National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 19, 2003

Dominican Srs. Ardeth Platte, Jackie Hudson and Carol Gilbert enter a nuclear missile site in northern Colorado Oct. 6, 2002.
-- Jonah House
Witnesses for peace put God before government


War and violence are big news, while peaceful words and actions rarely gain the front page. For this reason some pacifists resort to symbolic actions to get their message heard. As the world seems to be increasingly torn by war and conflict, more and more individuals are being called as witnesses in a ministry for peace. These individuals often take quixotic stands to make larger statements about the evils of war -- and many of them end up in jail.

Recently the most well-publicized such instance involved three Grand Rapids Dominican nuns, Ardeth Platte, Jackie Hudson and Carol Gilbert, who broke into a Minuteman III missile silo site on Oct. 6, 2002, to perform a classic Plowshares symbolic disarmament. Using baby bottles filled with their own blood, they poured the liquid in the shape of six crosses on the concrete lid of the missile silo, and on the tracks that would be used to slide the lid open. They also used household hammers to symbolically hammer on the 110 tons of concrete that protected the missile. Finally, they stood in prayer and song to await the military response, which came in the form of military Humvees and M-16s.

The action was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, and the site was chosen because it was visible from several directions. The nuns had a message of peace to spread and they wanted to be seen and heard.

They chose to do a Plowshares action. These actions are named after a passage from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” Hudson said, “The two symbols that are always used in Plowshares actions are a household hammer and blood. We use household hammers because they are used to tear down what is not needed and to build what is needed. We use blood because it is the lifeline of all animal life, and we’d rather shed our blood than shed the blood of innocents. Blood is carried in baby bottles because women, children and the elderly are always the innocent victims of warfare.”

In planning the action, the trio anticipated a criminal trespass charge, the usual response to such an operation. Instead they were charged with interfering with the nation’s defense and causing property damage of more than $1,000. These two charges could have netted sentences of up to 30 years in prison, but the federal prosecutor requested sentences of five to eight years for each nun -- still far longer than a criminal trespass sentence would have been. The judge lowered the mandated sentences because of the nuns’ past good works and gave Platte 41 months in federal prison; Hudson was sentenced to 30 months; and Gilbert received a 33-month sentence (NCR, Aug. 15).

Gilbert and Platte are both residents of Jonah House, Baltimore’s communal residence for pacifists founded by the late Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. Residents of the house have often been involved in protests against the U.S. military. Hudson belongs to a similar group in Poulsbo, Wash.

Many others striving to witness for peace and justice have been jailed in this country. The School of the Americas Watch in Washington sends a steady stream of protesters through the justice system. For 13 years the group has staged an annual November protest at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Ga., where Latin American military officers are trained. In November 2002, 85 people were arrested for crossing the border of this military reservation. Federal prison sentences were given to 51 of the protesters, and these sentences ranged from 30 days to six months.

School of the Americas Watch had a trio of nuns who were jailed for their beliefs. After participating in a November 2000 trespass, Dubuque Franciscans Sr. Dorothy Hennessey, then 88; Sr. Gwen Hennessey, then 68; and St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth McKenzie, then 71, were sentenced to six months in prison (NCR, Jan 25, 2002).

Witnesses for peace around the country find that the U.S. government is using increasingly harsh measures to quiet the voices of pacifism. Los Angeles Catholic Worker Jeff Dietrich said, “People are being manipulated by fear tactics on the part of the government.” He said, “Across the board there is a clamping down on dissent, a general hardness of heart that not only manifests itself in the sentencing of dissenters, but also in the way that we think of anyone who doesn’t fit in, including the poor.”

Gilbert said that social justice and peace activists “don’t fear the things our government is telling us to fear. I don’t define homeland security they way the government defines it: For me it’s people getting just wages and people having health care and education.”

Elizabeth McAlister of Jonah House said that since Sept. 11, the legal response to nonviolent civil disobedience has become “unpredictable.” She said the USA Patriot Act has had a lot to do with that. Activists from Jonah House now have a harder time getting close to the seats of government, so it’s more difficult for people to give witness against what this government is doing. Still, she said, “you do what you can do, you get as close as you can get. We cannot be silent in the face of what’s going on.”

As evidenced by the three nuns’ charges in Colorado, the government is now more willing to seek harsher charges and longer sentences for peace activists. Dietrich got six months in federal prison for simple trespass charges after crossing “the green line” at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif.

When witnesses for peace are sent to jail, they face a harsh penal system. Dietrich said, “If you’re lucky enough to be held by the federal bureau of prisons, they’re fairly humane. Most people end up in county jail and that is just horrible, and the bigger the jail the worse it is. The L.A. County jail is a hell-hole.”

Hudson, who suffers from asthma, was sent to a facility high in the Rockies and placed in the isolation unit for no legal reason. Friends worried that the high altitude might precipitate an asthma attack, with no one around to aid her. It took her lawyers almost four days to have her moved to the general population.

Often jail could be avoided if these witnesses would cooperate with government authorities, but they often refuse on the grounds of conscience. Dietrich spent two months in jail for “failure to disperse” when he sprinkled holy water on the steps of the federal building in Los Angeles. He could have been released on his own recognizance but turned down the deal because he could not comply with the terms of his release, which would have required him to promise not to come back to the federal building. He said it was right before the Iraq war was due to start and “I knew I would come back to the federal building and do an act of civil disobedience when the war started.” He explained he would have had to lie to make that promise. Hudson, Platte and Gilbert, too, refused release on their own recognizance while awaiting trial, saying that they couldn’t promise to stay inactive after the war started in Iraq. The nuns also noted that they were jailed with several women who had far lesser charges against them who were not offered the same deal, so they stayed out of solidarity with them.

Why do they do it?

Dietrich said, “We are followers of the Prince of Peace. We believe if Jesus were on earth today he would be doing something very similar.” The three nuns in Colorado said their witness to peace is done for the sake of the Earth and innocent civilians, but also for the military. She said, “War becomes antiseptic. They’re dropping bombs from up high, they don’t see the blood, they don’t see the pain and the agony they are causing.” Still, she said, “You cannot do that to another human being without suffering yourself -- psychologically, physically -- somehow.”

Gilbert and Platte worked on military bases for years and saw the psychological damage done to soldiers during the first Gulf War. Platte said, “Some of them were mothers and fathers. They came back knowing that they had killed other mothers and fathers and they were in great turmoil.” Gilbert said when they came home, “they broke down and they cried with us, asking God to forgive them, asking how could God forgive them for what they had done.” She predicted that the present Iraq war will have similar effects: “It’s not in our [human] nature to be involved in this slaughter we’re asking our men and women to be involved with.”

Platte sees the military complex and its nuclear weaponry as “a defilement of everything I ever studied in theology and the scriptures. It is a gun at the heads of God’s people.” She said it all comes down to one basic fact. “The government is not our God, our God comes first, and that’s our preaching, that’s our witness.”

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer living in Colorado.

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003

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