Catholic Activists Stand Trial for Protesting Nuclear Weapons

Catholic Activists Stand Trial for Protesting Nuclear Weapons

Catholic Activists Stand Trial for Protesting Nuclear Weapons

The members of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 face decades in prison for their nonviolent direct action at a naval base last year.


On the morning of Saturday, October 19, Clare Grady meditated on the local bird songs and prayed upon Luke 12: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

“The keyword is when,” said Grady. “It is not if—it is when.”

It’s a mark of many Catholic Worker activists that they expect to, at some point, be taken before “rulers and authorities.” As Grady and six others—a group of Catholic activists calling themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares 7—entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia, on April 4, 2018, the loudspeakers blared: “Use of deadly force is authorized.” But they were there exactly because they view the facility as an epicenter of lethal force.

The Plowshares 7 brought hammers, small bottles of blood, spray paint, and crime scene tape, which they strung across the facility. The base houses the Trident nuclear missile system; the group hoisted a sign that read “The Ultimate Logic of Trident: Omnicide,” poured the blood on the ground, and spray painted “Love One Another” on the pavement.

They were not shot. But as their trial begins today, October 21, in Brunswick, Georgia, the seven activists are facing decades in prison. Some have already racked up over a year in jail. Elizabeth McAlister—whose late partner was Philip Berrigan, of Baltimore’s resistance community Jonah House—was held at Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia, after refusing bail conditions for nearly 18 months. (She was—to her surprise—released earlier this month.)

Another of the 7, Father Steven Kelly, a Jesuit priest, remains in jail, and has excoriated recent court decisions for “having precluded truth-telling in the courtroom.” Other defendants include Patrick O’Neill of North Carolina, Carmen Trotta of the New York City Catholic Worker community, and Martha Hennessy, who splits her time between New York and her home in Vermont. (Trotta and Hennessy were interviewed on the podcast Intercepted earlier this year, a rare break from a remarkable media silence.)

“It’s not a ‘navy base,’ it’s a military facility that threatens all humanity,” said Luz Catarineau Colville. She and her husband, Mark Colville, another of the defendants, have run the Amisdad Catholic Worker in New Haven, Connecticut, for decades.

Colville, who was released from jail at the beginning of October, has called nuclear weapons the “taproot” of so much wrong with society. “By enslaving the human psyche to the idolatry of power, nuclearism underwrites all other forms of state-inflicted mayhem on the planet,” he wrote in June.

If that seems an exaggeration, consider many of the arguments put forth in Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Weapons Planner. Ellsberg documents 25 times the United States has used nuclear weapons during various crises, including against the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. By “use,” Ellsberg—and many of the Plowshares activists—mean in the same way as when a thief brandishes a cocked gun to achieve their purpose.

Ellsberg has filed an affidavit with the court arguing that the defendants were justified in their actions because they are attempting to prevent “omnicide, the collateral murder of nearly every human on earth in a war in which the nuclear missiles aboard Trident submarines were launched.” (Ellsberg, best known for releasing the Pentagon Papers to the Senate and the press in 1971, also argues that direct actions are what helped propel him to expose those documents—meaning, direct actions get results.)

But decisions of the judge have largely shut the door to the jury hearing anything about such defenses of “justification” or “necessity.” On Friday, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the US District Court for the Southern District of Georgia prohibited a whole series of defenses—including the testimony of international lawyer Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois, on the illegality of US nuclear policy—writing that while the defendants’ “subjective beliefs about the illegality of nuclear weapons may be relevant background information, whether nuclear weapons are actually illegal under international or domestic law…is not relevant or an appropriate issue to litigate in this case.”

And while Attorney General William Barr may excoriate “militant secularists” and Vice President Mike Pence may exalt “religious freedom” when it’s useful, Judge Wood is moving to prevent all mention of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the courtroom, to the silence of many. This even though, as defendant O’Neill noted, “the court determined that [their] actions were both ‘prophetic’ and ‘sacramental.’”

(While many US bishops have supported the Plowshares 7, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other notables, the Vatican has been notably silent.)

“This is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp and a railroad all put together,” said Boyle before the trial.

But on Sunday evening, Martha Hennessy—granddaughter of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day—understatedly spoke to a crowd of about 200 supporters at a rally they called a Festival of Hope. “I believe in conversions in the court room,” she said. “It’s going to be a very exciting week.”

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