendant John Swinglish.
Movie Geeks United Podcast, April 22, 2007. Podcast is 18 minutes long; The interview with John begins at 7:50.