Judge Gives Anti-Nuclear Weapons Protesters a Way to Voice Their Cause

by Barb and Hank Van den Berg

On July 13, 2013, 24 “PeaceWorks-KC” protesters were arrested for trespassing after they crossed the property line of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Kansas City Plant in Missouri. This new five-building facility makes 85 percent of the components that go into U.S. nuclear weapons, according to defense contractor Honeywell. The anti-nuclear protesters included priests, sisters, Catholic Workers and other peace activists from both the Kansas City and Des Moines areas. Some of the arrested pleaded not guilty, some refused to pay court fees, and several requested a jury trial in order to share their nonviolent message with a jury of their peers.

On December 13, 2013, eight of the arrested came before a court in Kansas City, Missouri. Presiding was Judge Ardie Bland. He stated in court, “I volunteered to take this case because I’ve done this before with Mr. Stoever, and I find it interesting. If you’re not getting to anyone else, you’re getting to me. I think you’re educating, because every time I learn something.” Judge Bland is sympathetic to the need to question laws from his study of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

During the trial, the defense lawyer, Henry Stoever, asked each defendant to explain why they entered the property of the nuclear weapons plant. Their answers emphasized the immorality of causing pain and suffering, the inevitability of death and destruction, the right to disobey immoral laws, and the desire to never repeat a Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Trespassing was motivated by the defendants’ conscience and a profound sense of the wrongness of nuclear weapons.

There were many notable testimonies from the trial. Kendrea White, the prosecutor for the City of Kansas asked Father Carl Kabat: “Should you obey rules?” Father Carl responded: “If the rules are wrong, we should disobey them. We each have our own conscience to follow. If there was a gas chamber across the street, I would say that we should all go out and destroy it!”

Henry Stoever, attorney for the defendants, commented to Father Jerry Zawada, “Fr. Jerry, you’re no Johnny-come-lately. In 1988, you came before federal Judge Joseph Stevens three times for resisting the Minuteman II missiles in Missouri.” Father Jerry immediately corrected him: “Five times. I came before Judge Stevens five times.” Father Jerry then continued: “We must transform our preoccupation with nuclear weapons. We need to become people of conscience.”

Judge Bland then asked: “Becoming a ‘people of conscience’ means causing destruction to missile silos?” Father Jerry answered, “I would want to propose alternatives to missile silos.” Judge Bland teased Father Jerry when he asked: “I just wanted to know if I was going to see you again in a few weeks?” Father Jerry replied: “If this is an invitation, I accept it.” The court room burst out in laughter.

Two other defendants, Betsy Keenan and Georgia Walker, sited the contamination of Kansas City from the nuclear weapons plant in their testimonies. Georgia Walker stated, “I have two aunts who worked at the IRS office at the Bannister Federal Complex, where the current nuclear weapons parts plant has been since 1949. My two aunts died at ages 61 and 62 from ‘strange’ cancers. Now, the federal government gives Honeywell a new place to devastate. Of 650 claims concerning workers’ compensation, only 75 workers have been compensated. Stand up against injustice. Don’t repeat the same mistake of endangering employees at the new plant.”

Henry Stoever repeated the moral issues brought up by the defendants by concluding, “These weapons indiscriminately kill noncombatants, civilians, all life. Everybody is ignoring the elephant, or rather the monster in the room. It’s a moral imperative to oppose nuclear weapons. I think it is also a legal imperative.”

At the end of the proceedings, Judge Bland called the defendants towards the bench. He announced that he had no choice but to find them guilty of trespassing. But, instead of jail time or community service, he surprised the court by sentencing each of the defendants to write answers to six questions that came to him during this trial. Judge Bland said, “Your responses will be attached to the court record, which is a public record. They will exist as long as Kansas City exists. My way will give you a chance to say what you want to say.” The sentence was considered a just outcome for the nuclear weapons resisters, the court room erupted in applause and cheers, and many people lined up to shake hands with Judge Bland. Defendant Bix Bichsel repeated his satisfaction with the sentence by adding this comment to his written answers: “Through your conscientious judgments you are guiding your court to be a sanctuary of justice-dealing for all people. Thank you for your judgment.”

Questions 1-3 address the issue of nuclear weapons as a defensive military policy and pose ‘what if’ scenarios that suggest that the defendants might have a change of opinion if nuclear weapons were released upon the United States. Here is the exact wording of Judge Bland’s six questions:

  1. If North Korea, China or one of the Middle Eastern countries dropped a nuclear bomb on a U.S. city tomorrow, would that change your opinion about nuclear weapons?
  2. If Germany or Japan had used nuclear weapons first in World War II, do you think that would have changed your opinion?
  3. What would you say to those who say, “If we [the U.S.] do not have the big stick, that is, if we get rid of our nuclear weapons, and other countries develop nuclear weapons, then we do not have the opportunity to fight back”?  In their testimonies in court, many of the defendants spoke of their religion influencing their anti-nuclear weapons stand. Judge Bland therefore sought further clarifications on God, religious beliefs, and law in questions 4-6.
  4. You defendants say you are Christians and one is a Buddhist. Fr. [Carl] Kabat says that you should disobey ungodly laws. How do you respond to someone who believes there is no God? Who is to say what God believes, for example, when Christians used God to justify slavery and the Crusades?
  5. How do you respond to those who have a God different from you when they argue that their religion is to crush others into dust?
  6. Who determines what ‘God’s law’ is, given the history of the USA and the world?

