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Plowshares in court keep the flame alive

Editor's note: The Cold War ended more than a decade ago, but the end of open hostilities between East and West has hardly meant an end to the need for Christian peacemaking activities. The following stories, from an account of the most recent Plowshares trial to the tale of peacemaking education at a Maryland Montessori school demonstrate the ongoing search for peace .

NCR Staff
Portland, Maine

This sunny Sunday afternoon the bicyclists in the annual Maine Cycle Classic pedal furiously out of town into the countryside.

Still hours away -- in a rented car, a replacement for one that was in an accident -- Liz McAlister and her daughters, Kate and Frida, head up the interstates toward Portland. They're from Jonah House in Baltimore and on their way to the Prince of Peace Plowshares trial that begins Monday morning. Kate and Frida's father, Phil Berrigan, behind bars, is one of six defendants. Liz and Kate couldn't leave earlier: Saturday night was Kate's high school prom.

In Portland toward evening, as huge crowds pour out of country singer Alan Jackson's concert in the downtown civic center, smaller crowds head for the Woodfords Congregational Church.

Those going to the church, more than 300, are Plowshares supporters from as far away as Texas and North Carolina. They are Catholic Workers, Pax Christi members, peace activists of every persuasion.

Inside the church, huge crayon-signed letters circulate. They're being sent to earlier Plowshares protesters still imprisoned -- Rick Sieber, Michele Naar-Obed, Bruce Friedrich, Donna Howard Hastings, Laurentian Shield, Carl Kabat, Helen Woodson. And now the new Six.

These activists see the Cold War as a mask behind which the United States built up a nuclear arsenal it wants to keep. While Americans' attention is deflected by the Cold War's end, they argue, the United States has committed itself to nuclear security and committed its new weapons systems to perform a dual purpose -- for conventional warfare and as world-ending weapons.

By mid-evening, the huge "Scotia Prince" ferryboat, white lights beaming from a hundred portholes, enters the nearby harbor. Inside Woodfords Church, banjos are ringing and people are singing. The sleeping bag folk will lay down their swords and shields, "down by the riverside."

Dan Berrigan, a wispy figure with an imposing presence, tugs the moment out of the scriptures and into the Congregational church's huge downstairs hall.

Second Maccabees: The flame left in the cave. Rediscovered, it sputtered out, transformed itself into thick water which, poured on the sacrifice, burst into flame anew.

This crowd understands. Antithesis to materialist, corporate America and imperial mentality, their battered cars in the church lot have faulty clutches and missing brake lights. Designer labels are from the thrift store. Logos are barely discernible on worn sneakers.

These are the flames left in the cave. Their E-mail and fax networks, their free newspapers and small meetings, their houses of hospitality and rallying around the least popular causes keep in repair the national arteries and veins of antimilitarism and peacemaking.

Sr. Ardeth Platte, a Dominican from Jonah House, and the Maine-based organizers designate Group A: inside the courtroom; B: vigil outside; C: witness at Bath Iron Works where rests the USS Sullivan, Aegis missile cruiser, damaged and bloodied by the Six.

They do not deny it, these six: former high school teacher Susan Crane of Jonah House, mother of two sons; Jesuit Fr. Steven Kelly, Plowshares activist and member of Jubilee West Plowshares; Berrigan, father of three and forever the bur under the military saddle; Mark Colville, urban minister, father of three and a member of Cesar Jerez Catholic Worker in New Haven, Conn.; Steve Baggarly, father of one and a member of the Norfolk, Va., Catholic Worker; and Tom Lewis-Borbely, artist, etcher, father of one, of Worcester, Mass., the only one not in prison.

They want to explain why.

In Woodfords Church, the planning continues. When Group A comes out of the court, B goes in; C moves to vigil; A goes to Bath Iron Works. By Tuesday the Methodist church a block-and-a-half away from the courthouse will open its restrooms and kitchen. Monday night meal and sleeping bag space will be in Sacred Heart Church's cavernous downstairs.

By 7:30 a.m. on Monday, May 5, in Portland's early light, two drummers tap out a cadence and the first dozens arrive at the court house. Office workers, morning coffee containers warming fingers nipped by the sea breeze, look on in wonder and walk on amazed, dismayed or annoyed. The police are benign: These are nonviolent people. The marshals look officious with their stern gaze, blue blazers and white wires running from their ears like miniaturized extension cords.

Officialdom is civil, if a little proud. Security is strict. Bags are x-rayed, bodies screened. The imprisoned carry their files in hands iron-cuffed behind their backs. The Six are in.

Susan Crane and Mark Colville in prison day-glow orange; the others in street clothes: Jesuit Steve Kelly in black, Berrigan in a dark blue woolen cardigan, Baggarly in a dark green sweatshirt, Lewis-Borbely in a salt-and-pepper sweater. Round-faced and mustached Chief Judge Gene Carter peers through bifocals and allows Baggarly to plead the case for a "necessity defense" which, no surprise, on Tuesday morning, after "taking it under advisement" overnight, Carter will deny.

