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On Contact: Activism with the Kings Bay Plowshares 7

Chris Hedges talks to New York Catholic Workers Martha Hennessy and Carmen Trotta about breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base to charge the US government with crimes against peace on April 4, 2018.  The peace activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, were arrested and went on trial this week in Georgia, following allegations of trespassing and damage to government property, among other things. Kings Bay is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world, with six ballistic missile subs and two guided missile subs. Over the past four decades, activists in the Plowshares movement have taken part in about 100 similar actions at nuclear arms facilities, beginning in 1980 at the General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the trial that began this week in Georgia of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the defendants Carmen Trotta and Martha Hennessy. 

CT: They held their guns toward our feet, all three of us, there were two of them, and began to--and we told them immediately, we said, "We come in peace, we are all American citizens, we will do you no harm, we are unarmed."  And then we asked them if we could read them our indictment, our reason for being there, and they said no, they were just concerned to get stuff out of our pockets and drop any--anything that we had.  And then again, there was a long wait.  They were left--they were left to arrest us for--they were on the other side of the fence so they couldn't grab us, and they simply keep their gun at our feet, they wanted to know if there were others of us on the base, and then, you know, 15 minutes later, I don't know what it was, trucks started coming from everywhere. 

CH: Elizabeth McAlister of Jonah House in Baltimore, along with a Jesuit priest, Steve Kelly, and Catholic Worker Movement members, Carmen Trotta, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day, Mark Colville, and Patrick O'Neill were put on trial this week for trespassing onto the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia to protest our nuclear weapons arsenals.  The activists entered the base on April 4th, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech on Riverside Church where he thundered against the triple evils of militarism, racism, and materialism.  They carried hammers and baby bottles of their own blood to defile the nuclear weapons storage bunkers.  The Kings Bay Naval Facility is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world.  Joining me to discuss the peace action and upcoming trial are two of the defendants, Martha Hennessy and Carmen Trotta.  So let's begin with you, explain why.  Why did you do this?  What was your intent?

MH: We would like to expose the nuclear arsenal for what it is, a first-strike weapon, with a plan to use these weapons, and I feel under the Trump Administration, we are drifting closer and closer to actually using these weapons again, and I felt a personal responsibility to stand up.  I--the preparation for that kind of an action, I think, is very long-term.  I have to say I feel like my lifetime experience has brought me to the place of being ready and prepared to do such a thing.  And I was in community, it took a lot of preparation, and it took a lot of faith and willingness to override my fears.

CH: Let's talk about this aspect, because--and Dan Berrigan writes about this, that when you carry out these kinds of actions, you are, in essence, turning the legal system on itself, so that you are putting the nuclear arsenal on trial, in the courtroom, that going to jail, and you spent--was it two months in jail?

MH: Yes.

CH: And same?

CT: Likewise, uh-hmm.

CH: Is also part of your witness, and the idea is not necessarily that people will join you, but that you will raise consciousness.  And that this is grounded in non-violence, and a manifestation of faith, perhaps you can just address those issues.

CT: We refer to it as a sacramental action which we got a lot of attention in the courtroom just trying to give some sort of explanation of what that might be.  So making sort of physically present the spiritual presence, and the spiritual presence we felt, or I felt instead, was the outrage of God, the outrage of God because of the threat that it poses to creation.  The violation of treaty law, your--when you talk about our confronting the court with something new, what we want to confront the law--the courts with is the law itself.  We are quite clear that via international humanitarian law, international law, the weapons are rather clearly illegal, and the court seem unwilling to engage in this, so we are hoping we brought with us to the base when we went--Dan Ellsberg's most recent book, "The Doomsday Machine," and our hope is to have him come to court, and seriously put the legality of the nuclear weapon systems on trial, and there'd be no better person to do it than he, so…

CH: Let's talk about--maybe you can read a passage that your grandmother wrote, which is here.  Right after the explosions in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and I think she articulates where people of faith are coming from on this issue.

MH: This was written in September of 1945, and her grief and outrage is muted but there.  "Mr. Truman was jubilant.  President Truman.  True man, what a strange name, come to think of it.  We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true man.  Truman is a true man of his time, and that he was jubilant.  He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did.  He went from table to table on the cruiser which was bringing him home from the Big Three conference, telling the great news, 'Jubilant,' the newspaper said.  Jubliate Deo.  We have killed 318,000 Japanese.  That is we hope we have killed them."  The associated press on page one, column one of the Herald Tribune says, "The effect is hoped for, not known.  It is to be hoped that they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers, scattered, men, women, and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas.  Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton.  We have spent two billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history, and one," said President Truman, jubilantly."

CH: Well, there is the angel of death.

MH: Uh-hmm.  The idolatry is very clear.

