Garry Thomas

This the third letter in a series by Garry Thomas, a long-time Ithaca resident, a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Ithaca College, a Quaker and a member of the Ithaca Catholic Worker community. He is now in Brunswick, Georgia, where he will be a “pro bono” correspondent for The Ithaca Voice, reporting on the trial of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7. Read more letters and coverage of the trial here.

October 25, 2019

BRUNSWICK, G.A. — I write from here in Brunswick, Georgia, the day after the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 (KBP7) were found guilty of conspiracy, destruction and “depredation” of government property, and trespass. The details of their action and verdict have been well reported. Sentencing will happen during the month after Christmas. Each of the seven Catholic Worker anti-nuclear activists could be sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison. For the two oldest defendants, Liz McAlister, mother of three, grandmother to six, and Father Steve Kelly SJ, also in his 70s, whatever the length of the sentence, there is the fear that they could be sentenced to what amounts to life in prison.

McAlister, a former nun and Phil Berrigan’s widow, is the defendant with the most name recognition. Her lawyer described her as someone who for 60 years had lived a life of “voluntary poverty,” performing acts of mercy, and a person who was committed to non-violence and working for peace. Father Kelly, who was four seats from McAlister, sat through the whole trial head bowed in prayer, refusing to stand for the judge and refusing even to speak in his defense. This willful act of non-compliance must have been a complete enigma to the jury, none of them “his peers.”

On Friday, Oct. 18, at about 10 p.m., three other Ithacans and I arrived at the large house in Brunswick, Georgia, where several of the KBP7 and their families were staying, just as the defendants had received the Order from Federal Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, informing them of what they could and not use in their defense when they appeared in court just 60 hours later. The judge wrote: “While there is some probative value (a legal term for evidence that is sufficiently useful to prove something important in trial) to such background information as the defendants’ subjective beliefs about religion and the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons, the probative value is low. To the extent that testimony and argument on these topics creates the danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence . . . the Court will exclude such testimony or argument on the topic.”

This order meant they would not be permitted to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RRFA) defense, basically that they, as people of conscience, were acting out of their deeply held religious faith. Nor could they use “the necessity defense,” which, in this case, argues that the nuclear weapons housed at the Trident base are immoral and illegal, as defined by international treaties, and it is the right of citizens – people of conscience – to challenge even the existence of such weapons.

The order also meant that expert witnesses would not be allowed to testify on the defendants’ behalf, chief among these being Daniel Ellsberg, the “whistleblower” who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and recently published “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” He was prepared to describe to the court the “omnicidal nature” of nuclear weapons. Similarly, Bishop Joseph Kopacz, based in Jackson, Mississippi, and Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a professor of theology at Fordham University, were both on site prepared to testify that the “sacramental, prophetic, symbolic denuclearization action” of the seven protestors – they had poured baby bottles filled with Liz McAlister’s blood on buildings and sidewalks at the Kings Bay site – was consistent with Catholic social teaching. As Clare Grady said, “We feel as if our legs have been cut out from under us,” these two defenses and the moral authority of these expert witnesses being their best hope.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz, based in Jackson, Mississippi, said the defendants’ actions were consistent with Catholic social teaching. (Photo by Garry Thomas)
Bishop Joseph Kopacz, based in Jackson, Mississippi, said the defendants’ actions were consistent with Catholic social teaching. (Photo by Garry Thomas)

In a point of fact, despite Judge Wood’s admonition that she would not permit a discussion of the defendants’ “subjective beliefs about religion and the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons” the defendants did get to discuss their Christian beliefs and, to some extent, were able to put nuclear  weapons on trial, especially in their opening and closing statements.

“We accepted arrest,” said Clare. “We performed this non-violent action out of our deep religious belief, in the spirit of love and responsibility, and with a love for God and all creation. These Trident nuclear weapons are the deadliest weapons on the face of this earth.” The prosecution might have objected three times during those sentences alone. But the prosecution, by introducing so much visual evidence (a rosary, a Catholic book of prayer, the religious messages spray-painted on the large concrete replicas of the Trident missile and sidewalk, their invoking the prophet Isaiah, etc.), the defendants felt license to explain their intent.

The defendants and their legal representatives called the prosecution on some procedural faults, described instances of the suppression of evidence, and repeatedly reminded the jury of the numerous times in our history when individuals have broken the law, using examples of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. They used the example of a person breaking down someone’s door (illegal) to save someone from a burning house (the moral thing to do). The prosecution countered, “This is a case of what the defendants did, not why they did it.” It is apparent the jury did not see the moral equivalency of a burning house.

Clare Grady speaks to supporters on the courthouse steps. (Photo by Garry Thomas)

No one can say if the expert witnesses were allowed to address the court or if the defendants were able to speak more fully to the nuclear threat and to their motivation for carrying out such acts of civil resistance, the jury would have decided differently. Under what circumstances would they have ignored the evidence that the government presented of collusion, trespass and, by its accounting, $30,553 worth of damage done to the missile monument alone (much of it captured on GoPro cameras used by two of the defendants filming themselves)? Brunswick is “a company town” very much dependent upon the Naval Base, which employs, by some reports, 9,000 people. “This is the Bible Belt and deeply conservative,” said my Brunswick host, born and raised in Atlanta, and a Plowshares supporter, “You go 10 miles out of town and you’ll see Confederate flags everywhere.” The fact that the verdict was reached within two hours indicates to me there was no nuance, and the jury considered this pretty much an open-and-shut case of breaking, entering, spray painting “graffiti,” and “vandalism,” just as the prosecution described it.

It is fair to say, I think, the jury reflected the views of much of the Brunswick zip code from which the jury pool was selected. We talked with an African American man from the community, who watched the trial on closed-circuit TV in the “overflow” room down the hall from the courtroom. He allowed that his wife was one of the jurors and said, “I think they should all go to jail.” On the other hand, my host here in Brunswick said that earlier in the week he was in a small meeting, which included four or five military veterans, one of whom being a Gold Star mom from a nearby Georgia county. Her son was one of the four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger just over two years ago. When one of the men made a derogatory comment about the protesters, she countered him immediately saying, “Everything the U.S. says or does isn’t always right, and everything negative other countries say about us isn’t always wrong.” She was clearly more sympathetic to the Kings Bay Plowshares action than the men in the room, but this is not to say she would have been a holdout were she on the jury.

I saw some defendants’ family members in the courtroom embracing each other and some sobbing pretty uncontrollably, when the judge gaveled the trial to an end. But then the mood changed. I believe it was Clare’s sister Ellen, who first broke into song: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice.” The defendants joined us as we sang this simple song in the courtroom, for fully five minutes. And then the same in the hallway outside the courtroom. And then finally as we walked down the stairwell, onto the courthouse steps, where we were joined by tens of people who had been vigiling and waiting for us to emerge. The marshals seemed in no hurry to herd us out of the building, perhaps also wondering, Who are these people, whom we embraced as prophets?

Featured image: Clare Grady (left) speaks to supporters ahead of the trial. (Photo by Garry Thomas)