A History of the Plowshares Movement – a talk by Art Laffin, October 22, 2019

Art Laffin speaking on the history of the Plowshares movement in Brunswick, Georgia

Plowshares activist and Catholic Worker Art Laffin is the editor (with the late Sr. Anne Montgomery) of two editions of Swords into Plowshares – Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament (Harper & Row, 1987 and Fortkamp, 1996). He delivered the following historical review to about 100 supporters of the Kings Bay Plowshares gathered in Brunswick, Georgia for their trial, October 21-24. His talk was also recorded on video

Plowshares History Talk 

by Art Laffin
Delivered October 22, 2019 at St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Brunswick, GA.
This version includes some slight revisions.

I am honored to be invited to speak tonight and to share this presentation with Rosalie Riegle.

I would like to begin by thanking God for the miracle of this day, for the miracle of life and for the Kings Bay Plowshares7, for Martha, Liz, Clare, Steve, Patrick, Mark, Carmen and their families and communities, and for their amazing legal and support teams. Let’s give them all a standing ovation!!!

I would like to call into our presence the crucified and risen Jesus, and all the Holy Cloud of witnesses, including those plowshares friends who have gone home to God–Fr. Paul Kabat, Larry Cloud Morgan, Mary Lyons, Elmer Maas, Sr. Anne Montgomery, Peter DeMott, Kees Koning, Joe and Jean Gump, Sr. Jackie Hudson, Larry Morlan, Agnes Bauerlein, Macy Morse, Judy Beaumont, Tom Lewis, Bill Bichsel, Lynne Greenwald, Brian Law, Phil and Dan Berrigan. I believe they, along with countless others, including peacemakers who recently died–Frances Crowe, John Downing,  Mary Grace McCoy, Ned Smith–(other names are invoked from the audience)– and all are beloved departed, are advocating for us and cheering us on! 

In Dan Berrigan’s book, Testimony, there is a chapter titled An Ethic of Resurrection. Towards  the end of the chapter Dan speaks about the teachers who influenced him. After naming different people, Dan writes: 

“Incomparably the greatest of these (teachers) is Jesus, who for His part took bread, broke it, and said ‘This is my body given for you.’ Then He took the cup and said, this is ‘My blood, given for you.’ The ethic of the body, given, the blood outpoured! The act led straight to the scaffold and to that ‘beyond’ we name for want of a better word, resurrection… (W)e have yet to experience resurrection, which I translate, ‘the hope that hopes on.’

“A blasphemy against this hope is named deterrence, or Trident submarines, or star wars, or preemptive strike, or simply, any nuclear weapon…

“That is why we speak again and again of 1980 and all the Plowshares actions since, how some continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumors of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of hope. For us, all of these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied an ethic of resurrection.”

Dan’s words go right to the heart of the spirituality of plowshares actions. Indeed, these (and other acts of nonviolent resistance as well), of beating the swords of our time into plowshares, are manifestations of an ethic of resurrection. They are rooted in the belief that the God of all Creation has the last word, not the principalities and powers. The God of Life has overcome the powers of this world and the forces of death! Consequently, this abiding faith in the God of Life leads us to commit our lives to making God’s reign of love, justice and peace a reality by doing the works of mercy, accompanying the poor and the victims, embracing the way of nonviolence and community, actively resisting the forces of death and trying, trying to build a new world within the shell of the old. 

The 39 year history of plowshares actions, I submit, are connected to and a continuation of the resistance of the Baltimore Four (David Eberhardt of the Baltimore Four is here present) and Catonsville Nine actions and subsequent draft board actions, where peacemakers believed that it was better to destroy draft files (licenses to kill) than to burn children and destroy entire villages in Vietnam. Likewise today, sisters and brothers who have carried out plowshares actions, believe it is their duty to nonviolently and symbolically disarm weapons of mass murder that can end all life and civilization, and incinerate the planet.

