DOWNWIND OF THE ASHES
(New Hampshire Times, November 16, 1985)
Dapper, affable Captain Carl Glass, dressed in the blue uniform of his twenty-two years’ service with the United States Air Force, opened the case for the prosecution. He was questioned thoroughly by Lieutenant Sheldon Sullivan of the New Hampshire State Highway Patrol, barrel-chested in his deep green official blouse and black straps, while Judge Thomas Flynn of the Portsmouth District Court listened carefully from the bench.
We listened, too, the defendants in the case — Carol Bellamy from Somerville, Massachusetts; Nancy Howard from Dover, Karen Olch from Portsmouth, and I, from Jaffrey.
We listened all the more carefully because we had no one to listen for us, except a lawyer acting as our legal adviser, not our representative in court. Flying in the face of the adage that he who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client, we had decided to plead our own case. Although I’d participated in a similar trial before, it was the first time I had actually stood “at the bar” in front of a judge, and I was pleasantly surprised how like a public bar it felt; the same height to lean on, the same polished wood. An irreverent synapse in the back of my brain wanted me to call for a round for the house.
The house, in this case, included officers of the court, Air Force Master Sergeant Bruce Benner of Maine to back up Captain Glass, two state troopers in mufti, and a couple dozen friends and supporters of the defendants.
Captain Glass described as best he could his point of view of our actions on August 9, 1985 — how five civilians had walked abreast across Spaulding Turnpike and down Newington Street, been accosted by Air Force personnel with little white warning cards they read from, how three had been blocked and stopped, kneeling on the pavement, and how the other two had proceeded to the monument at the entry gate to Pease Air Force Base.
Ah, the monument! Captain Glass avoided characterizing or describing it, but it was our reason for being at the base on August 9 and for appearing in Portsmouth District Court on November 5.
The statue is the pride of Pease, a W. P. A. –style representation of a mushroom cloud enfolded in eagles’ wings. It is the emblem of the 509th Bombardment Wing, an air unit created especially to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The contradiction between the logo of the 509th and the motto emblazoned at the gates of Pease, “Peace Is Our Profession,” had irritated many of us since October 22, 1983, when we’d demonstrated (along with millions of others in Europe) against the deployment of Pershing and Cruise “Euromissiles.” The statue loomed larger as an affront in the face of the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and we wanted to register our own outrage at the same time that we brought the statue and what it represents to the attention of a larger community. With this in mind, we planned an act of nonviolent civil disobedience: We would put ourselves in a position of possibly violating a law and risking arrest.
Who were we? At first, just a couple of us familiar with the statue and the Air Force base, then a larger group of those planning the “Nuclear War / Never Again” commemorative “August Actions” in New Hampshire, a coalition of seventeen different organizations concerned in peace work. Within our own meetings, there was dissension and debate about whether to include civil disobedience in our August Actions at all. Some felt that civil disobedience would turn others away from our larger, legally organized events. Finally, we formed a separate subcommittee of the larger group to design an act of nonviolent civil disobedience that would not violate the larger spirit of the week and that would take place before the major rally on August 9, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing.
Nonviolent acts of civil disobedience are well thought-out affairs. Our subcommittee of four first had to determine what we wanted to accomplish and how, consistent with our nonviolent principles. A suggestion that we back a truck up to the statue and haul it down was quickly vetoed. Still, we needed something visual — actions like these are undertaken for double purposes, as personal witness and as educational outreach. While the first of these could be accomplished merely by trying to hold a vigil at the statue, it would look to the world like any other “sit-in,” and the significance of why we were there would not be clear.
When we hit on the idea of “burying” the statue in ashes, we knew we had designed an action that was practically and symbolically apt. To complete the picture of the mushroom cloud, we maintained, it needed ashes, photos of the destruction at Nagasaki and memorials of the dead among its eagle’s wings. We would carry these things to the statue. If we were stopped beforehand, we would neither resist nor evade arrest. We would stop if anyone tried to alter the nonviolent character of our action. At noon on Friday the 9th, after waiting in the parking lot behind Bradlees at the Newington Mall with a box of ashes harvested from my wood stove, I met the others and, just after 1 p.m., we started walking together.
