Via RNS — A federal jury on Thursday (Oct. 24) convicted seven Catholic peace activists of three felonies and a misdemeanor for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, last year.
They now face up to 25 years in prison each for breaking into the U.S. Navy base that houses six Trident submarines carrying hundreds of nuclear weapons in an effort to symbolically disarm the base.
The seven were charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property, destruction of government property and trespassing.
On the night of April 4, 2018, they cut a padlock and later a security fence at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia. They spilled human blood on a Navy insignia affixed to a wall, spray-painted anti-war slogans on a sidewalk and banged on a monument to nuclear warfare using hammers made of melted-down guns.
The seven were caught more than an hour into their action, as three of the activists prepared to cut a heavily electrified fence leading to the nuclear storage bunkers.
A facilities management specialist testified in court that the expenses of cleaning and repairs totaled $31,833.
The 12 jurors, nine women and three men, took less than two hours to deliberate. The verdicts were announced shortly after 4 p.m. in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia and following three days of testimony.
Known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the group is part of a 39-year-old anti-nuclear movement called Plowshares. Inspired by the prediction of the biblical prophet Isaiah that the nations of the world shall “beat their swords into plowshares,” its activists have made a signature of breaking into nuclear weapons bases to hammer on buildings and military hardware and douse them with human blood.
The group was started by prominent peace activists and Jesuit priests Daniel Berrigan, and his brother, Philip Berrigan.
The activists, who took pictures and videos of their action, did not deny that they had committed the acts, but argued they were beholden to divine law that called them to bear witness to the immorality of weaponry that can wipe out human civilization in seconds.
“I draw a correlation with Jesus cleansing the temple,” said Patrick O’Neill of Garner, North Carolina, one of the defendants. “He did it because there was a grave injustice, like nuclear weapons.
“We cut locks and did symbolic property damage to say, ‘This is an idol.’ That display is a shrine to missiles. It is not something we should honor. It is the same as the golden calf smashed in the Hebrew Bible.”
Early in the proceedings, their lawyers said they would cite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that says the government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs.
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, however, disallowed that defense.
Mostly middle-aged or elderly, the defendants are residents of Catholic Worker houses, a collection of 200 independent houses across the country that feed and house the poor. They included a Catholic priest and a former nun and the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist and writer who is being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Six of the activists are out on bail. A seventh, the Rev. Stephen Kelly, refused the conditions of the bail — an ankle monitor and $50,000 bail. He remains in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia.
Sentencing is expected in 60 to 90 days.
About 150 of the defendants’ supporters from across the country attended the trial or held vigil outside the courthouse. They rented a campground with 12 cabins and provided lunch and dinner for the visitors. Earlier, an international petition to dismiss the charges included signatories such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa..
Just before the judge gave instructions to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Greg Gilluly Jr. reminded the jurors that the religious motivations should not get in the way of their deliberations. They are “100% not important,” he said.
Many of the Plowshares groups said they expected the guilty verdict and were prepared for the consequences. Said O’Neill, “Nothing meaningful comes out of life that doesn’t require sacrifice.”