The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An ex-priest, a flier and the arrest that legalized protests at Md. homes

Phillip Schuller’s short-lived 1976 demonstration at Donald Rumsfeld’s house is protecting some abortion rights protests today

Phillip Schuller, 68, protested briefly during college in 1976. His case ultimately overturned a Maryland anti-picketing law. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

Four decades ago, Phillip Schuller stumbled into history, joining a demonstration that involved an ex-priest, 10 pints of blood and Donald H. Rumsfeld’s front lawn.

Schuller’s 1976 arrest ultimately upended Maryland’s law banning protests outside private residences. And it’s a key reason why, today, abortion rights activists can picket in front of the suburban Maryland homes of conservative Supreme Court justices.

“It’s correct to say that thanks to him, they’re not getting arrested,” said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

“I was young and crazy then,” Schuller, now 68, reflected last week from his Pittsburgh home.

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In the spring of 1976, Schuller was an impetuous sociology major at Slippery Rock State College in western Pennsylvania. He saw a bulletin-board flier about a nuclear proliferation protest near D.C., he recalled, “and I said that I’m going to that.”

He stayed up until 2 a.m. baking bread, boarded a bus to Maryland the next day with no expectations, and found himself at a Catholic Worker House with some of the Vietnam War era’s most iconic peace activists, including the former priest Philip Berrigan, fresh out of jail for digging a grave in the Pentagon lawn.

Schuller knew of Berrigan and his brother Daniel J. Berrigan, still in the priesthood, who together had shaped the era’s antiwar movement through colorful, high-profile activism. Schuller saw older boys get drafted, watched antiwar protests on TV and narrowly avoided the war himself: It ended after he went for his draft physical but before his number was called.

“I was a little young to do much protesting against Vietnam, and I didn’t,” Schuller said. “But I was oriented and came of age during Vietnam.”

The looming threat and his Christian upbringing shaped a lifelong feeling that he should look for “the clear moral high ground,” he said. The flier on campus felt like an invitation.

But he had no idea the group would be so intense: The activists, he learned, planned to light a bonfire of tax forms and spray 10 pints of their own blood on the Pentagon.

“They were heavy,” Schuller said. “They were very heavy.”

Already, the Berrigans each had served years-long prison sentences for stealing hundreds of draft cards and destroying them with homemade napalm. After the war ended, they had turned their focus to pacifism and civil disobedience in protest of militarization.

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A key part of the strategy, according to planning documents, was to rally college students against nuclear weapons. The April 1976 protest Schuller had happened upon was a precursor to what would become the pacifist Plowshares movement.

“Our country and the U.S.S.R. have enough nuclear weapons right now to destroy everyone on earth several times over. This possession in itself is immoral,” the organizers wrote in letters to Rumsfeld, who was then the secretary of defense. “The options for the American people are clear. To fight for disarmament or to dig graves.”

Ahead of the event at the Pentagon, the organizers held a four-day vigil outside Rumsfeld’s home, in the Maryland suburb of Bethesda. In a bulletin to supporters afterward, preserved today in the Berrigan Library Collection at DePaul University, organizers wrote that 40 people came, from Massachusetts, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

“As a paragon of power, Mr. Rumsfeld had to consider that his high position … does not exempt him from responsibility to our home family,” the bulletin said.

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Schuller arrived midway through the last day of protests, he said, and wasn’t there long before the police showed up and said the activists had to leave. Most in the core group complied. Schuller did not.

“I just felt it was a public street,” he said. “It was just a spur-of-the-moment decision. I didn’t really think it through.” Arrested and charged with illegally picketing a protest, he went to jail with a few others for the afternoon. The man who would change Maryland law was absent for the main protest.

The next day, Philip Berrigan got arrested in front of the Pentagon, having helped dump blood on nine of the 16 columns at the building’s river entrance, and spattering a number of security guards, too. The group also burned tax forms, in protest of tax dollars funding nuclear weapons. “A symbol of death purchased by war taxes,” the bulletin explained, adding that activists had mixed ashes with blood and smeared that on the columns, too. This time, all 17 protesters were arrested.

Four months after that, Philip Berrigan was arrested outside Rumsfeld’s house with two other people. This time, they dug graves in the front lawn.

By then, Schuller had long since gone back to Pennsylvania and his life at Slippery Rock. He took over his dad’s construction business in Pittsburgh after graduation. He fell into a series of odd jobs, following the same urge to find something new. Eventually, he got into computer programming, and he largely left activism behind, spending his free time playing jazz gigs with his guitar and harmonica.

He would have simply left his picketing arrest behind, too, but the ACLU asked whether it could defend him instead.

Schuller was in Pennsylvania when he was convicted that June. At trial — in a question that foreshadowed objections to abortion rights protests today — the judge asked Schuller’s lawyer, “When is Mr. Rumsfeld supposed to get his rest?”

Schuller got a light sentence: five days in jail, suspended until he completed 10 days of unsupervised probation. But he and another college-age man, Sean Ozzie Simpkins, agreed to let the ACLU appeal their convictions.

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In May 1977, deciding the appeal known as State v. Schuller, Maryland’s highest court declared state law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments in barring picketing in front of residences. Judges unanimously agreed the law was “unconstitutional on its face because it unreasonably and improperly impinges upon the defendants’ rights of Freedom of Speech and Assembly.”

Rocah, the Maryland ACLU attorney, said State v. Schuller blocked Maryland authorities from arresting people simply for picketing outside a home. Subsequent federal court rulings, he said, have reinforced and strengthened protesters’ right to be in a public arena, so long as they don’t stay still targeting a single home.

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“There seems to be a narrative out there that what people are doing is clearly illegal, and they’re just getting away with it,” Rocah said. “What they’re doing is not actually illegal.”

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Some calling for an end to the protests, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), have cited a federal law that prohibits demonstrations intended to sway a judge’s opinion. So far, federal authorities have not intervened.

Virginia, though, has an anti-picketing law that local authorities could try to enforce. Schuller’s legacy means Maryland does not.

“If I played a part in keeping an avenue of expression open, I feel good about that,” he said last week. But, for years, he thought he had been in the right place at the right time in 1976 for a different reason.

The night before his arrest, as he told it, the activists had held a Mass at their house. It was the week of Easter, and Philip Berrigan — that rabble-rousing ex-priest, that antiwar icon — needed bread for Communion.

Schuller was not Catholic, but he still had his 2 a.m. loaf. He offered it up.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated Daniel J. Berrigan’s first name. This version has been corrected.

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