Case dismissed in Kansas City court against five nuclear disarmament activists

In court after his case was dismissed, Tom Fox used the metaphor of the burning building to convey the urgency for opposing nuclear weapons: “This is our planet on fire. We must stand up and rescue the children and grandchildren!”—Photo by Jeremy Ruzich

Nukes on trial: tables are turned
After prosecution no-show, defendants speak;
verdict — nukes guilty of crimes against humanity

by Jim Hannah

The December 7 hearing at Kansas City Municipal Court was dubbed “Nukes on Trial,” but there was no trial because the lone witness for the prosecution did not come to court; no witness appeared to testify against the five defendants’ act of civil disobedience.

Nonetheless, nuclear weapons were tried and found guilty as the defendants held their own court following Judge Martina Peterson’s dismissal of charges. The five civil resisters spoke forcefully about why they had risked arrest for “crossing the line” at the new nuclear weapons parts plant in south Kansas City on May 28, 2018, during PeaceWorks-KC’s annual Memorial Day resistance.

Defendant Lu Mountenay, a member of the PeaceWorks-KC board and a Community of Christ minister, was the first to address the 60 or so supporters who crowded the courtroom. She began by unfolding a yards-long scroll listing more than 900 toxic chemicals used in nuclear weapons production between 1949 and 2014 at the old Bannister Federal Complex. The chemicals resulted in more than 150 confirmed deaths and untold other health issues.

“I won’t be around in the next 50 years to protect my grandchildren when the poison leaks from the land at the new plant and contaminates the earth, water and air as it has at Bannister,” Lu said. “But hopefully my grandchildren will know that I stood on one side of the line and then crossed over for justice. And now I stand in defense of their future. It is all I can do.”

Speaking next was Sunny Jordan Hamrick, a resident of Jerusalem Farm and board member of PeaceWorks-KC. Sunny reflected on his life experience of political activism, noting that in his earlier university life he tried to enlist people in activities like writing letters and visiting legislators. But it wasn’t until he came to Kansas City that he found active mentors for civil disobedience. He arrived on the 2014 weekend of PeaceWork’s Trifecta Resista, joining a busload of peace activists in support of whistleblower Chelsea Manning and in resistance to drones and nuclear weapons. Soon after, he joined the annual Memorial Day Walk from the old nuclear weapons plant on Bannister Road to the new plant on Botts Road.

“I was terrified and horrified to see the new plant,” he commented. This May, he went there not to attack, but to reach across the divide, he said. “I brought rye bread to share with the police.” Sunny urged the assembly to acknowledge that as U.S. citizens, “these are our bombs,” which we have a duty to abolish. “Look around at those here,” he said. “What we know is that as a human family, there are no walls, gates, or bars.” Due to this human connection, he urged, “If you love anyone, or anything, join us!”

Tom Fox, President and CEO of National Catholic Reporter, spoke next. He recalled memories of the five years he spent in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War—living with the Vietnamese people as a volunteer with International Voluntary Services, and as a war correspondent. He counts those years “an enormous blessing, to be a witness of that monstrosity” and then to have a calling to speak out about war’s injustices.

Tom recounted three specific instances in Vietnam that deeply impacted him: placing a lit cigarette on the lips of a mortally wounded soldier whose limbs had been blown away, and who died moments later; seeing soldiers in a helicopter gunship randomly firing 50-caliber machine guns into villages; and sensing the desperation of a mother in a refugee camp who spent hours sifting through marketplace dirt to glean enough grains of rice to sustain her family. From that time on, he said, “I felt a calling to protest war, and particularly the most gross weapons of war.” Using the metaphor of a burning building with children on the second floor, Tom closed with a challenge to act on the emergency posed by war and nuclear weapons today: “This is our planet on fire. We must stand up and rescue the children and grandchildren!”

In effect taking the witness stand next was Brian Terrel, a long-time peace activist who has lived at the Catholic Worker farm in Maloy, Iowa, since 1975. Brian is co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, “working globally with people who face grave danger, yet cling to nonviolence.” His frequent acts of nonviolent civil disobedience have taken him to many countries on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

“I was disappointed to not be able to talk with officers working at the plant,” Brian said. “They think they work for Honeywell (the contractor), but actually they work for—and are answerable to—us.” Brian contests the idea that offering peace witnesses at the plant is illegal, contending instead that the production of nuclear weapons is itself illegal, a crime against humanity. Had the trial proceeded as planned, he said, and had the activists been found guilty, the court “would have been complicit in the plant’s illegality.” If the opportunity presented itself, Brian said he would say to the police officers at the plant, “A crime is being committed here. If you really are law enforcement, help us close it down!”

