Plowshares sentencing shows U.S. government afraid of peace activists

The Transform Now Plowshares from left to right: Michael Walli, Sr. Megan Rice and Greg Boertje-Obed. (Pax Christi)

The Transform Now Plowshares from left to right: Michael Walli, Sr. Megan Rice and Greg Boertje-Obed. (Pax Christi)

Outside the courthouse in Knoxville, Tenn., where three anti-nuclear activists were severely sentenced on February 18, Michelle Boertje-Obed, the wife of one of the three Transform Now Plowshares members, encouraged everyone to see Judge Amul Thapar’s ruling in a positive light. Despite her husband Greg having just received over 5 years in prison for infiltrating the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility on July 28, 2012 and damaging federal property — along with Michael Walli and 84-year-old Catholic nun Megan Rice – Michelle pointed out that the judge could have easily given them much longer sentences, as recommended by the prosecution.

Walli received the same 62-month sentence as Michelle’s husband Greg, even though the prosecution’s sentencing recommendation was for substantially more time — 92 to 115 months compared to Greg’s 78 to 97 months. Sr. Megan Rice was sentenced to 35 months despite a recommendation of 70 to 87 months. They each also will face three years probation upon release and are ordered to pay $52,953 in restitution to the Y-12 facility. Judge Thapar imposed a $200 special assessment fee but waived additional fines and also drug testing. The restitution, if nothing else, will likely be appealed. The government is able, but unlikely to, appeal for an increased sentence on the grounds that the plowshare action disrupted government functioning.

The judge had asked for and received an amicus brief from law professor Douglas Berman of Ohio State University, concerning ambiguities in the statute and the sentencing guidelines. He used Berman’s brief, as well as responses to it from the prosecution and defense, to determine their sentences. His main discomfort was with the way the statutes were written, which made no distinction between a perpetrator expecting to be stopped before doing — at most — graffiti and symbolic damage, and another person intending to blow up a building full of weapons-grade uranium. Similarly, about the sentencing guidelines he asked, “How do you amend a guideline that says almost nothing?”

In the end, Judge Thapar said he used age, criminal history, the nature of the offense (as he and the United States government defined it), and their background of good works to decide on sentences for the three defendants. He used an analogy to explain the main reason he gave decreased sentences: Bank robbers who carry firearms, even if they don’t fire them, are sentenced differently than a robber who doesn’t have one. He wanted the legislation to differentiate the demonstrator from the violent saboteur and he said he felt that the prosecution’s recommendations were too high.

The judge rightly acknowledged that nothing would likely deter any of the three from considering future civil resistance actions, but he hoped lengthy sentences might slow down other like-minded individuals. Still, he clearly thought that the sentencing request was overkill.

Thapar was also correct in saying that being nonviolent doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. The question is, “Dangerous to what?” Wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg deemed “the most dangerous man in America” for releasing the Pentagon Papers? If the Transform Now Plowshares’ actions influence others to stand up for justice and against the threat presented by our nuclear arsenal, they are dangerous — but only to the militarized, self-destructive status quo. People are powerful, and if the government is going to threaten the world with nuclear weapons and not move to disarm, then people will stand in the way.

For all the seeming sophistication of Judge Thapar’s ruminations about how to give slightly less sentences than recommended, and his efforts to ensure that the octogenarian Sr. Rice doesn’t end up dying while serving her time, he naively informed the three that the legislative process is where laws are made and where they should have directed their energy. He and the prosecution repeatedly lamented that the system could work, if only people didn’t use demonstrations and civil resistance, but instead lobbied Congress.

Like most people, they looked at a particular event or action as though it represents all tactics and strategies being utilized. They claimed reverence for the likes of Rosa Parks and Mohandas Gandhi, but also said not to follow their lead except insofar as the nonviolent heroes accepted beatings and punishment as part of their respective struggles.

For all the complexity of thought displayed by Judge Thapar and the prosecution, they seemed to consider activism only in the most general and starkly simplistic light. The apparent blindness to the variety of actions engaged in for peace is reminiscent of what Martin Luther King, Jr. was responding to in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was charged with causing violence by protesting and told that if they would just use appropriate channels to voice their dissent change would come. King was told that negotiation was better than taking to the streets even though negotiations had already repeatedly been tried.

After being read their sentences, each of the three defendants were allowed to make statements. Michael Walli explained that many things in this world, like nuclear weapons and concentration camps, should never have existed, but were deemed legal by those in power. He challenged the assertion that his 40 arrests and over 20 convictions indicated an unrepentant disregard for the law. “I acted consistent with the rule of law,” he declared, pointing out that the United States breaks the law all the time, and far more seriously at that.

Greg Boertje-Obed quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. and presented a copy of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech to the prosecution, which — earlier in the trial — had challenged him when he quoted King as having called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence today.” Boertje-Obed also read from Daniel Berrigan’s Hymn to the New Humanity. His voice raised in volume and passion when he said, “The United States, if it would respect [the nonproliferation treaty] would promote the rule of law.”

Sr. Rice was at her most eloquent when addressing the court. “The problem with this trial is that people don’t know the law,” she said. “There is an alternative to nuclear weapons — common sense… If you resist nuclear weapons, you are upholding the law… The need to expose crimes pushed us to our action… To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor this court could bestow on me.”

She pointed out that nuclear weapons were declared illegal under international law and hence aren’t “legitimate property.” Additionally, the three members of the Transform Now Plowshares felt called to uphold their view of God’s law, and called for love and peacemaking, rather than nuclear threats and war.

Yet, these motivations were never allowed to be spoken during the trial itself, thereby preventing the jury from truly understanding their actions. As unjust as this — and the harsh sentences — may seem, it shows that the government actually sees civil resistance and organizing for the power and capacity it truly represents. The powers that be should be afraid of the likes of the Transform Now Plowshares. They’re not alone.

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