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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 life.

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 about disarmament.

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 two years.

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.


Farwell to Arms

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