If I had a Jackhammer

Photo by Frank Di Piazza/St. Louis Magazine

Father Carl Kabat has spent nearly 17 years in
jail for civil disobedience. His most common accessory with handcuffs?

By Stefene Russell


A Howard Johnson’s parking lot. The sky’s still dark and full of stars. Eight people stand together: Two priests and a former priest, a nun,
a divinity student, a musician, a lawyer, and a housewife. They’re 45 minutes early. Later, the housewife will note she felt perfectly calm, while the lawyer was “deep-breathing like crazy.”

In two cars, they drive to the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pa. They need to be there before 7 a.m., before the start of the morning shift. The lot is mostly empty when they arrive. They know exactly in what order they’ll enter Building 9, and what they’ll do once inside; they’ve been role-playing this for more than a year. The Rev. Carl Kabat, in full clerical dress, enters first, followed by tiny, fragile-looking Sister Anne Montgomery, dressed in street clothes. They introduce themselves to 54-year-old Robert Cox, the security guard.

Cox can’t figure out why they’re in the building. Kabat assures him they’re there for peaceful purposes. Cox replies they’re not authorized to be there and they need to leave. They cheerfully refuse. Cox grabs the phone from the wall to call his superior, security Capt. Chester Drobek. Montgomery darts to the cradle and places her fingers on the button, cutting him off.

The other six file swiftly through the lobby, heading toward the doors into the plant. They are Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who made headlines when they set draft records alight in the street with homemade napalm; Elmer Maas, a schoolteacher and musician from New York City; John Schuchardt, a lawyer and former Marine; Molly Rush, a housewife, mother of six, and founder of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh; and Dean Hammer, who’s just graduated from Yale Divinity School. Montgomery, not wanting to engage in a struggle over the phone, lets go and follows the others.

Cox hollers at them: They’re not authorized to go in there! Kabat wraps Cox in a bear hug until the others are inside.

Cox calls Drobek. Then he hears “this clanging, like metal against metal.” He enters the factory and finds the intruders swinging hammers at the only product made in Building 9, the aluminum nose cones of Mark 12A first-strike nuclear warheads.

The golden nose cones clang like metal drums. The black, carbon-coated ones ring like bells. The noise brings confused employees rushing in. Now Drobek is there, along with the manager of shop operations. Someone calls the police, reporting a riot with hammers and clubs. The protesters put down their hammers and pull plastic baby bottles full of their own blood out of their pockets, sprinkling it over the dented nose cones, the desks, the workbenches, the blueprints and invoices. They hold hands, pray, sing hymns. Kabat remains in the lobby, knelt in prayer, a hammer near his side. It’s all over in minutes.

The trial of the “Plowshares Eight,” as they came to be known—their actions are inspired by Isaiah 2:4, which prophesies that men will beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks—will not be brief. It drags on for nearly 10 years. Dan Berrigan speaks for the group: “We…wish to challenge the lethal lie spun by GE through its motto, ‘We bring good things to life.’ As manufacturers of the Mark 12A reentry vehicle, GE actually prepares to bring good things to death.”

The Berrigans are held without bail. The other defendants refuse to pay theirs, set at $250,000; that would be an admission of guilt, they feel. Charges include aggravated assault, simple assault, burglary, criminal trespass, criminal conspiracy, disorderly conduct, recklessly endangering another person, harassment, false imprisonment, terroristic threats, and criminal mischief. At the original sentencing, Judge Samuel W. Salus gives the Berrigans and Kabat the stiffest terms—three to 10 years—then adds he’d really like “to send all eight defendants to a leper colony in Puerto Rico to do day-to-day service.” Despite Salus’ determination to set an example, another Plowshares-style action takes place. Then another. And another. And another…

Carl Kabat was born in 1933 in Scheller, a tiny farming town in Southern Illinois. It was a family of boys—Leonard, Paul, Carl, and Bob—until MaryAnn came along 20 years later. Their father farmed a few acres and worked at Southern Illinois Penitentiary. His mother, though deeply religious, was the first in her congregation to defy the mandate that women wear a hat in church. MaryAnn Radake now lives in Tamaroa, Ill., a half-hour from Scheller. Everyone in her family, she says, had a quirky sense of humor.

