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Views "from Space:" the Prisoner of Conscience

Draft resisters Fr. Tony Mullaney, Jim Forest and John Bach endured federal sentences savoring the victory of permanently effacing the War Department’s draft record, sparing lives. Forest would call his year in prison a sabbatical.

When he received a NASA photograph of Earth through the prison mail, Forest contemplated it for hours. Bach, recalled his "draft bit" an ideal compared to the floating space station Metropolitan Correctional Center. The maximum security prison was “a Bicentennial metaphor,” he wrote to supporters, for how out of touch the country was, the best it could see to make off the poor while it waged fronts increasing the gap of the rich and poor, sustaining “a permanent war economy, a permanent national security, a permanent emergency.” Eleven stories up from “Park Row” in New York City, he felt so isolated the street might as well have been in Paris or Rome. By then  Forest was on a caper in Paris with a friend climbing the roof of the Chartres cathedral. 

In his memoir Writing Straight with Crooked Lines (Orbis 2020), Jim Forest reflects on a minor victory during the trial of the Milwaukee 14 of which Forest was co-defendant with Fr. Tony Mullaney. On May 5, 1969 Judge Charles Larson, Wisconsin commander of the American Legion, father of a Vietnam veteran, and a devout Roman Catholic had in his docket five Catholic priests and one Christian Brother. Would he accept the New Testament as an exhibit?

Judge Larson had rejected the defense exhibits from the Congressional Record’s list of the war dead and Pope John’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, Gordon Zahn’s history of the Catholic Church in Hitler’s Germany, and now he turned away the New Testament—fearing “to admit the New Testament into evidence may create substantial danger of undue prejudice or of misleading the jury.”

The prosecution objected to the testimony of Marvin Gettleman, historian of the Vietnam War. Given Gettleman’s accounting that the war in Vietnam crippled the nation’s war on poverty, prosecutor Samson surprisingly carried the defense’s argument when he admitted before the court, “Everyone knows that the war is taking money away from urban planning” (Forest 199). While the testimony would be ruled irrelevant by Judge Larson, allowances like these were savored in answer to both legal strategy and prayer.

Between arrest and preliminary hearings, the co-defendants were housed together and they organized a rotating teach-in. Fr. Tony Mullaney, a Benedictine monk taught his codefendants the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Mullaney, who left the monastery after nineteen years to serve in Roxbury, MA took his turn with a justification defense during the trial, explaining an important element of his intent to act was anger at the nation’s lack of defense against poverty, ignited from his experience “where poverty is perhaps at its worst. In Roxbury, your defenses are shattered the day you arrive.”

See "Another priest: Close up portrait of Father Anthony Mullaney, a Catholic priest from Boston and member of the Milwaukee 14, ca. September 24, 1968." Liberation News Service Records (MS 546). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries


The prosecutor of Government's case against the Milwaukee 14 had long resigned as Assistant District Attorney, and in 1974 was devoting himself to Black civil rights cases."Negroes in this country are being sent to jail like Jews to Aushwitz," he said in his office on his last day, crediting the activists for the turning point. "That trial tore me up. I'm still not sure what they accomplished politically. But whatever religion is, they're where it's at....What the hell do you expect when a great priest like Mullaney leaves his monastery after nineteen years to see what life is like in Roxbury, Massachusetts?" (Forest 202).

Jim Forest first met Robert Ellsberg as teen. He and the son of Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers reunited on a visit to Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s apartment in Paris and on a lark together they climbed to the roof of Chartres cathedral. As they climbed the cathedral tower, John Bach, aka Federal inmate 26116-145, was escorted inside the concrete federal architecture of New York City’s MCC and dropped off in 11S, a floating dorm 11 stories above the street. Because of severe overcrowding he beds in a lawn-chair cot between dormitory bunks. The next morning he writes: “There’s a magnificent view from the 11th floor here…. But there’re no sounds. Nothing. Just the damn white hum of the goddam air conditioner vents. More mood control. You feel so isolated, so amputated from the streets below, which could be Paris.” (64, 65). A few days later : “I keep forgetting that I’m in New York. I could just as well be in a floating space station.” (67).

Jim Forest received from NASA a packet containing an 8 ½ x 11-inch color photograph of the Earth made from the actual negative, taken by an astronaut on the Apollo 1 moon voyage in July 1969. After noting “the Overview Effect” and documenting astronauts Michael Collins, Alan Shepard, Yuri Artyushkin and Edgar Mitchel account for the global consciousness, Forest writes: “Many hours of my time in prison were spent contemplating that photo, and it still stops me in my tracks” (208).

For Mullaney another aspect was “fear of a very deep and very pervasive polarization that is going on in the United States…. We are a nation that’s very seriously divided…black-white, rich-poor, young-old…the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless. My participation in the burning of draft records was my attempt to say something about the polarization, which, if it is not checked, is going to lead to great disaster in this nation. Polarization has led to disaster. 

Likewise prophetic, in what he calls “a Bicentennial metaphor,” Bach points to the interlocking prison-military-industrial complex: “In the future, progressive prisons will have addresses like “Park Row” and look like common apartment buildings. …The New York City prototype will be duplicated in Detroit and Phoenix. They will also be called Metropolitan Correctional Centers.

“New federal prisons are scheduled to open for business and profit in the near future in locations throughout the country, perhaps as a Bicentennial metaphor for where we're heading with a permanent war economy, a permanent national security, a permanent emergency.

"...national priorities which put more heat on the already oppressed. New prisons will only produce new inmates and more delusion. Empty beds will be filled quickly with the young, poor and non-white, 85% of whom, by everybody's admission, pose no danger to the safety of the citizenry.

--John Bach, Short Time: A Season’s Prison Journal. Self-published, 1975. 74.

In conclusion, if the depth of perception and integrity of the prisoner of conscience, even to himself, is highly ideal--space is a vantage point, a metaphor for the disconnection prisoners of conscience can feel. The activist outlook as it compares to the view from space closely resembles what penitentiaries were designed to create, a more noble view of human insignificance in the grand scheme of creation. Contemplation from within prison expresses a singular hope for human society to overcome desperate divisions. Courtesy of Forest, a few of the astronauts quotes he uses to indicate the direction of his own view of the great turning.

Apollo 11 crew member Michael Collins: "I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important [national] border would be invisible.... The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The Earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, nor envious or envied."

The Russian cosmonaut Yuri Artyushkin said, "It isn't important in which sea or lake you observe a slick of pollution or in the forests of which country a fire breaks out, or on which continent a hurricane arises. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth."

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth human being to moon walk said, "From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, [as Pelosi cajoled Manchin and Sinema to Get on board] 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"(Forest 208).

11 people are in space at two orbiting space stations. Perhaps they share the view of Jessica Reznicek writing from prison "at times still in shock about where I am and for how long I'll be here. One day at a time! Thank you again for your prayers and love, Peace, Jessica Reznicek”

SIGN THE PETITION for Jessica: she serves an 8-year sentence for damaging the Dakota Access Pipeline Protecting Water is Never Terrorism:


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