30 Years Ago I Climbed A Fence and Went To Prison by Steve Clemens. February 2011
At the dawn of the Reagan Presidency, just after the death of my father-in-law, I was sentenced to 6 months in Federal Prison because I climbed a fence. Five months earlier 8 peacemakers committed what was to become the first of many “Plowshares” actions, a nonviolent attempt to “beat [nuclear] swords into plowshares”. The where and why of the story explains the consequence.
After the end of American involvement in Vietnam ended with the fall of Saigon [later renamed Ho Chi Minh City] in 1975, Phil Berrigan and Liz Macalister turned their peacemaking focus toward nuclear weapons. As part of the Bible Study group they facilitated at the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington, DC in 1974-75, I was inspired and challenged to consider nonviolent direct action in my own peacemaking efforts. We carried full-scale models of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, to the steps of the US Capitol to mark the week of the 30th anniversary of those war crimes. Shortly after that, I moved to southwestern Georgia to join an intentional Christian community outside Americus called Koinonia Partners.
The genesis for the prayer witness at Pantex began for me with a conversation with Ladon Sheats in Washington, DC in September of 1980. I had just participated in a week-long group of peace actions at the Pentagon as part of Jonah House’s call for “The Year of the Election”. Peacemakers were urged to “take their vote to the Pentagon” for a week of actions since neither President Jimmy Carter nor Republican nominee Ronald Reagan were advocating movement toward disarmament or peaceful solutions to the world problems confronting us. Ladon Sheats was a former Resident Partner and Director of Koinonia Partners, living at the that Christian community from 1968-1975. From there, he joined the Jonah House Community in Baltimore and remained active in a life of resistance to the power of the war machine until his death in August of 2002.
Ladon discussed with several friends and me the possibility of conducting a prayer vigil at the heart of the nuclear weapons empire - the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, TX, the final assembly point for all nuclear weapons produced by the US government. He envisioned a small group of committed Christians who would travel to Texas, meet to pray and reflect for several days, and then attempt to enter the plant to pray in or around the buildings where the bombs were assembled. Participants would covenant together ahead of time to be committed to nonviolence and the group would agree not to notify the press ahead of time nor to cooperate with providing any defense of our action other than to state clearly why we were there. We would not defend ourselves with legal arguments but only statements about our faith and convictions.
When I returned to south Georgia and my community at Koinonia, I first discussed the proposed witness with my wife, Christine, and then with a smaller group of Partners who were committed to nonviolent direct action. As we were discerning my participation, we received word of the first Plowshares witness at King of Prussia, PA. While in support of that creative witness, it was clear that our planned witness would not involve any attempts to disarm or damage weapons we might encounter but rely solely on the power of prayer. As I continued in the discernment process, I had conversations with my parents and my wife’s parents. It was a very difficult time as my father-in-law, Benton Haas, was dying of leukemia and my wife spent most of her fall helping to care for him at his home in western Pennsylvania. While neither set of parents was enthusiastic about this proposed witness, I tried to communicate to them my sense of “call” to take this action of faith and witness.
In early February 1981, the Koinonia Resident Partners had a time of prayer during our weekly Partner’s meeting as a blessing and send-off. My wife, Christine, and Gail and Edwin Steiner and I drove the 20 + hours to Amarillo, Texas where we gathered with about a dozen others for a time of reflection, prayer, and sharing before the witness at the plant. The times of Bible study and prayer were very uplifting, helping to calm some of my fears and anxieties. Especially difficult was taking the time to write letters to my parents and to our community in the event we did not return. We tried to face the fact that this facility was one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the nation and that the guards confronting us would be armed with deadly weapons. Facing one’s own death and still choosing to act is the most liberating feeling in the world!
Yet not all the preparations were so serious. We had a “trial-run” of the two ladders we built to scale the 12’ chain link fence topped with barbed wire that we would encounter. When we set it up to scale a local baseball field backstop, the ladder collapsed under our weight and had to be rebuilt with heavier wood. We ended up in a heap, laughing at ourselves and the “folly” of our witness.
