Weekly Volcano – November 19, 2010

Enemies of the State

Two priests, a nun and a pair of protesters break into Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor

By Paul Schrag on November 19, 2010

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Two venerable priests, a nun and two peace activists break into a naval base. This particular naval base is host to what is potentially the largest single stockpile of deployable nuclear weapons in the world. Unescorted, they make their way deeper and deeper into the base until they’re discovered by military security personnel, hand-cuffed, hooded and placed face down in the dirt. They remain there for more than three hours while military security tries to figure out what to do with them. The unlikely group is questioned for another three hours and then released.

Ready for the punch line?

There isn’t one. Because it’s not a joke.

And it happened right in our own back yard.

Mission Impossible

Last November, Sister Anne Montgomery, 83, of Redwood City, Calif., Father Bill “Bix” Bichsel, 82, a Catholic priest from Tacoma, Susan Crane, 65, of Baltimore, Md., Lynne M. Greenwald, 61, of Tacoma and Father Steve Kelly, 61, of Oakland, Calif., made their way deep into Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor as part of a coordinated effort aimed at bringing attention to what they consider the illegality and immorality of an enormous stockpile of nuclear warheads stored in Silverdale, Wash.

After mapping a route with the help of Google, the venerable commandos made their way along a network of roads, through the woods along an electrical transmission line and up to a perimeter fence, which they passed through with the help of some bolt cutters. As they infiltrated the base, they had to move slowly. Father Bichsel popped nitro-glycerin to keep his heart running. In plain view, they traversed a ridge above the weapons handling wharf, and followed a road east toward the part of the base they had determined to be a storage facility for nuclear warheads. At dawn, they cut their way through a perimeter fence, and entered Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific – an area where nuclear missiles are stored, and where military security is authorized to kill trespassers on sight. All the while, the five spilled their own blood, which they had stored in baby bottles, and hammered on roadways and fences –  symbolic actions representing the blood spilled in the name of nuclear weapons and hammering representative of a well-known biblical verse about beating swords into plowshares. They scattered sunflower seeds and carried a banner that read, “Disarm Now Plowshares: Trident: Illegal and Immoral”.

Not far past the third fence they encountered a cadre of Marines, and spent the rest of the morning in handcuffs and hoods, face down in the dirt. They were then questioned by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, handed ban and bar notices, and released.

A press release from the Navy indicates the group of protesters were “apprehended in accordance with standing security procedures for incidents of this nature,” and that “At no time was the safety of Navy personnel, property or the public threatened in any way.” Government officials issued public statements and told a Seattle Times reporter that the Plowshares group was never anywhere near weapons stored on the base.

Meanwhile, despite the downplay, government officials have still taken a serious tact with the elderly activists and dropped a string of charges on them that includes conspiracy, trespassing, destruction of property on a naval installation and depredation of government property, to which members of the Plowshares group have pleaded not guilty. If convicted on charges handed down by a grand jury this past September, all face prison sentences ranging between five and 10 years, and as many as three years of supervised release and/or up to five years probation.

Several Plowshares members could face consecutive sentences, which means that if they’re convicted, some could very well spend their remaining days in prison. But all of them were well aware of the legal consequences when they began. They even spent a year praying over it, says Bichsel, to ensure their intentions were pure, motivated by nothing but love, and that all were prepared to face the consequences.

“It doesn’t matter if I am in prison or out of prison,” says Crane. “What matters is that I follow my beliefs.”

During their recent arraignment in Tacoma, Bicshel and other entered embellished not guilty pleas, making it abundantly clear why they were willing to face jail.

Montgomery and Greenwald called “for the end of all wars, and an end to the threat of nuclear war.”

Crane made “a plea for the abolition of nuclear weapons, for the children of future generations.”

Bichsel made “a plea for those who are dying now because of nuclear weapons because of funding going for weapons of mass destruction instead of health care, education, housing, employment and nutrition, and for those dying because of the uranium mining cycle connected to nuclear weapons.”

That’s a plea Bichsel and others have made before, in one form or another, for decades. And while Bichsel, Montgomery and their compatriots may not have achieved fame, they certainly have earned notoriety for living their ideals. All you little activist hipsters pay attention. This is how it’s done.

Bichsel, for example, once loudly and publically berated Big Daddy himself, George Herbert Walker Bush, to draw attention to homelessness in Seattle. He’s made a part-time career of calling attention to the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia for training Central and South American soldiers who later became involved in human rights atrocities. He was arrested in 2003 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Tacoma after chaining himself to the doors to protest the war. He’s led protesters rallying against U.S. military programs and weapons. He’s been arrested dozens of times for trespassing. He’s been convicted and thrown in jail more times than a cousin of a Tacoma gang member – arrested nearly 50 times for protesting since his first big action, which happened at Bangor in 1976.

Montgomery has travelled the world, acting as an observer and witness to political conflicts and protesting injustice. Nearly a decade ago, for example, Montgomery holed up in an apartment in Bethlehem with 200 armed Palestinians while Israeli troops marched them down. She spent time in the Balkans during the war there in the 1990s. She was among the protestors who fasted for a month in 2000 in protest of U.N. sanctions against Iraq that many claim were to blame for the deaths of more than a million Iraqis who couldn’t get their hands on medical supplies or potable water. Montgomery also has been arrested and jailed repeatedly during her protest career.

