For Three Nuns, A Prairie Protest And a Price to Pay
GREELEY, Colo. -- After seven months in a dank basement jail, the three nuns, now convicted felons awaiting sentencing, were taking in the welcoming sun of the prairie for the first time.
At the same time, there they were, during this precious stint of freedom before their July sentencing date, visiting the nuclear missile site in northeastern Colorado where they got into trouble in the first place.
"Here's where we cut the link," said Sister Ardeth Platte, holding the chain that had been locked onto the first of two fences surrounding a Minuteman III missile silo buried in the dry, brittle ground. "Then we did the same thing to the other fence."
Then, on the morning of Oct. 6, 2002 -- in an act that the federal government, and the Denver jury that convicted them last month, called a crime worthy of as much as 30 years in prison -- the Roman Catholic nuns entered the inner enclosure around the missile silo and stayed a while. Using ball-peen hammers, they tapped on the silo's 110-ton concrete lid and on the rusty tracks on which the lid would slide open for a launch. They poured their blood in the shape of crosses from plastic baby bottles onto the silo walls and the tracks. They sang a song ("Sacred our land, sacred our water, sacred the sky, holy and true . . ."). And they prayed for world peace.
The Dominican sisters call what they did a symbolic act of disarmament against a weapon of mass extinction. The government called it injury to, interference with and obstruction of the national defense, along with damage of more than $1,000 to government property. Prosecutors said they will ask U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn to sentence the nuns to five to eight years in federal prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Although not the maximum, those sentences, the nuns' lawyers say, would constitute one of the harshest punishments ever handed down for what amounts to a trespassing case in which the gravest damage done was to a piece of chain-link fence.
Defense lawyers say there are ample grounds for appeal, including the testimony of two Air Force colonels -- both prosecution witnesses -- who said the women had never interfered with or obstructed national defense. The prosecution had argued that it was the nuns' intent that made them guilty.
But the nuns, who asked God to bless the jury after the verdict, say they are prepared to accept their prison terms, however much they disagree that they committed a major crime. "We had no criminal intent at any level," said Platte, a member, with Gilbert, of Jonah House, a faith-based activist commune in Baltimore.
"When we went to this site," added Sister Jackie Hudson, a tiny woman with large, round glasses and a crew cut, "we went to symbolically stop a crime from happening and to uphold international law."
John Suthers, the U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, said the nuns had other, legal ways to register their dissent. "The defendants in this case have demonstrated a blatant disregard for the laws of the United States," he said in a statement to The Washington Post. "No other country on Earth provides as many avenues for peaceful and lawful protest as does the United States. But the defendants insist on unlawfully entering onto highly sensitive government installations, damaging government property, and interfering with government operations."
Hudson, who is 68, Platte, who is 66, and Sister Carole Gilbert, 55, are still stunned that they were found guilty of sabotage. So are thousands of people who have written to them in the past several weeks. Jurors in the case have said it was clear the nuns were guilty, but the sisters and their supporters view their convictions as part of the nationalistic fervor that swept the United States during the Iraq war, when dissenters were ridiculed, threatened and attacked. Their trial, during the first week of April, coincided with the peak of the war.
To the nuns, who consider it their mission to fight against war at all costs, this Minuteman missile silo, named N8, was the scene of a government crime: harboring weapons of annihilation poised for a first strike. It was their duty to expose it.
"It feels very powerful to be back here today," Platte said, gesturing toward the missile site during a visit earlier this month. "It feels like we're rejecting it again, and we will continue to reject it again and again and again."
Had they made a move beyond that first fence encircling the missile silo, they would have faced 10 consecutive years added to the sentences they will formally receive on July 25. Two soldiers in an SUV watched them from a rise in the road a quarter-mile away, and ranchers from nearby farms stopped their pickup trucks to watch the nuns and warn them not to trespass.
The sisters sang and prayed outside the site. This time, they had no intention of getting arrested. They left jail on April 30 on personal-recognizance bonds they had refused to sign in October because they would not agree to stay out of trouble during wartime.
