As they walked toward the U.S. Navy base, the group carried lock cutters, hammers and bottles of human blood. It was dark with a chill whirling through the marshes. The gates were locked. No security in sight. The group paused to pray.
There were seven of them, all Catholic activists from around the U.S. They had planned for several years to come to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, near Cumberland Island in coastal South Georgia, to protest nuclear weapons by “symbolically disarming” the facility -- hanging banners and defacing signs.
The seven are part of a movement to end all possession of nuclear weapons. The movement is not new, but has taken on life in recent years, especially after a period of brinkmanship between the U.S. and North Korea. Pope Francis’ public statements “firmly condemning” nuclear weapons has emboldened them.
U.S. leaders, including Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, take the position that the weapons are a deterrent to protect America from adversarial nations that have or could obtain nuclear weapons. The government considers protests like the ones the Kings Bay activists set out to do troublesome because of the damage to government property and a potentially dangerous disruption.
Since 1989, the base at Kings Bay has been home to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet's submarines equipped to fire ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. The arsenal has been culled since the Cold War thawed, but, according to the Navy, Kings Bay still serves as home base for six of the subs. The base, home to more than 1,000 enlisted and civilian government workers and their families, is also a significant population center in otherwise rural Camden County.
Five of the seven activists — including a Jesuit priest and an 80-year-old former nun whose late husband was a pioneering anti-nuclear activist — had done jail time, typically stints of a few months, for symbolic disarmings before arriving at Kings Bay on the evening of April 4, 2018. The activists range in age from 57 to 80 and have spent their lives protesting for various causes and working in Catholic houses of hospitality.
Martha Hennessy was new to the movement.
The 62-year-old is a retired occupational therapist and a grandmother of eight from rural Vermont. She spends her time helping homeless women in Vermont and in New York City. She is also the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the late journalist and activist for charity to the poor and anti-racism who is currently under consideration for sainthood by the Catholic Church.
Like her six partners in the protest, who call themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, Hennessy has openly admitted what she did there in court documents and, recently, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hennessy knew going in that the protest was unlikely to change policty, but she hopes to at least make people think.
"It certainly looks hopeless, but I think from a faith-based perspective, we really can't not do it," she said. "It's an act of hope."
Her path to the events of the night began half a century ago.
When Hennessy was a teenager, Day handed her a copy "Hiroshima," John Hershey's devastating book on the Japanese city after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb at the end of World War II, killing 140,000 instantly or in the months after. The book, with its vivid depictions of terrible painful deaths and fallout, scarred Hennessy's mind. She was less moved by supporters of the bombing, like President Harry Truman. Hours after the attack, Truman said the mission was to "completely destroy Japan's power to make war" in response to the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Before arriving at Kings Bay, Hennessy had been involved in numerous anti-war and human rights protests, but she had never put into action her objections to nuclear weapons. She simply lived with the knowledge that the weapons were always on hand, prepared to bring destruction whenever a nation decides to use them. When she speaks of her past inaction, she sounds regretful and almost confused, like she doesn’t understand her former self.
The subject of nuclear weapons had grown more offensive to heart in recent years though. She heard what Pope Francis said and agreed. Hennessy became friends with a group of activists, went to retreats with them, where they studied the history of nuclear weapons, as well as the dangers, and they spent long hours in prayer about how to make a statement.
Now they were poised to break into a military base – a federal crime, which could very likely send them to prison, as it had other anti-nuclear weapon activists.
‘Beat their swords’
Hennessy had spent recent months feeling like her conscience and faith required her to do something to voice her concern. She also had been afraid, unsure if she could actually go through with it.
One of her group found a padlock on a gate. He placed the ring of the lock into the teeth of his bolt cutters and squeezed until the lock split open.
As Hennessy climbed through the gate, she stepped into the footsteps of other activists who, over the past 40 years, joined the Plowshares movement. The name comes from Isiah 2:4, where nations are urged to “beat their swords into plowshares” and abandon war. (A plowshare is the blade of a plow.)
The movement began in 1980, when a group of eight entered a General Electric facility in Pennsylvania where warheads were made and poured blood on documents. Since then, similar protests have been done in Tennessee, Washington state and other points across the country and world.
