It is late Monday evening, and I am sitting in the living room of Jean’s House of Prayer writing this post while others huddle over their laptop computers preparing for tomorrow’s trial.
On the eve of the Disarm Now Plowshares trial people came together at St. Leo Church in Tacoma to break bread, join together in fellowship and celebrate Plowshares. Following a bountiful potluck supper, the Seattle Raging Grannies serenaded us with timeless classics like “Take Me Out of the Bomb Game.” James Morgan engaged the crowd in a sing-along to “The Ballad of Disarm Now Plowshares,” along with other music throughout the evening.
Fr. John Fuchs, SJ, opened the formal program with a moment of silence in honor of Philip Berrigan, who died on this day 8 years ago.
Before introducing the evening’s keynote speaker, Angie Zelter, the Rev. Anne Hall of Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action shared the colorful history of Plowshares actions at Bangor. The Disarm Now Plowshares are the third group of Plowshares activists to have made their way to the Strategic Weapons Facility, Pacific, and none of them had it easy.
The first time was in 1979 when James Douglass and others slogged across Sub Base Bangor after notifying the Navy ahead of time; it still took the Navy 12 hours to find them. Six months later on January 5, 1980, Douglass and others trudged through the snow towards SWFPAC again. This time they did not notify the Navy ahead of time, and only after Shelley Douglass got worried after not hearing from Jim after 20 hours and called the Navy did they find them (after they had been on the base a total of 24 hours. The Navy wanted to minimize publicity, and only charged them with trespassing; they spent 6 months in jail.
Scottish Trident activist, and founder of Trident Plowshares (among many other things) Angie Zelter then spoke to us of “The Importance of Civil Resistance.” I will do my best to share highlights of her rich presentation.
Angie applauded the action of Disarm Now Plowshares as “creating the changes needed in your society to enable it to pass beyond war and injustice, control and dominance,” and she reminded us that “we are colleagues in the same struggle for justice and peace.” As for the trial, Angie said that the actions of Disarm Now provide an opportunity for our court system to recognize and stop the grievous crimes being committed by our own government “and to strengthen the rule of law.” She also recognized that the courts may “not act fairly and rise to the challenge,” in which case it will be on their conscience.
In stating the case for strong engagement by civil society Angie said, “I believe that the law is a powerful tool that, if respected and used with integrity, can deliver nuclear disarmament. However, as we know to our cost, powerful nations tend to act above the law and to abuse power, which is why there is a need for a strong civil society to keep track and pressure governments and law courts to uphold international law. This has been difficult as there is a great deal of official and public cynicism about law in general and international law in particular, epitomised by views that the law serves the powerful in society, does not look after the interests of the poor or weak, and is the law of the victors over the vanquished.”
Angie spoke of how international law is becoming more widely recognized in the United Kingdom in cases involving anti-nuclear activists, but cautioned that they ” still find prosecuting lawyers and some judges expressing impatience and strong disapproval of ordinary citizens ‘meddling’ in the law, and a belief that ‘amateurs’ should not try to ‘uphold’ the law or ‘take the law into their own hands’. We are told not to get involved, that it is up to the government, or the police, or the military, or some other institution, to deal with crimes against peace or war crimes. But we all know that we cannot rely upon these institutions to make the changes we need – we have to act ourselves, as responsible global citizens, and be involved in people’s disarmament.”
Because the legal systems in both our countries have been corrupted and therefore work to prevent defendants from presenting full legal arguments, we must use the jury system to our advantage in order “to uncover the illegalities and criminalities of possessing and threatening to use nuclear weapons and to demand a proper reckoning. We have to expose the hypocrisy of our countries expecting others to obey international law while refusing to obey it themselves.” Of course, given the limitations generally placed on the defense it is difficult but not impossible to be able to speak to the jury. Angie reminds us that we must use “creative ways of making sure that the jury are informed.”
Back to the importance of civil society: “Civil society acts in the belief that the strength and wisdom of a society lies with its people and that we get the governments and legal systems that we allow. We believe we are not completely powerless but are responsible individuals. Thus, rather than staying silent when we see gross crimes being committed in our names, we act. Knowing that the deployment of weapons of mass destruction destroys our humanity and breaks the fundamental principles of humanitarian law, we take the spirit of the law seriously and call our institutions to account. We become part of the forces creating the evolution of our society, we help shape the law and ensure its implementation.”
In speaking of the process of correcting the courts’ previous errors of judgement and upholding the rule of law Angie said ,
Actions like the Disarm Now Ploughshares action are part of this whole process of social transformation that takes much longer than we would all wish but which is nevertheless having its effect. You face a much tougher challenge than we do as you are more often refused the chance to present the evidence of the effects of nuclear weapons on people and the environment. This is because it is clear that if this evidence were given to an impartial jury it would be obvious that these weapons break all the rules and there would be a good chance of an acquittal. Over the coming days we will no doubt witness the lengths to which the Tacoma court will go to stop the truth from getting out. It is our responsibility to make sure that nevertheless we take it out to a wider public by writing articles and talking about it, doing whatever we can. And I hope that the coming trial will inspire you all to continue the nonviolent civil resistance.
I believe that our citizens’ campaigns must carry on using international law to de-legitimise nuclear weapons and to legitimise our own nonviolent actions and to do this in highly public and confrontational ways so it cannot be ignored. We have to do this whilst keeping the moral arguments to the fore as well, by emphasising the links between morality and law.
Every citizen has an obligation to use his or her influence to prevent crimes against humanity …….. Indeed anti-nuclear civil resistance is the right of every citizen of this planet for the nuclear threat, attacking as it does every core concept of human rights, calls for urgent and universal action for its prevention. If it is a basic human right to be free of threat or violence, if the right to life is a basic human right, and if the protection of children and future generations is a basic human duty, international law must unhesitatingly recognise that the right to nonviolent resistance activities, for the prevention of such an international crime is basic to human dignity.
It is clear …… that there is an increasing need in the modern world …….. for citizens to take a greater interest in international law and in the way their government fulfils its obligation in this regard. This is increasingly a matter for the citizenry of the world and if they do not rise to their obligations in this respect, future generations will pay dearly for this inaction.”
So you see the law is on our side. Humanity is on our side. The vast majority of countries in the world want nuclear disarmament and are on our side. Eventually if we keep our fragile candle of hope and love and nonviolent resistance alight we will get nuclear disarmament. I wish you all strength and hope for the coming days.
As the Disarm Now Plowshares prepare to begin their trial tomorrow morning may each of us light a candle of hope for them, and may we also pledge to call on our government to uphold its obligations under international laws and to speak out as citizens of the world and say “NOT IN OUR NAME!”
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