“We are nut balls, I know,” Kabat cackles. “I’m even more so than most people. Some kid would say, ‘I’d bet you two cents you won’t jump into this pond that’s nothing but mud,’ and I’d do it.”

Radake says that despite the practical jokes, she knows few people who feel things as deeply as her brother does. “He had many alternatives in this life,” she says. That he became a priest was “the hardest thing for people who know him around here—it was like, well, why did he do that? He was going to be a doctor at U. of I. He actually got a speech impediment because of it, because it was not his calling. He couldn’t even talk. He had uncontrollable stuttering.” His brother Paul preceded him into training for the priesthood. “He had mentioned to Paul that maybe he’d like to be a priest. And Paul said, ‘Well—if you want to. Just let me know.’ But then Carl said, ‘But Mom wants me to be a doctor.’ And it was left at that. As he went on about it, he just…it became more than what he mentally could handle, as far as wanting to be a priest and giving it up. It really had nothing to do with the studies, because he’s brilliant. His calling was to be a priest.”

“When I started high school, I thought, ‘I’ll become a doctor and earn enough money and pay what Mom and Dad sacrificed for Paul,’” Kabat says simply. “But then when I was up at the university, I realized that was irrational, a kid’s thinking, eh?”

Kabat was ordained in 1959 by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Pass Christian, Miss., one year after Paul. He remembers getting off the bus in New Orleans and seeing two water fountains marked “white” and “colored.” At the time, he says, young priests adhered to “the old way”: Keep your mouth shut. “I should have taken a drink from the black fountain,” he says. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of his heroes—he’s said his only regret is not joining the civil rights marches in Mississippi—along with Gandhi and Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant beheaded by the Gestapo for refusing to join Hitler’s army. And Jesus, of course. Kabat’s reminded more than one person that Christ was arrested for challenging empire.

“I personally think Jesus had the right method,” Kabat says. “I hate to say it, but Martin Luther King and Gandhi didn’t. Because they went mass-movement. Unfortunately, the followers of Jesus, they went mass-movement, and were co-opted, in my judgment. I think the best thing is people in small groups, doing what they think they should be doing, then letting it go.”

Kabat accepted a mission to the Philippines in 1965. The calling of OMI is to minister to the poor, and they sent Kabat to the right place. “The kids would walk to high school in their bare feet and then put their flip-flops on when they got there,” he says. He returned to Scheller four years later, the day of the moon landing. “Dad and I were watching it on TV,” he remembers. “We walked out to the backyard, and we looked up at the moon, a very clear, bright moon, and Dad said, ‘I just can’t believe it.’”

Kabat ambled into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator. In the Philippines, among his fellow missionaries, only he had a fridge—it ran on kerosene, and the nuns stored their meat in it. Now, back home, the stacks of Tupperware and shrink-wrapped pork chops and jars of condiments stunned him. “That’s a well-stocked fridge!” he exclaimed.

“Mom felt very sheepish about it,” he says. “I didn’t realize that I shouldn’t have said that. When I came back, I realized that I really didn’t fit in… So when there was a possibility of going down to Brazil, I said, ‘Hey, yeah, OK.’”

OMI sent him to Recife, where his parishioners “would go down to this big stream where they would wash clothes,” Kabat recounts in the book Prophets Without Honor. “The stream was filled with their own urine and whatever else. That was also their drinking water.” Kids begged outside his little house every day: “Father, give us some bread.” Always athletic, Kabat became gaunt. He began to throw little church socials for the teenagers, with a battery-powered record player and kerosene lights made from tin cans with wicks. One night, some men in suits appeared and broke up the party. “I told them to get lost,” Kabat says. The next day, OMI flew him out; he’d been charged with inciting revolution.

When he came back to the U.S., in 1973, Kabat felt in his bones that the cost of weapons took food from the poor. He joined Pax Christi USA and Amnesty International. He decided to appeal to the Catholic Church for help, and went to Baltimore for the assembly of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Nobody asked, and nobody invited me, but I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll go out and talk to some of these bishops.’” There, he crossed paths with another St. Louis Oblate, the Rev. Larry Rosebaugh, who would soon replace Kabat at the mission in Recife. He sent Kabat to Jonah House in Baltimore, a faith-based political collective founded by former Josephite priest Philip Berrigan and his wife, Liz McAlister, who’d been a nun (they left their orders to marry). Rosebaugh “said, ‘Knock on the door, you can probably sleep on their floor there.’ So I did that,” Kabat recalls. John Schuchardt, who would later take part in the Plowshares Eight action, “took the mattress off his bed. He slept on the box spring… And that was my introduction to that.”

