Can the Religious Left Take Down Nuclear Weapons?

by Sam Husseini, published on CounterPunch, November 22, 2019

Pope Francis will travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki this weekend. On Sunday, he will give a public address at the ground-zero site of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. He is expected to give the clearest articulation yet of the Vatican’s position, since 2017, that condemns the “very possession” of nuclear weapons. This is something Plowshares activists have been arguing — and acting upon — since 1980.

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Prosecutor E. Greg Gilluly railed to the jury as he held up a copy of Daniel Ellsberg’s book — The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner: It was evidence, but not “for the truth of it.” Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the US District Court for the Southern District of Georgia only grudgingly allowed the book to be entered into evidence since the seven activists, who could face decades in prison, had left it at Kings Bay base which houses the Trident submarine nuclear weapons arsenal on the Atlantic coast.

In her testimony, Plowshares defendant Clare Grady of the Ithaca, New York Catholic Worker community tried to explain to the jury the motivation and urgency of the group: US government is using nuclear weapons daily as a gun pointed at the head of the planet. But even as she spoke, she had a series of legal guns pointed at her own head. She and her fellow defendants had been threatened with contempt if they disobeyed Wood’s edict not to cite evidence or legal arguments that might result in acquittal. As law professor Francis Boyle  warned before the trial:

“This is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp and a railroad all put together.”

So, Grady and the six others — the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 — pleaded with the jury to look to their conscience. The activists were following the biblical edict to turn swords into plowshares, after all. But the jury seemingly didn’t crack open either Ellsberg’s book or their hearts, deciding on guilty verdicts on all four counts, including conspiracy, destruction of property and depredation, against all seven defendants in under two hours late last month.

Defendant Elizabeth McAlister, the 79-year-old widow of Phil Berrigan from Jonah House in Baltimore, who donated her own blood for the action said:

“The government has set up a religion of nuclearism. It is terrifying and dead, dead wrong. It is a form of idolatry in this culture.”

If that seems like hyperbole, consider that Wood allowed prosecution witnesses to state — under oath — that they could “neither confirm or deny” the existence of nuclear warheads at the base. The defense had objected to this — which had been allowed in prior trials of Plowshares activists — in pretrial motions, but as with much else, the prosecution got away with things without so much as an objection being heard by the jury. Thus Wood effectively denied the central empirical reality of the case, that Kings Bay houses six Trident submarines each submarine can carry 24 submarine-launched ballistic missiles designated Trident D5. Each of those missiles can carry up to eight 100-kiloton nuclear warheads — about 30 times the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb. All the while, the defense was effectively dismissed for acting on their “subjective” beliefs.

After entering the base on April 4, 2018, exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, McAlister, Steven Kelly, a Jesuit priest, and Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker went to “limited area.” Like a prophetic expedition of Fivers out of Watership Down that had seen the signs that others couldn’t understand, they went down Rabbit Run Road to the actual weapons.

Trotta testified of looking over the bunkers. “Each one of them the equivalent of a mass grave … and that’s an understatement.” But the meaning of “bunker,” like much else, was likely obscure to the jury. They may well have thought of defensive fallout shelters for people, not casings for offensive nuclear weapons. Indeed, at one point a the judge — while the jury was out of the courtroom — read a question from a juror who was puzzling over whether there were actually nuclear weapons at the base.

Mark Colville of the Amistad Catholic Worker House in New Haven and Pat O’Neill went to a monument to nuclear weapons at the base. They wrote Swords into Plowshares” and “Idol” on the missiles. Colville tore down the backlit lettering of the command: “STRATEGIC WEAPONS FACILITY ATLANTIC,” hung banners such as “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide” and spilled blood on the emblem of the command, representing both their religious beliefs and the blood of the victims of US foreign policy — in sacramental language, “making the invisible visible.”

O’Neill took a hammer to missile replicas while wearing a head mounted camera to actually document his “crime.” So the jury saw eerie footage of his shadow swinging a hammer upon upon a replica of a Trident missile. As the shadow of the hammer approaches the surface of the missile, the actual hammer becomes visible and strikes the missile.

One of the guilty charges was “depredation” defined by Wood as “rob, plunger or lay waste” but obviously the activists were not stealing and a case could be made that they made the items of greater value — even artistic value. As even prosecution acknowledged at one point, they “transformed” what they saw.

Grady and Martha Hennessy went to the administrative building, spray painted “May Love Disarm Us All” on the sidewalk, posted an indictment of the base and left the Ellsberg book.

Indeed, the book was the one item the prosecution didn’t place into evidence. Special Officer Kenney, a juiced up contemporary Officer Obie from “Alice’s Restaurant” produced photo after photo of Kind bar wrappers, spray paint cans, as well as the the actual fence the activists cut through to get into the base. The purpose of his prolonged testimony was ostensibly to “prove” that the activists did what they openly declared they did, but the actual effect allowed the prosecution to continually depict the defendants as vandals and to portray the government as the source of “facts.”

