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During 1986, 25 individuals were in prisons in the U.S. for actions taken in obedience to the Nuremberg anti-genocide principles and related international law. The 25 are members of the Plowshares movement which protests production and deployment of nuclear weapons by physically interfering with preparations for nuclear war. Since 1980, 65 people have participated in 18 such actions. Protesters enter nuclear weapons’ sites and attempt to dismantle or damage weapons components and related equipment.

Plowshares actions are taken in obedience to international laws, including the St. Petersburg, Hague, and Geneva conventions (which forbid military targeting of civilian populations) and the Nuremberg statutes. Under the Nuremberg principles, the Allies executed Nazi officers for failing to rebel against German war crimes. In the single case where a U.S. judge allowed the Nuremberg principles to be argued, all defendants were acquitted.

 In an apparent effort to break the spirit of Plowshares members, federal judges have handed down some extraordinary prison sentences. For example, Helen Woodson, a single parent with 10 adopted children (nine with disabilities), received an 18-year term. Her role in a 30-minute assault on a 100-ton concrete-and-steel Minuteman silo cover (which is designed to withstand a direct nuclear attack), using a rented jack-hammer, was labelled by the court as “sabotage.” Woodson’s “co-saboteurs” included two Roman Catholic priests and a native American mental health care worker.

The hypocrisy of Justice Department treatment of Plowshares members is apparent when symbolic Plowshares actions are compared with cases where the Justice Department took no action, i.e. the failure of Eli Lilly Co. officials to report 28 deaths from its drug Oraflex or the defrauding of 400 banks of over $8 million by E.F. Hutton Corp.

The failure of the nation’s press to cover the Plowshares story was highlighted by William Dorman, professor of journalism at California State University, Sacramento: “These protesters were the first civilians in peacetime U.S. history to be charged and convicted of sabotage. If for no other reason than American journalism’s preoccupation with ‘firsts,’ the case met all of the usual requirements of a major news story. Yet for the national press corps, with the rare exception of columnist Mary McGrory, the entire affair … was deemed worthy of nothing more than a paragraph or two in wire service roundups and no mention at all on the evening news.”

(The Plowshares story originally was nominated by Martin Holladay on 6/19/86. At the time he was serving an 8-year prison sentence for damaging the lid of a nuclear missile silo in Missouri. Holladay was unexpectedly released from prison on 9/24/86 when a U.S. District Judge reduced his sentence to time served — 19 months.)


THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR, 12/1/85, “An Act of Conscience,” by Tristram Coffin; DEADLINES, 11/86, “As Pruning Hooks Go to Prison, National Press Looks the Other Way,” by William A. Dorman; PLOWSHARES-DISARMAMENT ACTIONS, 5/86, pamphlet by Isaiah Peace Ministry.