One year ago, on Nov. 2, the Disarm Now Plowshares action took place at Naval Base Bangor–Kitsap. All Souls Day was chosen for the Plowshares action, a day to remember those who have died. The nuclear base north of Olympia holds eight Trident Nuclear Subs; each sub can carry 24 D-5 nuclear missiles, and each D-5 can carry 4-6 nuclear warheads. That’s a lot of nukes stockpiled and ready to use. It’s the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the U.S.
The inspiration for Plowshares actions is taken from Isaiah 2:4 “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not take up swords against nations, nor will they train for war anymore.” Based in the practices of nonviolent civil resistance, there have been over 100 Plowshares Nuclear Resistance actions worldwide since 1980.
My sense of religion comes with about as much structure as you might imagine of someone raised by good agnostics, with a few backyard crows, and the big view of the mountain that Tacoma offers. Given that, Catholics who walk onto a nuclear base with hammers and bolt cutters do manage to impress me.
One of the Plowshares activists is Fr. Bill “Bix” Bichsel, a radical Jesuit who grew up in Tacoma and lives there today within the Catholic Workers community he helped to build. Two years ago a close friend of Bix’s, here in Olympia for his son’s Port Militarization Resistance-related trial, pulled me aside and told me that Bix, who had heart disease for some time, had been told by his heart doctor there was nothing more they could do for him. Bix, I was told, had six months to live, maybe a little more. Fast forward a year later and I’m reading an e-mail saying that Bix had just been arrested with others after climbing over and crawling through barbed wire fencing at Bangor, set to begin the dismantlement process of a nuclear bomb. Ten months later, in September, I learned the feds decided to turn a grand jury indictment and press felony charges against Bix and his co-defendants; they’re now facing many years in prison for this courageous act.
Aside from Bix, the Disarm Now Plowshares activists are Sister Anne Montgomery, Lynne Greenwald, Susan Crane, and Fr. Steve Kelly. They are each facing three felony charges following the federal grand jury indictment. Their trial is scheduled for Dec. 7 at the Federal Courthouse in Tacoma.
Over 30 years ago, Sister Anne Montgomery participated in the very first Plowshares disarmament action, hammering into components of a Mark 12A nuclear missile at a GE weapons plant in Pennsylvania. Lynne Greenwald has been working with the nuclear disarmament movement since the mid 70’s, moving to Washington to resist the buildup of Bangor; she is both mother and grandmother, founder of the Irma Gary House, a home for women recently released from Purdy, the women’s prison across the Narrows. Defendant Susan Crane has tremendous commitment and focus; she’s written many of the Plowshares updates which cite the illegality of SWFPac, the nuclear weapons storage facility at Bangor. Crane, also mother and grandmother, points out “these weapons are our responsibility. They were made with our tax dollars, and will be used in our name.”
Defendant Fr. Steve Kelly is a man who by religious practice will not rise before a judge who enters a courtroom. At the Oct. 8 arraignment, when presented with the conditions of release on his own recognizance, Kelly stated, “I cannot sign to any of these conditions,” adding that he followed a higher law than represented by the document. Chief Magistrate Judge Karen Strombom, once understanding this defendant was actually serious about his refusal to sign the legal document, quickly revised the agreement to a simple hand written line acknowledging he’d received the document only; Kelly, and the other defendants in turn, remain unconditionally free by their own recognizance in this time leading up to trial. After learning that Fr. Kelly had spent six years imprisoned for anti-war activities, I was struck by the strength he presented before the court.
