Profiles in (Non-Violent) Courage

This article is a mirror of the original published in the Cape Breton Spectator on September 5th, 2018

“No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. Or insane. … Whether Americans, Russians, and other humans can rise to the challenge of reversing these policies and eliminating the danger of near-term extinction caused by their own inventions and proclivities remains to be seen. I choose to join with others in acting as if that is still possible.” — Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine

On April 4 this year – the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – seven veteran Catholic Plowshares protesters cut open a padlocked perimeter gate separating the American public from the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Camden County, Georgia, home to weapons capable of killing – in ‘defense’ of freedom, democracy and the Republic – millions of civilians in minutes.

The Plowshares group has engaged in over 100 acts of anti-nuclear civil disobedience since a 1980 trespass at a GE Plant making warhead cones in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, led by legendary Catholic anti-war activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

Brought to Georgia by Democratic President Jimmy Carter (the state’s former governor) in 1979, Kings Bay – the largest nuclear sub base on Earth – is home port to six Ohio class vessels, each carrying up to 24 Lockheed Martin Trident D5 missiles, each carrying up to eight warheads of between 100 to 455 kilotons (5-25 ‘Hiroshimas’) in explosive yield. As National Interest article in September 2017, the “Ohio class boats” – known in subtle Navy parlance as ‘boomers’ – “may be the most destructive weapon system known to mankind.”

“A full salvo – which can be launched in less than one minute – could unleash up to 192 warheads to wipe twenty-four cities off the map. This is a nightmarish weapon of the apocalypse.” (The nightmare recurs in Britain, which uses the same D5 missiles for its so-called ‘independent’ nuclear force.)

In a stunning lapse of security, the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares 7’ – Carmen Trotta (55), Mark Colville (55), Clare Grady (59), Patrick O’Neill (61), Martha Hennessy (62), Fr. Steve Kelly (69), Liz McAlister (78, widow of Philip Berrigan) – spent over two hours on the base, placing crime tape across a nuclear warhead storage bunker, pouring bottles of their own blood on the ground, hanging banners (‘The ultimate logic of Trident is omnicide,’ next to Martin Luther King’s ‘The ultimate logic of racism is genocide’), spray-painting slogans (‘Love one another, ‘May love disarm us all’), leaving a copy of Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (dedicated ‘To those who struggle for a human future’), and issuing a detailed indictment against “the United States government, President Donald Trump, Kings Bay Base Commander Brian Lepine, the nuclear triad [land-, sea and air-launched weapons], and specifically the Trident nuclear program.”

When security finally arrived to stop these acts of “symbolic disarmament” – by which time, genuinely serious crimes could have been committed – the group was arrested and held at the Glynn County Detention Center, from where, on April 7, they wrote to Pope Francis “in a spirit of humility and love” with a “simple” request for “any intervention that your heart and conscience might move you to provide” on the basis of the Church’s long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons, “the mere building and possession” of which “represent not only a direct and immeasurable theft from the poor” but more fundamentally “an idolatrous blasphemy against God and all of creation.” (Thus far, at least publicly, the Pope has not responded.)

The US Navy's nuclear powered ballistic submarine, USS RHODE ISLAND (SSBN 740), leaves for an Atlantic patrol mission out of Kings Bay, Georgia. (Photo by Patrick Nugent, USN Civ. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The US Navy’s nuclear powered ballistic submarine, USS RHODE ISLAND (SSBN 740), leaves for an Atlantic patrol mission out of Kings Bay, Georgia. (Photo by Patrick Nugent, USN Civ., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On May 2 the Department of Justice issued a ‘ton of bricks’ indictment: three serious felonies, each punishable by lengthy sentences (5-10 years) – Conspiracy; Destruction of Property; Depredation of Government Property – and a lesser charge of Trespass (maximum 6 months). The defendants, the government asserted, “did willfully and maliciously destroy, injure, and attempt to destroy and injure, a structure and other real and personal property,” and “by means of cutting, painting and defacing,” caused damage “in excess of $1,000.”The next day, one of these dangerous hooligans, Mark Colville, wrote from his cell:

Once again, a federal court has plainly identified itself as another hall of the Pentagon by turning a blind eye to the criminal and murderous enterprise from which the Pentagon has repeatedly refused to desist for 73 years. According to international and constitutional law…the building and possession of first-strike nuclear weapons is a crime. Yet apparently the US District Court is content to let impunity and immunity reign supreme for those who hold all of humanity hostage by terroristic threat, choosing instead to criminalize the right and duty of nonviolent resistance.

