On November 2, 2009, five antinuclear peace activists break into Naval Base Kitsap -- Bangor, a nuclear-submarine base on Hood Canal northwest of Bremerton. Their Disarm Now Plowshares protest is a symbolic disarming of one of the largest nuclear-weapons stockpiles in the United States. As the five approach the weapons bunkers, deep in the heart of the base, Marines arrest them at gunpoint. The members of the group will use this protest action, and their subsequent trial and incarceration, to express their conviction that the nuclear arsenal housed in Washington state is both dangerous and immoral.
Planning, Self-reflection, and a Letter of Support
The action at Bangor was the culmination of a year of planning and discernment by its participants, who aligned their protest with the international Plowshares Movement, which uses nonviolent methods and Catholic symbolism to protest the possession and use of nuclear weapons. The five participants were Sister Anne Montgomery (1926-2012), who had participated in many previous Plowshares actions, including the first in 1980; Father Stephen Kelly (b. 1949), who had spent more than six years in prison for previous actions; Susan Crane, (b. 1942), also a long-time activist who had served time for previous Plowshares actions; Lynne Greenwald (1949-2014), who was new to the Plowshares movement; and Father William "Bix" Bichsel (1928-2015), a Jesuit priest and antinuclear activist from Tacoma, who had participated in, and been arrested at, previous protests at Bangor and elsewhere.
The group met regularly over the course of a year, planning logistics and joining in contemplative prayer, discussion, and self-reflection. The five examined their own motivations, wanting to be sure they were acting from their belief in pacifism and the evil of nuclear weapons, and not out of a desire for notoriety or personal gain.
As is typical in planning a Plowshares action, details of the plans were not shared outside of the group. The activists carefully kept their actions secret in order not to implicate any supporters in conspiracy charges. The activists did, however, seek some support and guidance from outside sources. The Jesuit order had not always been supportive of Father Bichsel's antinuclear protests and other activism, and he knew that many Jesuits disagreed with his methods. Still, Bichsel contacted Father Patrick Lee, his provincial, or Jesuit superior, and asked for his support. On October 23, 2009, Father Lee responded with a letter of commissioning, putting the weight of the Jesuit order behind the upcoming Plowshares action, and assigning Bichsel's participation as a mission from his superior. He described Bichsel as a prophet of peace, and recognized that the messages of prophets are often unwelcome, and rewarded with scorn and punishment. Father Lee wrote that this missioning letter was "one of the hardest I've written, but also one that seems clearly blessed and confirmed by God" (Lee, "Missioning Letter ..."). Father Lee's letter was a bold statement of support, and one that put him at risk of criminal charges.
Action on All Souls' Day
At 2 a.m. on November 2, 2009 -- All Souls' Day -- the five activists cut a hole through the perimeter fence surrounding the Bangor submarine base and began walking toward the storage area for nuclear weapons. They carried hammers and vials of their own blood, and used Google maps to navigate through the base. At that time of night there was little road traffic, so instead of having to creep through the woods they walked along the side of the road, hiding in bushes whenever a vehicle passed. As they walked they hammered on the road, symbolically disarming and transforming the base. They walked through the base for three and a half hours, undetected, pausing occasionally to allow Bichsel to take nitroglycerine for his heart condition. Finally, they approached the Main Limited Area, where the base's nuclear arsenal was stored.
Bichsel recalled looking down at the Main Limited Area from the road: "It was a huge lighted area that looks like a big prison yard. It had the guard towers, and it had double fences around it" (Dambergs interview). The activists descended to the edge of the Main Limited Area, surprised to have made it so far into the base. Now, all that separated them for the nuclear weapon storage bunkers were two fences. They cut through the first fence, traversed a 10-foot gravel corridor, and then cut through the second fence. That final fence was laden with sensors that immediately alerted the security forces -- armed Marines -- to the activists' unauthorized presence. Still, all five members of the group made it through the fence.
The activists were arrested as they stood only 10 or 15 yards from storage sheds containing nuclear weapons. Bichsel recalled:
"They all came with their assault rifles and everything trained on us. And then they had us all face down. They cuffed us, and had us face down on the ground for about three hours. They put hoods over our heads, sort of like Guantanamo" (Dambergs interview).