CH: Yeah.  Let's talk about jail because I had wanted to go down and visit Liz McAlister and tried every way possible including a clergy visit.  The--and you both spent two months, and it's amazing the--what these county jails are doing.  Talk a little bit about your conditions in jail--and you can begin, Martha, and how that is part of your witness.

MH: Well, in the Catholic Worker tradition, we practice what we call the works of mercy to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and we…

CH: Was that--is that the core demand of the gospel?

MH: That's the core demand, Matthew 25.  It's the manifesto of the Catholic Worker.  And the best way to visit the prisoner is to become a prisoner and to live in that community, that's part of the ministry, to bring oneself to those.

CH: Can I just interrupt?  Because when Phil Berrigan is jailed for burning draft records at the Catonsville Nine, he says mass in the jail, he's a catholic priest.  And suddenly the masses are overflowing, and the response of the bishop is to strip him of his priestly function, and send in an outside priest who the prisoners boycott.

MH: Very sad.  The role of the Catholic Church, the US Catholic Church, in--is ministering to those in deep need.  We were not able to have mass on a regular basis in the prison.  There was a lot of--in the deep south, there were a lot of Baptist ministers available, and I did attend some of those other religious services, and the message of Jesus is quite clear, that we are to take personal responsibility and to place ourselves with the poor, and so the experience of being in prison is one of realizing that, you know, 90% of the prisoners are drug addicted, mothers of young children, the suffering is just unimaginable in terms of how punishment is meted out in every aspect of daily life, including the texture of the blankets that you have to sleep on.

CH: So talk a little bit about the conditions inside the jail where you were.

MH: We were held for two months, one month at the Camden County Jail, in Woodbine, Georgia, and that was more of a backwoods kind of arrangement.  I found it to be more homey than the Glenn County Jail and most of the women there are dealing with poverty, violence, and addiction, and mothers of young children are kept there, the suffering--the nighttime we would hear people just weeping, and crying, and calling, and…

CH: Because they're separated from their children.

MH: They're separated from their families, they're--some of them are suffering from withdrawal, they do not get proper medical care--withdrawing from the drugs, and the food is…

CH: Is it $0.47 a day they spend or something?

MH: Yeah, they tried to reduce the cost of keeping the prisoners, you know, as much as possible.

CH: So what were you eating?

MH: Camden County, it was cornbread, greens, beans, those are very edible foods to me, but when we were moved to the Glenn County Jail, the diet changed drastically, and that was more the corporate Saga foods that they give to the universities and the institutions around the country, and no fresh foods whatsoever.

CH: Talk a bit about visits, because I was told you get a--when I wanted to go see Liz which I--they wouldn't allow me to do, you get a 15-minute video, even if you're physically there, you--talk--they really--they cut people off from there.

CT: In Glenn County, that was true, in the--at the early warden, Camden County, you did get a face-to-face visit behind a plate of glass, but again, 15 minutes.  So I had--my brother came from North Carolina down to Georgia, it's a good trip.  He would not have gotten in except that I told--I told them that he was a--which is true, that he was a colonel in the US military and so he came to see me.  And, I mean, 15 minutes is a very short period of time for him to have traveled all that way, and whatever you can try to communicate to one another, so, yeah, it was very restrictive.

CH: Talk a little bit about the day you went into the base, how you prepared for going in and what you did when you went in.

CT: They were months of preparation.

CH: Which where what?  What did you do for those months?

CT: We met together--actually we were unclear for most of the time where we were going.  The question was whether we were going anywhere.  This happened to be a particularly cohesive group of people, the seven of us were all friends, all had very strong relationships, so you've had Andy Worthington on this show, and he was part of the--one of our great advisors as we were working against Guantanamo, but four out of the seven of us, of this community went down to Guantanamo at a time when the--there was a prison hunger strike going on, and the Bush Administration said, "If anyone thinks there's anything amiss down at Guantanamo, they ought to go down there and look."  So this group of Americans, 25 Catholic Workers, went down to Cuba, to Forbidden Cuba at the time, and tried to gain access to the base, and of course, we were not allowed that.  The Cubans did allow us to vigil there for over a week.  In any case, just to give you an idea how this group knows each other very, very well.  And we spent most the--every time we gathered, we met in prayer, we did the church's readings of the day, and we spent about an hour after that simply discussing the scripture that we had just read and where it led us, and it was after that that we began talking about the necessities of the Plowshares Action, Plowshares community, and what we intended to do, and there were a lot of ideas that were sifted through, until ultimately, we landed on, you know, the most lethal weapons system in the world to go there.  And ultimately, that would lead us to Kings Bay.

CH: And so tell me, maybe Martha, what that day was like, what--you got up and you did what?

