By Jonathan Michels
Published on ShadowProof, Nov 17, 2020
Patrick O’Neill gripped the hammer tightly in his hands. The police would soon surround him.
O’Neill and six other Catholic peace activists had infiltrated the Kings Bay Naval Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia, with the goal of symbolically disarming the base’s six Trident submarines armed with first-strike missiles capable of holding 200 nuclear warheads.
Some of the activists strung up crime scene tape and hung protest banners that read “The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide.” Others poured baby bottles of their own blood around the base.
Using Google Maps, O’Neill and Mark Colville discovered a macabre shrine to nuclearism consisting of a half dozen statues of nuclear missiles that looked as if they were suspended in motion just seconds after launch.
Staring up at a replica of a Trident D5 intercontinental ballistic missile, O’Neill’s mind turned to the book of Exodus in the Bible: the shrine offered proof that nuclear weapons were modern-day idols more powerful than a golden calf. Unlike that empty signifier, the pacifist recognized the immutable power of nuclear weapons. For him, it was the same as worshipping death.
Time was running short. O’Neill sprinted up to the statue and beat it with the hammer. The missile was solid cement and the hammerhead broke clean off.
“It was a formidable idol,” recalled O’Neill.
Catholic peace activists like the ones who infiltrated the naval base at Kings Bay in 2018 have attempted to topple the formidable idol of nuclearism for 40 years, and they have paid a heavy price.
Liz McAlister has already served 17 months behind bars and Father Steve Kelley continues to languish in a jail in Georgia. After spending more than 28 months under house arrest, O’Neill was slapped with a 14-month prison sentence in October. Carmen Trotta and Clare Grady will serve more than a year in prison, while Martha Hennessy expects to be incarcerated for 10 months. Mark Colville will be sentenced in December.
On top of that, the activists are grappling with an establishment media blackout that they fear could be reflective of Americans’ apathy towards nuclear abolition at a moment when the threat of a nuclear holocaust is at its highest point in decades.
Beating Swords Into Plowshares
O’Neill and the other Catholic peace activists knew they possessed neither the tools nor the numbers to physically disarm the nuclear naval base at Kings Bay. Rather, the goal of the Kings Bay action, like every Plowshares action dating back to the movement’s inception, was to call attention to the omnicidal threat that nuclear weapons continue to pose for humanity.
The Plowshares movement began in 1980 when Roman Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan and six others surreptitiously gained access to the Re-Entry Division at the General Electric Space Technology Center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Carrying only hammers and pints of their own blood to symbolize the human cost of nuclear war, the activists pounded on nose cones that covered Mark 12A nuclear warheads and poured the blood over engineering blueprints and other documents.
As their objective was to convert weapons of war into instruments of peace, the activists dubbed themselves the Plowshares Eight, a reference to a verse in the book of Isaiah in the Bible calling nations to “beat swords into plowshares.”
The King of Prussia action captured the attention of the nation–the New York Times to call it “one of the best-known antiwar incidents in this country since the Vietnam War”–and announced to the world the beginning of a bold new faction within the broader anti-war movement in the U.S. that fused religion with non-violent direct action against nuclear weapons.
“They were different. They were risky. They were costly,” said McAlister, a former Catholic nun and longtime Plowshares activist.
Since 1980, dozens of Plowshares activists have repeatedly penetrated sites across the country ranging from military installations to missile silos and in the process laid waste to the idea that nuclear weapons could ever be stored safely. The 2018 infiltration of the naval base at Kings Bay is estimated to be the 100th Plowshares action.
Legal trials and prison sentences that were sure to follow their acts of civil disobedience were viewed as opportunities for the activists to draw more attention to their cause and often revealed the extraordinary lengths the government took to suppress dissent among those who dared to confront the American war machine.
“You could count on serious time as a consequence,” McAlister said. “And [the federal government was] consistent about seeing to it that we did that time.”
McAlister and Philip Berrigan were excommunicated from the Catholic church after they married in 1973 but their social justice activism continued. McAlister said she avoided participating in Plowshares actions at the same time as her husband so that one parent could be home with their children.
The couple estimated that they spent more than 10 years of their marriage separated by the carceral system. McAlister served another two and a half years, including jail time for the Kings Bay action, since Berrigan died in 2002.
When Grady first heard about the King of Prussia action, her initial reaction was alarm at the personal risks that the activists undertook to broadcast their message out to the public. Her second reaction was skepticism that their actions, though brave, would lead to any concessions on the part of the American military-industrial complex.
After some consideration, Grady realized, “Oh, our friends are not asking the U.S. government to do anything. They’re doing it themselves.”
Two years later, Grady joined McAlister and five others in penetrating the Griffiss Air Force Base in New York in order to gain access to a B-52 bomber, which were once outfitted to carry nuclear payloads that could be dropped onto the former Soviet Union. Base security did not appear until an hour after the activists started beating on the hanger doors, which incidentally were unlocked.