Before arriving at Kings Bay, Hennessy hadn’t told any of her three children, or her grandchildren, or any friends that she was going. She told only her husband. He was upset because he foresaw the consequences: his wife making statement that, like the dozens of Plowshares protests before it, would not lead to the world disarming. That statement would be followed by criminal charges. The world has so far seen about 100 Plowshares actions, and only six didn’t result in prosecution, according to The New Yorker.
Hennessy told her husband how important it was for her to speak. That did not quell his fears.
Inside the sprawling base, the group split up.
Three of them cut concertina wire and a chain-link fence and climbed through into a restricted area, which they believed held nuclear warheads. The plan was to hang banners decrying nuclear war so the military personnel could see them and, the activists hoped, be moved.
Two went to a site than can only be described as a missile monument. Several inert weapons are mounted side-by-side to the ground, backed by flags. The group considered this an outrageous monument to death and world destruction. With red spray-paint, they tagged the missiles: “BLASPHEMY.”
Hennessy and another woman walked to the Strategic Weapons Facility, Atlantic, Engineering Services Building.
Hennessy had in her possession a baby bottle full of blood, which had been drawn from her fellow activist, the former nun. Hennessy splashed the woman’s blood on the building’s sign and tipped the bottle to the pavement, spilling it liberally at the entrance.
She and her partner strung crime scene tape across the entry.
On the walkway, she spray-painted: “MAY LOVE DISARM US ALL.”
And on the door, Hennessy taped the document that made explicit the group’s position.
“Today,” the paper said, “through our nonviolent action, we, Kings Bay Plowshares (7)—indict the United States government, President Donald Trump, Kings Bay Base Commander Brian Lepine, the nuclear triad, and specifically the Trident nuclear program.” The “indictment” goes on to argue that the possession of nuclear weapons are illegal because they run afoul of various treaties struck after World War II.
After placing it, Hennessy went with others to the missile monument. They prayed and waited until police came and took them to jail.
All seven were held in jail and would face federal charges: conspiracy, destruction of federal property, destruction of naval property and trespassing. Together the charges carry a penalty of 25 years in prison.
Hennessy and her co-defendants got to know other inmates and did Bible study with them.
In pretrial hearings, the government argued that the group had been reckless, causing $30,000 in damage and putting military personnel in a dangerous position.
“Thank God,” said prosecutor Karl Knoche, “that some young marine wasn’t put in the position of shooting, wounding or killing these trespassers in the performance of his duty and then having to live with that.”
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 refused to take a plea deal. The movement generally calls for three steps to a protest: the symbolic disarming, testifying at trial and going to jail.
Their attorneys argued against the charges, saying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 protected their protest because they were motivated by their faith. Bill Quigley, one of their attorneys, said The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 were the first to try that argument in federal court. The attorneys also argued that nuclear weapons are illegal, as the indictment Hennessy taped to the door alleged. Quigley said that argument has never worked in federal court.
At the trial, which took place this October in Brunswick, the prosecution worked to keep the case about the facts of what happened at the base — not about nuclear weapons. As far as the government saw it, the group committed crimes regardless of their motivations.
On the stand, Hennessy started to read from a 1945 article written by her grandmother, in which Day railed against the attack on Hiroshima. The prosecution objected, and the judge agreed. The same happened when Hennessy attempted to show the jury photos of bodies at Hiroshima.
The jury convicted the seven on all counts.
All but the Jesuit priest are free on bond awaiting sentencing, which is expected to happened in January or February. The Rev. Steve Kelly, 70, who has spent more than a decade in jails and prisons for various protests around the U.S., asked to stay behind bars because he didn't want to cooperate with conditions of bond. Quigley, the defense attorney, said Kelly's prison stints are often lengthened due to his refusal to comply with probation or bond. He's often in solitary confinement because, as a matter of principle, he refuses to work while incarcerated, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Kelly uses the time behind bars to pray, Quigley said.
The Plowshares group plans a Dec. 27 vigil at Kings Bay.
When the protesters are sentenced, Quigley said he fears all will be sentenced to prison time, though he finds it unlikely they’ll get the maximum of 25 years.
As she heads toward sentencing, Hennessy said she has a feeling she didn’t quite expect, one that isn’t typically encountered when facing a prison sentence.
She feels “great liberation,” she said.