The government produced “witnesses” — security people who dealt with the activists — but never the first ones who came across them; ie, it’s quite likely that the government produced people at trial based on their willingness to portray the activists in the most negative light. Grady at one point cross examined Kenney, who had claimed the activists had put “caution” tape — compelling him to concede that they in fact clearly had put “crime scene” tape.

At 10:10 p.m. on the Friday before the trial began the following Monday, Wood ruled against virtually all affirmative defenses, writing that the international law defense that Boyle had enabled in past cases at the state level would not be allowed. Wood wrote:

“whether nuclear weapons are *actually illegal under international or domestic law…is not relevant or an appropriate issue to litigate in this case.”

Thus, the court adopted the relativism of the government while posing as a neutral upholder of “truth” and “law.”

In his closing arguments Gilluly demanded the jury render a verdict based on US law, “not some other law that someone else wants to believe in.” But part of the point of Boyle’s argument is that international law is part of US domestic law.

With expert testimony excluded, the court room became the domain of an authoritarianism without authority.

Wood repeatedly warned the jury of fliers they might receive from the scores of supporters for the activists assembled, allegedly since what is written on the flyer might “not be true.” “Anyone can write anything on a flier” said Wood, thus pretending that her criteria for evidence being admitted was based on search for fact rather than upon government interest.

Wood’s statements that the burden of proof was on the government and the defense “need not present evidence” — a phrase that typically helps the defense — took an extremely ironic, insidious meaning since she was actively preventing the defense from introducing entire bodies of evidence.

And while the activists were deemed guilty of “conspiracy” — there was ample evidence that the actual conspiracy at play was between the judge and prosecution. Time and again, Wood sustained all but the most laughable of the prosecutions objections, and at times seemed to be doing their thinking for them. Over and over, some movement by the activists was cut off, a sidebar was called and the line of questioning was dropped.

Another defense rendered mute by Wood was that of necessity or justification as  Ellsberg had filed an affidavit with the court arguing that the defendants were justified in their actions because they are attempting to prevent

“omnicide, the collateral murder of nearly every human on earth in a war in which the nuclear missiles aboard Trident submarines were launched.”

Ellsberg in his declaration also highlighted the history of civil disobedience, echoing testimony by Howard Zinn in a prior plowshares case.

But without an outside party to make the case, it was raised by the defendants themselves — though they spoke of “civil resistance,” not “disobedience,” since they assert they are upholding the law. Prosecutor Karl Knoche derided Grady: “You get to decide to run red lights,” accusing her of being a “bully” — while he was attempting convict her for crimes that could send her to prison for the next 20 years.

But Colville would later talk about how he ran every single red light when he drove his wife to the hospital to give birth. And Grady later cited a statement from Martin Luther King: “when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way.” Effectively a necessity defense was articulated to a degree, since the prosecution had opened the door to it, but it was not sufficiently fleshed out.

There was insufficient challenge to the prosecution “run red light” soundbite to the effect that it’s the government that’s running every red light on the planet by careening its massive nuclear weapons arsenal. Not just the illegality, but the reality, destructive power and threatening first strike capacities of Trident were not allowed. The fears of the defendants may as well have been like a child afraid of the monsters in the dark. Ironically, much of the thus far paltry media coverage of the trial, even that which is seemingly sympathetic to the activists, similarly avoided legal defenses and articulating the threat of Trident.

The extreme threat of Trident was made especially clear years ago by the whistle blower Robert Aldridge, a former a missile designer for Lockheed, who went public, highlighting that it even violated prevailing international political theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which dictated that both the US and the USSR were safe from nuclear war because they would both be assured of annihilation. Trident, because of it’s ability to go to the shores of Russia and because of its accuracy would effectively force the USSR/Russia to be on a hair trigger alert to avoid having their command and control being obliterated. This is a process the US is accelerating.

Indeed, there’s a deep seated connection between such direct action such as the Plowshares actions and whistleblowers. The Plowshares activists are effectively highlighting secrets in plain sight. The extraordinary threat that nuclear weapons pose is continuously averted. Ellsberg in his affidavit for the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 notes that he himself was inspired to expose the Pentagon Papers because of religiously inspired direct actions against draft boards, writing “I am a link in Frank Kroncke’s causal chain.”

Hennessy’s testimony initially seemed a high point for the defense. To the palpable relief of supporters of the defendants filling the pews, the defense was finally able to able to speak meaningfully about their religious motivations. Hennessy talked about her grandmother, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, how she is up for sainthood and their work with the poor. She spoke about how she gave her a book on the Hiroshima bombing as a child, how she opposed nuclear weapons and more.

But any empirical connection to nuclear weapons was not allowed. Thus, Hennessy was not even allowed to speak about how she worked with victims of atomic bombing as an occupational therapist.

Then the prosecution asked Hennessy if in prior Plowshares actions, others had been prosecuted. She simply answered “yes” and her attorney didn’t follow up to remedy the situation.

