Instead, seven Catholic peacemakers were convicted and now await sentencing
By Jack Cohen-Joppa, The Nuclear Resister
“…You are the hope you have arrived to find.”
So ended a brief message that Fr. Steve Kelly wrote from jail last month to be read to more than 100 friends and supporters. We had travelled from across the United States for a Festival of Hope on the eve of the trial of the Kings Bay Plowshares in coastal Brunswick, Georgia.
While many of us hoped for their acquittal, Steve reminded us that hope in the nuclear age comes first from building community, and hope is sustained every time we act together for a nuclear-free future.
The 70-year-old Jesuit knows something about sustaining hope in hard places. This time, he’s already been in jail for over a year and a half. He was arrested with six other Catholic nuclear abolitionists – Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Elizabeth McAlister, Patrick O’Neill and Carmen Trotta – in the wee hours of April 5, 2018, inside the United States’ Submarine Base Kings Bay. There they cut fences and used hand tools, paint and human blood to condemn nuclear weapons and carry out symbolic acts of disarmament.
The Kings Bay Plowshares joined a nearly 40-year tradition of more than 100 nonviolent direct actions where participants give form to the Biblical prophecy of Isaiah and “beat swords into plowshares.” Five of the seven took part in earlier Plowshares actions and have spent time in federal prison – in Steve’s case, more than ten years.
Kings Bay is the home port for six (of 14) U.S. Trident nuclear-powered submarines. In a perverse double-down for doom, the Georgia base also regularly services Great Britain’s allied fleet of four Trident nuclear subs. The U.S. Tridents can each launch up to 24 Trident ballistic missiles bearing multiple nuclear warheads. Each packs five to thirty times the punch of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each submarine carries the potential to destroy life on earth as we know it.
Legal wrangling over a novel defense strategy delayed this trial longer than any previous Plowshares trial. Four decades of defending anti-nuclear resistance in federal court have resulted in binding legal precedent against any defense based on necessity, lesser harm, international law or the unconstitutional establishment of a state religion of nuclearism.
Trying a new tack, the Kings Bay Plowshares sought a reduction or dismissal of charges based on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA mandates that government must show a compelling interest and employ the least restrictive means to curtail legitimate expressions of religious faith and practice. RFRA has notoriously been used to defend employers who won’t provide health insurance that includes contraception as a family planning option, and by businesses refusing to serve gay couples.
In pretrial briefs and testimony, Catholic clergy and theologians provided expert support for the legal arguments that a talented volunteer team of attorneys prepared for the defendants.
After final oral arguments in August, Federal Judge Lisa Godbey Wood found that the defendant’s religious beliefs are sincere and deeply held. However, she ruled that the government’s compelling national security interest outweighs their liberty to break into the base for such religious acts.
In a final memo issued just 60 hours before trial, she cut the heart out of their defense. Wood wrote that there is nothing important to be learned about “the defendants’ subjective beliefs about religion and the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons,” and further that “testimony and argument on these topics creates the danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”
Thus she forbid the proposed trial testimony of Professors Francis Boyle (International Law) and Jeannine Hill Fletcher (Theology), and Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Kopacz.
Steve’s message for those gathered at the Festival of Hope addressed this outcome. “We engage the judiciary in the courtroom, one of the more dangerous rooms in the Pentagon. The judiciary at the District, Appellate Circuit and Supreme level have precluded truth telling in the courtroom so that in the words of Daniel Berrigan, a nuclear holocaust will be legal.”
The trial began on Monday, October 21, with jury selection and opening statements.
While the Catholic faith of the defendants could not be avoided on the stand, the court rigorously enforced its prohibition on any testimony suggesting that faith gave religious, moral or legal justification for their disarmament actions. Francis Boyle told a reporter, “This is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp and a railroad all put together.”
Clare Grady’s opening statement at the end of the first day pushed the limits, and earned a threat from the judge once she’d released the jury. “I am going to require you to follow my rulings” about a defense of necessity or religious freedom. Otherwise, she would impose “alternate arrangements for your participation in the trial.”
The prosecution took the second day. The direct actions that led to the arrests were laid out for the jury in testimony and physical evidence. Four large plastic crates and a wheeled cart overflowed with tools, backpacks, jackets, banners, prayer books and more, all wrapped and tagged. A section of cut fence had been removed, rolled up and brought into court, bound by large zipties.
The government’s lengthy show and tell was all about what and how, but no why, considering the defendants had already stipulated to all of the evidence and their actions. Heavily featured in the government’s case were edited videos from GoPro cameras that two of the defendants wore that night. Projected on a large screen above the defendants, we watched their actions, listened to their conversations, and when the defense presented its case we heard their prayers.
One camera recorded Patrick and Mark approaching the prominent Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic sign and display of life-size missiles erected like a shrine inside the base. They struck the Trident D-5 missile replica with a hammer cast from melted guns, and removed the sign’s illuminated letters.