On January 22, 2014, lawyer Henry Stoever submitted the defendants’ written answers. The ‘what if’ type questions 1-3 did not change their opinions about nuclear weapons and they did not waiver in their belief of the immorality of nuclear weapons.

Among the noteworthy passages from the defendants’ answers is Father Kabat’s reference to key legal opinions. For example, he cites Judge Christopher Weeramanty’s opinion from the 1996 World Court of Justice, who said “…the use of nuclear weapons is illegal in any circumstances whatsoever. It violates the fundamental principles of international law, and represents the very negation of the humanitarian concerns which underlie the structure of humanitarian law. It offends conventional law and, in particular, the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, and Article 23(a) of the Hague Regulations of 1907. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons contradicts the fundamental principle of the dignity and worth of the human person on which all law depends. It endangers the human environment in a manner which threatens the entirety of life on the planet.”

In answer to the first question, Jane Stoever emphasized the contamination from the Kansas City nuclear weapons plant. There is suffering from not only victims from bombing, but also from the people who work in the manufacturing plants for these weapons. Siting various local news reports, she wrote that a “4/13/2011 list from NBC Action News, Channel 41 in Kansas City, includes 154 persons who family members said had died from exposure to the [Bannister Federal] complex’s contaminants, and about 250 additional persons who said they were ill because of exposure to the contaminants.” Other information from the same report indicates that nearly 900 toxins have been found in the complex, including beryllium, asbestos and plutonium.

Georgia Walkers’ answers to question number 2 and 3 are forceful. “My opposition to nuclear weapons would not have been diminished if any other country had been first to use them. The point is that using devastating weapons of mass destruction against any country is a crime not because of who perpetrated the act but because of what the act accomplished. Vaporizing humans and all living things with an atomic bomb is an act of moral depravity no matter which country does it or for what reasons it is executed. A crime is a crime… The countries which possess nuclear weapons are holding the whole world hostage with the fear and trembling that these weapons could destroy the entire planet through evil intent or careless accident. This is a great injustice which must be resisted with every ounce of courage that we can muster!”

An individual’s conscience was a major theme in many of the defendants’ answers. Lauren Logan wrote that in reference to God’s law, “It is not the point of God or his law. It’s not politics or history or anything else that has brought me to the decision that nuclear war needs to be forever destroyed; it was listening to my conscience, something we all have, and realizing that anything that can be so detrimental to our world… is bad!”

Many of the defendants answered questions with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. In commenting on law, Jane Stoever used this quote from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”: “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws… There are two types of law: just and unjust… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is not law at all.’”

Father Jerry Zawada quoted Attorney Bill Quigley, his friend and a law professor very much respected throughout the judicial world: “There is a difference between Laws and Justice. Laws must be continuously reinterpreted and changed as understanding and circumstances progress in order to ensure Justice (which is the objective).”

William J. “Bix” Bichsel’s answer to question four expanded upon God’s law by writing: “Whether a person believes in God or not, there are secular codes of human conduct such as the Declaration of Human Rights which mesh and agree with the tenets of varying religious traditions. These rights and a body of international law form a juridical and humanitarian basis for the judging and safeguarding of humanity and human conduct.”

There is no doubt that members of Nebraskans for Peace who have been involved in similar anti-nuclear weapons protests, would consider this unusual punishment given by Judge Ardie Bland as a great step forward in the judicial system’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of nonviolent civil disobedience. It is important that the defendants’ answers have been made part of the court record. Hopefully Judge Bland’s wisdom will impact the way other law enforcement organizations handle peaceful protests.

And the anti-nuclear weapons protests will continue as part of PeaceWorksKC upcoming actions which they call the “Trifecta Resista 2014.” On Sunday, May 31, 2014, there will be another action at the Bannister Federal Complex, the old National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons parts plant and site of serious contamination. That evening after the action, nationally known peace activists, including Kathy Kelly from “Voices for Creative Nonviolence” and Medea Benjamin from “Code Pink” will speak. Find more information at http://peaceworkskc.org.

This article borrowed from the following: Megan Fincher, “Trial of Anti-nuclear Activists Ends with Unusual Sentence,” National Catholic Reporter, January 3-16, 2014, p.1 and 16 and the online version at http://ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/trial-anti-nuclear-activists-ends-unusual-sentence.

Lu Mountenay, “Judge Calls 9 Nuke Resisters Guilty but Surprises Them with Sentence,” is most easily accessible by going to http://peaceworkskc.org.

Add Comment


No Comments