In fact, Art Laffin, editor of the two-volume work Swords into Plowshares, who spoke to supporters at a nearby church one night after their common dinners noted of the 100 actions since 1980, there have been “several Plowshares actions where people were not charged with a felony; Aegis Plowshares in 1991 in Maine; Riverside Plowshares in 2004 in NYC and Crane Plowshares in 2011 in Kansas City, MO.”

That serious problem for the defense from Hennessy’s testimony would then be compounded.

O’Neill, a jovial father of six from North Carolina was especially effective in attempting to overcome any anti-Catholic prejudices the jury may have had, referring to himself as a “Christian” while the others had repeatedly branded themselves “Catholics”. While the centuries-long debate of “faith vs works” seemed a subtext in the trial, O’Neill engaging talked about “one Bible”.

However, his free spirited style under cross examination had him blurt out: “if you do the crime, you do the time.” He would later attempt to walk that back, but the prosecution predictably went to town on the statement, quoting it twice in their closing arguments.

By managing to invoke their sincere religious beliefs, the defense succeeded in ensuring that the case was not just about bolt cutters — but those beliefs were ultimately amorphous. And an actual defense based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the first attempt in this kind of case — was prohibited by Wood  because of an alleged compelling government interest. Before the trial began, Wood also claimed that the government had used the least restrictive means to stop the activists.

Religious liberty” has been seemingly monopolized by the right, see a recent report from the The Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School. Wood’s decisions ensured that Fordam University theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher would not be heard by the jury, so her speaking of “Seven Catholic prophets felt compelled to wake us up to the threat of nuclear destruction” was only heard outside the courthouse.

In the courtroom, the Jesus who drove the money changers from the Temple was referred to, but was rarely seen. Indeed, even when he was referenced, the prosecution would object and Wood would quickly sustain. Having been thus bludgeoned, the defendants embodied an ethos of speaking well of those who prosecute you.

There was a stark lack of anger expressed on the part of the defense that the prosecution perversely filled at the end. The prosecutor acted outraged that the activists would cause such damage to the military base, so that paint had to be removed and some fencing replaced.

Of course, the defendants were in a bind. If they denounced the proceedings or in any way seemed to polarize with Wood, or even the prosecutors, they likely feared a harsher sentence. Not just for each of them alone, but for each other. What they likely faced was a strange sort of prisoners dilemma.

Nor were they totally alone in this. At any time, the hundred or so supporters seated in the pews in the courtroom could have stood up and told the jury that the judge was preventing them from hearing about international law and various other defenses. That would likely have simply caused a mistrial and possibly a banning of family and other supporters from the courtroom.

After the lengthy verdict was read, there was not a sound in the packed courtroom, but as the community of supporters from around the country went to the hallway, women wailed and then the supporters all sang: “Rejoice in the Lord always; And again I say, rejoice!

The soft spoken public interest lawyer Bill Quigly — who represents Liz McAlister — asked in his closing remarks if the activists committed a crime or prevented one. Outside the courthouse that an “appeal is almost certain

Sentencing by Wood is expected shortly after Christmas. Fr. Kelly, the only defendant still in jail looked as though his incarceration had taken a genuine toll on him. He sat in his prison clothes, but often wore someone else’s jacket for warmth in the cold courtroom. He never stood for either the judge or jury, but did hop up when identified as having done the action. Instead of speaking to the court, he wrote to the 200 or so supporters at a “Festival of Hope” that was organized just before the trial started:

“We engage the judiciary in the courtroom, one of the more dangerous rooms in the Pentagon. The judiciary at the District, Appellate Circuit and Supreme level have precluded truth telling in the courtroom so that in the words of Daniel Berrigan, a nuclear holocaust will be legal. … You are the hope you have arrived to find.”

Indeed, the supporters who came for the trial all made it something of an all-volunteer barn-raising. They consisted largely of Catholic Workers from around the country, filling the courtroom as well as an overflow room with a video feed. Other supporters, including Buddhists with drums, where usually outside the courtroom, some with signs. Chrissy Nesbitt of the Rose of Sharon Catholic Worker, still grieving the death of her wife, came from North Durham, North Carolina and helped organize the line of supporters outside the courthouse and tried to get the hang of doing courtroom sketches. Sarah Cool, who currently lives in Atlanta and helps organized continuing protests outside the Trident base, did much of the work to provide food for the assembled at a nearby church during the week of the trial.

Still, a mass attended by many of the activists the Sunday before trial made no reference to them. A Presbyterian minister, Eric Johnson from North Carolina, who has been supportive of the activists said that many of his fellow clergy “are paying the rent and losing the Kingdom.”


Sam Husseini is an American writer and political activist. He is the communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that promotes progressive experts as alternative sources for mainstream media reporters. He formerly worked at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and at the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Husseini has written articles for a variety of publications, including CounterPunch, The Nation, The Washington Post, USA Today and Salon.

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