McAlister recalls that Kabat “had come to an understanding in his own life and witness that he needed to be more deeply involved, and in order to do that, he needed others of like mind, and he needed some accountability. And we found that rather fascinating. You don’t often meet people who walk in on you and say, ‘I’m here because I recognize in my own life the need to be accountable to others.’”

Kabat’s first action was an antinuclear picket line in Plains, Ga.—Jimmy Carter’s hometown. Carter had been elected but not sworn in. Jonah House took issue with the new president, Schuchardt says, because “Carter initiated full production of all the first-strike weapons systems that we now have. It was obvious they were not being designed as a deterrent.”

There were nine protesters in Plains, Kabat remembers. “There were three charges: Parading without any permit, blocking traffic, and failure to obey a police officer. Plains had two cops. The closest we could get was about a block away from Carter’s house. And so we unrolled our banner: ‘No more Hiroshimas’ or something like that.” When they’d applied for a parade permit, they’d been told to go to the fourth floor, or the second floor, or come back next week. They finally huddled: “Are we willing to take a bust? And I was one of the nine. So we went back and held our little banner. The cops came…and they booked us.” Then they were tried by “a beggar’s court, a kangaroo court, found guilty on all charges. We were not on the road or the sidewalk, but on the grassy part between. Which is public property, right? And not blocking traffic, unless it was ants going from one side to the other.” But the charge of resisting a police officer? “That’s true,” Kabat says. “Because they said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And we said, well, yes, we could.”

Kabat stayed at Jonah House until 1980, joining the Berrigans on multiple actions, including four where they threw blood on the steps of the Pentagon. In 1984, while the Plowshares Eight case was still working its way through court—the resentencing continued until 1990—Kabat
undertook his most radical action to date: Silo Pruning Hooks.

Kabat, his brother Paul, Gaudete Peace and Justice Center founder Helen Woodson, and Larry Cloud-Morgan, a Native American mental-health worker from Minneapolis, breached the fence at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo. Using a jackhammer and an air compressor, they battered the concrete cover of a Minuteman II nuclear missile silo, then offered a Eucharist.

“To beat the sword into a plowshare, you need a hammer. Well, jackhammer is just a little bigger hammer,” Kabat roars. “Oh boy. Wow. Helen and I got 18 years, Paul got 10, Larry got eight… The judge said he wanted to set an example.”

Woodson, a mother of 11, served 12 years of that sentence. Three years after being released on parole in 1991, Carl noticed Good Friday and April Fool’s Day would fall on the same day. As luck would have it, he also had a clown suit: his friend Sam Day, publisher of Nukewatch, had rented it for one of Woodson’s kids, then had to buy it after spilling something on it. Kabat borrowed it, packed his bolt cutters, and traveled up to North Dakota. He managed to make some pretty good dents on a silo lid there, and was charged with two Class C felonies, criminal mischief and criminal trespass. Sentenced to five years in prison, he served two and a half.

“Since then,” he says of the clown suit, “I’ve worn it every time I’ve acted against the nuclear business. And I know it’s silly,” he laughs. “Justice is serious. And nuclear weapons are insane, eh? … My principle is to just do what I can do, and then sing and dance.”

For the 20th anniversary of Silo Pruning Hooks, Kabat traveled to missile silo N-8 in Greeley, Colo. He left, but did not use, a jackhammer. He hung banners: “We are fools and clowns for God and humanity’s sake.” And next to the “No Trespassing” sign: “Cessante ratione legis, cessat ipsa lex”—a law that ceases to be rational, ceases to be law.

