A force of habits: Nuns raid silo site

Trio tweaks nose of military, refuses to renounce activism

4 December 2002

by Charlie Brennan, Rocky Mountain News


Not long after sunrise on Oct. 6, three people armed with a bolt cutter sliced through a security chain to invade what the U.S. Defense Department calls "November 8" - N8 - an unmanned Minuteman missile site in northeastern Weld County.

Within 44 minutes, the intruders were arrested by the United States Air Force 321st Missile Squadron Security Response Team and the 791st Security Forces Squadron Fire Team.

Outfitted in matching white jumpsuits bearing the unfamiliar acronym "CWIT'' and the labels "DISARMAMENT SPECIALIST," the trio was arrested at gunpoint and swiftly hauled off into federal custody.

"These military installations contain some of the most sensitive and sophisticated weaponry in the country," said William Taylor, chief of the major-crimes unit for the U.S. attorney's office. "They are a critical part of our national defense and must be protected. Those who interfere with these installations will be prosecuted."

Even if they are Catholic nuns.

Carol Gilbert, 55, Jackie Hudson, 68, and Ardeth Platte, 66, are members of the Dominican order. The letters on their suits stood for Citizen Weapons Inspection Team. But they were not at the missile site - one of 49 located in northeastern Colorado - for an inspection.

According to a federal affidavit, they poured their own blood, carried in plastic baby bottles, on the missile silo lid, doing so in the shape of six crosses. The fact that the date they chose was one day short of the one-year anniversary of America launching its bombing campaign in Afghanistan was not a coincidence.

As they carried out what they called a "symbolic disarmament," and, as they were arrested at gunpoint and were carted off to jail, they continually chanted, "God, teach us to be peacemakers in a hostile world."

There was nothing symbolic about the military's response.

"It was all very sudden, but we were totally surrounded by Humvees," Gilbert said in a telephone interview from Clear Creek County Jail, where the three have decided on principle to remain.

"And there was some kind of guns; I've had M-16s pointed at me before, and these were bigger than M-16s. We were totally surrounded. They were all screaming."

The nuns, also carrying small household hammers, would still have had to break through 120 tons of concrete to touch the actual missile. Nevertheless, they were indicted Oct. 21 on federal charges of injury, interference and obstruction of the national defense, plus damaging government property. They are to be in court today for a pretrial hearing.

The combined charges could earn each of them up to 30 years in prison and a fine as high as $250,000.

They initially said they wanted to represent themselves. Now, two of the sisters are accepting lawyers, who are taking their cases for free.

Well-known Denver attorney Walter Gerash now represents Hudson. Former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark may also come to their aid, most likely taking Gilbert's case in tandem with local lawyer Susan Tyburski.

Aide to Lyndon Johnson

Clark, the nation's top prosecutor under President Lyndon Johnson, has become a prominent civil-rights advocate. Earlier this year, he was among those who filed a petition in federal court challenging the conditions of captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters at the U.S. Navy detention facility in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba.

As for Gerash, he will be using "an international law defense, which is very intricate."

Among the arguments he expects to make is that America's long-term deployment of nuclear warheads with first-strike capability violates the United Nations charter.

"They camped out on a first-strike weapon that can hit a city 8,000 miles away in 30 minutes to wipe out the whole city and then the whole suburbs," Gerash said. "We have a lot to say, but I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag.

"It's not a murder case," Gerash said. "They admit what they did."

Indeed they do, but they could be free on personal-recognizance bonds today if they would promise not to do it again - which they won't.

Gilbert and Platte, in phone calls from the jail in Georgetown, said they and Hudson are unrepentant. They believe it is the United States government that is breaking treaties and international law by maintaining its nuclear-weapons program and by militarizing space by pursuing a "Star Wars" missile-defense system.

At their impending trial, Platte said, "We will bring forth the truth of the illegality of the practices that are going on right now in our government."

Platte said they acted out of the same sense of obligation which would have justified any illegal acts by citizens in prewar Nazi Germany against Adolph Hitler and those he commanded.

