Background history and philosophy
The Ploughshares movement originated in the North American faith-based
peace movement. Many priests and nuns in the 1970s began to resist the Vietnam
War, thereby connecting with the radical political secular movements. When the
war ended, the arms race and nuclear weapons became the focus of resistance.
There was a deep sense of urgency. Ordinary protests did not suffice - the
nuclear arms race continued to escalate.
People responded by engaging in more confrontative nonviolent resistance.
The underlying rationale was that if people were expected to risk their lives
for their country in war then we have to be willing to risk something for
peace. Catholic Workers, and other communities such as Jonah House in
Baltimore, US, became the base of the movement. These communities combined
solidarity work for the inner city poor (soup kitchens, shelters etc) and
nonviolent resistance to the US war machine.
The first Ploughshares action was carried out in 1980. On September 9th the
'Ploughshares Eight' entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia,
Pennsylvania, US, where the nose cones for the Mark 12A nuclear warheads were
manufactured. Enacting the Biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3)
to "beat swords into ploughshares", they hammered on two of the nose
cones and poured blood on documents. They were arrested, tried by a jury,
convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1½ to 10 years. After a
series of appeals that lasted ten years they were re-sentenced to time they
had already served - from several days to 23½ months.
Although the name comes from the Hebrew scripture, the Ploughshares
movement is not a Christian or Jewish movement. It includes people of
different faiths and philosophies. Actually, in most Ploughshares groups the
members adhere to a range of different faiths or philosophies. Some people
have seen their action arising out of the Biblical prophecy of Isaiah and as
witnessing to the kingdom of God. Others, coming from a secular perspective,
have viewed their action as being primarily motivated by a humanist or deeply
held conscience commitment to nonviolence and solidarity with the poor. Then
again there have been other people with a range of religious, moral or
political convictions. What they all have in common is a striving to abolish
war in solidarity with the poor, an engagement in constructive conversion of
arms and military related industry into life affirming production, and the
development of nonviolent methods for resolving conflicts.
Since the Ploughshares Eight many people have continued the disarmament
work. Using simple tools such as household hammers, ordinary people continued
disarming weapons in a small but effective way. As of August 1997 over 140
individuals had participated in over 60 Ploughshares actions in Australia,
Germany, Holland, Sweden, UK and US. The smallest group of hammerers consisted
of one person (who had only one support person) - Harmonic Disarmament for
Life, and the largest group of hammerers consisted of nine people and was
called Trident Nein.
There have been very many different weapon systems that have been disarmed.
There have been components of US first-strike nuclear weapon systems such as
the MX, Pershing II, Cruise, Minuteman ICBM's, Trident II missiles, Trident
submarines, B-52 bombers, P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft, the NAVSTAR
system and nuclear capable battleships. Combat aircraft used for military
intervention, such as helicopters, the F-111 and F-15E fighter bombers and the
Hawk aircraft as well as other weapons including anti-aircraft missile
launchers, bazooka grenade throwers and AK-5 automatic rifles, have also been
disarmed. Model weapons have also been disarmed at an arms bazaar.
The most common way of disarming weapons in Ploughshares actions is to use
a hammer. Ordinary household hammers. Activists have hammered on nosecones,
loading mechanisms, breech-sights, barrels, control panels, bomb mountings,
bomb pylons, bomb guidance antennas and so on. Hammers are used to begin the
process of disarmament. The hammer is used to take apart as well as create and
point to the urgency for conversion of war production to products that enhance
People who have been involved in Ploughshares actions have undertaken a
process of intense spiritual preparation, nonviolence training and community
formation, and have given careful consideration to the risks involved.
Extensive care is taken to prevent any violence from occurring during the
action. Accepting full responsibility, Ploughshares activists always
peacefully await arrest following each act in order to participate in a public
conversation about the particular issues which the action raises: nuclear
weapons, arms exports to repressive regimes, military defence, democracy,
solidarity and so on. The goal is to reach an agreement, a democratic decision
The backgrounds of Ploughshares activists vary widely. Parents,
grandparents, veterans, former lawyers, teachers, artists, musicians, poets,
priests, sisters, house-painters, carpenters, writers, health-care workers,
students, gardeners, advocates of the poor and homeless - all have
participated in Ploughshares actions.
With the exception of the Aegis Ploughshares and the first Australian
Ploughshares group, all Ploughshares activists have been prosecuted for their
actions. While most Ploughshares activists have pled not-guilty and have gone
to trial, several Ploughshares and disarmament activists opted to plead 'guilty'
or 'no contest' to charges brought against them. All of the trials, except one,
have ended in convictions. The exception is the four women in Seeds of Hope -
East Timor Ploughshares in the UK, who disarmed a Hawk fighter plane destined
for export to Indonesia. In July 1996 the jury in Liverpool found them
not-guilty. Members of the Epiphany Ploughshares were tried an unprecedented 5
times with mistrials and 3 trials ending in hung juries.
During trials most of the defendants have represented themselves and have
been assisted by legal advisers. Many Ploughshares defendants have attempted
to show that their actions were morally and legally justified, and that their
intent was to protect life, not commit a crime. Almost all US judges have
denied this testimony and have prohibited the justification/necessity defenses,
whereas in Europe the situation is different. Some US judges, including those
who presided in the trials of the Epiphany Ploughshares and Pax-Christi Spirit
of Life Ploughshares, issued gag orders and found defendants in contempt of
court for speaking about the truth of their action. Those convicted for
Ploughshares actions have received sentences ranging from suspended sentences
to 18 years in prison. The average prison sentence has been between one and
Art Laffin of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C.,
US, writes, "In my view, the basic hope of the Ploughshares actions is to
communicate from the moment of entry into a plant or base - and throughout the
court and prison witness - an underlying faith that the power of nonviolent
love can overcome the forces of violence; a reverence for the sacredness of
all life and creation; a plea for justice for the victims of poverty and the
arms race; an acceptance of personal responsibility for the dismantling and
the physical conversion of the weapons; and a spiritual conversion of the
heart to the way of justice and reconciliation. Thus, Ploughshares
participants believe that the physical dismantling of the weapon and the
personal disarmament of the heart is a reciprocal process. As Phil Berrigan
states, 'We try to disarm ourselves by disarming weapons'".
People who do Ploughshares actions are ordinary people who, with all their
weaknesses, are attempting to respond truthfully to a call of nonviolence.
These actions are not to be glamorised or taken lightly. People have taken
great risks, experienced the loneliness and dehumanization of prison, and have
had to cope with many difficult personal and family hardships. Building and
sustaining an active nonviolent resistance community takes commitment and is
certainly not problem-free. Yet with all their limitations and imperfections,
these actions are powerful reminders that we can live in a world without
weapons and war if people are willing to begin the process of disarmament,
including learning nonviolent ways of dealing with conflicts. While these
actions usually are deemed criminal by the state, they should be considered a
sign of hope in a violent time. Although each Ploughshares action has many
similarities to others, in the end each is unique, each is a learning process,
each is an experiment in truth.