activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: catholic worker

three activists found guilty for politically motivated break-in at tennessee nuclear facility

The three pacifists responsible for the biggest security breach in the history of the U.S. atomic complex, which occurred last July, were found guilty yesterday. Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, and Gregory Boertje-Obed, who broke into the Y-12 nuclear facility to publicize threats related to nuclear weapons, expected to be convicted. Yet they thought the jury might acquit them of one of the two remaining charges, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel:

It apparently was a foregone conclusion at the two-day trial that they would be convicted of depredation of government property, but defense attorneys argued long and hard in hopes of getting an acquittal on the charge of injuring, interfering with or obstructing the national defense. That charge required the government to prove they intended to disrupt the U.S. defense with their actions, and the protesters’ attorneys said that wasn’t their intent.

After the jury convicted them, they were taken to the Blount County Detention Center. A hearing today will determine whether they are eligible for release until their sentencing in three or four months. For going through three fences with bolt cutters, splashing human blood – including blood from activist Tom Lewis of the Catonsville 9 – on the building where enriched uranium is stored, and spray-painting antiwar slogans, they face decades in prison.


catholic worker activists in ireland attacked a u.s. navy transport plane ten years ago today

Despite Ireland’s tradition of military neutrality, the U.S. used Shannon Airport in County Clare to move troops and equipment to its War on Terror occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. On February 3, 2003, five Catholic Worker activists broke into a hangar at the airport and attacked a U.S. Navy transport plane with hammers and a pickaxe. They were each charged with two counts of criminal damage, which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years. According to journalism lecturer Harry Browne in Hammered by the Irish,

When they appeared at Ennis District Court in May it emerged that the estimated cost of repairing the plane after their action was an incredible $2.7 million, making rather a mockery of the initial police claim that they had been prevented from doing any serious damage. … Even with the ludicrous inflation attached to all costs involving the US military … it was now clear that they had done some serious ‘disarmament’: the plane itself had not returned to action until May, meaning its services were not used at all in the initial weeks of the attack on Iraq.

The activists, known as the Shannon 5 or the Pitstop Ploughshares, were fortunate with regard to their criminal charges, unlike – for example – the Baltimore 4 or the Catonsville 9. After two mistrials, the jurors in their third trial acquitted them of all charges.

baltimore four poured blood on draft records forty-five years ago today

On October 27, 1967, Philip Berrigan, Tom Lewis, and Dave Eberhardt poured blood on Selective Service files at the Baltimore Custom House. Jim Mengel donated blood in advance and distributed a version of the New Testament while the others destroyed the records. “Part of the symbolism of many American Plowshares actions involves human blood, often poured on the military object being damaged,” writes journalism lecturer Harry Browne.

None of the four attempted to avoid arrest. Before they were sentenced, however, Berrigan and Lewis burned draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, with seven other Catholic activists on May 17, 1968. According to Baltimore-based historian Joe Tropea,

After facing the openly hostile Judge Edward Northrop and a lengthy appeals process, the Baltimore Four were sentenced on May 24, 1968. Berrigan and Lewis faced six years in prison. Eberhardt received three years, while Mengel was released on his own recognizance and scheduled for sentencing but never [served] a day in jail for his participation in the Baltimore action.

The U.S. tradition of Catholic Worker-based actions, as opposed to the British version, tends to involve “a more jaded view of the law,” writes Browne. While British activists in this tradition take action and then expect to successfully justify that action in court, U.S. activists “have been more likely to politicize their trials, get shouted at by the judge, and lose.”

break-in at tennessee nuclear facility was politically motivated, not just a security breach

The Y-12 nuclear facility, where the U.S. keeps enough highly enriched uranium for thousands of nuclear weapons, was supposed to be one of the most secure sites in the world. Yet on July 28, three pacifists at the facility achieved the biggest security breach in the history of the U.S. atomic complex. Sister Megan Rice, 82, Michael Walli, 63, and Gregory Boertje-Obed, 57, went through three fences with bolt cutters, splashed human blood on the new building where enriched uranium is stored, and spray-painted antiwar slogans.

For trespassing and destroying government property, federal prosecutors charged each of them with two felonies and one misdemeanor, which together carry penalties of up to 16 years in prison and up to $600,000 in fines. They pled not guilty and their trial is set for October 10.

While media coverage has focused to a large degree on the security breach, the activists broke into the facility to publicize threats related to nuclear weapons, not the facility’s vulnerability. According to their communiqué,

This program is an ongoing criminal endeavor in violation of international treaty law binding on the United States… For the sake of the whole human family threatened by nuclear weapons, and for the sake of our Planet Earth, which is abused and violated, we indict the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear weapon facility and all government officials, agencies, and contractors as responsible for perpetuating these war crimes.

new book illuminates the catonsville nine, religious activists who burned draft files

The University of Wisconsin (UW) announced yesterday that Oxford University Press recently published a book about the Catonsville 9, written by UW instructor Shawn Peters. The Catonsville 9 were Catholic activists who, on May 17, 1968, stole more than 370 Selective Service records from a military draft board and burned them in the parking lot using homemade napalm. They did not attempt to avoid arrest.

A jury found them guilty and their appeal was denied. On the appointed date for their surrender to federal marshals, however, four of them did not report, opting to continue their resistance by becoming fugitives. Three were underground for weeks or months before being apprehended, but one stayed underground for almost ten years.

The book, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, is a group biography. The author describes each defendant’s background, their draft board raid and joint federal trial, and their subsequent methods of protest (e.g., as fugitives, in prison, or afterward). The group included Mary Moylan, John Hogan, Brother David Darst, Marjorie and Tom Melville, George Mische, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and Tom Lewis.