Another of the vandals, Martha Hennessey, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, founder of the social justice Catholic Worker movement, declared that “the real conspiracy lies with those who create unparalleled omnicidal weapons that violate national and international law.”

On May 17, the Seven pled not guilty to all charges. Later that month, the four members of the group who “have family members to attend to,” as Martha Hennessey explained to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! (July 23), accepted an offer of house arrest for $50,000 bail and 24/7 surveillance (electronic ankle ‘shackles’).

The others – Colville, Kelly and McAlister – chose to remain incarcerated “in solidarity with innocent people, disproportionately black and Latino, across the United States who languish in jail awaiting due process,” victims of the “widespread practice of pretrial detention and excessive cash bail” (a sadistic practice just outlawed by California Governor Jerry Brown).

On July 2, the defendants’ lawyers filed a Motion to Dismiss  all charges, maintaining: 1) that the illegality of nuclear weapons under both US and international law means they cannot be accorded the same status, or afforded the same protection, as other government property; and 2) that the serious felony charges of conspiracy, destruction and depredation amount to “selective or vindictive prosecution,” contravene basic due process by charging “the same offence in more than one count,” and, given the group’s demonstrable Catholic ethos, constitute a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Tom Rogers, Jeff Carter, Francis Boyle, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

Tom Rogers, Jeff Carter, Francis Boyle, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

The motion was backed by four impressive Declarations, by professor of law Francis Boyle; Jeffrey Carter, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility; retired Catholic Bishop of Detroit Thomas Gumbleton; and retired US nuclear submarine commander Thomas Rogers.

Boyle argued that “any planning, preparation, conspiracy for threat or use of even one” Trident warhead “was and is unlawful.”

Carter argued that because “a meaningful medical response to any use of nuclear weapons would be impossible” – because “we cannot survey a nuclear war, let alone win one” – “our only option is to do everything we can in our power to prevent these weapons ever being used.”

Gumbleton argued that “Catholic teaching condemns nuclear weapons as immoral” and that “resisting such evil is not simply a matter of being responsible citizens” but “of safeguarding and deepening our spiritual well-being.”

Rogers argued that because “our government continues to rely” on the “dangerous, expensive, barbaric” strategy of nuclear ‘deterrence,’ “I applaud the courage and commitment of the Plowshares Activists in bringing national attention to this important issue.” “Their example of nonviolent individual responsibility,” he concluded:

…is the essence of good citizenship. Our world needs more people to act when our government is engaged in illegal and immoral policies. Nuclear weapons are evil and should be abolished worldwide under strict and effective international control.

For the government, however, none of this alters the solely pertinent fact: the moment the padlock was cut, the Seven crossed the line from law-abiding citizens to brazen criminals, and when the case goes to trial no consideration of motive or context should be allowed to influence the jury’s deliberation or judge’s sentence.

As Hennessey conceded to Goodman – when asked, “Will you be able to bring up your reasons for doing what you did?”

[The] federal courts have done an excellent job, since 1980, of disallowing any kind of necessity defense. Of course we want to talk about the Nuremberg principles. We want to talk about the Geneva Conventions. We want to talk about nuclear weapons, the Trident submarine system. But typically what has occurred is [that the] prosecution demands a whole list of terms that cannot be presented. So the jury never hears who we are, what we did, why we did what we did.

“So what do they think?” Goodman asked. Hennessey:

Well, everything gets reduced to destruction of property and trespass. We end up focusing on cut fences rather than focusing on what’s behind those fences.