Bichsel, Montgomery and others have been accused of civil disobedience – something they whimsically call “divine obedience,” which is a nod to a non-violent protest tradition shared by people ranging from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.

Maintaining a sense of humor is important when peacefully protesting.

While waving protest signs at Bangor, they call the middle fingers they get “half a peace sign.”

Reason for the Madness

Spotlighting a hole in naval security was never the point of what they did, says Bichsel and other members of the group.

What matters, they say, is the nearby presence and continuing, worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons.

“This is so important,” says Father Bichsel. “It’s in our back yard, and very possibly the largest concentration of deployable nuclear weapons in the world. Nuclear weapons are a great message of destruction, hopelessness and violence. They’re a sign of fear, and a use of our resources for destruction, instead of building up the human race. What we did was an act of faith and protest against death and indiscriminate killing.”

That’s not an exaggeration either. In the past 50 years, more than 1.3 billion people have been maimed, diseased and killed by nuclear weapons and nuclear power, according to Leuren Moret, former president of Scientists for Indigenous People and a former researcher at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, where nuclear research continues today.

And that’s just the human cost. The dollar amount is hefty too. The Brookings Institution estimates that the United States has been spent $5.5 trillion on nuclear armament and a host of ancillary costs.

“There’s many things we hope to do,” says Crane. “One is economic. We’re spending too much on weapons of mass destruction, and we’re not taking care of human needs. Also, these nuclear weapons that indiscriminately kill are illegal according to national law. They’re also against every moral teaching that I understand.”

Bichsel and other members of the Plowshares group aren’t at all alone in calling attention to the costs of nuclear weapons programs, or in making a call for the abolishment of nuclear arms. In fact, as Bichsel and crew face prison sentences for what some might calls a fool’s protest, world leaders seem to be recognizing the cost of the nuclear arms race, and are starting to call for international efforts to get rid of them.

On Nov. 12, for example, the world’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates participated in a summit in Hiroshima to talk about the importance of nuclear disarmament and affirm their commitment to promoting it. According to Sergio Duarte, the United Nations’ High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, and Tibor Tóth, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “countless other international initiatives are also under way that reflect a wider revolution in thinking about nuclear weapons – a revolution that is welcome and long overdue.”

In a Daily Star article published earlier this year, Duarte and Tóth noted that “the very existence of these weapons aggravates three global nuclear threats – from existing arsenals (accidents, miscalculations, unauthorized use, or willful use), from their proliferation to additional states, and from their acquisition by terrorists. But now a new global consensus is emerging that these weapons are militarily irrelevant in dealing with emerging threats, impossible to use without violating international humanitarian law,  a source of proliferation and terrorist threats, and a waste of money and scientific talent. … Even the leaders of the nuclear-weapon states are now officially supporting the goal of global nuclear disarmament. They are joined by former statesmen, national parliaments and regional organizations, mayors, retired military experts, women’s organizations, human rights activists, environmentalists, and countless other groups worldwide”

Swords to Plowshares

The Plowshares movement is one of those countless groups. There have been about 100 Plowshares actions since 1980 in places such as Ireland, New Zealand, England, Germany and Sweden. Locally, the Plowshares movement has found support from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which shares a fence with the naval base at Bangor. Their Tacoma satellite, at the corner of 15th Street and Fawcett Avenue, is non-descript except for the “Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone” sign out front.  From those locations, what appears to be an ecumenical group of spiritually-minded vanguards has staged a number of protests, political actions and planning efforts aimed at ridding the world of nuclear arms and their byproducts. Most of them have been jailed for their work at one time or another.

In fact, during the most recent action on Nov. 2 of this year, several of the original five discussed the subtleties of probation and parole like they were experts. All of them seem absolutely fearless, despite the possibility that one or all of them will end up behind bars for a decade or more.

They’ll make their case Dec. 7 at the federal courthouse in Tacoma.

In their defense, they’ll read letters from supporters all over the world, including South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who wrote:

“We know that nations need teachers, schools, books, drinking water, productive farm land, food and shelter. We do not need weapons of war, and we do not need nuclear weapons which threaten to destroy all of God’s creation.”

Tutu went on to say that, “If we are to believe the words of our faith, ‘to love our enemies’, then we must begin to disarm our nuclear weapons. If we believe that every life is sacred, that every person is a child of God, then we cannot bomb their villages and cities with nuclear warheads. The Plowshares movement, a movement of people who take responsibility for the nuclear weapons of their country, and who believe that disarmament is the way to abolish nuclear weapons, is a light in the darkness of the war making around us.”

During an interview with Bichsel, Montgomery, Crane and Greenwald, the subject of potential jail sentences comes up. There is a pregnant silence. Montgomery notes that she’s been accused of beating her head against a brick wall.

“That’s what they said in Berlin,” she says. “And look at what happened there.”

“We try and do what’s good and truthful, and not let ourselves get caught up in the fear of what might happen,” says Crane. “Fear and faith are opposites. I try to be led by faith and what seems to be right.”

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