Last year, in April, there was a weekend event in Harrisburg, PA, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the trial of the Harrisburg 7, which had ended in 1972, with a hung jury on the major counts – conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating tunnels in Washington, D.C. – and convictions on minor contraband counts, smuggling letters in and out of a Federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. The Harrisburg trial became the capstone of a number of anti-war trials that had begun in the 1960s, some involving the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, most notably the case of the Catonsville 9; these trials had marked the new Catholic Left’s ascendancy in the public eye as symbols of “nonviolent” resistance to the Vietnam war. Though the government “lost” the Harrisburg 7 trial, its fomenters, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, won what they were after: to besmirch the reputations of the Berrigans and the larger Catholic Left resistance movement and to knock them from the high moral pillar they occupied.
A reissue of my 1972 book, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, had appeared a month before, so I gave the keynote address following a panel on the case, held at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. One of the original defendants, the former nun Elizabeth McAlister and spouse, now widow, of Philip Berrigan, had been on the panel and was in attendance. It was a large crowd of some 200 filling the bookstore, the size of a warehouse, where we all convened, the average age 60 plus. (A podcast of the event can be found here: http://famousreadingcafe.podomatic.com/). I began my remarks saying that when I had written the new Afterword for the Harrisburg book I had never imagined that I would be reading parts of it aloud to Elizabeth McAlister.
Three months after that event, another nun, Sister Megan G. Rice, along with two men some decades’ younger – she was 82 in July of 2012, the men in their 50s and early 60s – were arrested after breaking into Y-12, our nuclear storage facility of storied history in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They came with the usual Plowshares movement equipment: hammers, spray paint, human blood, but also a hefty bolt cutter. The Oak Ridge 3.
They were tried in Knoxville, TN, in early May, and, after a two-day trial, were convicted on two counts, one of obstructing the national defense and the second of “depredation” of a government facility. The former, the sabotage count, carries a potential penalty of 20 years.
There was very little coverage of the trial itself, nothing like the Harrisburg case received four decades ago, and the Knoxville local news and the AP, in their reporting, kept referring to the defendants as the Y-12 trespassers, not the Oak Ridge 3, thereby de-nationalising the case. Sentencing for the Oak Ridge 3, who currently remain in jail, is scheduled for September. The Washington Post did run a mini-book report on the case before the trial, on April 29th, in its Style section, complete with 14 “Chapters,” (all very short, Dan Brown-like), written by Dan Zak, with many web-friendly photos and extras. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2013/04/29/the-prophets-of-oak-ridge/). The Post is fly-fishing for a Pulitzer.
In 2012 the Nuns on the Bus had received more coverage than the Oak Ridge 3 (many things get more publicity), but beating swords into plowshares doesn’t get a lot of traction these days.
It’s hard, in the Age of Obama, when the “anti-war” former presidential candidate continues to oversee the two wars his predecessor began, and Gitmo remains open (though the president really, really wants to close it), to push through all the noise with this type of anti-nuclear protest. The Plowshares movement rose from the ashes of the Harrisburg trial, nurtured and populated by both Berrigans, Philip and Dan, along with Philip’s wife, Elizabeth McAlister. Its protests began, more or less, in 1980, with the King of Prussia, PA, action at the GE Missile Re-entry Division. More hammers and blood. Eventually, after a number of protests, the Berrigans and Elizabeth spent time in jail, some shorter, some longer, as did others.
These days activists have taken to calling such events as the Y-12 prophetic acts, rather than protests, thereby sidestepping the endemic futility found in this sort of protesting. The participants have been mainly the remnants of the Catholic Left, carrying out their never-ending mission. Protest movements in the secular protest world, and their general fecklessness, were demonstrated most starkly by the Occupy movement, the marathon sitting-in sort in a park near the heart of the beast on Wall Street in 2011. Other moments of occupation have occurred elsewhere in the country with little effect, as well as the more anarchistic protests at G8 meetings (held infrequently in the US). One secular protest movement with teeth, though, has been the Tea Party, a largely astro-turf creation, though anchored in the small hardcore anti-tax groups of long standing, but was hatched into its current form by high-end Republican organizations with the bright idea of creating a “third” party within a party -- the GOP -- avoiding that way all the shortcomings of traditional third parties.