As Mark Colville told Melinda Tuhus of Between the Lines by phone from prison on August 15:

The problem is that the way the law is applied in federal courts essentially puts nuclear weapons beyond the reach of the law. Their legality has never been challenged in a court of law, and…Plowshares cases are mostly designed to try and change that…It’s a sad commentary that citizens have to put themselves at such risk, both in terms of physical risk and then lengthy jail time, just to change that reality that they’ve managed to place nuclear weapons beyond the reach of law.

The courage of the group, then, extended to assuming it would receive an unfair trial and draconian sentence, a price considered worth paying to make their case in the court of public opinion: a dauntingly steep task in an age of mainstream media (and political parties) captive to corporate, often military-industrial, funding.

In the spirit of Dr. King, the group recognizes the perverse truth that, in an unjust society, jail is sometimes the right place for Christian (and other) ‘soldiers of peace’ to take the fight onward. The admirable website supporting their action has posted ‘Jail Reflections’ by Colville, Grady, McAlister and Kelly stressing the links between the levels of violence and oppression they abhor, in and outside prison.

Indeed, in ‘Rattling my Cage,’ (June 26) Colville – “viewing the world from the perspective of the bottom” – described ‘minimum security’ as “an increasingly apt description of US society these days”: prison, true, is a placeless place “specifically intended to prevent the possibility of healthy community living,” but so is a society wedded to radical racial and economic inequality, a vicious avarice coded deep in the ‘DNA’ of a still-colonial America.

“Decolonization,” Grady wrote on May 29, “is the putting into practice of this sentence: ‘The last shall be first and the first last,’” adding that as “awful” as Camden County jail is, “I am right where I need to be…” – prisoner 015632, in cell C-107-b – …it all comes together here.”

McAlister, noting (May 5) “our country bound itself in 1970 to the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] which seeks ‘the cessation of the arms race,” insists the “work being done at Kings Bay” violates not just that Treaty but the UN Charter, the core tenets of international humanitarian law, and “is thus a great crime.”

And Kelly (April 30) declared: “So we await, from the bowels of our southeast Georgia keep, the next of the three phases (action, trial, prison) of the Kings Bay Plowshares witness,” undertaken “to figuratively hammer the Judiciary in an attempt to convert the courts from legitimizer of nuclear holocaust to abolition plowshare.” And “hammer we will, despite seeming failure.”

Goodman concluded her interview with Hennessey and fellow house-arrested group member Carmen Trotta, by wondering how they were planning for “the years in prison that you face?” Hennessy said it was “hard to say” while Trotta added, “I’m not sure there is a way to prepare.”

For Hennessey, her two months on remand were a painful “taste” of the “stripping-down process” that “life would be like” – though she was now even more convinced “the works of mercy require us to attend to the imprisoned,” even to the extent of “living with them.”

After his two months behind bars, Trotta “realized that the greatest fear about prison” is not violence (although the danger is ever-present, not least “from the guards”) but “depression about having your life so neutralized, so stopped short, which is why I say write cards to people, keep in touch, because there did come a time when I thought to myself, ‘You know, brother, you are sleeping too much, because there’s nothing outside that cell door to go to…’”

The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 appeared in court in Brunswick, Georgia, on August 2, where Magistrate Stan Baker said he would rule soon on the Motion to Dismiss; his finding will then be referred to a District Court Judge, Lisa Godbey Wood. At which point – barring, in Hennessey’s words, the “miracle” that the US Justice system will “do what’s right” – a date will be set for a trail without relevant evidence and testimony.

They will not walk into court alone. The progressive, uncorrupted press will be watching, and the peace movement ‘agitating;’ from September 3-14, for example, a group of DISARM TRIDENT activists – part of the broader ‘Voices for Creative Nonviolence’ movement – will walk in solidarity with the Plowshares Seven “down the length of Georgia’s coast from Savannah to Kings Bay.”

Other ways to ‘Continue the Witness’ – vigils, public meetings, contacting the Seven (by postcard) directly – are detailed on the campaign website and sympathetic Spectatorreaders are encouraged to send messages of support and solidarity from Canada.

But will the general American public – its representatives so often in thrall to that sleepwalking giant, the Doomsday Machine – learn of their fate or be inspired to reflect on the fate of the earth?

Sean Howard

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.

Thank you to the Cape Breton Spectator for permission to cross-post this article!