A New Year’s Eve to Remember

“You leave fragments of your spirit here and there over the years.
These pieces are glued — like barnacles on a ship — to various
places, objects, people, memories, and unfinished business.
Although detaching from them can be extremely difficult,
detachment is a far more natural practice for your soul
as well as emotions and mental health than holding on
to the dead zone of your past.”
–from “Entering the Castle,” by Caroline Myss, p. 92

 Today is the 40th anniversary of the quadruple terror bombing of December 31, 1982, when I happened to be serving a short sentence on the 5th floor of the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan. My journey of faith had only just begun after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, when it seemed like people all over the country were educating themselves about the dangers of nuclear power and weapons. I listened to the stories of the women who were arrested at the Pentagon, met Fr. Daniel Berrigan and heard about his time in the federal prison at Danbury during the Vietnam War, after burning draft records. And I read the letter that Rev. Martin Luther King wrote from the jail in Birmingham, Alabama. What an amazing tradition we have in this country, of nonviolent witness and civil disobedience. 

But in all the years that I attended Christian churches, I never heard a sermon based on Luke 22:33, where Peter tells Jesus, “I am ready to go to prison with you.” No minister ever explained to me what the phrase in our Bible — “taking up the cross” — would have meant to the followers of Jesus 2000 years ago.

The US Army’s research and development of weapons made of depleted uranium was still a secret in 1982 — we didn’t find out what the role of Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey was until after the 1991 war, and by that time I had been arrested over a dozen times, and appeared before magistrates and district judges in Newark and Camden, asking for the truth. How can people in a democracy take responsibility for what the military is doing if they cannot find out about it, and sad to say, no judge was interested in that question.

By the end of 1982, after my first trial in federal court in Newark — the first of many — I found myself in the bus with the other prisoners, cuffed and shackled, and being brought to MCC in Manhattan. I couldn’t believe it, this fortress of concrete and steel, with electronic doors, and thick plexiglass windows, and bright orange jumpsuits made of the itchiest polyester a person could imagine. I would have been happy to go into isolation, and have a little corner of MCC to myself, to reflect on what an enormous change that year had brought to my sheltered life. But the system had other plans. 

In my first “reality tour” I saw the Bergen County Annex, MCC, Otisville in upstate New York, the farm camp at Lewisburg, K-Dorm in the basement of Lewisburg, Northumberland County Jail in nearby Sunbury, Pennsylvania, and ended up back at MCC in late December. It was a bewildering journey through a hidden world that I had wondered about for a long time. If there were about a quarter of a million inmates in all our nation’s jails when Fr. Berrigan went to prison in the 1960s, there were about half a million by the time I sat in that cell on the 5th floor of MCC, looking out the window at Chinatown on New Year’s Eve.

Suddenly the guards rushed us all into our cells and locked us down, without any explanation for why they were doing this when there was no inmate count in progress. I only had a few more weeks to go before release, so why should I care if we get locked down an hour or two early? My cellmate never complained about anything, and was content to sit on his bunk reading his Spanish Bible. And then the explosions began. For all we knew it could be New Year’s Eve fireworks that were going off in the neighborhood. But the scene below our window was extraordinary, a sea of police and fire trucks, spotlights in all directions, dogs, and plainclothes officers swarming all over the area. A multiple bombing was in progress. Police Plaza across the street from us was hit. The Federal Building down the block was hit. The US Attorney’s Office was hit. 

We had no radio to fill us in on the minute-to-minute developments of this attack, considered at that time to be one of the worst terrorist incidents in the history of New York City. All we could do was sit in our cell, and look out the window. After 10 pm the final bomb was detonated, right underneath us, and the reverberation shook the building. For a brief moment, I was actually afraid for my safety, and forgot all about the journey of faith that I was supposed to be on, and the courage that nonviolent discipline is supposed to bring. The ambulances below were carrying off the wounded and the maimed, and my cellmate was praying in Spanish, attempting to prepare the two of us for the worst-case scenario. 

“Look,” I told him, “I really don’t think we have to worry about this building being destroyed. It’s a solid block of concrete, you know? Solid, very solid. What’s happening is awful, sheer terror, but you and I are five stories up, and we’re going to be okay here.” 