"We're talking about a threatening of life, that is a genocide, that is an 'omnicide,' " Platte said. "These nuclear weapons, it's a gun at the heads of God's people throughout the world. You cannot wait until the nuclear weapons are used. You must stop the crime beforehand."

Added Gilbert: "We had no criminal intent at any level. We were justified, according to law. This was an attempt to hold the government accountable. We have heard, for months now, about 'citizen-witness inspection teams' going into Iraq, and this was our attempt, as U.S. citizens, to hold our own government accountable."

Jonah House members

Gilbert and Platte are members of the nondenominational Jonah House Resistance Community in Baltimore, Md. Its membership includes peace activist and former Roman Catholic priest Philip Berrigan. Berrigan, now 79, is battling cancer, and could not be reached for comment on the nuns' actions.

The sisters called their Weld County mission "Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares II." All three were also arrested for taking part in the first Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares in Colorado two years ago.

In that action, Gilbert, Hudson and Platte - plus two other Roman Catholic nuns - were arrested for taking advantage of an open house at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to strike a grounded Marine fighter jet with a hammer and throw a bottle of their own blood on the aircraft's landing gear.

Charges of criminal mischief and destruction of government property against all five were eventually dropped.

Pro-military atmosphere

The sisters recognize that the climate in post-Sept. 11 America is as pro-defense - and as pro-military - as perhaps any time in our country's history since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 61 years ago. But they don't believe this necessarily gives them a slim chance in front of a jury.

"I would have to say that we never know, when we attempt to speak truth and hold our government accountable to its laws and do what our God calls us to, what the consequences of those actions will be," Gilbert said.

Father Mike Kerrigan, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Georgetown, has visited the nuns four times.

"They're amazing women," said Kerrigan, who has found them seeming a bit tired but generally in good health.

"They're very, very much at peace with what they've done. And they are showing an interest in everybody else that's there, by their attitude and their support."

The sisters look at their time in jail as another opportunity to practice their faith.

In a telephone interview, Gilbert said this is actually another reason that the three have not signed the personal-recognizance bonds they've been offered, enabling them to enjoy freedom while waiting for their trial.

"It's our understanding that the women that we are doing time with here, some are charged with far lesser crimes and have never been offered P.R. bonds," Gilbert said.

"So some of this is in (keeping) solidarity with the poorest," Gilbert added.

Jonah House member Elizabeth McAlister said a large community of people around the world support the nuns - and join them in their opposition to nuclear proliferation and what they perceive as an American bid to dominate and heavily militarize space.

"I proudly respect their consciences in this," McAlister said. "They've certainly chosen a harder way."

or (303) 892-2742.


Summary of Dec 4 motions hearing for Jackie Hudson, Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte

The motions hearing was held in Judge Robert Blackburn's court in the newly opened federal Courthouse in Denver (19th and Champa).  Carol, Ardeth and Jackie said a brief prayer before the judge entered.

Judge Blackburn was very formal and business like in his interchange with the defendants and the attorneys.

Robert Brown continued as the government's lead attorney.  Walter Gerash entered the case officially as Jackie Hudson's counsel.

Sue Tyburski also appeared as advisory counsel for Carol.

She will formally enter the case at some point.  Ardeth spoke pro se in all the proceedings.

Here is what got decided:

The December 16 trail date is officially voided.

January 10 is the new deadline for pretrial motions

January 31 is the deadline for response to pretrial motions

February 21 at 10 AM is the new motions hearing

March 28 at 10AM is the date of the pretrial preparation hearing

March 31 10:30 AM - April 4 is set aside for the trial itself

Also decided:

Ardeth is granted a court appointed advisory counsel

Ardeth may also have Anabel Dwyer as her own advisory counsel not paid by the court

Jackie now has a court order allowing her to call Walter Gerash as she needs to. 

Sue and Walter were given permission to meet with all the defendant for 30 minutes following the hearing

For more info:
Bill Sulzman
P.O. Box 915
Colorado Springs, CO 80901
Ph 719 389 0644


( Other reports on 3 ploughshares nuns here )

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