AN INTRODUCTION TO PLOWSHARES-DISARMAMENT ACTIONS
by Arthur J. Laffin (Revised from Swords Into Plowshares )
Updated February 2003
In this article, I would like to give a brief background of plowshares actions, reflect on the underlying spirit and hope of these actions, address how the courts have responded, and briefly address some of the major criticisms about these actions. It is my intent here not to be exhaustive on covering all these issues in great detail, but to give the reader a general sense of what plowshares-disarmament actions are about.
On September 9, 1980, the “Plowshares Eight” carried out the first of what have come to be known as plowshares actions. Eight peacemakers entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where the nose cones from the Mark 12-A nuclear warheads were manufactured. With hammers and blood they enacted the biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to “beat swords into plowshares” by hammering on two of the nose cones and pouring blood on documents. Thus, the name “plowshares” has been used to identify this action. The eight were subsequently arrested and tried by a jury, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 ˝ to 10 years. After a series of appeals that lasted 10 years, they were resentenced to time served—from several days to 17 ˝ months.
Since the Plowshares Eight action, others, acting individually and in community, have entered military bases and weapons facilities and have symbolically and actually disarmed components of U.S. first-strike nuclear weapons systems: the MX, Perishing II, Cruise, Minuteman ICBM’s, Trident II missiles, Trident submarines, B-52 bombers, P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft, the Navstar system, the ELF communication system, the Milstar satellite system, a nuclear capable battleship and the Aegis destroyer. Combat aircraft used for military intervention such as the F-111 fighter bomber, the F-15A fighter, the F-18 bomber, the A-10 Warthog, the Hawk aircraft, as well as combat helicopters and other conventional weapons, including aircraft missile launchers, bazookas, grenade throwers, and AK-5 automatic rifles, have been disarmed. Model weapons have been disarmed at an “Arms Bazaar.” People who have been involved in plowshares actions have undertaken a process of intense spiritual preparation, nonviolence training and community formation, and have given careful consideration to the risks involved. Plowshares activists, accepting full responsibility for their actions, remain at the site of their action so that they can publicly explain their witness.
Resonating closely with this spirit of nonviolent direct disarmament, other people, though not seeing their action arising out of the biblical prophecy of Isaiah and Micah, have been compelled to nonviolently disarm components of nuclear and conventional weapons. Although individuals who have carried out these actions have been inspired by plowshares participants who embrace a biblical vision, they view their action as being primarily motivated by a deeply held conscience commitment to nonviolence or by other spiritual or moral convictions.
As of February 2003, more than 150 individuals have participated in over 70 plowshares and related disarmament actions. Also several groups and individuals were stopped by security and arrested at or near a weapons site before being able to complete their intended disarmament action. Some plowshares activists have gone on to participate in other plowshares actions. Plowshares actions have occurred in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Holland, Sweden, and England. The backgrounds of plowshares activists vary widely. Parents, grandparents, veterans, lawyers, teachers, artists, musicians, priests, sisters, house-painters, carpenters, writers, health-care workers, students, advocates for the poor and homeless, and members of Catholic Worker communities have all participated in plowshares actions. Most of those who have participated in plowshares actions remain actively involved in the peace and justice movement.
In my view, the basic hope of the plowshares actions (and here I’m not attempting to speak for other people involved in these actions) is to communicate from the moment of entry into a plant or base—and throughout the court process and prison witness—and underlying faith that the power of nonviolent love can overcome the forces of violence; a reverence for the sacredness of all life and creation; a plea for justice for victims of poverty, the arms race and economic sanctions; an acceptance of personal responsibility for the dismantling and the physical conversion of the weapons; and a spiritual conversion of the heart to the way of justice and reconciliation. Thus, plowshares participants believe that the physical dismantling of the weapon and the personal disarmament of the heart is a reciprocal process. As Philip Berrigan states: “We try to disarm ourselves by disarming the weapons.”
The main symbols used in plowshares actions are hammers and blood. Hammers are used to literally begin the process of disarmament that thousands of talks and numerous treaties have failed to accomplish. The hammer is used to take apart as well as create, and to point to the urgency for conversion of war production to products that enhance life. The blood symbolizes the mass killing that weapons of mass destruction can inflict, as well as the murderous cost they now impose on the poor. Blood speaks too of human unity and the willingness to give one’s life rather than to take life.
