David Eberhardt, For All the Saints: A Protest Primer. Fed Ex Press, 2017. 138 pages. Price $20. Contact the author for purchase email@example.com Reviewed by Rosalind Ellis Heid.
On a cool October day fifty years ago, Baltimore poet Eberhardt along with peace activists Father Phil Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis and Father Jim Mengel walked into the ornate, turn of the century Custom House on South Gay Street in Baltimore. David Eberhardt’s book For All the Saints: A Protest Primer tells how this small passionate group took it upon themselves to express the convictions of many to pour blood over the Selective Service files housed in that innocent looking building. Eberhardt and the others made a gruesome statement to the country, if not to the world, by pouring blood on the bureaucratic paperwork containing the names of potential Vietnam inductees, potential victims of a mad war. I’m glad for the many specific details Eberhardt provides—for example, that the blood, human and animal, was funneled into empty Mr. Clean bottles, an ironic gesture. These details relate how the protest was as much visceral as abstract.
The protest was a performance combining guerilla theatre and the visual creativity of surrealism. The blood pouring was an act of outcry, an act of compassion, and statement of non-violent, anti-war determination. For those who have no memory of the Vietnam War, or who were lucky enough never to have been concerned about that horror show, the blood pouring was an historic revolutionary act. My memories of the Vietnam War are still vivid. Every night in living rooms across the nation, families were treated to a visual monstrous show devoid of meaning or delineated purpose. The expression “domino effect”—U’S. leaders claiming that if the communists conquered Vietnam, Japan or the Philippines would be next—still lingers in the mind. Even looking back at it from an historical distance, the memories still cause pain.
Kids were not exempt from the Vietnam meat grinder. Our country accepted a monolithic draft system—nothing like the volunteer military currently in place. The draft was grotesquely unfair. Those who could afford college were safe with deferments. Those who had friends in high positions gained access to state National Guards or the Coast Guard. For the rest it was boot camp, and then off to the killing fields. For the average Joe it was next to impossible to get out of the draft when your number came up. The symbolic act of pouring blood over draft files was a creative Kabuki gesture.
David Eberhardt’s book, which is as much personal memoir as national history, describes how he felt as a 26 year old searching for the meaning of life in those tense times. He relates how his father suggested he might make a great monk. Neither Eberhardt nor the others in his group joined a monastic order. The Berrigan brothers were Roman Catholic priests but very much in the world. They lived their Christian ideals in deed as well as words. David Eberhardt was very much infused with that contagious idealism. Adherence to idealism often exacts a price in everyday life. For All the Saints details the consequences of his heroic act. There is a vivid recounting of “life in the slammer.” Standing up to the American military establishment and damaging Selective Service documents cost him his freedom. He spent the next two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. The inmates, as he relates, lovingly referred to it as “The Wall.” Even if prison literature holds no attraction for you, his personal notes are fascinating reading.
In the “corrections system” Eberhardt was “corrected” to the point of spending 33 years at the Baltimore City Jail as Director of Offender Aid and Restoration. Retired in 2010, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland, remaining active in poetry and protest. Eberhardt tells me his mentor “Father Berrigan spent 7 years of his life at various times in prison. I spent 21 months, then spent 33 years going in and out of the jail and sleeping in my own bed at night—which we all love to do!!”
For All the Saints is a text book (a primer) of protest – somewhat prolix but definitely readable. It most certainly belongs in every Baltimore history archive. I admire the organizational skill of rebels from years past – their kind has disappeared in our age of instant communication and social media. Although Eberhardt points to contemporary protests against accepted policies – the anti-drone effort of Code Pink is an excellent example. There doesn’t seem to be the same passion, the same pragmatism, the willingness to accept the consequences opposing the powers that be. The same holds true for the Occupy Wall Street anger. The Peace Movement of the 1960’s didn’t have the organizing tools of social media but it had firm beliefs and goals. Occupy Wall Street had an amorphous organization without central structure or leaders. The goals varied from protester to protester. Anarchy was too great a divisive force. Eberhardt’s book tells of and illustrates the central single-mindedness of his historic cause.
For All the Saints connects with the moral idealism of current causes and of the ancient past. Eberhardt mentions the Catholic Workers, Code Pink, the Black Lives Protesters. He describes the courage of Saint Perpetua as one of the ancient, original saints, who was martyred in Carthage around 203 AD and whose example still resonates. For her resolute, outspoken beliefs, the Romans had her “condemned to the beasts.” She met her fate in the arena with joy and triumph. Even at the very end she asked for a hair pin since “it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning her hour of triumph.” The priests Philip Berrigan and his brother Daniel Berrigan were certainly of that proud tradition which confronted the sins of society with a rectitude which comforted those heroes in facing the wrong-headed punishments society imposed. Eberhardt’s book is suffused with this sense of morality, still spurned and unrecognized by current political demagogues.
However, potential readers should not shy away from Eberhardt’s memoir because of its seriousness. The book is an entertaining read. The author’s personality is apparent on every page. The readers get a personal tour of times and causes that should not be forgotten. History comes alive with people and places.
© David Eberhardt and Rosalind Ellis Heid
David Eberhardt has published three books of poetry: The Tree Calendar, Blue Running Lights, and Poems from the Website, Poetry in Baltimore. His influences include Thoreau, Nabokov, Mailer, Agee, Thomas, and Cousteau. His website is http://davideberhardt.webs.com
Rosalind Ellis Heid is a local performance poet and member of a number of Baltimore literary groups. As a Poetry Archivist for the Baltimore City Historical Society, she has been busy for over a decade collecting the work of contemporary city poets. She is also a Docent at the Museum of Baltimore Legal History located in the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse. There she studies our American legislative heritage, the American Revolution, 19th century artifacts and even the Civil War’s impact on Baltimore history.