29 May 2003
On a Sunday morning in October, atop a hill in northeastern Colorado, three Dominican nuns dressed to look like weapons inspectors cut down part of a fence at a nuclear missile silo, used their own blood to paint crosses atop the concrete and sat down to pray.
"O God," they repeated, "teach us how to be peacemakers in a hostile world."
Seven months later, much of that time spent in a windowless basement jail, the nuns have been convicted of two felonies: obstructing national defense and damaging government property.
They are home now, which means West Baltimore for 55-year-old Sister Carol Gilbert and 67-year-old Sister Ardeth Platte. But not for long. On July 25 they will return to Denver to learn their sentence. They could spend up to 30 years in federal prison, though lawyers say it will more likely be six to eight.
"It is like a life sentence," said Platte. "I'm 67. Eight years is a long time."
The nuns, joined that morning by Jackie Hudson, 68, of Washington state, are part of the Plowshares movement, founded more than 20 years ago by the late Baltimore activist Philip Berrigan, in whose Jonah House community the two local nuns live. Plowshares members regularly attack federal military property in largely symbolic anti-war and anti-nuclear protests, actions they say are to prevent crimes from occurring.
The road toward peace, for these women, has been marked by handcuffs and jail cells. They have been arrested so many times that they can no longer keep track, spent so many nights behind bars that they joke that they could rate the jails of Maryland on a star system. They've been locked up a few days here, a few months there.
They have pounded fighter jets with hammers in Colorado, spray-painted disarmament messages on a weapons bunker at an Air Force base in Michigan, leafleted at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, demonstrated without a permit at the White House.
A different outcome
This time, though, was different. This was the first time they were charged with felonies, they say. This was the first time they had performed their major civil resistance, as they call it, in the flag-waving political climate since the Sept. 11 attacks. The day the nuns were convicted in April, the U.S. military was bombing a neighborhood in Baghdad where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was believed to be holding a meeting.
"I think the outcome of the trial was very much the result that we were at war with Iraq," said Susan J. Tyburski, a Denver attorney who represented Gilbert. "People think it's unpatriotic to voice any criticism of the government during wartime, unfortunately."
The charges fit the crime - and the criminals, prosecutors say. Lesser penalties over the years, they say, have failed to act as a deterrent to the women, who couldn't leave jail before trial because they refused to sign a statement promising not to break the law while they were out.
"No other country on Earth provides as many avenues for peaceful and lawful protest as does the United States," U.S. Attorney John Suthers said in a statement. "But the defendants insist on unlawfully entering onto highly sensitive government installations, damaging government property and interfering with government operations."
Gilbert and Platte moved to Baltimore in 1995, soon after their home state of Michigan became free of nuclear weapons. They met many years earlier when Platte was one of Gilbert's teachers.
Both had careers as teachers, and Platte was later a principal and a politician. From 1973 to 1985, Platte served on the Saginaw (Mich.) City Council, the last two as mayor pro tem. Gilbert says she grew up with a "Peace Corps mentality" that led her to act out against war. Platte says she has been doing that for more than 40 years.
The silo the nuns chose to target in October - referred to by the military as N-8 - contains Minuteman III nuclear missiles, described by the nuns as offensive, first-strike weapons of mass destruction.
They say they set out to play weapons inspectors, mimicking the job being done in Iraq, to show that the United States has weapons that are just as dangerous and just as illegal as those of other nations.
"Citizens have a responsibility to stop crime when it's happening," Gilbert said. "We went to inspect the site. We went there to stop a crime, to symbolically disarm it. ...
"As a nation, we cannot continue to ask these countries to give up their weapons of mass destruction while we don't."
They arrived at 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 6, the anniversary of the first U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan. They cut a single link on the chain that was holding its lock in place. They cut down 33 feet of fence. With baby bottles filled with their own blood, they sprayed six crosses on the concrete. With ball-peen hammers, they banged on the cover of the silo, which sheltered a weapon 120 feet underground.
Then they prayed. And they waited. They sang hymns and conducted a service, for which they brought along printed programs. And they waited.
"O God," they repeated, "teach us how to be peacemakers in a hostile world."
It was an hour before Air Force personnel arrived to arrest them.
They originally faced state charges that carry lesser sentences. But within 10 days they were facing a federal grand jury.
In April, a jury convicted them on the more-serious federal charges. The nuns and their attorneys were shocked by the verdict. They were found guilty of interfering with national defense - something attorney Walter Gerash says two Air Force witnesses testified under oath that the women didn't do.
To this day, they insist they are not guilty of a crime, because they believe they were following international law, which considers nuclear weapons to be illegal. That defense, they say, was not permitted at trial.
"There was overcharging from the beginning, and they were never allowed to put their defenses in front of the jury," said Francis A. Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign and author of The Criminality of Nuclear Deterrence, a book left by the nuns at the silo.
Said Suthers, the U.S. attorney: "It is our hope that this prosecution and conviction serves as a deterrent not only to these defendants but to others inclined to bypass peaceful and lawful means of protest to commit similar crimes."
Last month, the nuns left the Clear Creek County Jail, an overcrowded place where female federal prisoners are held because there is nowhere else for them. While they were there, much of their time was spent answering the 30 to 50 letters of support they received a day from around the world and ministering to the other women confined alongside them. They were buoyed when they watched television and saw people gathered all over the world to protest the war in Iraq.
The nuns' gift
Now they are tidying up their lives, preparing for what promises to be their longest stint yet behind bars. Over the next two months, they will spend time in the fresh air. They will gather things like their winter coats, which they won't need for a while, and give them to the needy. They also came back east to visit relatives and members of their spiritual communities, to pray with the healthy, to pray for the sick.
"We weren't sure eight years from now if they would still be around," Gilbert said.
On a recent afternoon, they tried to stay warm as they sat in the living room of Jonah House, which overlooks a Roman Catholic cemetery that is like an oasis in West Baltimore. The gray-haired women in their jeans and sneakers took turns - Platte a few more than Gilbert - huddling by the wood-burning stove against the wall. It was so cold in jail, Platte said, that the chill still hadn't gone away.
Still, the nuns don't complain about what they face, don't dwell on what is coming. There are no regrets either. This is the life they have chosen.
"This, to me, is exactly what the nonviolent Jesus would ask of us," Platte said. "I hope and pray I can make this time sacred. It is difficult. None of us would pretend that these seven months have been happy, happy, happy. But we need to do it to awaken the world, to be faithful.
"What better could I do than give my life for the next generation?"