Hundreds of Americans, young and old, are regularly going to prison, sometimes for months or years or decades, for nonviolently resisting U.S. militarism.
They block ports, ships, submarines, trains full of weapons, trucks full of weapons, and gates to military bases. They take hammers to weapons of mass destruction, cause millions of dollars worth of damage, hang up banners, and wait to be arrested. They cause weapons systems to be canceled, facilities to be closed, and Pentagon policies to be changed. They educate and inspire greater resistance.
The people who do this take great risks. U.S. courts are extremely unpredictable, and the same action can easily result in no jail time or years behind bars. Many of these people have families, and the separation is usually painful. But many say they could not do this without their families or without their close-knit communities of like-thinking resisters. A support network of several people is generally needed for each resister.
More often than not, a great sacrifice is made with no apparent success in terms of governmental behavior, either immediately or even after a lengthy passage of time.
Police are becoming more violent. Sentences are growing longer, and prisons are becoming more awful.
Increasingly, the corporate media ignores such actions, dramatically reducing the educational and inspirational benefits. When Steve Downs was arrested for wearing a “give peace a chance” t-shirt in a shopping mall, a reporter called up a local peace group and tried to get them to admit they’d prompted Downs’ action. When they said they’d never heard of him, the reporter replied, “Oh, then it’s a legitimate story!” “In other words,” says Downs, “if a group protests in support of their constitutional rights, it’s not a legitimate story. If one hapless individual blunders into an arrest, then it is!”
And yet, people who devote themselves to nonviolently resisting war can know that they are part of a movement that does result in improved policies. And they can know that if more people joined them their chances of success would increase without limit. That is to say, if enough people joined in, complete success would be guaranteed. That is to say, peace on earth.
Rosalie Riegle has just published a wonderful collection called “Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family, and Community,” in which she transcribes her interviews of 68 peace resisters, friends, and family members — selected from 173 whom Riegle interviewed between 2004 and 2007. The book is not in the least polemical, more sociological. The speakers struggle with their memories and goals, and with questions about whether what they do is worth it.
The question of whether a sacrifice has been worth the effort often remains an open question for a very long time. This book collects heroic, inspiring, and eye-opening actions and presents them with undeniable honesty and humility. Imagine if millions of people were to read this book. Suddenly countless actions done quietly or with little notice would be having a whole new kind of impact, and actions engaged in decades back would be revived — perhaps in a more illuminating manner than before, as a result of the insights gained by the participants.
One resister quoted in “Doing Time for Peace,” Kathleen Rumpf, recalled an action she was part of in 1983:
“[W]e went [into the hangar] and saw the B-52 and began hammering. My little hammer would ping and then almost fly in my face without even leaving a mark. I painted on the plane: ‘This is our cry, this is our prayer of peace in the world.’ And the symbols we brought with us — the pictures of the children, the indictment that we put on the plane, the blood we poured . . . . I hung paper peace cranes on the different engines. (The FBI kept calling the cranes ‘paper airplanes’ like they called blood ‘red substance.’)
“We had decided we’d do twenty minutes of hammering and putting our stuff around, no more. In reality, we were there for about two and a half hours. We didn’t want to do more destruction, and we kept wondering what to do next. We phoned the press from their top security lines. We sang and prayed out on the tarmac. We went back in to go to the bathroom. We went up into a B-52 and looked around. Now, we were charged with sabotage. Had we been about that, we certainly would have had time to do it. Anyway, finally we were able to wave somebody down to arrest us. They were going to take us to the Burger King and drop us off, like they usually do for protests at Griffiss. I said, ‘Well, gee! You might want to check Hangar 101 before you release us.’
“So they go to the hangar and then they get on the walkie-talkies, and then we had about sixteen or eighteen guys with forty-inch necks, marching double time with M-16 rifles. They made us kneel in the sand, holding rifles on us.
“Then sitting on that bus . . . for eight, nine hours . . . with my hands behind my back and hearing this constant ‘Shut up! Shut up!’ We’d say, ‘Well, we didn’t join the military, you did.'”
The heroes — and I use the term intentionally — in this book include atheists and members of various religions, but they are disproportionately Catholic and part of the Catholic Worker movement. This raises all sorts of questions for an atheist like myself who believes both that the world would be better off without religion and that the world would be better off if more people behaved as do these religiously motivated Catholics.
The primary problem with activists is their insistence on knowing that success is likely before they act. This results in a tremendous amount of inaction. So, when these religious activists say they do not care about success, or they are acting in order to suffer, or they are seeking personal transformation, I’m not eager to reject their position. I believe we are facing a crisis of militarism and environmental destruction that threatens human survival. I believe we have a moral duty to act, regardless of the chances of success. These peace resisters speak of opposing militarism in appropriately moral terms, I think. But I believe our duty is to act in the manner most likely to succeed, as far as we can identify it. Sometimes I think that is this sort of nonviolent resistance, but not always.
The resisters do not agree on everything. Some go limp when arrested. Some plead guilty. Some request the harshest sentence. Some view their defense in court and their attempt to achieve acquittal to be a central part of the action.
And some have moved toward a type of action unlikely to result in prison time, namely travel to nations threatened by or under attack by the U.S. government or its allies. Sending peace teams into zones threatened with war or facing ongoing war and occupation can involve great risk and sacrifice. It can employ the hands-on, face-to-face interactions that peace resisters value. Friendships and alliances can be built across borders that help to educate the people of both nations and influence their governments. And all without the months behind bars.
Peace resisters are my kind of Catholics. Compare them to the Pope, a former Nazi-youth whose Christmas message this week was, first, hatred for gay people, and, second, interaction between the world’s religions — not disarmament, not a cease-fire. Outgrowing the need for religion, and in the process losing a cause of deadly division, wasn’t mentioned, of course. But the resisters in Riegle’s collection often include their disbelief in death as part of what motivates them, what takes away their fear. And why would I want to take that away from them?
Albert Camus, generally identified as an atheist, is a frequent source of inspiration for religious resisters. Camus was very much a mournful ex-theist ever in the process of very-regretfully losing his religion and proclaiming the world absurd without it. These resisters manage to erase that absurdity. They eliminate their worries over risks of horrible fates, through their willingness to put everything on the line. Perhaps to some extent they believe they’re fully insured. They clearly feel a sense of freedom when they set all worry behind them and declare their willingness to accept any suffering whatsoever in order to promote peace and resist war making.
More of us, all of us, should be moving in that direction.