Review: The Camden 28

A film by Anthony Giacchino
First Run Features

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the “war as an enemy of the poor” when asked why he opposed the Vietnam War. Today, President Bush’s latest budget proposal makes that abundantly clear. Social spending would be cut by $2.4 billion while Pentagon spending would rise by $35 billion—not including Iraq war funding.

Sadly, the connection between war and domestic spending has been nearly lost. Luckily, we can learn from those who risked their freedom to show us that poverty here is directly related to war overseas.

The Camden 28 is a powerful documentary about peace activists in Camden, New Jersey who planned to break into a local draft board office to destroy records in protest of the Vietnam War. And while the Camden 28 opposed the war for non-violent and religious reasons, they also drew connections between funding for the war and the poverty that surrounded them in Camden. Though the Camden 28’s actions took place in 1971, the parallels to today are striking.

“Doing an action in Camden was just really expressing that point of view that damaged cities which destroyed children was a casualty of a policy that put weaponry before homes, and children, and people. I always saw the connection between the condition of Camden and the wastes of the military,” says Camden 28 member Father Michael Doyle.

The documentary includes recent, and older, interviews with members of the group who were eventually busted by the FBI. It takes you through the plotting, busting, and court case (including an incredibly moving reunion and reenactment of the trial). Members visit old stakeout locations and the Federal building they broke into. Howard Zinn makes an appearance in the trail as an expert witness on the Vietnam War. The uplifting story moves along well, provides surprising twists that will ultimately fascinate you. It’s a captivating story of hope, betrayal, and redemption.

While The Camden 28 is inspiring, you’re left with the feeling that there’s still work to be done. Camden remains one of the nation’s poorest and most violent cities. A former industrial city, Camden lies just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The demise of Camden is linked to the deindustrialization of northeastern cities. Once thriving with union jobs, Camden was home to RCA/Victor, Campbell’s Soup, and defense contractor New York Ship. Now a shell of its former self, Camden doesn’t survive on its low-paying service sector jobs, a trash incinerator, sewage treatment plant, cement plant, and a bevy of “recycling” centers (scrap yards, really).

“Camden was perfect to make the statement that the monies spent on bombs could be spent on buildings. That was the big point we tried to make, and it’s still true. In fact, it’s truer today. And we’re still wasting the money on the weaponry and we still have Camden the way it is,” says Father Michael Doyle before the closing credits.

The Camden 28 reminds us that there is a connection between war and poverty in America.

 Judgment: Highly Recommended