I would like to give a brief background of plowshares actions, reflect on the underlying spirit and hope of these actions and address how the courts have responded. It is my intent here not to be exhaustive on covering all these issues in great detail, but to give 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 1/2 to 10 years. After a series of appeals that lasted 10 years, they were resentenced to time served—from several days to 17 1/2 months. How many were here at the Plowshares 8 trial? I did support for this action and trial as Dean Hammer, from our Covenant Peace Community in New Haven, was one of the eight. I also knew all of the others who acted. 

Since the Plowshares Eight action, others, acting in community and some individually, have entered military bases and weapons facilities and have symbolically and actually disarmed components of U.S. first-strike nuclear weapons systems: the MX, Pershing 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.” 

In the Transform Now Plowshares action in 2012 at Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear Facility at Oak Ridge, TN, Mike Walli, Sr. Megan Rice (who are here at the trial) and Greg Boertje-Obed hammered on the cornerstone of the newly built Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, poured blood and spray-painted messages on the facility. Because of so-called security issues, this action prompted authorities to close what’s been called the “Ft. Knox of Uranium,” for an unprecedented three weeks.

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 this year, more than 200 people have participated in some 101 plowshares and related disarmament actions that I am aware of. [1] (I want to acknowledge Felice and Jack Cohen-Joppa, co-editors of the Nuclear Resister, who are both here, for their amazing work in keeping records of all the different actions that have happened. I have drawn on this information to compile the Plowshares chronology). 58 of these actions have taken place in the U.S. and 43 have been international 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, New Zealand and Scotland and  England. 21 of these plowshares actions have been directed at the Trident submarine program–16 actions in the U.S. and 5 in England and Scotland. 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. I would like to ask all those present who have participated in Plowshares actions to please stand so we can acknowledge them. I want to affirm something Carmen Trotta said Sunday at the Festival of Hope. We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Jonah House for being the inspiration and sustaining force for the Plowshares actions. I also want to hold up Elmer Maas, and Peter DeMott, who in the years before their deaths provided invaluable support to Plowshares communities. And I want to acknowledge my dear friend, Sr. Anne Montgomery, who did 6 Plowshares actions–we did two together. We also co-edited two Swords into Plowshares books.  

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—an underlying faith that the power of nonviolent love can overcome the forces of violence; a reverence for all life and creation;  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 and weapons 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 nuclear 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. In the Sperry Software Pair plowshares case in 1984, John LaForge (who is here) and Barb Katt were allowed to present a justification defense but they were convicted.  Some plowshares groups have also presented a defense declaring that a state religion of “nuclearism” has been 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. For the first time in a plowshares case, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 introduced in court the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to be used as part of their defense. But as we all know this, too, was denied. 

With the exception of the G.E. 5 in 1981, the Kairos Plowshares in 1988, the Aegis Plowshares in 1991, the first Australian Plowshares action in 1987,  the Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares action in 2000 (after 7 days in jail their charges were dropped), and the Riverside Plowshares in 2004, 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. 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. 

Here’s an overview of other plowshares actions where cases were either not prosecuted, resulted in hung juries or found not guilty.

–Bread not Bombs Ploughshares, Sept. 13, 1998, VSEL Barrow in England. Hung Jury in first trial. Peacemakers convicted in second trial.

–HMS Vengeance Disarmament Action, Nov. 23, 1999, Barrow Shipyard in England. Jury verdict of Not Guilty.

–Aldermaston Women Trash Trident, Feb. 1, 1999, Barrow Furness shipyard, England. Jury found peacemakers not guilty on one charge and could not reach a verdict on second charge.  A second trial resulted in jury not be able to reach a verdict.

–Trident Three Disarmament Action, June 8, 1999, Laboratory Barge with Trident Equipment in Loch Goil, Scotland. Not Guilty Verdict.

–Pit Stop Ploughshares, Feb. 3, 2003, Shannon Airport, Ireland. Two mistrials. Third trial resulted in jury Acquittal. 

