By Jim Hannah

The Dec. 7 hearing at Kansas City Municipal Court was dubbed “Nukes on Trial,” but there was no trial because the lone witness for the prosecution did not come to court; no witness appeared to testify against the five defendants’ act of civil disobedience.

Nonetheless, nuclear weapons were tried and found guilty as the defendants held their own court following Judge Martina Peterson’s dismissal of charges. The five civil resisters spoke forcefully about why they had risked arrest for “crossing the line” at the new nuclear weapons parts plant in south Kansas City May 28, 2018, during PeaceWorks-KC’s annual Memorial Day resistance.

Defendant Lu Mountenay, a member of the PeaceWorks-KC board and a Community of Christ minister, was the first to address the 60 or so supporters who crowded the courtroom. She began by unfolding a yards-long scroll listing more than 900 toxic chemicals used in nuclear weapons production between 1949 and 2014 at the old Bannister Federal Complex. The chemicals resulted in more than 150 confirmed deaths and untold other health issues.

“I won’t be around in the next 50 years to protect my grandchildren when the poison leaks from the land at the new plant and contaminates the earth, water, and air as it has at Bannister,” Lu said. “But hopefully my grandchildren will know that I stood on one side of the line and then crossed over for justice. And now I stand in defense of their future. It is all I can do.”

Speaking next was Sunny Jordan Hamrick, a resident of Jerusalem Farm and board member of PeaceWorks-KC. Sunny reflected on his life experience of political activism, noting that in his earlier university life he tried to enlist people in activities like writing letters and visiting legislators. But it wasn’t until he came to Kansas City that he found active mentors for civil disobedience. He arrived on the 2014 weekend of PeaceWork’s Trifecta Resista, joining a busload of peace activists in support of whistleblower Chelsea Manning and in resistance to drones and nuclear weapons. Soon after, he joined the annual Memorial Day Walk from the old nuclear weapons plant on Bannister Road to the new plant on Botts Road.

“I was terrified and horrified to see the new plant,” he commented. This May, he went there not to attack, but to reach across the divide, he said. “I brought rye bread to share with the police.” Sunny urged the assembly to acknowledge that as US citizens, “these are our bombs,” which we have a duty to abolish. “Look around at those here,” he said. “What we know is that as a human family, there are no walls, gates, or bars.” Due to this human connection, he urged, “If you love anyone, or anything, join us!”  

Tom Fox, President and CEO of National Catholic Reporter, spoke next. He recalled memories of the five years he spent in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War—living with the Vietnamese people as a volunteer with International Voluntary Services, and as a war correspondent. He counts those years “an enormous blessing, to be a witness of that monstrosity” and then to have a calling to speak out about war’s injustices.

In court after his case was dismissed, Tom Fox used the metaphor of the burning building to convey the urgency for opposing nuclear weapons: “This is our planet on fire. We must stand up and rescue the children and grandchildren!”—Photo by Jeremy Ruzich

Tom recounted three specific instances in Vietnam that deeply impacted him: placing a lit cigarette on the lips of a mortally wounded soldier whose limbs had been blown away, and who died moments later; seeing soldiers in a helicopter gunship randomly firing 50-caliber machine guns into villages; and sensing the desperation of a mother in a refugee camp who spent hours sifting through marketplace dirt to glean enough grains of rice to sustain her family.  From that time on, he said, “I felt a calling to protest war, and particularly the most gross weapons of war.” Using the metaphor of a burning building with children on the second floor, Tom closed with a challenge to act on the emergency posed by war and nuclear weapons today: “This is our planet on fire. We must stand up and rescue the children and grandchildren!”

In effect taking the witness stand next was Brian Terrel, a long-time peace activist who has lived at the Catholic Worker farm in Maloy, Iowa, since 1975. Brian is co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, “working globally with people who face grave danger, yet cling to nonviolence.” His frequent acts of nonviolent civil disobedience have taken him to many countries on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

“I was disappointed to not be able to talk with officers working at the plant,” Brian said. “They think they work for Honeywell (the contractor), but actually they work for—and are answerable to—us.” Brian contests the idea that offering peace witnesses at the plant is illegal, contending instead that the production of nuclear weapons is itself illegal, a crime against humanity. Had the trial proceeded as planned, he said, and had the activists been found guilty, the court “would have been complicit in the plant’s illegality.” If the opportunity presented itself, Brian said he would say to the police officers at the plant, “A crime is being committed here. If you really are law enforcement, help us close it down!”  

The final witness was the chair of the PeaceWorks-KC board, Henry Stoever, who noted that in our nuclear age, “All life hangs in the balance.” He detailed the clear and present danger of the current standoff between Russia, with 6,650 nuclear weapons, and the United States, with 6,540 nuclear weapons. “We are all on death row,” he said, “without the protections usually afforded to such prisoners—no evidence, no appeals, no possibility of parole or pardon.”

“I hope in the future we will have a jury trial so more people can hear our arguments on behalf of humanity,” says Henry Stoever, center. The other defendants, from left: Tom Fox, Brian Terrell, Lu Mountenay, and Sunny Jordan Hamrick.—Photo by Kim Hoa Fox

As a practicing attorney, Henry examined the questionable legal grounds for the charges of criminal trespass that were brought against himself and the other four defendants. Describing himself as a modern-day abolitionist, Henry cited extensive legal grounds for resistance, ranging from the US Constitution to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Murder,” he said, “means the intent to kill, which is the intent of nukes. This violates our basic principles, and I hope in the future we will have a jury trial so more people can hear our arguments on behalf of humanity.”    

Jim Hannah, a member of the PeaceWorks-KC board, is a retired Community of Christ minister in Independence, Mo.