ach weekend, while New York City’s East Village packs into sidewalk tables for brunch, activist Carmen Trotta leads a vigil for ending the U.S.-backed war in Yemen in Tompkins Square Park. He only has a few more Saturday mornings before he must report to federal prison, along with fellow activists from Plowshares, the anti-nuclear, Christian pacifist movement. Despite a lethal pandemic ravaging prison populations, Trotta, Martha Hennessy, Clare Grady, and Patrick O’Neill are due to report to prison within the next few months for activism against a suspected nuclear weapons depot.
More than two years ago, Trotta and Hennessy, two of seven activists known as the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, peacefully broke into the naval base in Brunswick, Georgia — risking their own lives to protest the suspected nuclear arsenal housed within. Armed only with vials of their own blood, hammers, GoPro cameras, spray paint, protest banners, and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s book, the activists symbolically attempted to disarm the nuclear weapons located on the Trident submarines at the base.
The nonviolent direct action took place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Far out of the spotlight of major media coverage, all but one of the activists have quietly been sentenced in their faith-based battle with the U.S. government over the “immoral” possession of nuclear weapons. The activists were charged with three felonies — conspiracy, destruction of government property, depredation — and misdemeanor trespassing.
The sentencing — sending aging activists to federal prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic — fits squarely within the long history of the U.S. government throwing the book at people of conscience who dare to dissent. President Donald Trump’s acceleration of heavy-handed federal charges against protesters have drawn critical media attention.
Yet activists like those in the Plowshares community, whose protests garner less attention, are suffering at the hands of a bipartisan consensus on harsh crackdowns related to direct action against so-called defense policies. Under the rubric of national security, the persecutions of figures like Chelsea Manning, Daniel Everette Hale, or Reality Winner become polarized or fail to raise public ire, when they are noticed at all.
That was the case last week, when few took note of the latest Plowshares sentences. Trotta, 58; Hennessy, 65; along with Grady, 62, were sentenced by Judge Lisa Godbey Wood in individual virtual court sessions. Trotta got 14 months, Grady was given 12 months and one day, and Hennessy was sentenced to 10 months; all were ordered to pay restitution and were given years of supervised release. As cases of Covid-19 engulfed Georgia, the defendants reluctantly agreed to proceed with their sentencing without appearing in person. Only Mark Colville, 59, has yet to be sentenced. Colville refuses to travel to Georgia because of the coronavirus and will not give up his constitutional right to an in-person sentencing before the court.
Highlighting Others’ Plights
Prison is a barbaric punishment, and the possibility of death and major illness from Covid-19 has only made incarceration all the more brutal. The U.S. surpassed 11 million cases of coronavirus just last week, and officials continue to mishandle containing the pandemic in prisons across the country.
“It shouldn’t be that the court is trying to deter people from acting according to their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Daloisio told The Intercept. “In terms of rehabilitation, I think everyone agrees that there’s no rehabilitating people from the position that human beings have the right to live, not under the threat of nuclear annihilation, not under the threat of the destruction of the whole planet.”