Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed asked a federal appeals court yesterday to overturn their convictions on sabotage charges for a nonviolent protest at the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The three managed to sneak into the supposedly secure nuclear weapons facility and pour blood, hang a banner and paint a slogan on a building containing highly enriched uranium as part of a action they named “Transform Now Plowshares.”
A few dozen supporters from as far away as California, New York and Michigan came to the Cincinnati courtroom for the 30 minute hearing. “It was a good day in court,” Paul Magno, a longtime peace activist from Washington, DC, told Dissent NewsWire. “There was a lot of scrutiny from the judges, questioning whether the charge of sabotage was legitimate.” Lawyers for Rice, Walli, and Boertje-Obed argued that the sabotage charge was a stretch, comparing it to a recent case where a woman was charged with using chemical weapons for trying to poison her husband’s mistress.
The Associated Press quoted Judge Raymond Kethledge asking federal prosecutor Jeff Theodore, “Isn’t this just as far-fetched? Aren’t the ramifications just as sweeping, if we don’t step back from an interpretation of the national defense that is so eggshell that hanging banners constitutes an act of sabotage?”
But Theodore said that as the action intentionally interfered with national security, it was thus an act of sabotage. He cited the political goal of the Plowshares movement—nuclear disarmament—to make his point. “These are people who have a desire, an intent, to disarm, and they are taking action in furtherance of that goal,” he said.
In a letter to the trial judge last year, Defending Dissent Foundation argued that the protest wasn’t sabotage, because “it is clear that the three sought to call attention to an issue of national importance and, through symbolic action, voice their concern and opposition.”
“Plowshares actions are meant to be symbolic,” activist Liz McAlister told the AP. “They don’t actually try to destroy bombs or missiles because they know the government will just replace them. The idea is to change minds and hearts, and to do so by risking your own freedom and, in some cases, life and limb, with what you do.”
In addition to the sabotage charge, Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed are appealing the amount of restitution they are being asked to pay: $53,000. The prosecution says that’s what it cost to clean up the blood and graffiti and repair fences the three cut through to get onto the Y-12 grounds. The defense says that the true cost of clean up was only $8,500.
The prosecutorial overreach may have actually helped the protesters. The story has gotten a lot of media attention, with an in-depth article in The New Yorker about the Plowshares Movement this month, and a multiple-page spread in the Washington Post before the trial in 2013. The case “keeps giving new opportunities to educate about the arms race,” Magno said. That’s what convicting a nun of sabotage will get you.