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Mobtown Beat

A New Kind of Cell

Jonah House Says Farewell to Sisters Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte, who are Headed to Federal Prison

By Laura Lewis | Posted 7/23/2003

Hundreds of Baltimoreans said goodbye last Tuesday, July 15, to two spiritual leaders headed on a cross-country journey. The trip ahead for the two devout women, who left town on July 18, is no traditional religious mission or even a vacation from a life of hard work. The destination for these Roman Catholic Dominican nuns is federal prison.

On Friday, July 25, sisters Carol Gilbert, 55, and Ardeth Platte, 67, both members of Baltimore's Jonah House, a religious community that advocates for peace and social justice, will appear in a Colorado federal court to hear their sentences for a felonious act of "sabotage" that took place at a Colorado missile silo last fall. Their accomplice, Sister Jackie Hudson, 68, of Poulsbo, Wash., will be sentenced as well.

On the morning of Oct. 6, 2002, the three nuns broke into the Minuteman III missile silo at a farm near Greeley, Colo., wearing white jumpsuits that read cwit (for Citizens Weapons Inspection Team) and disarmament specialists on the back. They symbolically "disarmed" the weapon by hammering on the silo's concrete lid with household hammers and drawing crosses on it with their own blood. When police officers demanded that they leave the site, the nuns refused; they were arrested and charged with obstructing national defense and destruction of government property, felonies that carry maximum terms of 30 years in prison.

They were held in Clear Creek County Jail near Denver for seven months waiting for trial in U.S. District Court; their trial began March 31. They were found guilty by a jury and are headed back to Colorado on Friday to receive sentencing. The nuns are peace activists and insist that they committed no crime--rather, they say, they were moved to bring attention to the United States' possession of weapons of mass destruction (nearly 50 missiles fitted with nuclear warheads) as the war with Iraq was looming. They were convicted despite expert testimony on their behalf that their actions did not actually cause real harm to the missiles or national defense.

The nuns' arrest and trial gained the attention of media across the country, including The Sun, which published a July 6 op-ed on their dramatic arrest and surprising conviction; the convictions will likely earn them a minimum of six to 10 years in prison.

For the some 200 supporters from the Baltimore area and up and down the East Coast, who gathered last Tuesday at St. Peter Claver Church Hall in West Baltimore for an informal potluck dinner and talk, it was difficult to imagine that the sisters would be going to prison for their actions.

"Carol and Ardeth teach us the essence of good nonviolence," Willa Bickham, a Viva House Catholic worker, told the crowd. "They are good women, they are holy women. We don't want to see them go."

The goal of eliminating weapons of mass destruction seems lofty for these mild-mannered former schoolteachers, but they say they will not give up on their mission to stop the U.S. government from killing innocent people. They say they will not be complicit with a violent foreign policy.

"Nuremberg teaches us that we have a responsibility to stop the criminality of our government," Platte says.

The United States was forced to destroy 150 silos holding Minuteman III missiles as part of its 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II with Russia. Government reports indicate that 500 deployed Minuteman III missiles still remain in the country, though they are not legal under international law. Gilbert and Platte say they do not want the Minuteman III or any weapons of mass destruction that make up the U.S. defense arsenal used in their names by the "merchants of killing."

"[Minuteman III] is not a defensive weapon," Gilbert says.

Their commitment to ending what they say is U.S. citizens' complicity in illegal and deadly activities is what led to the nuns' actions in Colorado. Their protest was part of a movement called "Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares," which has held more than 75 similar actions across the United States since 1980.

Gilbert, Platte, and Hudson spent nine months preparing for their 2002 mission, a process that Gilbert compares to the hard work and result of a full-term pregnancy: "We birthed our actions on the early morning hours of October 6," she says.

Those actions involved donning the white Tyvek suits and carrying their hammers and baby bottles full of their own blood to the unmanned missile site in Colorado. Using bolt cutters, they cut through a chain lock on a gate and three sections of fence surrounding the silo, to symbolically allow access for the rest of America and to inspect the weapons for themselves. They then drew six crosses of blood on the silo, its lid, and the tracks used to open it.

"We inspected, we exposed, and we symbolically disarmed," Gilbert says.

As they hammered on the 110-ton silo lid, they prayed, "Oh, God, teach us how to be peacemakers in a hostile world," a mantra they used to open the farewell gathering last week.

When military personnel first arrived at the silo, the sisters say they could not hear what the federal officers were saying and held up their hands in a sign of nonaggression. Minutes later, they say, two Humvees arrived carrying soldiers armed with M-16s and grenade launchers.

Gilbert says the sisters told them, "We're nonviolent. We've come in peace." But she says all they heard on the other end was a surprised military voice saying, "They're singing Christian songs"--a detail that brought laughter from the crowd at St. Peter Claver.

They were first charged with federal trespassing (this charge was later dropped) and later with "willful injury, interference and obstruction of national defense," and "depredation of government property," which are considered sabotage. These felonies could put Gilbert away for six to seven and a half years, and Platte for seven and a half to nine and a half years, which means she will be in her late 70s before she is released from prison. They made motions for acquittal, new trials, and mistrials, all of which were denied.

Platte does not expect the judge to be entirely compassionate in his sentencing. "He could have acquitted us four times," she says. "He could have dropped all charges. We feel these charges are bogus to begin with. We think if it had been a just trial, we would have been acquitted."

The nuns are undaunted by the fact that they will probably serve their time in separate prisons, far from home. Both have spent small amounts of time in jail before for misdemeanors stemming from earlier protests. They also say that when they were in jail waiting for trial on these latest charges they received between 5,000 and 6,000 letters of support from well-wishers-- communications that they say made them feel less alone.

"All the while we were in jail we could feel a tidal wave of grace that came to us," Platte says. "We could feel peace."

As they face harder and longer prison time, that sense of peace remains, Platte says. But so does the sense that their work is unfinished.

"I don't fear prison. I don't fear death," Gilbert says. "I fear I haven't lived a hard enough and long enough life with the gifts God has given me."

It seems that the community is already committed to picking up where Gilbert and Platte must leave off. Since Gilbert and Platte's Oct. 6 "plowshare," or direct action--their fourth one so far--Platte says there have been four more "plowshares" completed by others, both here and abroad. And she says there are still more to come.

On July 26, for example, the day after the sisters are sentenced, local activists affiliated with the Baltimore Emergency Response Network plan to demonstrate in opposition to A-10 Warthog ground-attack planes stationed at Martin State Airport in Middle River.

Similar protests are planned at the 49 Minuteman III silos in Colorado and at the hundreds of missile silos in Wyoming, Nebraska, and North Dakota. These protests will involve covering the silos with crime tape to symbolize their illegality.

In an emotional moment during the nuns' send-off, community members raised their hands and repeated to the sisters, "Go in confidence, God's love, and grace go with you."

The sisters, in turn, offered their supporters some peace of mind. Gilbert provided a few words of anonymous wisdom to keep everyone from losing hope: "When the caterpillar thought it was the end of the world, it became a butterfly," she said. "We are the ones that must become the butterflies."

"I have no fear," Platte added. "God is with us. "

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