For the past two-and-a-half years it has been my privilege to support the Kings Bay Plowshares. They are seven disarmament activists who entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia by night on April 4, 2018 — the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s martyrdom — to confront the Trident nuclear weapon system and engage in an act of disarmament. The seven poured human blood on signs and missile models, unfurled peace banners and used household tools to begin symbolic disarmament of Trident, a submarine based first strike nuclear missile, termed by the Navy as a “strategic” weapon.
The seven have subsequently been charged and convicted in a jury trial of three felonies and a misdemeanor in federal court. All but one have been sentenced, to date, some as recently as last week by Federal Judge Lisa Godbey Wood in Brunswick, Georgia. Their legal odyssey has been protracted, in part by important legal proceedings and in part by the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
My invitation to walk with these peacemakers came in 2018 as an outgrowth of longstanding personal friendships with each of them. It also came as a result of my own experience and commitment to explaining and supporting the basic idea of these Plowshares actions, as they have proliferated a hundred-fold since 1980.
Patrick O’Neill, a participant in the Kings Bay action, and I were involved together with six others in the 1984 Pershing Plowshares action at Martin Marietta (now Martin Lockheed) in Orlando, Florida. I also served as a primary support person for the three Transform Now Plowshares activists who similarly acted at the Y12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 2012. They won a federal appeal of their sabotage conviction and were released from prison after two years.
The Kings Bay Plowshares, from the outset of their 2018 action, placed it in the context of nonviolent resistance compelled by conscience, as all the Plowshares actions are. They understand it as rooted in the powerful nonviolent vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who decried the triple evils of racism, militarism and capitalism. King proclaimed “our only hope lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”
At the sentencing of the defendants in June, October and November, Judge Wood made a great deal of the issue of acceptance of responsibility for their actions. She spoke to each of the activists about the need to follow the law and not to pick and choose which laws one would follow. In this, she was giving voice to the recommendations of the pre-sentencing report and the prosecution led by the U.S. attorney’s office. In addition, she accepted the prosecution’s argument that they had in the course of their action precipitated “the risk of death,” which was a novel element never asserted before in such a case. But that served to increase their legal liability and procedurally required imprisonment rather than lesser punishment such as home confinement.
The veneer of reasonability that Judge Wood attempts to impart is exposed as a lie, however, if we resist the amnesia that is necessary for her and the prosecution to make these claims with a straight face. A verse of scripture (Mark 8:18) offers pertinent perspective here: “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?”
These defendants have never denied that they entered the Kings Bay Naval Base on April 4, 2018 to confront the Trident nuclear weapon system. They signed a statement of conscience to that effect and used video equipment to memorialize their act of disarmament. In fact, the whole point of their entry onto the base was an attempt to unveil Trident as illegal and immoral for its intended purpose — to threaten and — when launched — to destroy hundreds of millions of human lives. They carried banners denouncing Trident as “illegal and immoral” and as “omnicide.” Their indictment of the government, the Pentagon and the Kings Bay base specifically invoked the Nuremberg Principles, which were established after World War II to hold Nazis accountable for horrors shocking to the conscience.
They have used that message in the courtroom during the pretrial proceedings and at trial through their arguments and testimony. They persisted despite objections and restrictions that prevented a trial jury from hearing much of their claim that it is Trident and the legal apologia for it that is the great underlying crime leading to their action.
Bluntly put, it is our legal system that is deeply afflicted by the blindness and deafness described by the Gospel of Mark. This malady was on display again at the sentencing of the Kings Bay Plowshares defendants. The court has ignored the trial record and its own findings, recognizing a prima facia case that the seven acted from sincerely held religious beliefs consistent with their Catholic faith and acknowledging the “sacramental and prophetic action of denuclearizing.” The court acknowledged that fact in a lengthy pretrial ruling on defense of the action under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. However, it found that a compelling government interest in national security was even more important than the exercise of religious freedom.
Liz McAlister, in pretrial testimony concerning the relevance of RFRA, reprised her longstanding thesis that there is a state religion of nuclearism complete with all the elements of a religion — including deities and high priests — that compels allegiance. It prohibits dissent and exercise of religious faith contrary to nuclearism, including exercise of conscience, nonviolence and justice. As the court affirmed, nuclear idols are primary under the law. Her full exposition of this argument can be found in her book, written with her late husband Philip Berrigan, “The Times Discipline: The Beatitudes and Nuclear Resistance.”
Rev. Steve Kelly, on the eve of his sentencing, declared himself “a political prisoner of conscience for Christ,” pledging not to comply with any terms of release the court may impose on him, adding that “In conscience, I can’t let any court order or threaten to restrict me from imitation of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, when he placed himself, laying down his life between the wolf, the thief and the flock. In this case, the wolf is the Trident aimed at millions and the thief is the larceny from the poor predicted by Eisenhower in his Oval Office departure.”
Clare Grady offered a powerful presentation of 12 points of personal meditation, and encouraged listening to women, confronting and resisting Trident and the triple evils as fidelity to God and to higher law. She said to Judge Wood, “I believe it is a Christian calling to withdraw consent, interrupt our consent, from killing in our name. To do so is an act of love, an act of justice, a sacred act that brings us into right relationship with God and neighbor. This is what brings me before this court today for sentencing.”
Martha Hennessy presented four character witnesses and then addressed the court, “I stand here as a result of my conviction that calls me to point out that nuclear weapons are illegal … I am attempting to help transform the fundamental values of public life. I am willing to suffer for the common good and for our sin of not loving our brothers and sisters, a condition that leads to war … I have no criminal intent; I want to help prevent another nuclear holocaust. The spirit of the law contained in international treaties for disarmament is very clear, to prevent mass murder on an incomprehensible scale.”
She closed her heartfelt sentencing allocution by saying, “In these times of dire economic conditions for millions of U.S. citizens we can no longer afford this military machine, and must work to save our society’s soul from the seductions of empire. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount.”
To date, six of the activists have been sentenced. In June, Liz McAlister was sentenced to time served, given the 17 months she had spent in pretrial detention at Glynn County Jail in Georgia.
In October, Steve Kelly was sentenced to 33 months imprisonment, roughly time served. He had been detained from the day of the action until sentencing, which is almost 30 months. He still remains at Glynn County Jail, awaiting transport by U.S. marshalls to Tacoma, Washington, to answer a federal warrant from a previous Plowshares action. Patrick O’Neill was sentenced to 14 months in prison and is due to report in mid-January to begin that sentence.
In November, Carmen Trotta was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment; he expects to begin his sentence in December. Clare Grady was sentenced to 12 months and expects to begin her sentence in February. Martha Hennessy was sentenced to 10 months and expects to begin her sentence in December.
The final defendant, Mark Colville, is scheduled to face Judge Wood for sentencing on Dec. 18.
A line from the song “I Had No Right” by Dar Willliams reverberates in my head as I think of the spirit the Kings Bay Plowshares embody with their action, courtroom presence and coming prison witness: “It’s a long road from law to justice.”