The final witness was the chair of the PeaceWorks-KC board, Henry Stoever, who noted that in our nuclear age, “All life hangs in the balance.” He detailed the clear and present danger of the current standoff between Russia, with 6,650 nuclear weapons, and the United States, with 6,540 nuclear weapons. “We are all on death row,” he said, “without the protections usually afforded to such prisoners—no evidence, no appeals, no possibility of parole or pardon.”

As a practicing attorney, Henry examined the questionable legal grounds for the charges of criminal trespass that were brought against himself and the other four defendants. Describing himself as a modern-day abolitionist, Henry cited extensive legal grounds for resistance, ranging from the US Constitution to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Murder,” he said, “means the intent to kill, which is the intent of nukes. This violates our basic principles, and I hope in the future we will have a jury trial so more people can hear our arguments on behalf of humanity.”

—Jim Hannah, a member of the PeaceWorks-KC board, is a retired Community of Christ minister in Independence, MO.


Sunny Jordan Hamrick tells supporters before the Dec. 7 trial in Kansas City, Mo., on his and others’ resistance to nuclear weapons, “No matter how much work we do in our communities, no matter how many mouths we feed, or homes we repair, and no matter how much Love we share, it could all be taken away in seconds because of these weapons, because of the lust for power. So today, as we walk into the courtroom, we take a few steps in the direction of truth, just as we did on Memorial Day.”—Photo by Jeremy Ruzich

From the National Catholic Reporter

Trial turns to impromptu anti-nuke symposium when witness fails to show

December 7, 2018

by James Dearie, Maria Benevento

Kansas City, Mo. — A planned trial of five protesters who were arrested for trespassing on the property of a weapons producer became an impromptu symposium about the dangers of nuclear weapons manufacturing after a key witness for the prosecution failed to appear in court Dec. 7.

Attorney Henry Stoever; Tom Fox, CEO/president of the National Catholic Reporter; Community of Christ minister Linda “Lu” Mountenay; Jordan “Sunny” Hamrick of Jerusalem Farm in Kansas City, Missouri; and Brian Terrell, a Catholic Worker and national leader of Voices for Creative Nonviolence had been set to go on trial. They had crossed a trespass line onto the Kansas City National Security Campus, as part of the annual Memorial Day protest against nuclear weapons May 28. All but Terrell, who lives in Iowa, are residents of the Kansas City area.

The five were among a group of 65 who marched on May 28 about a mile from the Bannister Federal Complex, a boarded-up site where nonnuclear parts of nuclear weapons were produced from 1949 to 2014, to the National Security Campus for a rally and “die-in.” The campus has taken over production of more than 85 percent of the nonnuclear components for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Those who were arrested were released after half an hour and charged with trespassing. They decided to plead not guilty in order to go to trial and increase publicity.

The court’s plans changed unexpectedly when the National Nuclear Security Administration official involved in the arrests did not arrive in court at the scheduled time. In light of the witness’ absence, the judge dismissed the charges.

Some among the dozens who showed up to support the protesters speculated that traffic tie-ups and road closings resulting from a presidential visit to Kansas City on the same afternoon as the trial may have detained the witness, although it had been mentioned at a gathering of supporters the night before the trial that they had been unable to reach the witness recently.

Stoever, the attorney who also heads PeaceWorks Kansas City, had been granted a waiver to represent both himself and three other defendants at trial, while Terrell chose to represent himself.

Judge Martina Peterson had seemed “very accommodating,” when the defendants met with her earlier, Stoever told his supporters the night before the scheduled trial. He and the other defendants all expressed their gratitude that the judge was allowing them to speak at the trial about their motivations for trespassing, a concession that is not always granted.

Since the courtroom was still reserved after the judge dismissed the charges, the would-be defendants took the floor to explain what had motivated them to risk jail time.

For Mountenay, the risks were especially high, both because this was her fourth arrest crossing the line at a weapons base and because she has cancer and was worried about receiving proper chemotherapy treatments in prison.