–Waihopai Plowshares, April 30, 2008, GCSB/U.S. National Security Agency Spy Base in New Zealand. Jury acquitted three peacemakers.

The first Plowshares case in Federal court was the Griffiss Plowshares in 1984, which Liz and Clare were part of. They were acquitted by a jury of sabotage, but were convicted of conspiracy and destruction of government property. 

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 by the government and accepted by the Courts in most, if not all of the plowshares trials at least since the Epiphany Plowshares trial. 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 in 1994 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. I want to note here that, as a consequence of their Plowshares actions, Fr. Carl Kabat has spent close to 18 years in prison, Helen Woodson over 12 years in prison, and Fr. Steve Kelly about 10 years in prison. [2] (Please see below Notes regarding other plowshares activists who have served long prison sentences for their actions). These, and all Plowshares activists, in the U.S. and internationally, who have served prison sentences, have made great sacrifices and risked their freedom to help bring about a disarmed world.

With respect to the Transform Now Plowshares, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their sabotage conviction as they were already serving over a year and a half their 3 and 5 plus year prison sentences. This resulted in their sentence being vacated and they were released from prison and resentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution.

Regarding pre-trial detention for plowshares people who were not willing to bond out or comply with other pre-trial release conditions, the case of the KBP7 is unprecedented. Mark served over a year, Liz, 17 months and Steve, 18 months and counting.

Doing support work on behalf of plowshares activists has also been an integral part of the plowshares actions. Efforts by local support groups, including now here in Georgia, 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.  

While plowshares activists have different perspectives on a variety of issues, most would undoubtedly agree with the following viewpoint articulated by Philip Berrigan in 1992:

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… 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. [3]

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. [4]

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, and for those in the U.S. arguably the most violent empire in history. 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 into 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.

Friends, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have turned its Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight because of the apocalyptic twin dangers of climate chaos and nuclear war. Russia and the U.S. possess over 6,000 nuclear weapons each, many of which are on hair trigger alert. U.S. and NATO Missile Defense systems ring Russia and China, increasing already heightened tensions. A new U.S. Space Force has been created to oversee military control and domination of space. Meanwhile, during this past year, the U.S. withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the INF Treaty with Russia. On February 13, 2019, the U.S. carried out a sub-critical nuclear test, a flagrant violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And Pentagon policy makers have declared that a limited nuclear war could be waged and won, according to a new nuclear doctrine titled “Nuclear Operations.”  These actions, along with the fact that there have already been at least 32 nuclear accidents (broken arrows) in the Nuclear Era, have further exacerbated the nuclear peril.

With an unpredictable president in office, and the development of a new smaller nuclear warhead, the W76-2, to be deployed this fall, the U.S. will now have the nuclear “flexibility” to wage what is called a limited-nuclear war. Let’s be clear: The stated U.S. nuclear policy is that it must be prepared to use any military means necessary, including using nuclear weapons, to protect and ensure its “vital” national security and geo-political interests. And all this is supposedly “legal!” Remember that since the U.S. used nuclear weapons against the Japanese people in 1945, every U.S. president has threatened to use nuclear weapons to bolster U.S. imperial ambitions–at least 30 such threats have been made.

This reality of the use and threatened use of nuclear weapons being “legal,” came home to me in a powerful way in 1982 during the Trident Nein plowshares trial, in which I was a defendant. The Trident Nein action was carried out on July 5, 1982 when nine peacemakers hammered and poured blood on the USS Florida Trident nuclear submarine and components at the General Dynamics-Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, CT. We also spray-painted USS AUSCHWITZ on the submarine and poured blood and hung a banner on sonar equipment. The banner said: TRIDENT A HOLOCAUST–AN OVEN WITHOUT WALLS! At one point during the trial an extraordinary exchange with the trial judge took place. He stated that we defendants may very well be right, that the world might be blown up, but the law must still be upheld! I was astonished by this statement! By implication, the judge was clarifying how the civil law of the United States protects nuclear weapons. Even though the use of such weapons pose an unprecedented peril for our world, the “laws” sanctioning them cannot be questioned. In short, the use of nuclear weapons, which could end the world as we know it, would be technically lawful.