Now, they said, they needed their freedom to say goodbye to friends and family, give away their possessions and strengthen themselves spiritually for their first long stays in prison.
"Jackie and I are looking at this as possible life sentences," Platte said. "We have to attend to medical needs and say goodbyes. We lost five good friends while we were in prison these months, including one person I consider a mother to me."
After two weeks in Colorado, where they spoke to church, school and peace groups, the nuns, all former teachers who studied with the Grand Rapids., Mich., Dominican sisters, returned home last week. For Hudson, a well-known peace activist in the Northwest, that means the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Poulsbo, Wash., and a home in Bremerton, Wash.
For Platte, a former city council member and mayor pro tem of Saginaw, Mich., and Gilbert, also from Michigan, home is now Jonah House, which sits in one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. Co-founded in 1973 by the former Roman Catholic priest Philip Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, Jonah House, with about eight to 12 residents, is best known for feeding poor people and committing ongoing acts of civil disobedience -- or, as the participants call it, civil resistance, because they consider their actions legal under international law.
Berrigan, who spent a total of 11 years in prison since his first actions during the Vietnam War, died in December of cancer, while the nuns were in prison.
While there, they befriended and ministered to their fellow inmates. Many of the women, they said, had been charged with far lesser crimes than theirs and had not been offered personal-recognizance bonds. "We stayed," said Gilbert, "in part out of solidarity with these women."
All three have served time in prison before, a few months here and there, on misdemeanor charges. They belong to the Plowshares Movement, an international disarmament movement that Berrigan, inspired by Isaiah 2:4 to "beat swords into plowshares," began two decades ago.
Theirs was a classic Plowshares action. The actions are characterized by the use of hammers to symbolically -- or actually -- disarm parts of U.S. first-strike nuclear weapons systems, and blood to represent the deaths such weapons can cause. Plowshares actions are also long-planned and public. The nuns spent nine months plotting their action, scouting several missile sites before settling on N8 because it is near a main road.
In 2000, they had done their first Plowshares action, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. With two other nuns, they struck a grounded Marine fighter jet with a hammer and threw a bottle of their blood on the aircraft's landing gear. All charges in that case were eventually dropped.
Walter L. Gerash, a veteran Denver lawyer who has helped defend many such cases pro bono, is still fuming that he lost the nuns' case. "One of the first casualties of war is the truth," said Gerash, who has three motions pending before the court. Two argue for a dismissal of the case on the grounds of numerous trial errors and a lack of evidence. The third asks for a mistrial because a juror was seen outside the deliberations room during deliberations.
The nuns plan on making the most of their freedom. Before visiting the missile silo, they were the star attraction at a peace rally in Greeley's Lincoln Park. Fewer than two dozen people were there, including the nuns. Across the park, half a dozen people holding four-foot-long U.S. flags and signs that read, "Pacifists create Terrorists," shouted, "Down with Communism" and "Go back with the Communists" as people spoke. But the nuns were thrilled to hear that 50 high school students here had walked out of classes to protest the war, despite strong pressure from their peers and teachers.
"What wonderful courage these young people have," Gilbert said, beaming.
Later, at the missile site, the sisters ended up in a debate with a 73-year-old rancher, Doris Williams, who takes care of the property that holds N8.
"Look," Williams said. "This is not worth going to jail for. You should be protesting all the treaties that the government has broken with the Indians."
"Oh, we have!" Platte said.
"And you should be worrying about all the terrorists around the world," Williams said.
"We do!" Gilbert said.
After a half-hour's discussion, Williams and the nuns hugged and wished each other well. "You girls stay out of trouble!" Williams called out.
A Weld County deputy sheriff who stopped by said the same.
"I really wish you the best of luck," said the deputy, who did not want his name used. The nuns shook his hand and asked him to say hello to "Monty," a deputy who had guarded them at the Weld County jail for two weeks before the federal government took over the case and transferred them to another jail.
Afterward, on the drive back to Denver, where they are staying at a convent, the nuns talked about all the wonderful people they had met. What a great day, they said. Platte, with a wry grin, said it left her in "shock and awe."
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