As they lay on the cold, wet ground, hooded and held at gunpoint, Bichsel was overcome by a sense of joy. They had accomplished their mission. They had acted on their beliefs, and their opposition to nuclear weapons. They had put their lives on the line in support of their convictions, and felt prepared to face the consequences. Bichsel attributed his sense of joy to the presence of God that he experienced in that moment:
"I felt that that's where the resurrection has to be manifested -- [the place] where the greatest threat to life is. And I thought ... that's where Jesus would be" (Dambergs interview).
Trial and Verdict
Following their arrest, the FBI and the Navy Criminal Investigative Service questioned the activists, and then, to the activists' surprise, released them. Typically, Plowshares activists are held in custody until trial. Lynne Greenwald was particularly unprepared for her release. She had quit her job and moved out of her house in anticipation of being sent to prison.
Legal proceedings against the Disarm Now Plowshares participants didn't start until months after the action. A federal grand jury indicted them on September 2, 2010, and their arraignment in U.S. District Court took place at the Tacoma Courthouse on October 8. They faced federal charges of conspiracy, trespass, destruction of property on a naval installation, and depredation of government property. The charges carried prison terms of up to 10 years, and fines up to $250,000.
All the defendants pled not guilty. In a line of reasoning that they would assert throughout the trial, the activists argued that the United States military's possession of nuclear weapons was illegal under international laws that prohibit weapons of indiscriminate destruction. Citing precedent from the Nuremburg trials, the activists claimed that they were morally bound to resist and violate the illegal laws that allowed the United States to possess nuclear arms. They also claimed the necessity defense, stating that nuclear weapons posed a real, immediate risk, and their actions, though in violation of American law, were necessary to prevent even worse consequences. As Bichsel put it, the activists felt like "we were the wrong ones being put on trial" (Dambergs interview).
Though the Disarm Now Plowshares activists firmly believed they were in the right, they were also aware that court precedent would prevent them from making appeals to international law during their trial. Indeed, the U.S. District Court granted a motion from government prosecutors that barred the defendants from presenting any evidence connected to international law, the necessity defense, or the Nuremburg trials. This effectively allowed the prosecution to focus the trial solely on the actions of the defendants, and prevented the defendants from explaining the reasoning behind those actions.
As the trial began on December 7, 2010, the Plowshares defendants saw that the conclusion -- their conviction -- was inevitable. However, they presented a vigorous defense, and used the trial as a public forum to express their antinuclear views, and spread their message of peace.
The jury returned its verdict on December 13, 2010, and, as expected, found the defendants guilty. Bichsel recalled that after a previous conviction in 1998, for resistance at the School of the Americas in Georgia, the guilty verdict had actually made him feel like he had done something wrong. This time, he said, the guilty verdict felt right. He felt like he had fulfilled a calling, and upheld a higher law by living out his beliefs. He attributed his change in attitude to the development of a deeper awareness of his actions, through his life experience, and through the year of prayer and discernment that had prepared him for the Plowshares action.
Commissioned to Go to Prison
On March 27, 2011, the day before the Disarm Now Plowshares activists were to be sentenced, St. Leo Church in Tacoma, with which Bichsel had a long and close connection, hosted a community gathering and celebration in their honor. In a powerful ceremony, Father Lee, who had written the commissioning letter for Father Bichsel before the action, formally commissioned Bichsel and Father Kelly to go to prison, should that be the will of the court. Father Steve Landry, the pastor of St. Leo, bestowed the same mission upon Sister Montgomery, Susan Crane, and Lynne Greenwald. The commissioning re-conceptualized the group's upcoming incarceration, transforming it from a punishment to a duty. Their time in prison became service to the church, the congregation, and community.
Sentencing took place at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma on March 28. Judge Benjamin Settle allowed each defendant to make a statement. Bichsel spoke about the failure of the democratic process that led them to take such drastic action; about his belief in nonviolence and his expression of that belief through action; and about the love and support he felt from the community in response to the action. Following the defendants' statements, Judge Settle pronounced their sentences: 15 months each for Father Kelly and Susan Crane, six months for Lynne Greenwald, two months for Sister Montgomery, followed by four months of house arrest, and three months for Bichsel, followed by six months of house arrest. Judge Settle then considered whether to release the defendants as they awaited their prison terms. He asked each one if they would refrain from further protest, and self-report at the appointed time. None agreed. As their gathered supporters sang songs of peace, federal marshals escorted the Disarm Now Plowshares activists out of the courtroom and into federal detention.