Sue Frankel-Streit shares a moving reflection on hope in the face of injustice, as our friends Sister Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli are in jail pending sentencing. Sue is a founding member of the Little Flower Catholic Worker Farm in Louisa, VA, and she took a hammer to a B-52 as part of the Anzus Plowshares action in 1991.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve been to (or in) a Plowshares trial, but standing outside the federal courthouse in Knoxville on Monday as Greg, Michael and Megan prepared to start trial took me right back to those moments when I’ve been there before. Federal courtrooms are intimidating places, surrounded as one is by their rich, dark walls, insignias of state justice and gun-toting Marshalls. The first plowshares trial I witnessed, some 25 years ago, was also one of Greg’s. It was in Philadelphia and he and his codefendant, who’d hammered on a helicopter bound for Latin America, had already hung two juries.
I’d been at the Catholic Worker a couple of months, had no idea really, what a plowshares action was or why anyone would do one. After two days of listening to Greg and Lin Romano, the only thing I couldn’t understand was how the judge couldn’t agree with them. As always, the logic of plowshares is impeccable. The reasoning is upheld by international, and even national, laws, and certainly by the defendant’s religion, which is often shared by the judge. The love of the defendants and their desire for a better world shines through their testimony. They have taken a personal risk to act against a clear injustice. Often they are not allowed to explain any of this to the jury, and/or the jury is instructed to disregard much of it. And so they are almost always convicted of crimes that don’t match their actions, and sometimes sentenced to jail time that seems to far outweigh the “crimes”.
When Greg and Lin were convicted, I remember being furious and sad and depressed. Years later, when Greg’s wife Michele was convicted, I felt the same way. At the all the plowshares trials I’ve been to, including my own, the injustice of the court seems to pain the supporters more than the defendants. I believe that’s because the defendants have the action to look back on. The moment of complete freedom when you stand beside a nuclear weapon and label it as the injustice it is, despite the likely consequences, is a powerful thing to hold on to. When I saw Greg, Megan and Michael preparing to enter court, my heart flipped and my head bowed as I re-experienced the pain of being shut down in court, the helplessness of watching good people go to jail, the lies let stand in court, and the long, absence-filled days of jail. But then I looked up at Michael Walli, who I’ve known for 25 years, and saw the happiest smile I’ve ever seen on his weathered face. And I knew where that joy came from and I knew he’d be OK. He’d be free no matter where he was.
There are a lot of critiques of Plowshares, some of which I share. But in spite of them all, this simple action continues to carry a power far beyond the symbolic disarmament of a weapon. In the end, a plowshares action is an act of hope. I just hope we can all remember that on sentencing day.