A History of Direct Disarmament Actions
The Ploughshares movement originated in the North American faith-based peace movement. Many priests and nuns in the 1970s began to resist the Vietnam War, thereby connecting with the radical political secular movements. When the war ended, the arms race and nuclear weapons became the focus of resistance. There was a deep sense of urgency. Ordinary protests did not suffice - the nuclear arms race continued to escalate. People responded by engaging in more confrontational nonviolent resistance. The underlying rationale was that if people were expected to risk their lives for their country in war then we have to be willing to risk something for peace. Catholic Workers, and other communities such as Jonah House in Baltimore, U.S., became the base of the movement. These communities combined solidarity work for the inner city poor (soup kitchens, shelters, etc.) and nonviolent resistance to the U.S. war machine.
The first Ploughshares action was carried out in 1980. On September 9, the 'Ploughshares Eight' entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, U.S., where the nose cones for the Mark 12A nuclear warheads were manufactured. Enacting the Biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to "beat swords into ploughshares," they hammered on two nose cones and poured blood on documents. They were arrested, tried by a jury, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 1/2 to 10 years. After a series of appeals lasting ten years, they were re-sentenced to time served - from several days to 23 1/2 months.
Although the name comes from the Hebrew scripture, the Ploughshares movement is not a Christian or Jewish movement. It includes people of different faiths and philosophies. In most Ploughshares groups, members adhere to a range of different faiths or philosophies.
Since the Ploughshares Eight, many have continued the disarmament work. Using simple tools such as household hammers, ordinary people continued disarming weapons in a small but effective way. As of August 1997, over 140 individuals had participated in over 60 Ploughshares actions in Australia, Germany, Holland, Sweden, UK and US. The smallest group consisted of one person and a support person (Harmonic Disarmament for Life). The largest group consisted of nine people and was called Trident Nein.
Many different weapon systems have been disarmed including components of U.S. first-strike nuclear weapon systems: MX, Pershing II, Cruise, Minuteman ICBM's, Trident II missiles, Trident submarines, B-52 bombers, P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft, the NAVSTAR system and nuclear capable battleships. Combat aircraft used for military intervention, such as helicopters, the F-111 and F-15E fighter bombers and the Hawk aircraft and other weapons including anti-aircraft missile launchers, bazooka grenade throwers and AK-5 automatic rifles, have also been disarmed. Even model weapons were "disarmed" at an arms bazaar.
The most common way of disarming weapons in Ploughshares actions is with ordinary household hammers. Activists have hammered on nose cones, loading mechanisms, breech-sights, barrels, control panels, bomb mountings, bomb pylons and bomb guidance antennas. Hammers begin the process of disarmament. They are used to take apart as well as create and point to the urgency for conversion of war production to products that enhance life. In some Ploughshares actions, people disarm weapons systems in other ways. The ELF communication system is a transmitter site near Clam Lake, Wisconsin, U.S. It was disarmed by cutting down three ELF poles and cutting some ground wires with a hatchet, saw and other tools (Harmonic Disarmament for Life 1987). The Trident USS Florida at Electric Boat shipyard, Groton, Connecticut, was disarmed with a security van. Peter DeMott noticed the empty van with keys in it. He dented the Trident's rudder by repeatedly ramming it with the van (Plowshares Number 2, 1980). Two Minuteman missile silos were disarmed in 1986 using sledgehammers to split the track used to move the 120 ton silo cover (Silo Plowshares).
People who have been involved in Ploughshares actions have undertaken a process of intense spiritual preparation, nonviolence training and community formation, and have given careful consideration to the risks involved. Extensive care is taken to prevent any violence from occurring during the action. Accepting full responsibility, Ploughshares activists always peacefully await arrest following each act in order to participate in a public conversation about the issues. The goal is to reach an agreement, a democratic decision about disarmament.
The backgrounds of Ploughshares activists vary widely. Parents, grandparents, veterans, former lawyers, teachers, artists, musicians, poets, priests, sisters, house-painters, carpenters, writers, health-care workers, students, gardeners, advocates of the poor and homeless - all have participated in Ploughshares actions.
With the exception of the Aegis Ploughshares and the first Australian Ploughshares group, all Ploughshares activists have been prosecuted for their actions. While most plead not-guilty and have gone to trial, several Ploughshares and disarmament activists plead 'guilty' or 'no contest.' All of the trials, except one, have ended in convictions. The exception is the four women in Seeds of Hope - East Timor Ploughshares in the UK. They disarmed a Hawk fighter plane destined for export to Indonesia. In July 1996, the jury found them not-guilty. The Epiphany Ploughshares were tried an unprecedented five times with mistrials and three trials ending in hung juries.
During trials, most defendants represented themselves with assistance from legal advisers. Many defendants have attempted to show that their actions were morally and legally justified, and that their intent was to protect life, not commit a crime. Almost all U.S. judges have denied this testimony and have prohibited the justification/necessity defenses, whereas in Europe the situation is different. Some U.S. judges, including those who presided in the trials of the Epiphany Ploughshares and Pax-Christi Spirit of Life Ploughshares, issued gag orders and found defendants in contempt of court for speaking about why they carried out their actions. Ploughshares activists have received sentences ranging from suspended sentences to 18 years in prison. The average prison sentence is between one and two years.
Ploughshares actions are not to be glamorized or taken lightly. People have taken great risks, experienced the loneliness and dehumanization of prison, and have had to cope with many difficult personal and family hardships. With all their limitations and imperfections, these actions are powerful reminders that we can live in a world without weapons and war if people are willing to begin the process of disarmament, including learning nonviolent ways of dealing with conflicts and literally beating the swords of our time into ploughshares. While these actions usually are deemed criminal by the state, they should be considered a sign of hope in a violent time. Although each Ploughshares action has many similarities to others, in the end each is unique, each is a learning process, each is an experiment in truth.
Source: Tri-Denting it Handbook: An Open Guide to Trident Ploughshares 2000, December 1998. Web site: www.gn.apc.org/tp2000/handbook/part1.html