Tears welled up in my eyes when I heard that 83-year-old Catholic nun Megan Rice is facing 20 years in prison — a sentence that, if delivered to the fullest extent this September, would essentially condemn her to spend the rest of her life behind bars. Unlike me, however, she reportedly smiled when the jury convicted her of interfering with national security and damaging federal property at a trial in Knoxville, Tenn., last month.
While the media has tended to dismiss Rice as an eccentric, if courageous, old woman, her decision to break into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was in fact a highly calculated move. She and her accomplices — two other grey-haired antiwar activists — weighed the consequences of their actions beforehand, then timed them to coincide with civil disobedience actions and demonstrations across the country calling for disarmament and a nuclear-free future.
I first met her on March 11, 2012 — at a rally in Manhattan’s Union Square, commemorating the anniversary of the meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan. She had poorly photocopied pieces of paper in her hands that she wanted me to take a look at. Nothing top secret — they detailed the Obama administration’s $180 billion efforts to shore-up America’s nuclear arsenal, which was money she felt could be better spent improving the lives of poor and working people.
By all appearances Rice was a simple, soft spoken, elderly nun. I would never have guessed from our first meeting that, as The New York Times later reported, she had been arrested some 40 or 50 times over the course of her life. But to understand her spiritual calling is to understand that her two sides — the humble sister and the so-called threat to national security — are not incongruous. As a member of the Plowshares disarmament movement, Rice takes her inspiration from Isaiah 2:4: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Members of the Plowshares movement have carried out more than 100 direct actions against nuclear weapons since 1980, and many have received hard time as a result.
When Rice approached me after I addressed the rally in Union Square, she had a mission: a national day of action against nukes on Hiroshima Day on August 6 — an anniversary when people around the world renew their vow to never allow again anything like the atomic mass killings wrought by the United States on Japan in 1945.
Working with her, my Occupy Wall Street colleagues and I coordinated a day of nationwide protests under the banner of Occupy Nukes. There were road blockades in front of the entrance to the U.S. Naval base Kitsap-Bangor in the Puget Sound, which houses a fleet of nuclear submarines, and at Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb and still an active nuclear research lab. In New York City, we rallied at General Electric’s headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza, calling attention to the world’s largest company’s construction of a new laser-powered enrichment facility in Wilmington, N.C. Meanwhile, our allies in the Bay Area picketed the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, operators of nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon, which rest on two earthquake faults and are among many aging U.S. atomic power stations that could constitute the next Fukushima.
These nationwide actions brought together an old guard of mainly faith-based activists, who have been protesting the nuclear-industrial complex on Hiroshima Day for decades, with younger environmental activists radicalized and emboldened by the Occupy movement. Rice, however, wasn’t able to join the demonstrations she had helped initiate. To our surprise, she was in federal custody by then for occupying a national defense site just a few days earlier. Unbeknownst to those of us who were laying the groundwork for Occupy Nukes, she was laying secret plans of her own.
Before dawn on July 28, 2012, Rice, together with Michael Walli, 63, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, entered the grounds of Y-12 — described by the National Nuclear Security Administration as “the Fort Knox of uranium.” It was there that the government first enriched the radioactive heavy metal. Today, this facility and others like it scattered across the country play host to depleted uranium munitions, a byproduct of the nuclear fuel process that was widely deployed by the U.S. military in Iraq — particularly during attempts to crush a 2004 insurgency in Fallujah. Birth defects in the city are today more plentiful than in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The fruit of justice is peace,” Rice and her accomplices wrote on the walls of a structure at Y-12. As a reminder of the blood spilled by weapons developed at the site they smeared human blood on the slogan. They also hung two banners from a building labeled “HEUMF” — “highly enriched uranium manufacturing facility.” “Transform Now Plowshares,” read one banner, which pictured a bomb becoming a flower; “Swords into Plowshares, Spears into Pruning Hooks,” read the other.
Throughout the trial, Rice and her comrades admitted their guilt but maintained they had committed no sin. “Our intent was to bring healing and forgiveness and love,” Rice testified. “I want to transform nuclear weapons by dismantling and recycling.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors sought no mercy. Assistant District Attorney Melissa Kirby described the Plowshares activists as a “catalyst for violence,” arguing that while their intentions might have been peaceful “some other copycat will be shot” attempting to mimic their actions and claimed the senior citizens had put the nation’s security in danger.
The three activists were convicted last month of damaging federal property under the Sabotage Act and were taken into federal custody to await sentencing this September. Ralph Hutchison of the Environmental Peace Alliance in Knoxville has been among those providing jail support, but he has said there are no plans for a campaign to win them clemency.
“As much as it pains me to have my friends in jail,” Hutchison explained, “that’s part of the bargain that they contemplated greatly before they went into Y-12. The odds were 50-50 they would be shot. They were prepared to die.”
According to Hutchison, the trio’s lawyers will be doing their utmost to get them off the hook or at the very least reduce their sentences since “putting nonviolent people away under statutes meant for saboteurs and terrorists sets a dangerous precedent.” But if people want to help the Plowshares activists, says Hutchison, they can do so by working for disarmament.
Like swords, plowshares are sharp. But rather than drawing blood, they cultivate nourishment. Likewise, Rice and the other Transform Now Plowshares hope their actions can cultivate a movement that challenges the flow of money going into the U.S. military and its weapons stockpiles in order to redirect those billions of dollars toward peace, human well-being and environmental sustainability. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has proposed cutting $460 million from the Department of Energy’s nuclear non-proliferation program and putting the funds toward stockpiling new nuclear weapons.
The proposed nuclear escalation came just weeks before the president’s war-on-terror speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., during which he was repeatedly interrupted by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group Code Pink. She demanded that President Obama answer for the killings of U.S. citizens and innocent civilians abroad, as well as for the indefinite detention of prisoners currently on hunger strike in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. After she was escorted from the room, Obama told his audience, “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
Although he was referring to Benjamin, his words could have applied to Rice. But millions more like her, from all walks of life, will have to rise up and demand that America beat its swords into plowshares. Then maybe Obama will say to himself, “The voice of that movement is worth paying attention to.”
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