My connection to the Plowshares activists is through Bix, my favorite Tacoman. I was arrested along with Fr. Bill Bichsel and 17 others at Bangor in August of 2005, taking part in a Ground Zero action outside the base, but the first time I spent any real time talking with Fr Bill was at an annual Tacoma march calling for the freedom of American Indian Movement member and political prisoner Leonard Peltier. Bix was 77; he walked at about my speed, at 43, and so we marched together and struck up a conversation about our common hometown
of Tacoma. I confessed to Bix that I found it hard to come back to Tacoma; the poverty and disenfranchisement inevitable in a city that depended on industry and militarism for its commerce wore on and fragmented me. I was fascinated by Fr. Bill, who stayed in Tacoma
and took on the hard work of challenging the oppressive conditions that thrived in Tacoma, while at the same time working to build a community that truly sustains life. Bix did leave Tacoma early on to study, to teach, and to hitchhike around the country for a short while, but he came back, as he explained to me, in need of community. Coming to St. Leo’s church in 1969, he worked with the homeless in Tacoma. Bix talks about the values of the Catholic Workers in an oral history for the NW Radical History Project, “The poor are our teachers, we learn from them… (we work) to stand against [those] types of violence that do so much damage to the lives of the poor, who are most vulnerable, whether it be through racism, militarism, or through exclusion.”
From an on-line bio about Bix: “(Father Bix), following the tradition established by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, the Tacoma Catholic Workers (TCW), invite the homeless to live with them and share their brokenness and hope.” Later, when coming to Guadalupe House in 1979, his work focused on meeting the needs of people with mental illness. ‘I fit very well there,’ he said. Eventually, Bix worked with others to create a Catholic Worker Community at Guadalupe House. (Today, the Tacoma Catholic Worker houses comprise most of a city block). In this setting, personal relationships and friendship are more important than achievement.”
Through the years Bix has worked on fair housing and anti-discrimination work; he was active in the Vietnam war resistance, got involved with Central American Solidarity work, and protests at the School of Americas.
When it was learned that the US was focused on developing first strike nuclear warheads, and Bangor Nuclear Base began its buildup of the Trident Nuclear Submarine Base, Bix focused more and more on the nuclear disarmament movement. He’s visited the base many times, in small boats, or through cut fencing. He’s also placed himself on the rail lines during the white train actions, a campaign that organized activists from Texas to Washington to directly resist nuclear weapons material transport to the base.
Fr. Bill Bichsel’s action statement titled Lethal Force, read in part, “On November 2, 2009, All Souls Day, by the grace of God I choose to enter the Trident Submarine Base at Bangor, Washington. I wish to walk to the idolatrous place of nuclear weapon bunkers where lethal force is authorized to guard the hiding places of the most lethal forces in the world. I wish to walk in solidarity with the poor of our world who live with lethal force constantly directed against them… The continued possession of nuclear weapons by the United States means that resources that could be used to divert the lethal forces that are now killing the poor of our world will continue to be used to fuel the killing machine.”
The Disarm Now Plowshares 5
In the world of activism, resisting nuclear warheads is an immense job. Because the warheads are stored on military installations, getting close to the nukes requires that one go into military installations, so civil resistance often brings felony charges. There’s the choice to stay at safe distances from the stockpiles; however, the tactics used in Plowshares actions takes a more direct approach, though the actions are also very symbolic: the Plowshares activists actually take a step to begin the dismantling process.
Cutting and climbing through high-tension barbed wire fencing blocking their way, and carrying hammers to symbolically begin a dismantling process, the Plowshares activists poured their own blood on that ground. Four hours after entering the nuclear base, after cutting through the final fence, facing the nuclear bunkers head on, they saw the Marines that work security around the Strategic Weapons Facility-Pacific (SWFPac) at Bangor, awaiting them. At that point they kneeled, prayed, and Father Bix performed an exorcism of that land (one of the very cool aspects of being a Priest).
After the exorcism, Marines arrived, holding the five at gunpoint on the ground for hours; they were bound and hooded so they could not see, and their eyes could not be seen by those holding them at gunpoint. The Plowshares activists were not allowed speech or movement,
and they were eventually carried back through the openings in the fence they had cut. The Marines delivered the activists to NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) and FBI interrogators.
From Hiroshima to Bangor
Before taking part in this Plowshares action, Bix traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a northwest interfaith peace contingent in a “Journey of Repentance” on the 64th anniversary of the bombings. They visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and met with the Hibakusha. The memories and experiences of the Hibakusha, those who witnessed the horror of the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are essential to hear; their memories allow us not to forget. I found testimonials recorded by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum online; included here, testimony of Akiko Takakur, who at age 20 was at the Bank of Hiroshima, one of the few survivors who was within 300 meters of the hypocenter:
“What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black and brown, but… nothing else. Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn’t believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away.”