She told NCR during a gathering in the courthouse lobby ahead of the planned trial that she was motivated by concern for the environment and a desire to “try to make a difference in the possible future” for her grandchildren.

During her testimony, Mountenay unrolled a yards-long “scroll” listing the toxic chemicals in use at the security campus.

Among the audience of Catholic Workers, Jerusalem Farm members, NCR employees, Community of Christ members, Catholic sisters and other supporters were former Bannister employees and their families. Some of them had hoped to testify that those chemicals had harmed workers’ health but had heard the judge wasn’t planning to allow them to speak.

Debbie Penniston, a Catholic school teacher, says her husband, Bob, died in 2008 at the age of 50 as a result of medical complications resulting from working at the old plant. She told NCR that she attended because the protesters “took the risk of crossing the line; I’m supporting them because I can’t [cross myself]. … I’m here in support of the people who did what I want to do.”

She added, “I want [Honeywell] to say there are chemicals on that land … and they’re not telling [the workers] that.”

“This is an important issue, weapons of mass destruction, that’s not given nearly enough public attention,” PeaceWorks member Daniel Karam told NCR. “For this small group of dedicated people to put themselves on the line … in my estimation, they deserve support.”

Drawing public attention to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons production was a major motivation cited by the protesters. Mountenay said her actions often serve as a catalyst for dialogue with acquaintances who ask why she would choose to risk arrest. Many have no idea that the plant even exists, she said.

“We’re here to speak for all of creation,” Hamrick said ahead of the trial. “Everything is faced with omnicide because of these weapons.”

Terrell used similarly dramatic language, asserting that we are “on the verge of extinction” and that those who have been called unrealistic or utopian for supporting nonviolence and care for the Earth are now beginning to look like “hard-nosed realists.”

Hamrick said that while he had been looking forward to his chance to explain his motivations to the judge, he was still happy to speak on the issue of nuclear weapons to those gathered. “Right now, we’re just pulling on heartstrings,” he said, “and that’s what we gotta do.”

‘All the words are not enough’

For Fox, who returned to NCR as CEO/president in October but had been retired as NCR publisher at the time of the Memorial Day action, the arrest was his first in the United States. (He was once jailed for a day in Vietnam after reporting on a protest.)

Fox said that he wrote “scores” of editorials against nuclear weapons during his time at NCR, but passed up opportunities to get arrested protesting them, partially because he didn’t want to drag the publication into his action.

“When I left, I felt I’d lost a platform for protest, and so the only other way that I knew that I could make a statement, other than writing about it, was to break the law and show that I really believe in this firmly,” he said.

Wanting his grandchildren to remember him “as someone who believed so deeply in this issue that he was willing to be arrested and possibly put into jail for doing it” was another motivation, Fox said, explaining he wanted his children and grandchildren to know that he was “a rebel and did not go along with this madness.”

Fox said that he inclines toward the tradition of nonviolence within Catholicism, but pointed out that even under the just war tradition, which allows for use of force in certain cases, nuclear weapons are immoral because they don’t distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In their 1983 war and peace pastoral, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the U.S. bishops had offered a conditional acceptance of possessing nuclear weapons for the sake of deterrence, with the understanding that nations were moving toward nuclear disarmament.

But as disarmament has failed to materialize, some church leaders have taken a stronger position against nuclear weapons, with Pope Francis condemning the very possession of them in 2017.

Fox is concerned that the destructive power of nuclear weapons has only increased since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Over the years, protesters at the National Security Campus and the now-closed Bannister plant have also drawn attention to the monetary costs of nuclear weapons, as well as the harmful effects of toxins on the workers. A 2017 government report estimates the U.S. will spend $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain and modernize nuclear weapons.

“My hope is that people learn about it and it gives them encouragement to not give in to accepting this as just the norm,” Fox said.

“If it’s so wrong and so immoral and so outrageous and so threatening of life that all the words are not enough, that you have to do something more, with your body, to show your protest, then you’re called to break the law” in favor of the law of conscience and Catholic teachings, he said.

“I think my grandchildren will remember this probably as much as they’ll remember me for anything, and I like that, it gives me hope.”

[James Dearie ( and Maria Benevento ( are NCR Bertelsen interns.]