“In 1983, when we hammered on the B-52 bomber and related parts, that plane was actually frozen for evidence for five months,” Grady said. “That is one of the few moments where nuclear weapons with these actions actually were disarmed. I’m not sure that too many efforts could claim that at that moment.”
The grassroots movement against nuclear weapons in the U.S. reached a peak in 1982 when an estimated one million people converged in New York City for a massive demonstration. Grady remembered the thrill of being a part of the historic protest, which stands in stark contrast to the minority status that anti-nuclearism maintains today.
“People were very much aware at that time of the danger of nuclear weapons,” Grady said. “Nowadays, very few people know about it and very few people are organizing around it.”
The dearth of activism against nuclear weapons in the U.S. coincides with a new nuclear arms race as measures designed to mitigate nuclear proliferation that took decades to stitch together are being dismantled piece-by-piece.
The New Nuclear Arms Race
The world is currently just 100 seconds away from global destruction, according to the Doomsday Clock created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 as a way to remind people about the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Here in the U.S., a new nuclear threat, one potentially more cataclysmic than the first, is currently underway. And not unlike the nuclear submarines that pass innocuously through the waters of Kings Bay in Georgia, it is happening right under the noses of the American public.
“What has happened is the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of a single focused enemy with a peer competitor in the nuclear field,” Jessica T. Matthews told Shadowproof. Matthews is the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Older people remember getting under their desks for nuclear drills when they were in elementary school and putting their coats over their heads. Growing up in the era of above-ground nuclear testing all the time. All that went away with the end of the Cold War and I think it seemed as though the threat of nuclear conflict went with it.”
The United States ushered in the nuclear age in 1945 and despite deepening wealth inequality and skyrocketing unemployment resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the country continues to spend billions of dollars to maintain its nuclear hegemony over the rest of the world. This new nuclear arms race is a reminder of how even in an era marked by entrenched partisan divisiveness, Democratic and Republican lawmakers remain united on maintaining America’s nuclear supremacy regardless of the financial, environmental or human costs.
In 2001, Republican President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an arms control agreement dating back to the 1970s. President Obama, a Democrat, secured passage of the New START treaty limiting the number of nuclear weapons but only after he struck a deal with Congress to spend $100 billion to refit American nuclear facilities and labs. That plan has now turned into an across-the-board modernization of the country’s nuclear apparatus, including the Trident II D5 nuclear missiles that are housed at the Kings Bay naval base, currently priced at $1.7 trillion, Matthews said.
More than any other president, Trump seemed bent on turning the clock back to the 1950s when the country maintained more than 30,000 nuclear warheads and bombs in its stockpile, compared to roughly 5,800weapons today. In May, Trump administration officials signalled their interest in breaking the 28-year moratorium on nuclear testing to get China and Russia to agree to arms limitations under the New START treaty, which expires in 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden will likely extend the treaty but the result of all these infractions upon our already threadbare nuclear safety net amount to a running leap into a second nuclear arms race that is expected to continue regardless of who sits in the White House.
“It’s a train that’s in motion and it’s going to be very hard to slow it down or redirect it,” Matthews warned.
So hard that barring any unforeseen conflicts that might actually bring us closer to the brink of nuclear war, Matthews is dubious that Plowshares actions and other grassroots organizing will be enough on their own to force the issue into the national discourse.
“I think it’s a really hard time for that to happen,” Matthews said. “If there were a confluence of events…if the [Trump] administration decided to test [nuclear weapons] and then if Korea got hot, and if several things happened at once, I can imagine it. But I just don’t think this is an issue whose time has come for public attention.”
A Nuclear Media Blackout
Calls to drop the charges against members of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven elicited support from figures like Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblower and longtime anti-nuclear activist, along with religious leaders, including Reverend William J. Barber of the revived Poor People’s Campaign and former archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Though he has not publicly commented on the legal fate of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, Pope Francis has embraced the Catholic peace activists’ once radical demand for the abolishment of nuclear weapons.
“There is an urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons,” Pope Francis told the United Nations in 2015, “in full application of the non-proliferation treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons.”
Media coverage, meanwhile, has failed to keep pace. News about the Catholic pacifists’ bold act of nonviolent civil disobedience at Kings Bay and their subsequent trial appears predominantly in progressive or religious publications like the National Catholic Reporter. Mainstream outlets, including those in Atlanta and nearby Jacksonville, Florida, have steered clear of the Plowshares activists.
The lack of coverage has prompted some Plowshares supporters to conclude the seven activists have become the victims of a media blackout.
Journalist Jeremy Scahill recently gave voice to that concern following the recent sentencing of Kelley and O’Neill. Speaking in October on Democracy Now!, Scahill slammed the press’ refusal to cover the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven.
“These Catholic peace activists, during the Trump administration, tried to confront that nuclear threat, and there was a total media blackout on the action that they did,” Scahill said. “And, you know, if we lived in a just society, the Kings Bay Plowshares activists’ trial would have been reported on as one of the most brave confrontations of the most dangerous aspect of this government, and particularly this administration.”