“Where is your trust?” my cellmate demanded, switching over from Spanish to English to accommodate me, and also raising the level of our panicky discussion to the theological plane. “You place your trust in a building. I place my trust in the Lord!” 

His words came back to me many times, as we read the newspaper stories of the New Year’s Eve bombing, as it became known, and learned more about it. Bomb squad Detective Anthony and Detective Salvatore made heroic, life-threatening sacrifices to protect us when that final bomb was discovered on the plaza, and were throwing a metal shroud over it when it detonated right in their faces. It cost them hands, toes, eyes — and who knows what it cost to their nervous systems — to try to contain the explosion, which otherwise could have caused much more serious damage and injuries. MCC made no attempt to censor the print news in the days following the bombing, although they did temporarily withhold some photocopied stories that were sent in.

Where is my trust, if the world is getting swallowed up in increasing terror and violence? Where is my trust, if I still cared about uncovering the truth about the uranium weaponry under research and development at Picatinny? Where is my trust, if this road of nonviolent action leads me to more and more of these hidden worlds that are all around us? 

I carried my cellmate’s question back with me the next year, 1983, when I returned to cross the line at Picatinny, and was sentenced once again to a brief term at MCC. And again the next year, when I was sent back to Lewisburg. And again the next year, when I made the rounds through Montour County, Northumberland County, and Danbury Prison. And again the next year, back at MCC after a heated exchange with District Judge Herbert Stern that made the Star-Ledger. (“Picatinny Protester Spurns Judge’s Plea, Returns to Prison,” Robert Rudolph, the Star-Ledger, June 24, 1986) And again the next year, down in Gloucester County, New Jersey, stuffed into a basement holding cell with a dozen guys for days on end waiting to see Judge Clarkson Fisher, may he rest in peace. 

My friends suggested to me that it was nothing more than an obsession, this endless chasing of what was no more than a rumor. How could a whole new class of weapons with such devastating environmental consequences be unleashed upon the world, without any public debate whatsoever? Long I used to ponder this in all those jails, especially in the seg units, and especially when I was placed in special observation for a period of time, and had to answer to a psychiatrist. Where is the doctor today who can diagnosis the madness of our presidents and secretaries and joint chiefs and CEO’s, and recommend the appropriate therapy for all their delusions of grandeur (including such manifest criminal insanity as “The New American Century”)? Where is the psychoanalyst who can make clear to the world the collective insanity of depleted uranium weapons? For me the most discerning therapy came not from prison doctors but from my fellow inmates, who said, “Felton, you have to cool it. Go and live on the outside for a while, before you lose your wits.”

By the time I made my last pilgrimage to Picatinny Arsenal, during the 1991 Gulf War, the US prison population had doubled again, and crossed the one million mark. The secrecy about depleted uranium weaponry was maintained all that time — no one working on those hideous weapons felt compelled to speak out. We didn’t learn any details about DU shells until they were used in Iraq, causing cancer and birth defects both to the Iraqi people and also to US soldiers in the vicinity of burning tanks. Even those judges of mine who affirmed the validity of civil disobedience, such as Magistrate G. D. Haneke in Newark (the valedictorian at St. Peter’s College), still upheld and enforced the law and were not moved to ask military officials any questions about the research. Legally, that question simply did not arise in any of my trials. The courts never forbade me from taking the stand and discussing my fears and concerns, and never bent the rules to deprive me of due process, and never held me even one day beyond whatever sentence I received.

So today (40 years and 130 arrests later) I still treasure all the times when people of good will have gathered together to stand for what we always were supposed to be standing for, justice, equality, reconciliation, and peace. The day when nonviolence finally triumphs over violence, and love conquers hate, and, in the words of the Book of Revelation, “there is no more night.”

To think that in the midst of so much strife and conflict, there are still hints and suggestions and foreshadowings all around us, of a completely transformed world. To think that we are never really abandoned in our discouragement, never without a fellow traveler, never alone in the darkest cell and prison most remote. Our predecessors in the march for truth, our spiritual ancestors, have trodden this path and left their scratchings on the walls. In the words of James R. Lowell’s 19th century hymn,

“Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.”

Felton Davis is an antiwar activist and full-time volunteer at the New York City Catholic Worker; his photo sets from recent campaigns are posted at https://www.flickr.com/photos/felton-nyc/albums. Read other articles by Felton.