Coincidentally, a new documentary, Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance, which premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival last March, focuses on the Catholic anti-war movement, largely the draft-board raiding contingent, of the 60s, 70s. (Its web site: http://www.hitandstay.com/ ). At a panel after the premiere, the usual question was asked: why weren’t more young people out in the streets protesting? My answer was that they were saddled with so much educational debt they don’t dare. And, there is the continuing influence of the Democrat anti-war president whose earnest rhetoric tamps down youthful fervor to protest the government he represents.
One often overlooked reason of why the late 60s and early 70s became the golden age of protest was the state of the economy back then. There was both an excess of surplus capital and, briefly, recession, which allowed a lot of youth the time to be both fancy free and willing to take a stand. Reagan economics and the transfer of most of the wealth to the top had yet to take place. Today’s economics perversely put a choke-hold on large-scale protests.
The current volunteer army was not forced upon the government by the anti-war protestors of the time; the war makers longed for it, and got it in 1973. 1973! The one statistic that has changed in the wars we now fight is the average age of the dead. It has risen. We’re no longer killing the footloose teenage males we had such an oversupply of in the Vietnam period. Those who die now have marriages, families, some experience of real life, however truncated.
When the Plowshares people turned to anti-nuclear protests, going from protesting the humble starting point of organized warfare – draft boards, the recruitment of soldiers as good ol’ cannon fodder – the Berrigans jumped to the end of the process, protesting the technological height of the military-industrial complex, its most sacred and scary weapons, its nuclear stockpile. If Gandhi could end the British Empire’s colonial domination of a country, why couldn’t the Berrigans end our reliance on nuclear weapons? They chose to go from the limited and symbolic to the purely symbolic and sorely limited.
Prophetic actions, indeed. The history of protest has many rooms, but these symbolic acts are demonstrations of resistance, idealized pleas for actual magic, as if spray paint and human blood and the marks of hammers could actually turn an article of war (a nuclear sword) into a helpful tool of humanity (a plow). Prest-O Change-O.
The general public might not have much reaction or exposure to octogenarian nuns spray-painting a building filled with enriched bomb-grade uranium, but Congress certainly did, and hearings on the Oak Ridge incident quickly were held. A number of representatives thanked Sister Rice for pointing out the deficiencies in its security systems. The thorough Lax account, courtesy of the Washington Post, points out the usual laughable lapses, the sort you get when you privatize the military.
One of the horrors of nuclear weapons is how they wedded the greatest intellectual minds to the greatest amount of destruction. Our cultural DNA since the 1940s has been tainted, given this arranged marriage of science and war. It can be argued, though, it has always been so.
The Nobel prizes, the awards for the highest rarefied sort of thinking, were founded atop a pile of dynamite, or, rather Alfred Nobel’s patented dynamite and detonator. The first Nobel prizes were awarded at the start of the 20th century, in 1901.
So many symbols speak for us, there is no quiet on the earth. The events of 9/11 are both symbols and facts. Though, in war, the presumption that you might die is a given, there is a stark difference when to die is the participants’ desire. The way our country and government has reacted to what we call suicide bombers is to redefine what war is and what we are willing to do in such a war. President Obama’s speech on counter-terrorism to the National Defense University on May 23rd tried to acknowledge that he, if nothing else, is aware that the not-so-brave new world we are now in cannot go on forever. But he may be wrong, for as he pointed out the contradictions between what we say and what we do, he also demonstrated neither the will nor the power to change it.
The Oak Ridge 3 may have carried out a profound prophetic action, certainly it was courageous, but it is our own government’s symbols and actions that contain the most alarming prophecies.