O’Neill pointed to a 2019 hearing for the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven attended by the actor and Catholic activist Martin Sheen. Only one reporter from a local newspaper showed up to document Sheen’s public show of support.
Rather than a concerted effort by the media to suppress the activists, O’Neill fears that the lack of press coverage is instead a reflection of how complacent Americans have become after 75 years of living on hair-trigger alert. In the absence of sustained grassroots mobilization aimed at keeping the issue of nuclear abolition in the spotlight, O’Neill imagines news editors and journalists view the Plowshares activists as if they are political outliers or relics of a bygone era, with little incentive to cover them.
“The media is not blacking us out,” said O’Neill. “They just made a conscious decision to say we’re not worthy of coverage. It just says something about how relaxed people are about being under the shadow of the nuclear arms race.”
‘It’s Our Obligation To Speak Out’
The deadly coronavirus pandemic compounds what is sure to be an already arduous prison sentence, posing an additional threat for members of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, all of whom are more susceptible to COVID-19 since they are over the age of 60.
In October, United States District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sentenced O’Neill to 14 months in prison. Since he lives at a Catholic worker house in Garner, North Carolina, O’Neill told Shadowproof that he preferred to serve out his sentence close to home at the nearby federal prison in Butner even though it has become a hotspot for coronavirus infections. More people at Butner have died from COVID-19–26 prisoners and one staff member–than at any other federal federal correctional institution.
Instead, O’Neill was ordered to report to the Elkton Federal Prison in Ohio. The facility was at the center of a COVID-19 outbreak that was so bad with one in four prisoners infected that it drew legal action from the ACLU. So far, nine prisoners have died from the coronavirus. O’Neill said he is appealing the order but clearly both options pose a risk to his health.
When asked about whether the Kings Bay action was worth losing his life over, O’Neill echoed the words of past Plowshares activists who saw a greater danger–in this case, the death of all living things–in not speaking out.
“There are people in the world working to change the direction of the world, to move the world away from nuclearism and the development of more nuclear weapons and we’re very much in the minority right now,” O’Neill said. “But nonetheless, we’re not acting in vain.”
“If we hadn’t gone to Kings Bay, people living in those communities there would never have given any thought to Kings Bay as being anything more than an employer, an economic boost. I think people now have to sort of think about things in a different light.”
It is reasonable to think that at nearly 81 years old, McAlister’s 17-month stretch for breaking into the naval submarine base at Kings Bay will be her last time behind bars for nonviolent civil disobedience. But McAlister knows just as well as anyone else that nuclear annihilation is not reasonable and she stopped short at saying definitively whether Kings Bay would be her last Plowshares action.
McAlister acknowledged her concern that fewer people are willing to join the Plowshares movement than they were 40 years ago at the height of anti-nuclearism. But just as the threat of nuclear war has not subsided since the end of the Cold War, McCalister is hopeful that people of conscience will continue to fight for a nuclear-free world.
A former nun, McAlister says she never would have dared to undertake the risks that Plowshares activists must take if it weren’t for her faith in God. She firmly believes that it was God performing “minor miracles” that facilitated the entry of dozens of Plowshares activists into highly secured nuclear facilities and enabled them to put their hands directly onto the doomsday machine.
“These are the most deadly weapons in the world,” said McAlister. “How is it possible for somebody like me to walk right in and be right next to them and pour blood on them? Use a hammer on them? But I’ve done it a number of times and so have some of my friends and my husband.”
“And please, God, others will continue to do it,” she said.
One person who answered the call was Martha Hennessy. The 2018 infiltration of the Kings Bay naval base was her first Plowshares action, which makes her an anomaly among the other activists.
Hennessy, though, is no stranger to the movement. In fact, she is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, who was one of the principal driving forces behind the creation of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s. Growing up, Hennessy witnessed firsthand the evolution of the Plowshares movement under the guidance of Catholic peace activists like McAlister and the Berrigan brothers who dared to take a stand against the threat of nuclear armageddon even in the face of assured retribution from the federal government.
Her decision to infiltrate the Kings Bay naval base in a defiant act of civil disobedience against the world’s most powerful military came only after months of prayerful discernment, a kind of internal examination about what risks she was willing to take on behalf of her religious beliefs and moral convictions.
The integrity of the Plowshares movement gave Hennessy the strength to take part in the Kings Bay action, a cohort that she believes will help her survive her 10-month prison sentence.
“You know, walking onto a military base was not the first thing I wanted to do in this resistance work for nuclear abolition,” recalled Hennessy. “But the power of such an act can speak for itself and we had to bring the body of Christ there to the base.”
“It’s our obligation to speak out,” she proclaimed.
Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. Since 2011, he has reported on issues of national importance such as the struggle to remove white supremacist memorials and forced sterilization. The Association of Alternative Newsmedia recently awarded Jonathan third place in the longform news category for his article about the uneasy formation of a syringe exchange in the U.S. South.