On Sept. 4, 1989, six peacemakers (including Kathy Boylan and Jackie Allen who are here) and I carried out the Thames River Plowshares action in New London, Connecticut. We were able to swim and canoe to the docked USS Pennsylvania, the 10th Trident, and hammered and poured blood on the hull. Elmer Maas, Jim Reale and I beached our canoe on the fin end of the Trident and were able to climb on top of the submarine. There, kneeling in prayer on the submarine, we read from the entire 15th chapter of John’s Gospel and prayed for the abolition of nuclear weapons. As MP’s used fire-hoses from a distance to try and get us to leave the submarine, I made an appeal to them to become conscientious objectors to war. We were then taken into custody by the Coast Guard. 

From aboard this most destructive weapon on earth, I believed then, and I believe now, that if people have the faith to believe that disarmament is possible, and act on that faith, it can occur. I, along with other Plowshares activists and many other peacemakers, know this can happen because we were, in fact, able to literally begin the process of true disarmament. 

Let’s thank God for the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 who risked their freedom and lives on April 4, 2018 to enflesh God’s dream for the human family to abolish weapons of mass murder and war! Now is the time to heed the pleas of the Hibakusha to the world that Jim Douglass referred to in his powerful reflection on Sunday at the Festival of Hope: HUMANITY CANNOT COEXIST WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS! And that the U.S. must now lead the way to repent of the nuclear sin and ratify the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. Now is the time to renew our commitment to join with them to eradicate the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism that Dr. King implored us to do. As all of you are already doing, let us recommit ourselves, through God’s amazing grace, to bringing about a nonviolent and disarmed world and create the Beloved Community! For with God and community all things are possible! Let us all continue to strive to embrace and embody an Ethic of Resurrection! 

Thank you very much!


[1] See: Swords Into Plowshares: A Chronology of Plowshares-Disarmament Actions, 1980-2003, by Arthur J. Laffin with introduction by Daniel Berrigan, SJ, reissued by WIPH and STOCK Publishers. See also Expanded Plowshares Chronology: 2003-2015, by Arthur J. Laffin, at kingsbayplowshares7.org

[2] There have also been other Plowshares activists who were sentenced to long imprisonment, including Fr. Paul Kabat, Larry Cloud Morgan, Martin Holliday, Jean Gump, Joe Gump, Jerry Ebner, Richard Miller, Jeff Leys, George Ostensen, Peter Lumsdaine and Sachio Ko-Yin, Katya Komisaruk, Lin Romano, Sr. Jackie Hudson, Sr. Megan Rice,and members of the Plowshares Eight, Trident Nein, Griffiss Plowshares, AVCO Plowshares, Trident II Plowshares, Trident Two Pruning Hooks, Pershing Plowshares, Silo Plowshares, Anzus Peace Force Plowshares, Jubilee Plowshares East, Pax Christ-Spirit of Life Plowshares, Thames River Plowshares, Prince of Peace Plowshares and Gods of Metal Plowshares and Plowshares VS. Depleted Uranium. And there have been plowshares activists who did multiple plowshares actions and served substantial prison time, including Elmer Maas, Peter DeMott, Sr. Anne Montgomery, Daniel Sicken, Susan Crane, Sr. Ardeth Platte, Sr. Carol Gilbert, Phil Berrigan, Liz McAlister, Greg Boertje-Obed, Michele Naar-Obed, Michael Walli, Kathy Boylan and Turi Vaccaro. This is a partial listing and does not include international actions. Please see Swords Into Plowshares (book) and KBP7 link for all those who have been imprisoned for their courageous and prophetic witness!

[3] Phil Berrigan, The Nuclear Resister, December 23, 1992.

[4] Liz McAlister, The Catholic Agitator, November 1992.