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After 4 decades of Plowshares Actions, It’s Nuclear Warfare that Should Be on Trial — Not Activists

Most of the Kings Bay Plowshares still await sentencing. Mom was sentenced to time served by video conference in June — a surreal and dislocating experience that is now more and more common in our criminal justice system. Her co-defendants opted to postpone sentencing in hopes that it could be in person, but it is unclear if that will happen.

After 4 decades of Plowshares Actions, It’s Nuclear Warfare that Should Be on Trial — Not Activists, Forty years ago, the Plowshares Eight sparked a movement of nuclear disarmers that continues to take responsibility for weapons of mass destruction.

Common Dreams, by Frida Berrigan 26 Sep 20,      “Nuclear warfare is not on trial here, you are!” said Judge Samuel Salus, in exasperation.

Before him were eight activists, including two priests and a nun. As Judge Salus tried to preside over the government’s prosecution of them for their trespass onto — and destruction of — private property, the eight were trying to put nuclear warfare, nuclear weapons, nuclear policy and U.S. exceptionalism on trial.

That was 40 years ago this week — ancient history by some measures. And no one reading this will be surprised to find that the eight were found guilty and the human family is still threatened by almost 15,000 nuclear warheads. So, four decades later, why isn’t nuclear warfare on trial?

They are the crime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians 75 years ago. They have littered the landscape with radioactive waste. They have cost the United States more than $5 trillion from the public coffers. They are the apocalyptic nightmare on hair-trigger alert that haunt our children’s dreams.

On September 9, 1980, my father, Philip Berrigan, along with his brother Daniel, John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer, Elmer Maas, Molly Rush, Sister Anne Montgomery, and Father Carl Kabat, gained entry into the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Once inside the complex, they poured blood over two nuclear weapons’ nose cones, and used household hammers to dent the metal. They came to be known as The Plowshares Eight. They were motivated by the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures who enjoined that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

As we mark this 40th anniversary in a strange and fearful time of pandemic, white violence, political instability and economic insecurity, it is heartening and instructive to reflect back on the origins of the Plowshares movement. It was largely white, largely Catholic and relatively small. Their purpose was to take personal responsibility for nuclear weapons — these implements of mass destruction shrouded in almost mystical secrecy and reverence — and label them improper property, converting, transforming, exposing and ultimately abolishing them. Plowshares activists don’t just hold these views or espouse these beliefs. They conspire. They pray. They act through nonviolent means.

Over and over in the last 40 years, small groups of activists have gained entry to military installations, warships, submarines, missile silos, weapons manufacturer’s office parks and warehouses, air shows, communication hubs and other sites. They have carried bibles and banners, densely researched indictments, blood, hammers and other household tools. More than a hundred of these actions have happened since the Plowshares Eight, and the activists involved have cumulatively spent lifetimes in jails and prisons…………..

From King of Prussia to Kings Bay, Georgia

My mother, Elizabeth McAlister, is a veteran of two Plowshares actions herself. Jonah House — the community she, my father and their friends founded in the early 1970s — was the incubator of countless others. Mom’s most recent Plowshares action took place in April 2018, at the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia. She and six others gained entry to the 16,000-acre base on the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. They trekked through the night to reach sites on the base where nuclear weapons are celebrated and memorialized. Four of the group dismantled the memorials and marked office buildings with blood and messages. Mom and two others were apprehended as they tried to reach bunkers where Trident submarines are stored. Their banners read: “Nuclear Weapons: Illegal – Immoral” and “‘The Ultimate Logic of Racism is Genocide’ Dr. Martin Luther King” and “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide.”……………

Six Trident submarines operate out of Kings Bay, and they are the likely launchers of a first-strike nuclear attack. They are armed with D5 missiles capable of traveling over 1,370 miles in less than 13 minutes, allowing for a U.S. nuclear strike anywhere on planet Earth within 15 minutes. The Navy plans to replace its aging fleet of Tridents with the Columbia-class submarine. These new submarines are estimated to cost $122.3 billion. In the indictment they carried on to the base, the Kings Bay Plowshares activists highlighted that “each day this program steals from all in our nation and world by its theft of much-needed resources.”

In October 2019, they were tried and found guilty in relatively short order. The judge was willing to engage with the activists about their conscience and formation, but would not allow expert testimony about nuclear weapons, foreign policy or international law. In the end, it took her longer to instruct the jury than it took for the jury members to find the defendants guilty.

In January 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight. We stand at 100 seconds to midnight, closer than ever before, because they say “Civilization-ending nuclear war — whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication — is a genuine possibility. Climate change that could devastate the planet is undeniably happening. And for a variety of reasons that include a corrupted and manipulated media environment, democratic governments and other institutions that should be working to address these threats have failed to rise to the challenge.”

Most of the Kings Bay Plowshares still await sentencing. Mom was sentenced to time served by video conference in June — a surreal and dislocating experience that is now more and more common in our criminal justice system. Her co-defendants opted to postpone sentencing in hopes that it could be in person, but it is unclear if that will happen.

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Reaping the peace dividends

Last week, my mom and I sat at the edge of a playground watching my 6 and 8 year olds climb and jump. I asked her what she remembered of September 1980. “I remember the feeling of utter relief when I heard that your dad and the rest of the eight were still alive. I felt such gratitude that they were able to do the action without being hurt or damaged. Your dad, when I finally talked to him from jail, was tired but satisfied. He was prayerfully grateful.”

My mom, who has spent years in prison after following her conscience, mused, “No one in their right mind wants to take these weapons on. No one wants to take on the consequences. Jail is dehumanizing and removes you from the people you love. Going up against that which defines the United States of America as ‘number one’ is terrifying. But, I think, that we can address these weapons of mass destruction and help people understand how wrong they are, how destructive they are. We can show people that these weapons take away from every good effort people engage in. They undercut everything we try to do. Nuclear weapons forfeit our future. But our ‘no’ is heard and inspires others.”

Just as there is a direct line between King of Prussia and Kings Bay, we can also draw a line of inspiration and mutual respect between the actions of religiously-motivated nuclear disarmers and the (perhaps more secular) racial justice activists who are toppling, dismantling and replacing racist statues and monuments.

We hope that by the time we mark 50 years since the Plowshares Eight, we are erecting windmills for energy, planting sunflowers to detox the soil, practicing mutual aid, building community and finally prosecuting nuclear warfare and reaping the peace dividends that flower from global nuclear abolition.

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

September 28, 2020 - Posted by | General News

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