On Friday 8 January US Plowshares activist Sister Megan Rice, spoke at the newly opened Peace & Justice Centre about being imprisoned for two years for a symbolic act of resistance at the facility where the US is making new nuclear weapons and where the explosive components of the Hiroshima bomb were produced as part of the Manhattan project.
Megan was 82 years of age at the time of the Transform Now Ploughshares action. She and Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli crept through Tennesee woodlands at 1am and cut and crawled through three chain link fences at the Y12 facility in Oak Ridge Tennessee to reach the “Highly Enriched Uranium Facility” where enough Uranium to make 1000 nuclear weapons is stored. They poured blood on the building to symbolize the potential slaughter of millions of innocent human beings that is being prepared there, and hammered on the corner of the building to symbolically begin the transformation of that place from death dealing to life giving and graffittied “Swords into Plowshares” and “Woe to Empire”. Their action was in the faith based Ploughshares tradition inspired by the vision of the Prophet Isaiah that “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and learn war no more.” A Ploughshare is the blade of a plough that cuts through the earth and turns a furrow for seeds to be planted. Thus it is a vision of transforming our world from reliance on weapons that have the potential to destroy the planet to a life affirming culture of peace.
Their action, know as the “Transform Now Plowshares”, caused what the New York Times described as “The biggest security breach in the history of the [USA’s] atomic complex” and shut down the nuclear weapons plant for two weeks. This was highly embarassing to the US government which, perhaps for this reason, pursued a spurious sabotage charge. They were convicted of sabotage but the sentence was overturned by an Appeals Court Judge who stated that the US government had no grounds for this conviction as there was clearly no attempt to act in any way that threatened the security of the United States. They were dramatically released in May.
Megan was joined by Plowshares activist Paul Magno. Paul is a staff member at Nonviolence International and has been involved with Witness Against Torture, taking part in prolonged fasts at the Supreme Court and the White House in response to the ongoing imprisonment and torture at Guantanamo. A core supporter of the Transform Now Plowshares trio Paul served two years in prison in the 1980’s for his part in the Pershing Plowshares action in which he and four others entered a factory in Florida where components for the Pershing missile system were being made. The Pershing missiles were at that time being brought into Germany. The purpose of these short range nuclear weapons was for use as “Tactical” weapons for fighting a nuclear war in Europe.
The pair stressed that while their actions were inspired by their Catholic faith this kind of action is open to anyone who wants to resist nuclear weapons and the empire that relies on them for security. They said the symbolism of pouring human blood and symbolically beginning to disarm the nuclear weapons complex with hammers is very powerful. The action took only minutes and such actions can be done by anyone. It is important Paul said, not to see Megan as a superstar. Sister Megan described their action as following a simple model of marking the place where our society is preparing for crimes against humanity and thereby revealing the truth of the terrible injustice embodied there. They asked the gathering whether they considered this form of action to still be worthwhile after 35 years, and urged people to consider taking similar nonviolent, direct, and symbolic action.
Asked about her background Sister Megan told of her parents’ connection to the Catholic Worker community in New York city. Her earliest memories were of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, a loose network of communities which seek to live the social gospel by providing hospitality to the homeless and witnessing against war and militarism, which they see as the root cause of poverty. Megan stressed the importance of community for sustaining resistance. The Catholic Worker and Jonah House community in Baltimore are examples. Megan hoped that people understood that by “catholic” they were not talking about the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church but meant catholic “with a small c”, that is a faith and action that is universal, that lives in solidarity with the poor and seeks to create a just and peaceful world. When a member of the audience pointed out the strong stand of the Scottish Catholic Bishops (and another mentioned the stand of the Church of Scotland against nuclear weapons Paul agreed that was as it should be but emphasized that more than words actions of resistance are called for.
Megan spoke too of her forty years working with poor communities in Nigeria as a nun. After returning to the US and caring for her mother in her final illness she went to work with the Nevada Desert Experience, a faith based retreat and witness at the Nevada test site. She was eventually inspired to take this action by the five members of the Disarm Now Ploughshares, including Father Bill Bichsel (“Bix”) who spoke at the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre three years ago.
Asked about how she prepared for prison Megan shared that she had been imprisoned for shorter periods of time – twice for six months – after crossing the line at two of the mass demonstrations at the School of Americas where the US has for many years trained members of the military from a number of Latin American dictatorships, especially in the 1980’s and still today in methods of torture. With this action Megan never made it to an actual prison but was in a holding facility in New York city, in a single dormitory style room where 60 women are held together, in many ways worse than a prison.
Paul spoke of the influence of Phil Berrigan who spent more than 13 years in prison for repeated Plowshares actions. Phil and his brother Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, were members of the Plowshares Eight, the first group to take such action in 1980. The eight Catholics entered a factory in Pennsylvania and hammered on the nosecone of an MX Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. In a letter to Paul while in prison Phil advised that, for male resisters in the US prisons, how they fared in the face of possible personal violence depended on how they carried themselves non-violently.
For Megan, as for women peace activists in US prisons generally the situation was quite different. All of the women prisoners easily related to her resistance to injustice as they themselves experienced another side of the injustice of the US state directly. Some women were held in the interim facility for up to four years and never made it to prison where there are opportunities for education and work. Resistance to nuclear weapons in the US brings activists face to face with the injustice of the for profit Prison Industrial Complex and in these times especially with the disproportionate and unequal imprisonment of people of colour that has burgeoned with the war on Drugs.
Megan asked all of us to take a small action of solidarity and write to President Obama to urge him to give clemency to Michelle West a woman who was sentenced to two life sentences for inadvertently aiding a drug deal, which she denies. Cards with details of how to write to President Obama are available at the Peace and Justice Centre Or you can sign the petition to President Obama here. Thousands of women are imprisoned in similar cases in the US.
Megan read from a letter from General Douglas MacArthur who said that he was not consulted about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He wrote that Japan was ready to surrender at the time and he would not have approved their use had he been consulted.
In summing up Paul urged us all to consider that everyone has faith of some kind. It maybe wanting a better world for your children. It may be the more universal idealism of caring about the future of our planet. But everyone is willing to give up at least part of their lives for that and urged us to consider doing so.
The talk was jointly organised by Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre and Trident Ploughshares and supported by Edinburgh CND. Sister Megan and Paul Magno went to Faslane the following day and joined a group of Glasgow Catholic Workers in praying for the disarmament of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Their tour of the UK and Europe continues.
Anyone wanting to explore the history of the Ploughshares movment more fully can borrow one of three books from the Peace and Justice Centre library, Crossing the Line and Doing Time for Peace by Rosalie Riegle and Swords into Plowshares by Art Laffin.
Anyone interested in getting involved in nonviolent resistance to the UK Trident nuclear weapons system can contact Brian at the Peace and Justice Centre or Jane Tallents at Trident Ploughshsares (TP) on tp2000[at]gn.apc.org. There will be NVDA (nonviolent direct action) trainings for TP in the spring of this year in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.