Peacemaking in the shadow of pandemic

Patrick O’Neill with his wife Mary Rider

By Patrick O’Neill

  Blank stares. During the course of our four-day federal trial last October, that’s all I saw in the faces of our jurors in U.S. District Court in the Deep South city of Brunswick, GA. Those 12 people took so little time to convict us that it was clear they never had to deliberate. Our guilt — on three felonies and a misdemeanor count — was a foregone conclusion.
  I am among seven Catholic pacifists who were arrested April 4, 2018 on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for a protest against the Trident nuclear submarines at Naval Station Kings Bay in St. Mary, GA. Five of my co-defendants and I have been out of jail under house arrest and curfew since our release on bond. Fr. Stephen Kelly, a Jesuit priest, is doing time in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, where he has been jailed since our arrest. We are worried about Fr. Kelly and the coronavirus because there is no way to practice social distancing in jail.
  My other co-defendants include Elizabeth McAlister, 81 – widow of iconic peace prophet, Philip Berrigan – Martha Hennessy, 65 – granddaughter of Dorothy Day, a 20th century Catholic pacifist who is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church, and Catholic Workers Clare Grady, 60; Carmen Trotta, 56, and Mark Colville, 58.
  One Trident submarine carries a payload of Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles that could end life as we know it. Trident is literally a diabolical doomsday machine embraced by most Americans as virtuous and godly; hence those blank stares. We went to Kings Bay to expose the sin of Trident, specifically the sin of the D-5 missile. It is the most insidious, deadliest, horrific weapon ever built.  It has no right to exist. The Trident II D-5 missile is the opposite of God.
  Calling ourselves the Kings Bay Plowshares, we carried hammers, crime scene tape, spray paint, an indictment of the base for deploying weapons of mass destruction, and baby bottles of human blood.  We went to Kings Bay to deliver a message from the prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares; their spears into pruning hooks. One nation shall not lift sword against another. Nor shall they train for war anymore.” (Is. 2:4) 
  Once on the base I headed to what we call the “missile shrine,” an area where the military has erected statues of various missiles, including the D-5. I splashed a bottle of blood on the base logo. We spray-painted the word ¨idol¨ on the statues, and I attempted to smash the D-5 idol with my hammer. Made of solid cement, the idol was formidable; my hammer broke.
   Our action stands as a wake-up call to Georgians and to the nation that Trident is not proper to life and must be disarmed. Humanity is in a race against time. Either we abolish nuclear weapons or their eventual use will abolish us. The risk of nuclear weapons being deployed – whether by accident, computer hacking or in war – has become an “acceptable risk” for our world. As Martin Luther King said: “The choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or non-existance.”
  Our case has been set for sentencing on May 28-29. The government is calling for stiff prison sentences for the seven of us, ranging from 18 months (Liz McAlister) to 47 months (Fr. Kelly). The government has recommended I serve 30 months in prison. Our sentence has been delayed by the coronavirus, and we don’t know if the government will send us to prison during the pandemic or delay our incarceration or sentence us to house arrest. At a federal prison in Butner, N.C., less than an hour from my home, already five inmates have died from coronavirus. Prisons have become a deathtrap for many.
  When I was a Glynn County jail prisoner most of my fellow cellblock mates were poor people, victims of addiction or other forms of mental illness. Almost all were incarcerated for nonviolent charges, and did not belong in jail at all. It is no surprise the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people kept under lock and key.
  Punishment — not rehabilitation — is the lone goal of incarceration in the U.S. Racism, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and prison profiteering also give our country the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  The Trident system costs billions of dollars to maintain. Instead of funding war profiteering and a jobs program based on omnicide, this revenue could be used to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick and homeless in a time of pandemic, and to find alternatives to violence and war.
  It is a time of anxiety for our families, but the harshness of the government’s response to us is an indication of the sacred status given to Trident. Southeast Georgians view Trident solely as an economic boost to the region. The fact that the livelihood of that community is predicated on the end of the world is seemingly inconsequential. Tragically, a nuclear armed world on 24-7 hair-trigger alert has become normal for most humans.
  Let us, instead, heed the words of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres: “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.”
(Patrick O’Neill, 64, is a co-founder of the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, N.C. that provides hospitality to men, women and children in crisis. He and his wife, Mary Rider, have eight children.)
Information on the Kings Bay Plowshares can be found here.