Only the judge, court officers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Helene Kazanjian, who is the prosecutor, and the dozen media folk hear Baggarly's often tearful account of the why of the Prince of Peace Plowshares action. The still startling, moving Hiroshima stories -- in danger of being forgotten -- the untold national story of the continued refining of the nuclear arsenal for ships like the Sullivan, the consequences in hunger and poverty from mammoth military budgets -- this is the case Baggarly makes that the jury will not hear.

Philip Berrigan weaves a careful, original and -- for the U.S. government -- frightening legal scenario. The United States Senate has ratified U.N. charters and treaties and agreed to a World Court. The Constitution recognizes the ratifications. Ergo, international law supersedes national law (and Nuremberg trial reasoning morally and legally supports this, he adds). The World Court has ruled nuclear arms illegal. This Plowshares trial should be held under that law. Prosecutor Kazanjian, eyes fixed under dark bangs, wants none of it.

The jury pool enters and the tedious selection work commences. Japanese Buddhists' drums join the earlier two; the crowd is a hundred plus. The drums, a distant descant, lightly penetrate the court through ornate arched windows. Selection continues. The man who said he thought the Six had a right to protest is not in the final 15. Nor is the wife of the Quaker. Or the lady in yellow who had heard of Philip Berrigan maybe "25 or 30 years ago."

"All rise." And come back tomorrow.

Lewis-Borbely is not taken out in cuffs. He has been out free on his own recognizance to help his wife, Andrea, with their five-year-old, Nora. That night in Sacred Heart's basement, the oval of more than a hundred people discuss the day, reflect on their gathering, talk about tomorrow, about themselves -- just a little.

Later, elsewhere, few sleeping bag folk hear the soulful moan of the departing "Scotia Prince." Its low, deep Ohmmmmmmm! over Portland matches the dark storm clouds moving in.

Tuesday morning the Six wink and smile at families, nod to friends. Colville sees his 14-month-old, Justin. Baggarly gives tight-lipped smiles to 5-year-old Daniel. Kelly sees familiar Jesuit faces. The Berrigans had two hours and 10 minutes together the previous evening.

"All rise." The jury files in.

The court cannot know that the Sacred Heart crowd sees the judge and jury as neighbors, no better or worse than themselves. All here are being challenged by the Word. All capable of scriptural change.

Susan Crane is on her feet, as she was the day before, seeking leeway in the legal procedure to explain the why. Judge Carter repeatedly warns her off. Opening statements. Prosecutor Kazanjian waves her long fingers towards the defendants, her eyes sweeping first them, then the jury. "This case is about how each of these defendants damaged a U.S. Navy ship. ... They stand charged with conspiracy." Conspiracy. A heavy word in a silent court.

Then Crane, as confrontational as amenable, gives her opening arguments -- the Six have friendly lawyers in court to lean on, but they defend themselves. Her military spending pie chart cannot be included as evidence. Each time she slides in some conscience reasoning: "Objection," "Sustained," -- Carter strikes it. Game, Crane. Set, Kazanjian. Match, Carter. Colville, smiling, friendly, in an unusually winning manner but obviously nervous, offers -- against the advice of his fellow Plowshares -- "the artichoke defense." There is laughter in court.

"The prosecution has an agenda," insists Colville, "to keep you from peeling back the leaves of the artichoke ... to the deeper truth ... that when the world ends [in a nuclear holocaust], it will all be perfectly legal. We have better things to do with our lives than engage in juvenile acts of damage. The truth goes much deeper -- and there is not much that is more frightening than that. You, our peers have the right ... in conscience ... [to] set aside the prosecution's case."

In this 19th century building, two laws are in contention. Scriptural law and the law of the land touch but don't intersect. The Six want them to intersect. The judge and prosecution have the federal criminal codes -- this act is being tried as a criminal conspiracy. Deadly serious. The Six have Isaiah, and the text demands that hammers begin the conversion of the swords into plowshares. The wrath of the law of the land is coming. The Six will do time. Serious, harsh, long federal penitentiary time. On the second day, the law has broadcast its intent: The drummers are now confined to a patch a block away. Police barriers have broken yesterday's chanting circle.

The Six, their transformation into mystics continuing, have shifted to biblical time. Maccabees time. They argue for generations, today's and tomorrow's, using the fate of yesterday's generations -- Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

The court is not ignorant, nor are the defendants. Only the jury is in the dark. This is a political trial.

It would end predictably on the third day, after Dan Berrigan's testimony. The defendants turned their backs on the court. So did their supporters. The court was cleared. The verdict was guilty. For the Six, sentencing is still to come.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997