Seeking to expose the violence, secrecy, and idolatry of the national security state, some plowshares defendants have tried to present a “justification” or “necessity” defense. During their defense they have tried to show, through personal and expert witness testimony, that their actions were morally and legally justified and that their intent was to protect life. In most cases, the courts have shown their complicity in protecting the interests of the government and have disallowed this defense. Some plowshares groups have also presented a defense declaring that a state religion of “nuclearism” has been an established, which is unconstitutional, in violation of the First Amendment. Moreover, nuclearism is in violation of God’s law, which forbids the worship of “gods of metal.” Plowshares defendants have moved for dismissal of all charges brought against them; for the law, as applied in these cases, is used to protect this unconstitutional state religion. Such motions have been consistently denied.
With the exception of the G.E. 5, the Aegis Plowshares, the first Australian Plowshares action, and the Earth and Space Plowshares action, all plowshares activists have been prosecuted for their actions. While most plowshares-disarmament activists have pled not guilty and have gone to trial, several opted to plead “no contest” or “guilty” to charges brought against them. Most of the trials to date, mainly jury trials, have ended in convictions. However, members of the Epiphany Plowshares were tried an unprecedented five times with three trials ending in hung juries and mistrials. Also, Chris Cole’s first trial for a plowshares action in England ended in a hung jury. Also the first ever acquittal in a plowshares case occurred in Liverpool, England where a jury found the Seeds of Hope—East Timor Ploughshares not guilty. There was also another plowshares acquittal, which occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland during the trial of three women who disarmed Trident-related technology as part of the Trident Ploughshares 2000 campaign. And in another plowshares-disarmament action against Trident in England, a trial for two women ended in a hung jury for one charge and an acquittal for the second charge.
During the trials in the U.S., which have occurred in both state and federal courts, most of the defendants have represented themselves and have been assisted by legal advisers. The trial tactics by judges and government prosecutors have become extremely repressive. A “Motion In Limine,” which calls for the complete prohibition of “affirmative” defenses, has been introduced in a number of plowshares trials. For example, prior to the third and fourth trials of the Epiphany Plowshares, the trial judge, complying with the U.S. prosecutor’s request, imposed a “gag” order forbidding any mention of such subjects as God’s law, the Bible, international law, U.S. military intervention in Central America, nuclear weapons and the poor. For speaking about these subjects, two defendants were given contempt charges and 20-day jail sentences. And during their opening statement to the jury in North Carolina, members of the Pax Christi-Spirit of Life Plowshares were found in contempt of court for not complying with the judge’s instruction to refrain from speaking about crimes of the national security state and their moral and legal intent.
Prison sentences have varied for each plowshares-disarmament action. These sentences have ranged from suspended sentences to 18 years. The average sentence for plowshares activists has been between one and two years.
Doing support work on behalf of plowshares activists has also been an integral part of the plowshares actions. Efforts by local support groups have been invaluable in supporting plowshares activists during trial and imprisonment and in helping to educate the public about the meaning of these actions. As people have been sentenced to long prison terms, support for prisoners and their families has been, and continues to be, crucial.
Throughout the 22-year history of the plowshares actions, questions have been raised regarding different aspects of these actions. Some have voiced concerns that these actions are violent because property, in this case a weapon, has been damaged. Plowshares activists believe that nuclear weapons and all weapons of war are anti-God, anti-life, and therefore, are inherently evil and have no right to exist. Thus, it is the responsibility of people of faith and conscience to begin to nonviolently dismantle these weapons. In the Trident Nein plowshares action, which I participated, we hammered and poured blood on missile hatches and sonar equipment of the first-strike Trident submarine. With spray-paint we renamed the Trident “USS Auschwitz,” because of our belief that such a weapon has no more right to exist than the Nazi gas ovens. Would trying to take apart a gas oven be considered an act of violence or vandalism? I believe that it would not. Would it be consistent with nonviolence? I believe so. Plowshares participants believe that trying to dismantle a weapon of mass murder is not an act of violence even though the media and the courts characterize these acts as “vandalism” and various other crimes, rather than as an act of disarmament. The real crime is not the hammering upon weapons, but the U.S. government’s first-strike nuclear policy, its military interventionist policy, and its commitment to wage a war against the poor of the world to protect its economic interests.