At trial, Captain Glass testified that there were signs along the road to warn unauthorized visitors to procure credentials or turn back. I saw none of those. I knew that my colleagues were walking beside me on the right, and beyond them a bright and moving array of supporters and people with cameras, but I steadied my gaze on the statue by the gatehouse at the end of the road. It was a magical focusing of my senses on the object ahead. Air Force personnel drifted into my vision from the right and read warnings from little white cards, I’m sure, but they never blocked my movement and fell back one after another like figures in a Cocteau film, mouthing their ritual words.
Carol and I had our own ritual to perform. The Air Force had blocked Mary, Nancy and Karen, who knelt on the pavement behind our backs, their ashes, photographs, flowers and lists of the dead in front of them, while I poured my ashes over the offensive statue and Carol placed a photograph of clasped hands at its foot. The ashes swirled and choked us, so we carried the marks of that symbolic devastation on our faces and clothing while we were arrested, charged with criminal trespass, and booked. “Couldn’t you at least have stood upwind?” one of the troopers guarding our arrest asked me jokingly.
I knew the arresting officer, Trooper Frank Breen, from two years earlier, a previous action. Our rituals completed, it was time to break silence and acknowledge that we weren’t adversaries, but members of a community. I greeted Trooper Breen, he greeted me back. (He included a reference to our conversation when he testified in District Court.) “We can’t go on meeting this way,” I suggested to him. “People are beginning to talk.”
And people did talk. The statue, a plume of ashes trailing off it like the detritus of a distant explosion, drew the attention of local newspapers and national television crews. In Keene, a woman wrote to her newspaper and her state legislators calling for its removal. The living in New Hampshire remembered the dead in Nagasaki and the ashen cloud under which we all now live and die.
Trooper Breen testified at the trial that he had been directed to arrest Carol and me for criminal trespass, while Nancy, Karen and Mary were arrested by Trooper Colin Forbes (another friendly face from two years back) for blocking vehicular traffic in a public way.
We had prepared a full case addressing both the charges against us, although for reasons of solidarity we wanted to stand trial together. We knew we had a strong case on legal grounds, with videotape and photographs and witnesses, but we also wanted to make a political and ethical witness, explaining our actions and intentions. Our own testimony was the heart of our defense. But Judge Flynn — as we had anticipated and prepared for — refused to allow any political testimony or any reference to the planning and preparation except, he said, as it bore directly “on the events taking place between 1:15 and 1:30 on the day in question.” Whenever we tried to interpret that ruling broadly, he held us in check.
Judge Flynn is a careful, deliberate judge, and takes special responsibility for defendants who act pro se (without professional counsel). We had seen this while we waited for our own trial to come up on the schedule, as he dealt with an earlier case. When Lieutenant Sullivan for the prosecution agreed to the consolidation of our cases, neither he nor we perceived the logical contradiction this effected. It was not until after the prosecution had presented its full case that Judge Flynn brought it to light: Criminal trespass implies private property, a public way is a public way. In a single trial, the prosecution couldn’t have both; and, although Captain Glass had testified earlier that the property of Pease runs all the way to the Spaulding Turnpike, Lieutenant Sullivan chose, when Judge Flynn challenged him, to stipulate all Newington Street as a public way.
As a result, the criminal trespass case collapsed without the need to raise a defense, and was so dismissed. Mary, Karen and Nancy failed to convince the court that there was a reasonable doubt about whether they had blocked traffic, but they’ll carry their appeal to the state Superior Court.
Although our case as a group is still only half over, people ask me how I feel about being sprung from a political and moral witness on a “technicality.” There are all kinds of politics, I answer. The Constitution and the legal system belong to all of us, and I revel in the freedoms they protect. I have many ways to make my witness, and I don’t spurn any of them. We all do what we can. Besides, we won back for the people of Newington an acre of ground from military use — Newington Street to the gatehouse as a public way — and any whittling down of gratuitous military power in this world is a victory for peace.
Sergeant Benner and the troopers had testified that their attention at the time of our action had been fixed on what we were doing at the statue, and I hope that image burns in their minds. I know from casual conversation that Trooper Forbes is as concerned about the arms race as I am, although we interpret our concern differently. Captain Glass and I share an appreciation of what benevolent technology can do to protect our world — we talked before the trial about weather forecasting. Perhaps we just differ on what we need protection from.
But the abominable monument still stands. As a poet I object to its rank symbolism; yet, I’d willingly tolerate the replacement of every nuclear weapon in the world by a bronze statue, however ugly — we could sponsor a vast international arms race in bronze. I won’t hold my breath waiting.