Kings Bay Plowshares 7: Trial Begins for Liz McAlister & Others for Breaking Into Nuke Sub Base

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Seven Catholic peace activists are going on trial in Georgia today for breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base on April 4, 2018. The activists, who are known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. The activists entered the base armed with just hammers, crime scene tape, baby bottles containing their own blood and an indictment charging the U.S. government with crimes against peace. Over the past four decades activists in the Plowshares movement have taken part in about 100 similar actions at nuclear arms facilities, beginning in 1980 at the General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. We recently spoke to Catholic nun Liz McAlister, who goes on trial today with her co-defendants Father Stephen Kelly, Mark Colville, Patrick O’Neill, Carmen Trotta, Clare Grady and Martha Hennessy, who is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. They all have been charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor.

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Video squareStoryApr 08, 2019Kings Bay Plowshares: Peace Activists Face 25 Years for Action at U.S. Nuclear Submarine Base
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Seven Catholic peace activists are going on trial in Georgia today for breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, one of the largest nuclear submarine bases in the world. The activists, who are known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. On April 4th, 2018, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the activists entered the base armed with just hammers, crime scene tape, baby bottles containing their own blood, and an indictment charging the U.S. government with crimes against peace. Their goal? To symbolically disarm the nuclear weapons at the base, which is home to at least six nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Each submarine carries 20 Trident thermonuclear weapons. The activists said they were following the prophet Isaiah's command to “beat swords into plowshares.”

Over the past four decades, activists in the Plowshares movement have taken part in about a hundred similar actions at nuclear arms facilities, beginning in 1980 at the General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. That action was led by the legendary peace activists Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip Berrigan, a former Catholic priest. Philip Berrigan’s widow, Liz McAlister, took part in the Kings Bay Plowshares action.

Liz McAlister, who is a former Catholic nun, turns 80 next month. She’s now facing the possibility of spending the rest of her life behind bars. She’s going on trial today with her co-defendants, Father Stephen Kelly, Mark Colville, Patrick O’Neill, Carmen Trotta, Clare Grady and Martha Hennessy, who is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. They all have been charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor.

I sat down with Liz McAlister recently to talk about the Kings Bay Plowshares action and her lifelong commitment to peace and resistance. Liz McAlister was held in pretrial confinement from April 2018, the date of the action, until last month — almost a year and a half behind bars. I began by asking her why she decided to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia.

LIZ McALISTER: I have participated in a Plowshares witness some years ago. Clare Grady was part of that, as well. We went to Griffiss Air Force Base, Griffiss, and did a disarmament action there, and we went to prison for that. I think it was a couple of years, three years, something like that. And that time has gone, you know, and it was time again for me. I figured I had at least one more opportunity to do this. I’m looking at turning 80 next month, or November. So, as that began to develop, I found in myself that I had to say yes to participating in that.

And that we chose the Trident submarine was an added call to my heart and spirit, because they are so bloody dangerous. And the Trident submarines that we have — and I thought we were up to eight, as of people. If the munitions on those Trident submarines are ever used, that’s the end of life on Earth. That’s the end of life on Earth. I have to say no to that. We don’t have that right to destroy God’s creation. So, as the group developed and as we began moving toward the action, I felt more and more deeply committed to being part of that, being part of that witness, being part of that statement that we do not have the right to destroy the Earth. And these machines can do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you did? You go to Georgia. You go to the space where the Trident submarines are based. They are nuclear submarines.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do? You all divided up.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes. I think we were basically three distinct — well, related groups. First of all, we were all together. We cut through fences, and we found a path, and we walked that path for some distance. It was a beautiful, beautiful walk. It was early evening. And we could hear the frogs in the pond croaking. And then, at a certain point, we split up, because we were going in three different directions to three different sites. And I was with Steve Kelly and Carmen Trotta. And we were trying to get near the bunkers where the weapons were stored. And that took us up a very, very steep hill. And we lay at the top of that hill for some time, and we could see the guards walking. We could see — there are two towers that they have there, and we saw the change of the guard in one of the towers. But we were waiting until the other two groups could get to the sites that they were interested in addressing. And —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you were in a highly secure area of the base.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You just walked on.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah. Well, we had to cut some fences and things like that to just walk on, but we did that, mm-hmm. And when we began to move across this road — and, interestingly, Rabbit Run is what they call this road. It’s a completely finished road, but it’s called Rabbit Run. And there were fences on both sides of the road, so that you couldn’t just walk onto the road from the hill that we had climbed. So we had to cut through that barricade in order to get on that road and then, beyond that road, close to the place where the munitions were stored. And at that point, we met our first couple of security people. They put guns on us and told us to freeze and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you explain to them why you were there?