MALE: As a reaction to his efforts…

MH: We got up and we prepared ourselves.  It was the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. and we had to prepare ourselves to be walking in swamps to prepare ourselves for the unknown.  I mean, some of us were entering into a legal--lethal force zone, so we had to prepare ourselves for potentially not coming back.

CH: And you carried files of your own blood?

MH: We carried our blood, we carried an indictment.  We're here to hold up the rule of law, we carried a criminal crime tape, we carried Dan Ellsberg's book, "The Doomsday Machine," and we carried a bit of food with us.

CH: All right.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about non-violent direct action with Martha Hennessy and Carmen Trotta.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about non-violent direct action with Martha Hennessy and Carmen Trotta.  So Carmen, before the break, we were talking about the day you went in, what were you thinking, what was going through your head?

CT: Well, there was a long day--well there was a long day.  That day itself was a long meeting in terms of squaring out exactly what each of us was going to do.  And say the?

CH: What were you thinking as you entered the base?

CT: There's a great--there was an--so I was one of the three peoples that entered a lethal force area and--at a recent court hearing the prosecutor asked me about this.  And he asked me about it in a sort of flippant way and it angered me so and I was already behaving, sort of, to--reactionary demeanor.  And I just stopped her a very long time and I said it was amazing that we did that wasn't it?  Because it was such a frightful thing to do.  So there was a--yeah, so we caught onto the base under the cover of night.  But we walked down a roadway.  We walked down a roadway that at certain point was lit up by street lights undetected.  We walked for--it had to be--it had to be near to an hour.  We went by a brightly lit facility on the base.  We weren't hiding and we were--we were not detected.  And then there came a point where we split up and went to different sections of the base, and my group Steve Kelly and Liz McAlister tried to get as close as we could to the nuclear warheads themselves.  And that would be the bunkers and there were three fence lines and we cut two of the three fence lines and got in and then the third fence line was formidable, electrified, and as we were--in every instance I should tell you.  We stopped at the first barrier that we cut.  We stopped and took a picture in front of it and cut it.  At the next barrier we stopped and took a picture with a sign that said "Nuclear weapons illegal, immoral."  And then we went into--well all of it is inside the lethal force area but we went into near the third fence and it was--and we were there for again--it had to be--10 minutes is a long time.  There were circumstances.  And no one--it took a very long time to detect us, until finally then light started going off, trucks started to approach us from several hundred yards away and we held up the banner and we prayed.  When the soldiers came off the bus--actually when they came off the tank that they were in, it wasn't a tank, it was a heavily armored vehicle and for a long time they waited.  They waited for a number or minutes in the truck.  I was wondering what they were going to do.  And when they came out of the truck, my first response was "Oh my God they are so young."  They were so young and they held their guns toward our feet, all three of us, there were two of them, and began--and we told them immediately, we said "We come in peace.  We are all American citizens, we will do you no harm, we are unarmed."  And then we asked him if could read them our indictment, our reason for being there.  And they said no, they were just concerned to get stuff out of our pockets and drop anything that we had.  And then again there was a long wait.  They were left--they were left to arrest us for--they were on the other side of the fence.  So they couldn't grab us and they simply keep their gun at our feet.  They wanted to know if there were others of us on the base and then, you know, 15 minutes later, I don't know what it was.  Trucks started coming from everywhere.  So there were--suddenly there are five, ten, twelve trucks, lights everywhere, and lots more military personnel.  Then they came in through the fence that we had cut, they came in with their guns and they were a little more aggressive than--but bad.  Their gun is on us at this point.  Not at our feet, on us, and they would say take three steps back.  Three steps back.  Take another three steps back.  Three steps back.  Take another three steps back.  Then they had us kneel down--they had us kneel down.  Go down on the stone and lay there and then they came and they told us put our hands behind our backs.  And I thought for sure, I was going to get a knee in the back.  I thought for certain and they did not.  They were very--they were--in that way they had--these--they were very well behaved.  I had this sense the whole time of the process of arrest that this was almost a drill for them.  That they were concerned about doing anything wrong or they were concerned about doing anything not by the book.  Yeah.  So really it was very frightening, mostly.

CH: So let's talk about the trial.  And the trial has been delayed for some time, why?

MH: Well because we chose to mount a defense regarding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

CH: Explain what that is?  There was a pass by Trump to--as a SOP to the Christian right.

MH: Well, it's been misused.  It was initially brought into being--by indigenous people trying to regain their sacred lands and their sacred rituals which they were prohibited from practicing and it has since been used by the religious right to deny employees healthcare benefits, birth control, and to allow small business to discriminate--to not bake cakes for gay married couples, things like that.  So it's been law that has been misused, turned into bad law, and we're hoping to use it in a way to show that as Christians as practicing Catholics, we cannot stand by and accept this planning for a nuclear holocaust.