People have also questioned whether these actions are truly nonviolent because of the secrecy that surrounds the action. Plowshares people contend that no advance notice is needed to disarm an illegal weapon that has no right to exist in the first place. (Did Jesus give advance notice to authorities when he cleansed the temple? Did abolitionists give advance notice to government officials about harboring slaves?) People have a moral and legal right to begin the disarmament process at any base or factory at any time. They posses this right because they honor and try to embody God’s law, which authorities and personnel break consistently by their work. There is therefore, no moral or political duty to inform or dialogue with them about a witness beforehand. The witness is the dialogue.
Moreover, once the action occurs there is no attempt to conceal the truth of what happened. Plowshares people take full responsibility for their action by awaiting arrest, telling the story of their action in court and to the public, as well as speaking out from jail and prison.
Also, in the past the government has charged peace activists and plowshares participants with conspiracy charges. Great care is taken prior to each action to avoid exposing others to the risk of such charges. It seems to me that this approach, while different from other nonviolent actions, reflects the spirit of biblical nonviolence.
There have also been important concerns raised about the need for what disarmament activist Peter Lumsdaine calls a more “effective strategic resistance” approach to the weapons rather than the mostly symbolic approach of plowshares actions. (1) This approach, which centers on committing “maximum” damage to key weapons systems (i.e. Navstar) in order to render them ineffective, has certainly provoked a meaningful dialogue—one which continues. While plowshares activists have different perspectives on this issue, most would undoubtedly agree with the following viewpoint articulated by Philip Berrigan:
Plowshares began disarmament in 1980, doing what the government refused to do for 35 years. With equal concern, Plowshares appealed to the hearts, minds and spirits of the American people—‘You must share disarmament!’ The twin goals of Plowshares—symbolic yet real disarmament and sharing disarmament—have reciprocity. The weapons exist because our fear, violence and hatred built them. Plowshares must address these realities…
The hammer is a modest tool and a potent symbol, which within the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, insists upon a universal responsibility for justice and peace. But it also confines us within human limits—we are not superpeople, nor do we embody the fantasies of Hollywood or the Washington plutocrats. The imperative is to be human in an inhuman time, to act in season and out despite the prospect that the American empire might not break up in our lifetime, nor disarmament happen while we live. If that be the case, modesty of means will sustain us as another face of faith. And faith is not faith except for the long haul. (2)
Regarding this notion of faith, Elizabeth McAlister asserts:
There is not going to be any real disarmament until there’s a disarming of hearts. And so one puts oneself on the line to symbolically, but really, disarm the weapons in a hope and prayer that the action might be used by the Spirit of God to change minds and hearts. One puts oneself on the line—at risk and in jeopardy—to communicate the depth of commitment to that hope. (3)
Based on my experience, it is important to note that each of the plowshares participants I’ve met has carefully reflected on these and other important considerations prior to an action. While there does exist among plowshares participants a basic unanimity about the underlying spirit for plowshares actions, there is a diversity of opinion among plowshares participants about certain issues including defenses to use in court, the level of cooperation with court and probation authorities, and the payment of fines and restitution. Clearly, these and other issues that I have addressed have generated important discussion among plowshares activists and the wider disarmament movement.
In the final analysis, people who do plowshares actions are ordinary people who, with all their weaknesses, are attempting to respond in faith and conscience to a moral mandate, which must be enacted in our violent world. These actions are not to be glamorized or taken lightly. People have taken great risks, experienced the loneliness and dehumanization of prison, and have had to cope with many difficult personal and family hardships. Building and sustaining an acting community takes extraordinary commitment and is certainly not problem-free. Yet, with all their limitations and imperfections, these actions are a powerful reminder that we can live in a world without weapons and war if people are willing to begin the process of disarmament by literally beating the swords (weapons) of our time in plowshares. While these actions are deemed criminal by the state, they should be considered, in light of the great evil we face, the norm. Although each plowshares action has many similarities to others, in the end each is unique, each is a learning process, each is an experiment in truth.
(1)For a more in depth explanation of the effective strategic resistance approach see article by Peter Lumsdaine in The Nuclear Resister,
October 7, 1992.
(2) Phil Berrigan, The Nuclear Resister, December 23, 1992.
(3) Liz McAlister, The Catholic Agitator, November 1992.