by Patrick O’Neill
Thirty years ago this week, the mug shots of eight people were splashed across the front page of the Orlando Sentinel, mine among them. Calling ourselves the Pershing Plowshares, we had taken part in a spectacular Easter Sunday break-in of the then-Martin Marietta Corp. plant on Sand Lake Road as part of an anti-nuclear-weapons protest.
At the time, Martin — now Lockheed Martin — was manufacturing the Pershing II missile, a Cold War weapon system that many believed represented a dangerous escalation of the nuclear-arms race. The Pershings were deployed in Western Europe, a short flight to most Soviet cities. Since the Pershing II was a mobile system, it was also perceived as a first-strike weapon because detecting it would be difficult.
Participating in that event was a life-changing experience. I spent two years in federal prison after our felony conviction in July 1984. Today, I am the father of eight children, and I have raised my children to oppose violence and war. I am still committed to “beating swords into plowshares.” (Isaiah 2:4)
Pulling off the Orlando action was not easy since none of us was a seasoned criminal. My co-defendants were the late Sister Anne Montgomery, a Catholic nun; Jim Perkins, a practicing Buddhist; Todd Kaplan, a devout Jew, now a lawyer; Tim Lietzke, a Quaker minister; Christin Schmidt, an activist educated at Brown University; Per Hengren, a Swedish peace activist; and Paul Magno, a Washington, D.C. activist who holds a theology degree from Georgetown University.
In our preparation for that action, the eight of us and a group of unindicted collaborators spent numerous weekends together over three months praying and planning. Sister Anne, at the time 58 years old (my age now), was our calm and brilliant leader. The late Philip Berrigan, the former Roman Catholic priest who made the cover of Time magazine for his activism against the Vietnam War, was the person who inspired and organized our conspiracy.
When the early morning hours of Easter/Passover came in 1984, I was beside myself with fear as we made our way through the darkness and brush to a fence that surrounded a Martin Marietta work yard in which a Patriot missile launcher was visible. Once we clipped the links in the fence and crawled through, we pulled out our small hammers and began the symbolic, yet real, process of disarmament.
The eight of us spent a few minutes hammering on various components of Pershing and Patriot launchers. The damage was minimal, but enough to qualify us for felony charges.
Testifying in federal court, Sister Anne recounted details of the crime, which led to our conviction on conspiracy and destruction of government property charges. Sister Anne told jurors how she walked around a Patriot missile launcher in the pre-dawn hours of Easter morning. Seeing how well it was constructed, she said she realized her plan to “disarm” the launcher with a small carpenter’s hammer would not amount to much.
“I saw some softer metal,” Anne told jurors, “and I took my hammer, swung it and saw a dent reflect in the light, and I laid my hammer down.”
I was moved that our jury was faced with the task of having to find a small, soft-spoken, humble nun guilty of serious charges for making a single dent in a piece of metal.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4).
This week, Paul Magno and I will return to the scene of our crime to continue our resistance to Lockheed Martin’s bomb-making. On our anniversary, we will plant Easter lilies at Lockheed Martin in honor of our deceased cohorts.
Sadly, the United States is engaged in an endless War on Terror, and things have never been better for the military-industrial complex. Despite the indiscriminate, destructive nature of modern warfare, we humans have not committed ourselves to finding nonviolent ways to resolve conflict. In our nuclear-armed world, it is essential that we work to abolish war before it abolishes us.
This article appeared last week in The Orlando Sentinel.