CH: And how will you use it that way?

MH: Well, I can only say to you that the four points that we are beholden to make in court is that number one we have a religious belief that is sincerely held and that is for us to prove and that the government has slapped us with three felonies and one misdemeanor and that is a burden to our practice of our faith and both of those points we have to bear the proof.  And the second two points, the government has a compelling interest to protect and maintain the Trident Nuclear arsenal.  They have to prove that and then the fourth point being the government must use a least restrictive means to protect that interest and so we are saying that this is a sacramental act, this is a prophetic act, and we had a theologian from Fordham University Jeanine Hill Fletcher come and testify and Bishop Kopacz from Jackson, Mississippi.  Come to testify to the fact that Vatican II Council, Catholic social teaching, the encyclicals of the popes are all calling Catholics to protest the nuclear arsenal.

CH: And what are you facing?  What?

MH: Well, they are threatening us with the three felonies, I think it's ten--five to ten years each and the misdemeanor six months.  So I think something, like, 20 to 25 years we're being threatened with federal prison.

CT: So why don't you--to go back momentarily.  The least restrictive means, if these are done on sincerely held religious beliefs.  Then the government is supposed to use the least restrictive means of ensuring their compelling interest.  One of the things that we argue of course is that they have--can have no compelling interest in sequestering in weapons of mass destruction, weapons that are illegal.  That's not going to fly, right?  But in any case, so that would be their compelling interest is to--is to protect the base.  And so that's the big argument.  So they are now supposed to look for something called least restrictive means.  And that doesn't sound like 20 years.

CH: One of the things Dan Berrigan writes about this but Socrates writes about it as well.  That when you walk into a courtroom behold into moral law.  I think Dan Berrigan calls it the kingdom of the blind.

MH: Uh-hmm.

CH: In many ways you are speaking a language that the legal system doesn't understand.

MH: Uh-hmm.  There's a disconnect  between speaking of God's law versus man's law and Socrates was mentioned by one of our attorneys recently, the dilemma that he found himself in, and yes we are there to try and bring expert testimony regarding the legality of the nuclear arsenal within the federal court system and they have been very wily over the past 38 years to prevent that from occurring with these past years trials.

CH: One of the last interviews that Dan Berrigan gave, he was asked, I think by Amy Goodman whether he and the peace movement had been successful.  And he said no.  He said that these are one of the bleakest times of his life and we are a country that is rampant in terms of its militarism, endless war, we've militarized our police, we've militarized our schools.

MH: Uh-hmm.

CH: As peace activist who have fought against the virus or the poison of militarism and yet seeing its expansion.  I mean--I think the military has a--what an 80% approval rating among the republic--among the populous.  How do you cope with that?  I'll begin with you Carmen.

CT: Well one way we cope with it was by the action.  And this 80% that's positive--where is that?  It's constant ongoing propaganda, even in the--even in the churches almost especially in the churches.  So in a certain way people are as accustomed to or unaware of the nuclear weapons and the nuclear threat as they are of where our military is.  I mean, you know, it's the new news that's how--that the US military is active in 80 countries around the world.  Eighty different countries around the world, and yes we've watched, you know, in my lifetime, sort of the beginning--or my political lifetime beginning with Herbert Walker Bush in Panama.  And when we won that war, Herbert Walker Bush maintained that we had beat the Vietnam syndrome as if it were a disease.  Yeah, so we are--so I mean that is partly our response--partly our response is to--is to call people to attention about what is in fact what is actually going on.  Recently you had the event in Niger.  Congress knew nothing about it.  They had no idea what the military was doing in Niger.

CH: And let me just close with you Martha, how do you cope with where we've come?  I mean the deterioration within the country since the Vietnam War, the resurrection of war's good name, how do you cope with that?

MH: Yes, we're in an age of a permanent war economy.  This--these are the end stages of capitalism and empire.  I feel privileged to be in these times at this moment.  God has given me this time and my life and I'm very happy to be able to raise a voice saying no.  If I were to be silent, I mean I would be committing the sin of omission and being complicit with this destruction.  And so my hope comes from community, comes from family, it comes from friends.  The resistance itself, you know, this question of Jesus on the cross being a total failure certainly comes to my mind.  But I am very happy to be speaking out.  No matter the cost.

CH: That's Hannah Arendt after she's arrested by the Gestapo.  She says, "I look back on that moment of my life and I can say, thank God, I wasn't innocent."

MH: Uh-hmm.

CH: Thank you.  That was Martha Hennessy and Carmen Trotta over their protest at the King's Bay Naval Base.

MH: Thank you.

CH: Thank you.

CT: Good to be with you.