ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Jim Mengel, 91, watched neighborhoods in the Twin Cities burn from his room at a senior care center after the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American who died while pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Largely keeping to his room at Cerenity Senior Care in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, to avoid contracting COVID-19, Mengel, who is white, followed via TV the protests, which led to several days of riots, looting and arson, and the calling up of the National Guard.
The situation led him to reflect on his own political activism and the legacy of the Berrigan brothers — the late Minnesota natives Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother, former Josephite Father Philip Berrigan, who led protests against the Vietnam War and at times were arrested and criticized for their tactics. Philip Berrigan also was excommunicated from the Catholic Church after marrying a former nun.
Mengel, a United Church of Christ pastor when he joined Philip Berrigan as one of the “Baltimore Four” — who occupied the Selective Service Board in the Customs House in Baltimore Oct. 27, 1967, and poured blood on draft records — said he and the Berrigan brothers acted against the violence of the Vietnam War.
With Floyd’s death and other police-related deaths of African Americans around the country the past several years, the violence of war appears to be perpetrated on American citizens, he said.
“They ought to be recognized in this day and age as real prophets,” said Mengel, speaking of the Berrigan brothers, Philip, who was born in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and Daniel, who was born in Virginia, Minnesota. “The police are in a sense at war with civilians in our own country. It’s coming to the fore. I think people in general maybe are getting this.”
Protests after Floyd’s death swept the country, and Mengel spoke with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, only days before President Donald Trump signed an executive order on law enforcement reform June 16.
The order provides incentives to police departments to adopt new standards for the use of force; to encourage mental health professionals to respond with officers on calls dealing with such issues as mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness; and to create a national database allowing departments to track potential hires with records of abuse.
A Pennsylvania native who 30 years ago became a Catholic and who could walk to Mass at his parish church, St. Mary of the Lake, before the pandemic, Mengel said he believes money spent on military-style guns and heavy equipment for police should go instead toward preventing the need for that kind of police protection by “trying to help people with their problems, whatever they are.”
“We don’t help people by beating up on them,” he said. “There may be a slight need for the kind of policing we have. But generally, and from my own experience with police, you don’t need that kind of action. We’re tearing ourselves apart. It’s like suicide.”
Mengel said that in Baltimore, he and the three others involved in the action — Philip Berrigan, an artist named Tom Lewis and a writer named David Eberhardt — drew their own blood before they entered the Selective Service office. They added blood from a local butcher shop.
Mengel did not pour blood, instead opting to hand out paperback versions of the New Testament to draft board workers, news media and police. Berrigan was sentenced to six years in prison, Eberhardt and Lewis served jail time, and Mengel served five years of probation.
Raising two young children at the time with his late wife, Norma, Mengel decided not to pursue future actions against the war that would break the law. But he continued to attend war protests, and in later years he protested against other wars, as well as against abortion.
About 30 years ago, he and Norma moved to White Bear Lake, northeast of the Twin Cities, to be close to their children and grandchildren.
Mengel said his beliefs are based on Christ’s words and actions, and trying to live those words in his own life.
“Christ came to give us peace, not violence and war. That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’m not important. Christ is. Jesus is, and everything that follows from that.”
Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.