Reflections on Supporting Peace Prisoners

Paul Magno

In July of 2012 three disarmament activists in the United States - Greg Boertje-Obed, Megan Rice and Michael Walli - engaged in a nonviolent direct action they dubbed "Transform Now Plowshares" at Oak Ridge, TN's Y12 National Security Complex. Oak Ridge is a site dating back to the beginning of the Manhattan project during World War II and remains an essential link in the nuclear weapons production capability of the US. The three were able to traverse the terrain of the Federal reservation during the night, overcome four security fences, and confront the Highly Enriched Uranium Maintenance Facility (HEUMF) - a repository for 400 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium, enough for 10,000 nuclear weapons. Once there they marked the area with crime scene tape, unfurled peace banners and marked the walls of the building with human blood and spray-painted biblical peace messages.

Once arrested they were eventually charged with property damage and sabotage, both felonies, and tried before a jury in federal court the following May. All were convicted on both charges, and in February of 2014 given prison sentences ranging from approximately three years for the Megan Rice (a Catholic nun in her 80's), and five years for each of the men. They appealed their conviction under the Sabotage act and won that appeal in May 2015, leading to their immediate release. This was the first time in the thirty-five year history of the Plowshares movement in the United States that convicted activists had ever won a legal appeal.

Michael Walli, Sr. Megan Rice and Greg Boertje-Obed.
Michael Walli, Sr. Megan Rice and Greg Boertje-Obed.

Several of us maintained a continuous key role in the support of the Transform Now Plowshares over the years these events played out and in the year or so that followed their release. This article is focused on that aspect of this particular disarmament witness, what it entailed, and what lessons might benefit our peace and justice movements going forward. Many of us in the United States ask ourselves what serves activists and movements, what keeps the concerns we need to uphold in the public eye, and to do that soul searching at the brink of the Trump era - about how to persevere - is of obvious importance.

As the action became known in July 2012, several of us agreed to do key work in support of the Transform Now Plowshares. That involved coordinating long-time local peace activists and a broader national (and international) network of established grassroots nuclear resisters in support of the challenges presented by their arrest and prospective trial. Locally, our primary partner was the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, which has faithfully worked at exposing the work of the Y12 nuclear complex for decades and brought a lot issue knowledge and local resources to the effort. More broadly, we were able to share the word with the network of contacts we were acquainted with as a result of over three decades of similar Plowshares actions primarily in the US and then to extend that outreach to other faith-based and decidedly strong and progressive peace groups. We had the good fortune to see movement and media fascination with the boldness of the action (Y12 was regarded up to this point as the most secure nuclear facility in the world, and termed "the Fort Knox of uranium" in official literature).The figure of Megan Rice, an 82 year-old nun particularly caught the imagination of many, including national and international media, appearing early on in a front-page New York Times story on the action.

To support the action, we concluded that we needed to accomplish several practical goals. We needed to:

  • develop strong local support, in the form of people who could be willing to house and feed out-of-town activists, turn out for public events -in court and out - from time to time, communicate with, visit and otherwise support the three activists in jail.
  • reach that national and international network of dedicated peace and disarmament activists by phone, by electronic media and involve them in the witness.
  • prepare for the legal aspects of the case, enlisting legal talent that would amplify the three who preferred to represent themselves in court so as to better adhere to the basic message they brought to Y12 in the first place - that the perpetuation of the nuclear threat by the US national security establishment is immoral and illegal and that conscientious nonviolent resistance is good, necessary and legally required. That legal preparation would include pursuit of the legal resources and expert witnesses that could enable a robust presentation of that line of "defense" at trial.

Raising the money needed to assist with this array of needs, especially seeing to the three activists and their public witness in court or in other venues was also an important practical goal.

We relied on a great deal of self-organisation based on historic relationships and commitments we regarded as dependable. Nonviolence and community were among the available movement resources that we could call into play, not simply as philosophy but as actual lived long-term experience. Such powerful community began with the three actors and their core support community, but was available in abundance from many of the individuals and networks we called on in response to the needs of the Transform Now Plowshares witness. Thus the conduct of the witness, while centered on the three and their initial witness, nevertheless became a community endeavor and a participatory option for a growing circle of people that became world-wide in its manifestation. In time, the action and the Plowshares movement was honored by the Nuclear-Free Future Award (based primarily in Europe) and a speaking tour post-release featuring Sr. Megan travelling to six countries and eight cities over three weeks in January 2016.

The decentralized and organic growth of that overall witness relied less on a fortified ideology or strategy, that it did on some basic practices that movements do not always explicitly recognize as important. Mutual trust and respect played a large part in allowing it to spread out through the networks I've described, rather than heavily centralized direction. The core group confined ourselves narrowly to the essential messaging and information that needed to originate from Knoxville TN, site of the trial and hub for the support effort, and get shared out and counted on the wider networks to know how to work to promulgate that knowledge. That included initiating as appropriate petition campaigning and letter writing to the court, as well as dates and times of key court dates and what was expected of participants. In response, dozens of localized contacts and groups around the US repeated that info and hundreds from around the country travelled to Knoxville to augment the local activists and organizing core to join in amplifying the witness. During trial and post-trial hearings, we had not one but two courtrooms full of supporters (one by closed- circuit video feed) much of the time.

In part because of this organic and collaborative approach, we had much more extensive media reach than the many Plowshares actions that have occurred over the decades. A major feature in the Washington Post, just before trial was unprecedented both as to coverage afforded the direct disarmament movement and also by the Posts own history of column-inches dedicated to a human-interest/ news feature. Lengthy features also appeared outside of the English language press internationally, such as Der Spiegel a major German news journal. In fact, Sr. Megan Rice first heard about her impending release from prison in May of 2015, via British Broadcasting Corporation's overnight US broadcast at 3am on Saturday morning, following a court order from the appellate court that had only been issued at the end of the business day Friday and not yet communicated to her jail.

A rooting on deep community and deep nonviolence as basic resources to carry out and then support this action has been central to its success in a number of terms. Premising reliance on those resources on mutual respect and trust in a circle of participants, diverse in age, experience and perspective but all welcomed and included as participants according to their abilities has made this a radical and communitarian witness, one which collaborate with the arc of the universe, bending toward justice, that is, nonviolence and disarmament.

Paul Magno is a Washington DC based participant in the Catholic Worker movement and a past Plowshares prisoner. He was part of the core support group for the Transform Now Plowshares over more than four years.

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