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80-year-old peace activist faces prison for breaching Georgia submarine base

Eighty-year-old Liz McAlister doesn't regret her actions nearly two years ago, which landed her in jail.

McAlister was one of seven Catholic peace activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, who broke into the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Ga., on the night of April 4, 2018, to carry out “nonviolent acts of prophetic witness against the government’s possession of nuclear weapons.”

A federal jury in U.S. District Court for Southern Georgia in October found them all — McAlister, Father Stephen Kelly, Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Patrick O’Neill and Carmen Trotta — guilty of conspiracy, destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property and trespassing. The jury took less than two hours to deliberate and a judge’s order in the case prevented the jurors from hearing much of the defense the activists wanted to mount.

The defendants face more than 20 years in prison for being convicted of the three felonies and one misdemeanor but likely will be sentenced to far less time than that. McAlister, for her part, already has spent a year and a half in jail.

Sitting in a sunny room at the St. Francis House in New London one recent morning, where’s she’s been living since early November while she awaits sentencing, McAlister said she and the other defendants share "a profound concern about the destructive power of nuclear weapons.” 

It's not the first time McAlister had been sent to jail; a former nun, she is a longtime peace activist who has been arrested many times over the years for actions like the one carried out in Georgia. Activism plays a prominent role in her family: Her late husband, Philip Berrigan, was a nationally known peace advocate who led draft board raids and aroused opposition to the Vietnam War, and her daughter Frida Berrigan also participated in demonstrations and recently ran for mayor of New London as a Green Party candidate.

The family has protested war, agitated for civil rights and other causes and galvanized others across the country to do likewise.

Breaking into the Georgia base

Kings Bay is home to eight Ohio-class submarines armed with Trident missiles, which make up the sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. The defendants argued in court proceedings that the government’s continued possession, maintenance and development of these missiles constitutes a war crime, and that the submarines based at Kings Bay “have the destructive power to destroy millions of members of the human race and to inflict catastrophic damage to life for every person on Earth.”

They said they were acting according to their beliefs, including the teaching from the prophet Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares,” and have referred to their actions in Georgia as “nonviolent symbolic disarmament.”

Referring to Pope Francis’ condemnation of nuclear weapons in 2017, McAlister's lawyer argued in her defense that “the teaching of the Catholic Church is that the possession of nuclear weapons is immoral, as well as the use of those weapons to threaten or cause death and destruction.”

“Moreover, a Catholic whose conscience is formed by those teachings conducts an exercise of religion when she or he engages in prophetic action to raise the consciousness of society about the immorality of those weapons," he said.

The defendants gained access to the base by cutting a padlock on the main perimeter fence surrounding the facility. Once on base, they split up into three groups, with McAlister and two others cutting through additional fencing and concertina wire to gain access to a highly secured area on base “where the Naval Security Force is prepared to use deadly force against intruders,” the government said. Once there, they unfurled banners, one of which said “Nuclear weapons: illegal/immoral,” and prayed.

The others spray-painted messages on walls and sidewalks with sayings such as “Abolish nukes now,” spilled small bottles of their own blood on the ground in front of a static missile display, and hammered on concrete statues of missiles. The government estimated they caused more than $30,000 in damage.

McAlister said she and the others spent months praying and planning for the action in Georgia, and that choosing to act there was not an easy decision “because we had no support system in Georgia, and it didn't strike some of us as being the most forward-looking place that might be open to understanding what we did and why.”

“And that turned out to be quite true," she said.

McAlister spent a year and a half in county jail in Georgia for her actions. She said she could’ve found someone to post her bond, but decided to stay in jail so she could earn time served.

She spent her days reading, praying, interacting with the other inmates and playing Spades. She built a Scrabble board out of cardboard and paper, relying on a letter from her daughter-in-law that included the rules of the game, such as the number of A's needed and the value of each letter.

Many of her fellow inmates were curious how McAlister, a plain-looking woman who speaks softly but eloquently, ended up in jail.

"They thought I was a little crazy for the most part," she said.

“There are very few who would think this was worthwhile. But they're there for reasons that are also not exactly worthwhile,” she said, adding that most of the women incarcerated with her faced drug charges.

McAlister said it "would be foolish" not to anticipate going back to jail. Asked how she's handling that, she answered: "You pray for the grace to walk it step by step, whatever it involves."

j.bergman@theday.com

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