On an awfully hot August day this year, Carl Kabat, for a change, is not in jail. He’s sitting on the tabletop of the picnic bench outside Kabat House in Old North St. Louis, the Catholic Worker house named after him by friends Tery McNamee and Carolyn Griffeth, who live down the street. He hasn’t been out of jail all that long. Last August, he celebrated his 50th year of ordination at this picnic table with the Catholic Workers. Then, he traveled out to Greeley, Colo., put on his clown suit, clipped open the fence at a Weld County nuclear-missile silo, and waited nearly an hour to be arrested. While he waited, he prayed, fooled around with the silo hatch in an attempt to open it, and hung banners. One read, “We have guided missiles and misguided white men.” Another, pinned to a clown doll that Kabat affixed to the fence, said: “Nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity.” He served four and a half months.

Two Catholic Workers, both named Ben, stop on the street to say hello, addressing Kabat as “Father Carl.” When that title is repeated after they leave, Kabat politely asks not to be addressed that way. “They were just fartin’ around,” he explains, chortling. He continues: “I don’t like to use the term Christian. Christians killed too many people. I’m a follower of Jesus.” He’s fine with Carl, and fine with simple clothes: sweats, sneakers, khakis, shorts. Clerical garments, and clown suits, are for special occasions.

“Tery McNamee and I took Carl out for his last action, in Greeley, and I’ve never seen him so at ease and so calm and so full of peace,” says Chrissy Kirchhoefer, a Catholic Worker friend.

Kirchhoefer stayed for the trial. The jury, though heavily weighted with Air Force personnel, was sympathetic, she says. One chuckled when the “misguided white men” banner was introduced into evidence. Others left the courtroom in tears, not wanting to send a 75-year-old priest to jail. “That really weighed on all of our hearts,” one told the Greeley Tribune. Kabat explained directly to them why he felt the need to do something so extreme: “How many times have you written to your senator, to your congressman? … For some of us, [it’s been] countless times.”

Weld County deputy district attorney David Skarka asked pointedly, “Are you above the law?”

“All wrong law, yes,” Kabat replied. “God’s law is above all these man-made things.”

Kirchhoefer says that when she accompanied Kabat on another action in Denver in 2004, and they went up to the courtroom early, outside the door the marquee read: “USA v. Carl Kabat.”

He joked to her: “So it’s the whole United States against me?”

“But finding that niche and really holding true to it, and pushing and challenging himself and others, I think that really does put him on the fringes,” Kirchhoefer says. “It does a lot of times feel like the U.S. is against Carl Kabat.”

This is part of why Molly Rush, Anne Montgomery, John Schuchardt, and Liz McAlister gathered in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on July 4 to commemorate Plowshares Eight. “You’ll travel great distances at great cost to one’s self to spend time together,” McAlister affirms. “If you feel differently from [the mainstream], you’re going to need to be with people who get it.”

“It was nice down in Tennessee,” Kabat says. “They had a bunch who put on a clown—ah, you might say a clown play, and they paraded. There was a bunch of clowns, and a bunch of kids…”

Rush didn’t know Kabat before Plowshares Eight. “I learned about him in the process,” she says, “and really got to know him and love him. Carl put [the security guard] into a bear hug,” she says, laughing, “and was in no way a threat to this man, although it must have terrified him, because he saw the six of us going past. As you know, Carl was with him, and we’re in there, and the men followed us and came into the test room where we found our nuclear missiles, which we hadn’t planned, or hadn’t known how to find ’em. You know, we sort of went on faith.”

Activists also marked the gathering in Oak Ridge with civil disobedience, marching to the Y-12 National Security Complex, where 13 of them cut through the fence, hung peace cranes, scattered sunflower seeds, and waited for arrest. Kabat was not among them. And he wasn’t with McAlister and Schuchardt in King of Prussia for the second Plowshares Eight reunion in August.

This has been a relatively quiet year for Kabat. On Tuesday nights, there are liturgies at Karen House in St. Louis Place. “I do perform Mass,” he says, “when the opportunity comes up. But I’d rather be with a small group of 10 or 12 rather than 1,200.” He spends time with the young Catholic Workers and the refugees who stay at Kabat House. He reads the paper in the sparsely furnished front room, sits down to a communal meal each night, brings flowers to neighbors when they show up with food donations from Trader Joe’s. He’s hung a sketch someone did of him in prison on the living-room wall, bordered by photos—pictures of baptisms at Karen House, friends on the East Coast, his late brothers. There’s one of the Rev. Larry Rosebaugh, who was murdered in Guatemala last year during a carjacking. Over the mantel, there’s a painting done by a friend of a clown on a cross. Beside it, there’s a ceramic figurine of a clown carrying a suitcase with a luggage label reading “V.I.C. (Very Important Clown).” In that simply furnished front room, Kabat devours every new issue of papers such as Nukewatch and the Nuclear Resister, which he’s reading today. He brings up the fact that there are three new bomb-making plants, including Honeywell’s in Kansas City. “If we’re going to denuclearize, well, why build new factories, you know?”