On the morning of Feb. 10, 1981, the six of us who covenanted together for this witness drove to the Pantex Plant to arrive in conjunction with the morning employee traffic, hopefully to allow us to get close to the area protected by 2 rows of chain link fence, separated by a 50’ “no man’s land” area between them. The radio station announced that visibility was “almost zero” as the blowing snow made it almost impossible for us to be seen as we briskly walked toward the fences with our two ladders.
After the first 3 scaled the fence and I threw their ladder over it so we could scale the second fence, all types of bells and whistles and lights were activated by sensory mines placed in the inner area between the fences. After all of us were inside the first fence, we noted that the second fence was electrified and security personnel had their automatic rifles pointed at us. We decided that it was as far as we were meant to go and so we gathered in a circle, read the passage from Ephesians about bringing light into darkness, and prayed for forgiveness for our complicity and trust in these weapons which threatened all of creation.
It took about 45 minutes for the security personnel to bring a van inside the fences to arrest us. Then they took us to the heart of that area of the plant (where we hoped to go anyway to pray) to question and process us. The Manager of the plant asked to meet with a couple of us to inquire why we were there. In the ensuing conversation, we discovered he was Jewish and one of us asked him how he would have felt if a group of people had sat on the railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz, challenging the Nazi plans for extermination. While he didn’t agree with our actions, he said he could understand [somewhat] our motivations.
After transfer to the local county jail, Federal Agents then transferred us again to the FBI building in Amarillo. After being questioned [and threatened] by the FBI, we were then taken to the Potter County Jail, our new home for the next 3 months. The two women in our group, Kathy Jennings and Mary Sprunger-Froese were sent to the women’s facility. Ladon, Father Larry Rosebaugh, Vince Scotti Eirene, and I were sent to maximum security in the men’s jail. After one week, Ladon and Larry were transferred to the minimum-security facility while Vince and I remained in the maximum lock-up. Vince and I only saw the other 4 when we went to court for arraignment, then our one-day trial, and then our sentencing. We also convinced two court-appointed lawyers assigned to our case to schedule two “pre-trial meetings” so we were able to see each other for a couple of hours before our trial.
Just before our trial began, the lawyers notified us that the US Attorney had filed several “Motions in Limine” aimed at preventing us from testifying about certain “irrelevant” issues. They asked the Court to disallow any testimony about “nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, US foreign policy, or our religious convictions” because they were not relevant to a simple criminal trespass charge we faced. This being only my second trial, I was nervous, wondering if the Judge would charge me with contempt if I attempted to talk about my motivation for our act of witness. Federal Judge Mary Lou Robinson had stopped both Ladon and Fr. Larry in the middle of their testimony stating that they could not testify about growing up in west Texas (Ladon) or his work on the streets of Recife, Brazil (Fr. Larry). While they were not charged with contempt, it was clear she had little patience with the prospect that the jury would hear any of this “irrelevant” testimony.
30 years later, I don’t remember what I said on the stand that day. I do remember talking about my faith and belief that Jesus called me to a life of nonviolence and that I had gone over that fence “to pray for peace”. I expected to be cut-off by the Judge at any minute but my testimony was short and to the point. The judge’s instructions to the jury left no doubt in my mind that our conviction was a forgone conclusion. She instructed the jury to disregard everything the defendants had said since our “motivation” was not important – only our intent: did we intend to enter the property and did we have permission to do so? It was all so neat and antiseptic. No need to “confuse” the jurors with complicated notions such as International Law and indiscriminate weapons. Did they trespass? If so, find them guilty. They did their duty and 45 minutes later returned to the Courtroom with their six guilty verdicts, one for each of us. Judge Robinson thanked them and announced she would sentence us in several weeks after court officers had a chance to research our prior records and come up with their recommendations.