It takes a leap to believe in our common humanity, in peace itself. The faith inspired Plowshares activists acted to expose that which most are afraid to see, to even acknowledge the existence of the enormous horror of what these weapons have done and will do again, if not for their eventual abolition. Humans, who produced this stockpile of nuclear weapons, are faced with the tasks of structural dismantling of not only the weapons themselves, but the mindset that considers them necessary. This seems more difficult an equation than that which gave way to their production at the outset. No one knows the answer, certainly. We can only eliminate what we know not to be answers, and do something else. The Plowshares activists took one step towards that enormous endeavor, acting on their own authority to serve as citizen nuclear weapons inspectors, acting to inspire imagination and hope by symbolically beginning the dismantling process.
As Susan Crane writes in a March 3 DNP article, “We need to imagine a new way that does not involve constant preparation
for the end of life as we know it. We need to choose life, not death.
“For thirty years, people in the Plowshares movement have dedicated themselves to risking their freedom to bring to light the deep, dark, and violent secrets that our government would rather people not see – the nuclear warheads in their bunkers, the ICBM’s in their underground silos, and the Tridents silently lurking deep in the oceans – so that they may continue business as usual (and it is big business). But we can no longer afford (nor could we ever really afford) business as usual.”
Misdemeanor to Grand Jury Indictment
Though initially charged with misdemeanors and barred from the base following the Nov. 2, 2009 action, the feds stepped in, ordering the lower court to move aside. Nothing happened for 10 months, then came a federal grand jury indictment in early September 2010. (It’s been said ‘a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich’; only the prosecutor presents evidence to show cause, there is no voice for the defense during the indictment process.) Though acting to protect life and prevent destruction, a statement from the public affairs office from the US Attorney’s Office offers this spin announcing the indictment, “All citizens are free to disagree with their government, but they are not free to destroy property or risk the safety of others… These defendants entered a naval installation during a time of war, cutting through three fences into a clearly marked prohibited zone… These defendants quite literally crossed the line and must be held accountable.” (Though symbolic, if the action wasn’t considered a potential threat – not to anyone’s safety – it was considered dangerous in dissolving the ideological hold that keeps the people hooded in the dark to the threat that is Bangor. Otherwise, I doubt the Justice Department would have called Big Brother in to write and release this mind dribble.)
The Disarm Now Plowshares 5 have crossed that wonderful line, exposing the nuclear arsenal. They intend to hold the US accountable, putting not themselves on trial, but the US for its illegal stockpile of nuclear weapons. They do this within the context of defending themselves against four counts including Trespass, 18 USC Sec. 1361; Conspiracy, 18 USC Sec 371; Destruction of Property at a Naval Installation, 18 USC Sec. 1363; and Destruction of Government Property,18 USC Sec. 1361.
The trial is scheduled for Dec. 7, before Judge Benjamin Settle, at the Federal Courthouse located at the old Union Station, 1713 Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma. Supporters are encouraged to attend and hold vigil during the trial. The five are representing themselves. Bill Quigley, Legal Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, has agreed to provide legal advice and testimony; the court also assigned standby council for each defendant. The five co-defendants have stated they will not ask to postpone early trial date. They’re ready, their defense is affirmative – the stockpile of nuclear weapons is illegal. The fact that the nuclear weapons exist and are stockpiled with the intent to use them to destroy life is what is criminal, not that these five individuals walked by the place where the illegal weapons are stockpiled.
If not exonerated on these facts, each defendant potentially faces penalties of over twenty years in prison. Why have they taken such risks of losing their own freedom?
Possibly everyone living today is imprisoned against the threat of nuclear annihilation. Even those who believe they are ‘protected’ by the stockpile can’t escape that imprisonment. Possibly, a faith that requires the action of many working together to bring change “hammering swords into plowshares” brings hope for escape. I do know that Bix, Anne, Lynne, Susan and Steve should not be imprisoned when they have acted only to set us free.
Patty Imani is a long-time anti-war and social justice activist, and organizer for Port Militarization Resistance.