Protests have already started in Kansas City. Kabat went down “to see people and whatever else, to encourage people to put their arse where their words are,” but “for all kinds of reasons” didn’t join the actions. Other than his clouded right eye, which was damaged during surgery, and his habit of having a cigarette and coffee for breakfast, he’s in good health. Still, Kirchhoefer told the Greeley Tribune that Kabat has been frank with her about how, at his age, he may well end up dying in prison.

If Kabat’s actions were confusing to people 20 years ago—“But what does it all really do?”—that’s amplified when they consider his age. McAlister says you can understand it if you think about his actions as “symbolic yet real… It’s the power of poetry. It’s the power of spirituality. It’s the power of something much deeper than the news reports. It reminds me a bit of the reaction of people who say, ‘You poured blood? I find that disgusting.’ My response is to say, ‘Come and see.’ Because you really don’t get it until you see it. You don’t get it unless you put yourself under that Biblical command and say the world does need this. And by gum, I’m gonna find ways of speaking it, the best ways I know how of speaking it. And I believe that’s what Carl does try to do in his actions, even when he makes those serious moments a little bit less than seemingly serious.”

“Basically, I act for me,” Kabat explains. “You do your own thing; you do it for you. As long as the action has been nonviolent, and public, and resistant to whatever evil… I just do my little thing, and let it go. I’ve done what I can do, and then just kind of enjoy life.”

When he chooses to go may always be a mystery, even to Carl Kabat. Something tickles his spirit when it’s time to pack his stuff into 5-gallon plastic drums, dust off the clown suit, say his goodbyes, and catch another ride. It’s a private thing between Kabat and the force he calls the Holy One, his term for God.

The best portrait of her brother she’s seen, MaryAnn Radake says, is And Carl Laughed, a 2007 play produced at Clayton High School, which traveled to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The brilliance of the play, Radake thinks, is that her brother was portrayed as two characters—Carl the Priest, and Carl the Clown. “Carl is that. Carl is serious. But if you stayed that serious about things, you would go mad. The humor has saved him,” she says. “It would be overwhelming to feel the responsibility he feels toward the world.”

The play was co-written by Kelley Ryan, director of theater at Clayton High School, and Nick Otten, the school’s associate theater director. The two clocked hours of tape interviewing Kabat’s Catholic Worker friends, as well as his sister. “In the tapes,” Otten says, “over and over again, someone would say, ‘And then Carl laughed, and told this joke…’” They also wrote to Kabat—who was serving time for breaking into a nuclear-missile silo in North Dakota—who replied with a crisp, 10-point letter.

“I think there is an element of religious ritual to it,” Ryan says of his actions. “The vestments, the sacraments…the collar, he never did wear.”
“He’s like an antinuclear Francis of Assisi, basically,” Otten says.

Ryan and Otten were invited by OMI to talk at Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville. “We did go, and there was a pretty good group of men there,” Ryan says. “There was definitely a dichotomy between the people who appreciated it, and then the others who were angry, because he costs them money…”

“Dichotomy?” Otten interjects. “It was like a bifurcation!”

“They specifically complained,” Ryan says, “there are court costs. They cover that. Meanwhile, the head of the order there gave us a $100 check,” she chuckles, “towards our trip.”

Kabat has seen And Carl Laughed multiple times, once while wearing a clown nose. The first time, he’d been out of jail only a couple of weeks. The kids were days away from leaving for Edinburgh, and performed it for him in the Little Theater at Clayton High. Kabat wept throughout the performance. Then he got up, went down to the stage, and gave every kid a bear hug.

This article appears in the December 2010 issue of St. Louis Magazine