LIZ McALISTER: Oh, we did, yes, yes, that we were here to witness against the destruction of this Earth, which is represented by the weapons on this base.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did they respond?

LIZ McALISTER: They looked at us. They did not respond. They sent somebody to put cuffs on us, do searches and the rest of it.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been doing this for decades.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You founded the Jonah House.

LIZ McALISTER: Jonah House.

AMY GOODMAN: The Catholic Worker House in Baltimore.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah, Baltimore.

AMY GOODMAN: What? In 1973?

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And while we have been broadcasting this, we played images of the Catonsville protest back in May 17, 1968 —

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — where your brother-in-law Dan Berrigan, Father Dan Berrigan, your husband Phil Berrigan were involved in the burning of draft records, protesting the Vietnam War — 

LIZ McALISTER: Yes, right.

AMY GOODMAN: — using napalm that was used by the U.S. on the Vietnamese.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: You and Phil Berrigan had just gotten together recently in those years.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your introduction to the movement. You were educated as a nun.

LIZ McALISTER: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And take it from there.

LIZ McALISTER: And as a teacher. And I was a — I taught history of art at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, for a number of years and loved it. What was happening with me at that point was that my students had boyfriends, fiancés being drafted into the war in Vietnam and going, and they were breaking down. And what do you say to these young people who have their lives ahead of them and everything that they are planning in those lives is now up for grabs, you know, in this war that makes no sense at all? So, it was a call to me to become active on their behalf. I can’t teach them history of art as if that were really important, if they’re not looking at some kind of future. But their future was being robbed from them. And that called very, very deeply to me. I couldn’t love these kids — they’re, OK, young adults, whatever they are, first-, second-, third-year college students — and not try to speak out for their right to life, their right to a future, their fiancés’ lives, right to a future.

And Vietnam was the focus at that time. And as that began to — as we got thrown out of Vietnam, the focus then became these weapons of mass destruction and the building of them and the research on more and more deadly weapons of mass destruction and the multiplication of that. So, how do we find a way to resist nuclear weapons became our focus. And we had found ways to resist the war by destroying draft files. What can we do to resist these weapons? Obviously, you can’t dismantle them. But you can get near them. You can put blood on them. You can say no to them in that fashion. And we began looking for ways to do that, if that makes any sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to move to 1980 and the King of Prussia action.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, with Father Dan and Phil.

LIZ McALISTER: And Phil.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from the film In the King of Prussia. This scene features Father Dan reciting what he told the judge and jury during the trial. And I just want to say, this is highly unusual film, because Emile de Antonio was the director, and it was a dramatization but using the actual people who were involved in the protest.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, Father Dan.

LIZ McALISTER: Thank you.

FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: You’ve heard about hammers and blood in this room. These are the hammers of hell. These are the hammers that will break the world to bits. These are the hammers that claim the end of the world. The judge knows it. The prosecutor knows it. We’ve seen people walk away from these things. We’ve seen them disclaim them. We’ve seen them say they are not responsible for them. We’ve seen all sorts of language circling them like a dance of death. They are murder.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the film In the King of Prussia, directed by Emile de Antonio. And that was Father Dan, Father Dan Berrigan playing himself.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Liz McAlister is the sister-in-law of Father Dan Berrigan, one of the Plowshares — members of the Plowshare movement all over this world. Talk about that moment and what that action meant and this unusual dramatization of that action.

LIZ McALISTER: Well, it was one of the first of the Plowshares actions, and thus it was quite new. But it had been building. And I was close to that process. Philip also participated in that action, so I was home with the kids, so to speak. And —

AMY GOODMAN: You had three kids by then?

