by Mary T. Yelenick
The contortions of the American legal system – functioning to conceal not only the horrific dangers posed by nuclear weapons, but the very fact of their placement in our communities – were on full display at the recent Kings Bay Plowshares jury trial, which took place in federal court in Brunswick, Georgia from October 21-24, 2019. The spectacle of government witnesses robotically intoning, under oath, that they could “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of nuclear weapons on the Trident submarines homeported at the Kings Bay naval base in Georgia gave lie to the ostensible search for “truth” frequently proffered as the basis of our legal system.
Indeed, truth was in short supply at the trial.
Never – least of all during the trial – were the citizen-jurors of Brunswick, Georgia ever informed about the decision by our government to house in their midst a fleet of Trident nuclear submarines. Left deliberately unexamined – in fact, ruled legally “irrelevant” to the courtroom proceeding in Georgia – were the actions by our government in creating a risk of annihilation of all of creation through deployment of, or mishap involving, those nuclear weapons. Instead, the prosecutorial and judicial resources of the government were directed to condemning and punishing the largely-symbolic and sacramental actions by seven conscientious and courageous individuals – Elizabeth McAlister, Martha Hennessy, Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta, Patrick O’Neill, Mark Colville, and Jesuit Fr. Steve Kelly – the “Kings Bay Plowshares 7,” whose actions (in sharp contrast to those by the government and nuclear-weapons contractors) were not designed to inflict, and did not result in, physical harm to anyone.
The action by the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 was a call to wake us up. By contrast, the government demands – and enforces, through our nation’s institutions, including its courts – our continued ignorance.
The Plowshares Action at Kings Bay
On the night of April 4-5, 2018 (April 4 being the anniversary both of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and of Dr. King’s 1967 famed speech at Riverside Church denouncing our nation’s militarism), the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 – carrying prayer books, photos of their families, baby bottles filled with one of their own member’s blood, hammers (made from melted-down guns) bearing religious messages, bolt cutters, and other small tools – entered on foot the Kings Bay naval base, after cutting a lock and part of a perimeter fence. Citing the injunction in the biblical Book of Isaiah to turn “swords into plowshares,” several of them “hammered” on cement mock-ups of missiles publicly displayed on the grounds; poured blood on the ground (as a reminder of the deadly realities of a nuclear holocaust); posted banners (“The Ultimate Logic of the Trident is Omnicide”); and painted signs and slogans (“Swords into Plowshares”; “Idol”; “Blasphemy”; Turn away from sin”; “May love disarm us all”) calling for an end to nuclear weapons. A member of the group also placed on the ground a copy of the book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner” by Daniel Ellsberg, detailing in chilling detail the horrific risks posed by nuclear weapons. The group then waited peacefully for responders from the base (who, at trial, conceded that they had recognized immediately, based upon the countenances, behaviors, and words spoken to them by the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, that the group posed no physical threat to them) to take them into custody.
The government charged the Kings Bay Plowshares with four felony counts, including conspiracy, trespass, “depredation” (damage) of government property, and destruction of property on a naval installation.
The Court Sharply Limited the Issues and Experts the Jury Was Permitted to Hear and Consider
While permitted to testify to a limited degree regarding their religious beliefs (the court previously, while denying the Plowshares’ motion to dismiss based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, recognizing that their actions had been related to their faith), the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 were not permitted to speak to the jury about the nature, or risk, of nuclear weapons. The court precluded the jury from hearing any testimony by the Kings Bay Plowshares’ proposed expert witnesses, including Daniel Ellsberg (author of “The Doomsday Machine”); Professor Francis Boyle (who would have asserted that the group’s actions, even if harmful, were justifiable, pursuant to the “necessity” defense, to prevent an even greater harm); Professor Jeannine Hill Fletcher of Fordham University (who would have explained Catholic Social Teaching, primacy of conscience, and how religious communities use symbolism and sacramental action to address social issues); and Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, of the diocese of Jackson, Mississippi (who would have testified regarding issues of Catholic faith and nonviolent resistance, and about Pope Francis’ public condemnation of even the possession of nuclear weapons). Nor was the jury permitted to hear testimony about international law, including the ways in which nuclear weapons – including by targeting non-combatants – violate international treaties.
The legal rationale for circumscribing so carefully the evidence and areas of permitted inquiry at the trial lay in the government’s characterization of the action as constituting essentially a property crime, with the only permissible focus being whether the Plowshares had damaged property on the base.
As a spectator/supporter at the trial, I found the focus of judicially-permitted testimony, versus that prohibited at trial, Orwellian. One extensive line of testimony concerned whether residual “shadows” allegedly lingering on the sidewalks (following power-washing) from blood splattered there by the Plowshares necessitated the expenditure by the government of significant amounts of money. Yet there was no testimony permitted regarding the endless shadows – both physical and emotional – left by incinerated bodies in the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following our nation’s atomic bombing of those cities.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor – his voice thundering in outrage – criticized the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 for “coming into our jurisdiction.” Left unaddressed by his outrage was the real, looming danger lurking not only in Brunswick, but in all jurisdictions, radically dwarfing any danger that could be posed by the actions of any seven individuals. That danger is the very real threat of extinction of all life, not only in Brunswick, Georgia, but all across the planet, by nuclear conflagration involving the Trident missiles lurking ominously in Brunswick.
The proceeding was not a search for truth. It was a continuation of a cover-up – a very lethal one. Following days of testimony, the jurors in Brunswick remained no more educated regarding the diabolical nature, lethal capabilities, and terrifying realities of the nuclear weapons lurking in their midst than they had been when the trial commenced. Those twelve jurors, and most of the rest of us living on planet earth, may one day go to our fiery deaths in calculated ignorance.
Mary T. Yelenick is an active member of Pax Christi USA, and of its Anti-Racism Team (PCART). An attorney who spent more than three decades practicing law in New York, she has, for several years, been a member of the Pax Christi International NGO team at the United Nations in New York, where she works on issues of nonviolence and nuclear disarmament (including on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for which ICAN (the International Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons, of which Pax Christi International is an active member) won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. She also serves on the Board of Pax Christi International.