Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Civil Disobedience of an American Mother

On Mother's Day, in 1983, I published one of my favorite stories in the Sunday Magazine of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was about my Mother, Agnes Bauerlein, and it chronicled her transition from a housewife and mother of 11 children into a political activist.

Although she didn't realized it at the time, her anti-war activism had its roots in World War II, when she identified the bodies of her oldest sister and her youngest brother, who died in an air raid on her hometown of Nijmegen, Holland, when American and British bombers were trying to drive the Nazis out of Holland.

In 1980, after most of her children were grown and out of the house, she attended a meeting at her local Roman Catholic church. Her pastor was asking his parishioners if they might be willing to host anti-war activists who were coming from all around the country to support Daniel and Philip Berrigan and six other peace activists known as the Plowshares Eight.

Against my father's better judgment (he had served in the Navy in World War II and had voted for Ronald Reagan that year) my mother convinced him to open their home to take activists who would be coming to the trial in Norristown. When the defendants themselves asked to stay at my parents home, because it was large enough for them to use it as their base of operations while they were on trial together, my mother's activism began.

She too, began to listen to her conscience. She too, began to perform acts of civil disobedience against the arms race, occasionally with the Berrigan Brothers or other Roman Catholic clerics.

Last month, someone at the Catholic Peace Fellowship found an old article that was written by my mother in 1987, and published in Swords into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, defending her work for peace and her decision to risk arrest as a way of helping to end the arms race. As a tribute to my mom, I am reprinting parts of it below, with a wish that all Mothers have a blessed and joyous Mother's day.

This is my mother's 1987 testimony:

The blessings of a large family were never more clear to me than on the afternoon of July 4, 1982, when we gathered for a family picnic at ourhome in Ambler, Pa. My grandchildren splashed playfully in the backyard swimming pool, surrounded by doting aunts and uncles. Their mothers chattered nearby under the shade of an oak tree. A volleyball game raged in the background while my husband snoozed in oblivion.

On that holiday, I was perhaps more acutely aware of my blessings because I knew I would probably not be part of that tranquil domestic scene for some time to come. Later on, as we gathered around the table, my heart skipped a beat at the thought of being involved in an act of civil disobedience/divine obedience that might possibly mean a long separation from my loved ones.

Slowly, over many previouis months of serious thoughts and prayers, I had decided to protest the proloferation and contuation of the nuclear arms buildup in a stronger way that I had previously done. I had decided that civil disobedience would be my way of saying no to an insane arms race that threatens all life on our planet.

I left home on a July morning of 1983 to join my six compatriots in preparation for our symbolic disarmament action. Our time was spent in sharing, prayer and solitude. Under the theme "faith in the face of fear," we celebrated the Eucharist. We all had our own hopes and fears and anxities. In faith we accepted would would come the rest of the day.

Sleep did not come easy that night. At 5:30 a.m., July 14th, I watched a magnificent sunrise over the ocean and saw it as a good omen. For the last time we met in a circle, prayed for guidance and, after some hurried hugs, left for our destination.

Walking into AVCO, a plant in Wilmington, Mass., that manufactured components for the MX and Pershing II missiles, we carried our household hammers, our blood, photos of our families, various prayers, and statements of peace and justice. On behalf our our 37 children, 24 grandchildren and all future generations, we also issued an indictment against AVCO and its co-conspirators, including the national security state, for committing acts against God and humanity by manufacturing for profit weapons of mass destruction.

Our intent in issuing this indictment was to show that our acts were justified under divine and international laws -- laws that call upon all people to prevent crimes against humanity from occurring.

Entering the building went smoothly, contrary to our expectations. Doors were literally opened for us and we were met by greetings of "Good morning." Once inside the building, I was overwhelmed with a sense of oppression. This factory of mass destruction brought images of violence, death and hell to my mind as we wandered through the vast open area, looking for a suitable place to commit our action. Fear took hold of me. It was not a fear of being caught but a fear of not being able to express my sense of despair through this action. Still, I knew the truth must be told. Faith led us through an unfamiliar building into an assembly room filled with large crates where we found parts to the MX.

We poured our blood over these and symbolically hammered this particular nuclear "sword" into a "plowshare," praying that our action would bear fruit. Strangely enough, we were in there for quite a while. Even our singing and hammering, sounding like a bell of justice, drew no one's attention. Eventually, though, we were discovered and apprehended by AVCO's security and local police -- but not before we were able to carry out a direct act of disarmament and expose the nature of AVCO's work.

Later that day, after we were arrested and processed, we were all jailed. The men were taken to Billerica jail in Massachusetts. The four of us women spent the next 10 days in the Framingham jail before being released on our own recognizance at the pretrial hearing.

During our mid-December jury trial in 1983, I tried to speak about my conscience and convictions. The expert testimony in our defense also served to communicate my belief that our actions were morally and legally right. Having myself experienced the horrifying effects of Nazism, it was deeply moving to hear the testimony of Dr. Richard Falk, who told the jury that under the Nuremberg Accords and international law, actions like ours are required not only to prevent future crimes such as those perpetated by the Nazis, but also to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction from ever occurring. Also, in light of the imminent danger posed by nuclear weapons, Daniel Ellsberg testified that our actions were reasonable and necessary to help lessen the risk of nuclear war and initiate the process of disarmament. These witnesses and others who testified all reconfirmed for me that I have a moral and human duty to act to prevent nuclear war.

Despite hearing testimony on the justification of our acts, the judge declared that all of the expert witnesses' testimony was irrelevant to the case. He also ruled that issues of conscience and moral and international law could not be considered by the jury in rendering a verdict.

The jury found the AVCO Plowshares members guilty of trespassing and "wanton" damage to property. The seven of us were immediately taken to jail and shortly thereafter released on our own recognizance, pending an appeal for another trail.

Perhaps my youngest son, Matthew, then age 10, summed it up best of all, when I questioned him on his feelings of my possible prolonged absence. His answer was thoughtful and simple. "I don't like it when you are away and I will miss you, but I know why you are doing it and the more of you that are doing it, the better it will be for us kids."

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