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah, I think so. Mm-hmm, yeah, Frida, Jerry and Kate. Right? And we were all present, in a sense, for it and supporting it. It was new, and therefore, you know, something we were uncertain about and fearful that they might be severely hurt in that process. But we prayed and left it in God’s hands, and they came through unhurt and did their witness in court and then their witness from prison.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an interview that I did with Phil, with your husband, in 1997, your late husband Phil Berrigan, while he was in jail in Maine for taking part in another Plowshares action. I think this one was at the Bath Iron Works.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Phil Berrigan.

FATHER PHILIP BERRIGAN: Amy, there have been about 55, 56 Plowshares actions happening in the United States and abroad, Western Europe and Australia. And so, this was another in the series. We disarmed first-strike weaponry, nuclear weaponry, and have gone into not only airbases but also shipyards and war plants in order to do this. The Scripture that guides us, of course, is the second chapter of Isaiah, the prophecy of Isaiah, where he speaks about the nations beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And we know the government won’t do this, so it’s incumbent upon us, who are threatened by these weapons, to do this. And we’ve been doing it since 1980.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the late Phil Berrigan. I interviewed him when he was in prison in Maine. Talk about the hospitality houses, the Catholic Worker houses. Talk about your house, Jonah House, that you founded with Phil Berrigan —

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — in Baltimore, not so far from Catonsville, a few years later.

LIZ McALISTER: Yeah. The focus at Jonah House was nonviolence, resistance, community. Those were the three things that were of deep concern to us, that we remain nonviolent, that we engage in resistance in an ongoing kind of fashion, and that we build community, because there’s no way of continuing to engage in direct action and resistance outside of community. You’ve got to have that kind of support to be able to keep on keeping on with it. So, that was what we started. We spent about a year, weekly meetings with friends who were interested in exploring that, and then we moved to Baltimore in that first house there.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you call it Jonah House?

LIZ McALISTER: Because Jonah was the reluctant prophet.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to 1972. According to The Evening News, on March 17th, 1972 — they’re talking about the Harrisburg 7 — the seven were “charged with conspiring to raid draft boards in nine states, blow up heating pipes in Washington utility tunnels and kidnap presidential foreign affairs adviser Henry Kissinger.”

LIZ McALISTER: Henry Kissinger.

AMY GOODMAN: You were one of the Harrisburg 7.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that action.

LIZ McALISTER: That was not an action. That was conversations about how do you raise awareness about what is going on in this country. And what it was based on was: Could you do a citizen’s arrest of someone like Henry Kissinger and get them to talk truth, so that that could get out? And, of course, we reflected on that, we thought about that, and we realized there is no way you can nonviolently compel another and take them kind of like a prisoner and force them to speak. That is not a nonviolent action. That is not something we could do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re going to trial. You face conspiracy, trespass and destruction and depredation of property.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Three felonies and a misdemeanor.

LIZ McALISTER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your response?

LIZ McALISTER: My response is, obviously, I did them, you know? And I own that, and I don’t see that that’s the crime. I think the crime is the weapons. The crime is the money spent on the weapons. The crime is the money taken from the real needs in our country and in our world to spend it on these weapons of mass destruction. And we need to stop that. And that’s the message that I want to continue to stand behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Longtime peace activist Liz McAlister. She and six other Catholic anti-nuclear activists go on trial today for breaking into the Kings Bay nuclear submarine base in Georgia. On Friday, the judge in the case blocked Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and other expert witnesses from testifying in the trial to explain why the activists broke into the military base. Ellsberg said, quote, “An action which would under other circumstances be illegal can be justified as legal by a reasonable belief that it is necessary to avert a much greater evil, in this case omnicide, the killing of nearly every human on Earth, in a war in which the nuclear missiles aboard Trident submarines were launched.” Daniel Ellsberg is the author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

When we come back, we go to Chile, where protests have rocked the country. As many as eight people have died. The Chilean military has been deployed to the streets for the first time since the Pinochet dictatorship. Stay with us.

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