Clare and Martha joined them after their work at the administration building. There they’d secured the entrance with yellow crime-scene tape, marked the insignia with blood and hung a banner stating “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide”, echoing Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation that the ultimate logic of racism is genocide. The group had consciously chosen the 50th anniversary of his assassination to take action against what he identified as the “evil triplets” of racism, militarism and extreme materialism. They posted an indictment of Trident’s violation of international law and left a copy of Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.
The other camera showed Liz, Steve and Carmen as they cut fences to reach the brightly lit road between the final pair of fences that surround the nuclear bunkers. We heard them greet the armed responders, “We come in peace, we mean you no harm.” They held a banner with four bold words:
The defense presented their case on the third day of the trial, with the testimony of 6 of the 7 defendants, who addressed the why. Over repeated objections, they struggled to stay on the approved script while parrying the prosecution’s relentless, often sarcastic dismissals of their active conscience as simple criminal intent. Still, each shined in moments of testimony.
Patrick O’Neill, who’d waited until now for his opening statement, acknowledged that they’d used “high drama” to make their point about first-strike nuclear weapons. “I draw a correlation with Jesus cleansing the Temple… like smashing the golden calf in the Hebrew Bible.”
The symbol of blood used to mark a sidewalk, insignias, and the missile shrine, he explained, “has clear meaning in the context of faith… The blood of sacrifice of Jesus and the everlasting covenant. And blood symbolizes what happens in war… Kings Bay is nice and clean and you never see the blood. All we did was make it more visible. It was already there.”
In testimony later, he described theirs as prophetic action: going to a place of sin, and addressing it.
Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, who cofounded the Catholic Worker movement, spoke of how her grandmother’s early public condemnation of nuclear weapons influenced her own views. She reflected on her Catholic belief that “It is not enough to attend Mass. I also have to show I care through my works that this is what I know.”
Carmen Trotta’s passion could not be muted on the stand. He said that they went to Kings Bay, from where one quarter of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is deployed, to deliver a sacrament and begin the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
“These things are not aspirational. We have to live them into being now!”
“Please lower your voice,” the judge interjected.
“I shouldn’t be preaching,” replied Carmen with a smile.
Of the property damage, he said, “We wanted you to see the outrage of God.”
Clare’s testimony began with the influence of her parents and their Catholic faith. “It’s not enough to just talk about Jesus. Our whole lives are about learning to understand that God is love.” One of her purposes was to take responsibility for the weapons, and withdraw her consent in action.
She was asked to define the word omnicide. “It’s a word that didn’t exist before the nuclear age – the death of all living things. We had no word to describe the possibility.”
Mark Colville spoke of his decision, at age 19, to form a life around voluntary poverty, in community, among the poor. “My religion says faith is a lie without action. Faith is expressed in deeds, not words.”
Government witnesses referred to a missile display, but Mark told why they called it a shrine. Like a shrine, he said, the site is arranged to provide honor and give reverence to missiles.
Why had he painted “idol” and “blasphemy” on them? Because they place other than God at the center of earthly life. Idols are to be smashed.
He described their actions as more than symbolic, but also sacramental: actions which call into reality that which is not yet real.
In her testimony, Liz addressed the centrality of prayer to the group’s planning. Her attorney, Bill Quigley, opened an evidence box to hold up the banner Liz, Steve and Carmen had displayed near the bunkers. What did those words mean?
“The nuclear weapons at Kings Bay are poison and illegal,” she said. “If you understand the kill power – if they aren’t illegal, they ought to be.”
“I need to witness against these weapons for the sake of the children and grandchildren,” she concluded.
Fr. Steve Kelly, representing himself, was the only defendant who did not testify nor offer an opening or closing statement. Instead, he quietly and prayerfully listened to the proceedings.
Any suspense about the outcome of their trial was short-lived. The jury of 12 returned within two hours, convicting the seven on four counts each – misdemeanor trespass and three felonies: destruction of government property; depredation of government property on a military installation, and a conspiracy to do these things. Each faces a maximum of up to 20 years in prison, but taking requisite factors into account, maximum terms are not expected.
Pre-sentencing reports and recommendations for sentence will be prepared before a sentencing date is set, possibly in January. Six defendants have been released with curfew and travel restrictions; Fr. Kelly is not eligible for release due to an outstanding federal case from an earlier protest at the west coast Trident base at Bangor, Washington.
After the verdict was announced and jurors dismissed, a single voice rose in the overflow courtroom, joined by a growing chorus:
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!”
The halls and stairwell filled with song as six of the defendants, their attorneys, family members and supporters departed to join others outside, while Steve Kelly was returned to the local jail.
Together, we embodied the hope we came there to find.
Jack Cohen-Joppa and his wife Felice Cohen-Joppa are editors and coordinators of the Nuclear Resister, providing comprehensive information about and support for imprisoned anti-nuclear activists since 1980.
For more information about the Kings Bay Plowshares, including their biographies, legal documents from the case, and how to support them as they await sentencing, visit kingsbayplowshares7.org.