When Ploughshares met the US Air Force
By Bergen O'Brien and Reihana Mohideen
On January 1, 1991, Sue Franknel and Bill Strait (US citizens), Moana Cole from New Zealand and Ciaron O'Reilly from Brisbane — calling themselves "Anzus Ploughshares" — seriously compromised the security at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York state.
This protest against the looming Gulf War earned each of them a year in prison.
"Griffiss had the highest security rating in the US Air Force. Why we picked it was basically, the head of the air force had announced the B-52s were being readied, and that they would be used to bomb downtown Baghdad", Ciaron told Green Left Weekly.
The Ploughshares were also aware that the base had three B-52 bombers on 10-minute alert. According to Ciaron, this had been the case since the 1950s. At seven B-52 bases, three of the craft are prepared for a first-strike nuclear attack.
The four, all from a Catholic Worker Community, had been working with homeless people in New York and Washington DC doing soup runs, and providing for the helpless. They began to meet and formed the Anzus Ploughshares.
They named themselves after the military arrangement between their countries, and after a prophecy in Isaiah that nations would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
"We felt people from our countries, which have a horrible history and relationship to the Third World, could begin a new kind of alliance", said Ciaron.
On New Year's Day, two weeks before the aerial attack on Baghdad, they made their way to Griffiss. "[Moana and I] went to the runway, and Bill and Sue went to the bombers."
Sue and Bill threw blood they had brought with them over a B-52 bomber. With hammers, they began to disarm it. In the three minutes before they were arrested, they managed to put a crack in the fuselage.
"When they approached the bomber it was on 10-minute alert. It had 36 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on it. After three minutes' work, it was no longer in operation. It was out of action for two months, which is most of the war", Ciaron noted.
"Moana and I meanwhile were working on the runway. We wrote on the runway, 'No more bombing of children — Hiroshima, Vietnam, Middle East or anywhere else. Love your enemies. Isaiah strikes again."
With sledge-hammers, they began to take up the runway. "We actually ended up on the runway for over an hour and a half. We were passed by at least seven security vehicles", says Ciaron.
The base had been on red alert since 6.10 a.m., when Sue and Bill had been arrested. Security vehicles arrested people from around the base who had nothing to do with the protest. Meanwhile, Moana and Ciaron were half way down the two-mile long runway, hard at work and completely ignored.
"Each time a security vehicle would go past, we would put the hammers down, so they wouldn't think they were guns, and pick up a banner. They'd go by, we'd put the banner down and get back to taking up the runway", he said.
The grand jury delivered two indictments against the Ploughshares: conspiracy, and destruction of government property. The air force wanted the Ploughshares also to be charged with sabotage. However, the prosecution, which had charged a similar group eight years earlier, had lost the sabotage count.
During court proceedings the Ploughshares had access to the transcripts of radio communications on the base. According to Ciaron, the first words that identified Bill and Sue were "there are two peace activists" on the Griffiss base.
"By the time we came to trial, we weren't peace activists, we were criminals, we were vandals, but the first identification was that here are two people carrying out an act of peace."
In court they argued that the case on several grounds. One was the US government's signing of agreements outlawing weapons of mass destruction.
"The B-52 bomber is obviously outlawed and has no status of property under law. It is actually contraband. You can't be charged for destroying a sack full of heroin, or a stack of child pornography, because under law, child pornography and heroin have no status as property. In the same way, these weapons of mass destruction aren't property at all, they're contraband", asserts Ciaron. "They didn't go for that, they decided to prosecute us."
The Ploughshares then attempted a defence of necessity, requiring them to prove four things. They were required to prove there was an imminent danger. They believed that the danger to millions of Arabs would suffice. They also had to demonstrate that the action averted that danger, that they had no other option at the time, and that the action was proportional to the perceived threat.
The Ploughshares were supported by expert witnesses who were prepared to offer legal and historical evidence. These included former New Zealand prime minister David Lange and former US attorney general Ramsey Clark.
"The judge ruled against our necessity defence on a really flimsy basis. He said we would have had to disarm every B-52 bomber in the US arsenal to qualify for one element of the necessity defence", Ciaron recalls.
The judge also refused to allow the expert witnesses' testimony. The Ploughshares were left with their own testimonies as defence.
"The prosecutor ended his cross-examination of Moana by saying 'Moana, you live at a Catholic Workers Community'; she said yes. 'If you woke one morning and saw four people digging up your driveway and beating on your soup van, would you regard this as non-violent action?', and he sat down feeling like he'd made a complete idiot of her", he continued.
"We got up and asked her one question: 'Moana, describe to the court the destructive capacity of a Catholic Workers soup van', and she could go on to say that we don't carry napalm cluster bombs, we carry food, water and blankets."
The jury, however, returned a finding of guilty. As part of their preparation, the Anzus Ploughshares spent time with other Ploughshares who had done up to five years in prison, talking about how to stay healthy in jail and how to carry on resistance inside prison.
"Once we didn't get the sabotage charge, we were looking at two to three years, which is what the previous group in 1984 had got for doing the same action, at the same place. We were quite pleasantly surprised when we got 12 months", Ciaron said.
The Anzus Ploughshares decided at the end of the war that the peace movement had made a number of mistakes. One, according to Ciaron, was to mobilise people on fear and self-interest rather than love and solidarity (for Arab people and for military resisters).
"More serious resistance came out of the military than came out of the peace movement. Two thousand military personnel filed conscientious objections, over 200 were court-martialled and received sentences from six months to six years."
The Ploughshares were the longest-serving civilian resisters to the Gulf War, but many military resisters, and conscientious objectors are still serving sentences.
"I felt that the peace movement had let down the military resisters. They basically said 'Don't go' to these women and men, and when they didn't go, the peace movement kind of abandoned them. They didn't really organise around their trial; that was a major flaw."
Another criticism Ciaron has is the peace movement getting people on the streets "on the basis of 'No more Vietnams — a lot of Americans are going to die over there' instead of saying a lot of Arabs are going to get butchered by us.
"Bush basically got up and said, 'Sure no more Vietnams, Vietnam will not happen again', and massacred, I think, a thousand Arabs for every American death.
"The other big point is that the US actually coopted a lot of our energies from the 1980s, where we created this nuclear anxiety. Now the US government are using that as a basis to bomb Iraq, or North Korea, or Libya, or anyone who's six months away from making the bomb."
The Ploughshares are continuing to protest against military technology, which they consider a major contributor to poverty.
"The ironic thing too is, there's so much respect for private property in the States, the FBI returned our hammers and our wire clippers. We were then able to hand them on to other people."
On January 6, 1993, Chris Cole made his way into a British Aerospace weapons factory in London and did over $1 million worth of damage to fighter aircraft nose cones, using the same hammer used at the Griffiss base.
"The war is not over for us, the war is not over for military resisters, the war is not over for the Arab people. And now we know the war isn't over for 14,000 Desert Storm veterans who have got this mysterious disease from handling depleted uranium rounds", concludes Ciaron.