Because of our decision to refuse to give our Social Security numbers or other irrelevant information at the time of booking, neither Vince nor I were permitted any visits in the Potter County Jail for the three months we were incarcerated there. But that decision, coupled with the incompetence of federal bureaucrats who failed to find prior arrest records for Vince and me, even though they had our names, addresses, fingerprints, and photos, that led us to be sentenced as “first-time offenders” and only get 6 month sentences, half the maximum allowed. Kathy and Mary, who had previously been arrested at Rocky Flats, another Department of Energy facility in Colorado that made the triggers for nuclear weapons, got 9 months. Ladon and Fr. Larry both were given the maximum one-year in prison because of their prior acts of conscience that led to convictions.
Several more weeks after sentencing, we were transferred to the Federal Prison in El Reno, OK to finish our sentences in federal prison. Federal Prison guidelines called for us to be sent to low-security prisons close to our homes because we had been convicted of nonviolent offences with relatively short sentences. However, since the prison camps at Maxwell Air Base in Alabama and at Eglin Air Base in Florida both had nuclear weapons located there, the prison authorities decided to ship me to Texarkana, TX for the remained of my 6 months. When I arrived, the minimum-security camp was not yet opened so I was housed in the “big house” (a medium security, level 3 prison) for several weeks until the camp opened. I finally was able to get a visit from my wife, Christine, over the Memorial Day weekend, after she had a grueling 20+-hour bus ride to see me.
In early August, nearly 6 months later, I was given a new set of clothes, about $25 and a bus ticket to Americus, GA and released, just two months shy of my 31st birthday.
Reflection on the past
Before we were transferred to federal prison, we heard a rumor about a Pantex worker quitting his job for reasons of conscience. We also learned that the local Roman Catholic Bishop, Leroy Matthiesen, visited Larry in his Amarillo cell and then later called for all persons of conscience to quit their jobs at Pantex and started a transition fund for workers who quit for reasons of conscience.
If we had strategized about how to get religious leaders to denounce nuclear weapons or had concocted a scheme to get the Roman Catholic Bishop to make a public statement about the morality of Pantex, we wouldn’t have come up with what we did. In retrospect, I feel that God used the faithfulness of our witness to help move the conscience and courage of the Bishop. And while the Bishop’s statement caused a shock wave throughout the Amarillo community, in the long run I believe the witness had more of an affect on me than on others.
What I took from the Prayer Witness At Pantex was the conviction that when we choose to act on our faith rather than our fears, our faith increases. Clarence Jordan, co-founder of the Koinonia community used to say, “Faith is acting not in spite of the evidence but in scorn of the consequences” and “faith is betting your life on the unseen realities”. When we chose to place our lives into the hands of God’s grace over against the fear of the weapons of the Pantex security guards, it was a statement of faith and hope rather than a resignation to despair in the presence of “The Bomb”.
The time in jail and prison was grace-filled. There were moments when I was scared; times when I was “concerned”; a lot of the time was filled with boredom, loud noises, and way too much cigarette smoke from fellow inmates. I learned to sleep with a towel over my eyes since the 100-watt light bulb in our 6-person, 8’ x 14’ cell was on 24/7. I read through my Bible twice. Wrote scores of letters, one every day to my wife while in the county jail, less frequently when I hit the federal prison. Listened to the stories of my cellmates and grew to understand the powerlessness that an inmate experiences. Having survived it, I feel I am stronger for it. I had a vibrant, loving community praying and supporting me that goes a long way when one is locked up!
It gave me a new appreciation for what it can mean to be on the “receiving end” of the American Empire. Those nuclear weapons, protected by the barbed-wire-topped fences and the plant security guards, are metaphors for the length to which our nation is willing to go to “protect our way of life”. As such, they are idols to our god of National Security, Mars, the god of war, and Mammon, the god of greed. February 10, 1981 was a day to reject those idols, those false gods; the rest of my life is one of nonviolent resistance to them while at the same time an embracing the alternative reality my faith calls me to: what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom or Reign of God. I am thankful to have friends who continue on this journey with me.