The nuclear-arms abolitionist movement known as Plowshares was born on September 9, 1980, when eight activists (including, most notably, Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan) vandalized a factory in Pennsylvania where nose cones for ballistic missiles were being manufactured. These activists, who became widely known as the “Plowshares Eight,” used hammers to pound two missile casings in a symbolic attempt to “beat swords into plowshares” (a phrase derived from biblical passages in Isaiah [2:4] and Micah [4:3]). They also poured blood on military documents at the site and offered “prayers for peace.” A jury eventually convicted the Plowshares Eight of burglary, conspiracy, and criminal mischief, sentencing them to prison terms of five to ten years apiece. Testifying in court on their behalf were such notables as Ramsey Clark, Richard Falk, and Howard Zinn. After several appeals, the defendants were re-sentenced and paroled.
Rejecting military action under any and all circumstances, Plowshares’ worldview maintains an “underlying faith that the power of nonviolent love can overcome the forces of violence.” As Philip Berrigan stated in the group’s behalf, “We try to disarm ourselves by disarming the weapons.” Another early spokesman for Plowshares was Bob Bossie, who later created the anti-war group Voices in the Wilderness in 1995.
Throughout Plowshares’ history, hammers and blood have remained the principal items that the movement’s members use in their direct actions, which are intended to “expose the violence, secrecy, and idolatry of the national security state.” “Hammers,” Plowshares explains, “are used to literally begin the process of disarmament that thousands of talks and numerous treaties have failed to accomplish—and to point to the urgency for conversion of war production to products that enhance life. The blood symbolizes the mass killing that weapons of mass destruction can inflict, as well as the murderous cost they now impose on the poor.”
To this day, Plowshares’ actions usually involve some form of property destruction, for which its members claim a religious pretext. By Plowshares’ reckoning, “trying to dismantle a weapon of mass murder is not an act of violence [or] vandalism,” but rather “an act of disarmament.” Seeking to “unmask the false religion and worship of national security,” Plowshares contends that weapons of war are “anti-God, anti-life, and therefore, are inherently evil and have no right to exist.” “[I]t is the responsibility of people of faith and conscience to begin to nonviolently dismantle these weapons,” says the organization.
Invoking “biblical vision” as their justification for sabotage, Plowshares activists have attempted to symbolically and/or actually impair such varied weapons as rifles, grenade throwers, missiles and missile launchers, Trident submarines, B-52 bombers, and P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft, to name just a few. In 1982, for example, activists hammered a Trident submarine and poured blood on its missile hatches and sonar equipment. Then they spray painted the words “USS Auschwitz” on the vessel, signifying their “belief that such a weapon has no more right to exist than the Nazi gas ovens.”
Condemning “the U.S. government’s first-strike nuclear policy, its military interventionist policy, and its commitment to wage a war against the poor of the world to protect its economic interests,” Plowshares advocates a “born-again” economy that redirects military expenditures into programs designed to help the sick and destitute.
On April 30, 2008, three Plowshares activists snuck into New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau and punctured an inflated radome used in the ECHELON signal-interception program, causing $1.2 million in damages. On November 2, 2009, a Plowshares action took place at the Kitsap-Bangor U.S. naval base (in Washington state), where America’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons are stored or deployed on Trident submarines.
By 2010, more than 200 individuals had participated in nearly 80 Plowshares actions since the movement’s founding. These activists typically do not flee from the sites where they carry out their missions of sabotage, but remain there and seek to publicly justify their “divine disobedience.” They often intend, moreover, to get arrested for their actions and thereby draw attention to their cause. In most cases, they have been prosecuted in jury trials, the majority of which have ended in convictions and penalties ranging from suspended sentences to eighteen years in prison; the average sentence has been between one and two years behind bars.
Plowshares actions have occurred not only in the U.S., but also in such countries as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Holland, Sweden, and England.
In July 2010, more than 180 Plowshares activists convened in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Plowshares movement.
On July 28, 2012, three Plowshares activists, Sister Megan Rice, 82, Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, and Michael Walli, 63, who compose the Transform Now Plowshares movement, breached security at the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons facility Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, causing the government to temporarily shut down the weapons facility. Once inside a “secure” area, the activists hung protest banners on a uranium storage site, poured human blood and spray-painted the walls with anti-war slogans. Following a trial, the three activists were convicted in early May 2013 on the charges of damaging federal property, willful damage of national security premises and intending to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States. All three are currently jailed without bail, awaiting their sentencing on September 23, 2013. Each is facing up to 35 years in prison.