When Civil Disobedience Becomes Bloody

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  Carol Gilbert, Jackie Hudson, and
Ardeth Platte are each currently serving time in prison for
protesting the buildup to the United States’War on Iraq.Mary
Lee Sargent only recently left Champaign-Urbana after a long
career of feminist and gay and lesbian advocacy and has also
served time. What these four women have in common,
besides their time behind bars, is a blood sisterhood of sorts, a
history of political commitment so guttural that it includes
using human and animal blood to protest institutions such as
the deadly U.S. military and stubborn state of Illinois which
has yet to support equal rights for women. This article details
the nuns’ case and Sargent’s actions in order to question the
use of blood as a dramatic means of symbolic protest.
On October 6, 2002, the Sisters performed a Plowshares
action at a Minuteman III missile site in Colorado. This style
of direct protest is based on Isaiah’s prophecy that to “beat
swords into plowshares” is to demand peace at the source of
violence, to create a disarmed world. Since 1980, there have
been approximately 75 plowshares actions at U.S. and worldwide
military sites such as NATO weapons centers. In Colorado,
the sisters tapped on the missile silo with household
hammers and marked the shape of a cross with their own
blood. When alarms began to sound, soldiers ran to the
bunker where the Minuteman III is stored and trained automatic
weapons on the nun swho had 45 minutes to sit quietly,
sing, and pray before authorities even showed up.
After approximately six months in jail awaiting felony conviction,
the three were sentenced to a combined total of 104
months in prison for trespassing, damaging property, and
obstructing national defense. The sentences, sister Ardeth’s 41
months being the longest, are moderate considering that
maximum penalties were 30 years apiece. The damage,
including the chain links cut to make an opening in the fence
surrounding the site, amounted to a whopping $1000, which
is puny compared to the U.S. military budget or the cost of the
war on Iraq.
Wearing white jumpsuits and calling themselves the “citizens’
weapons inspector team,” the sisters found some
weapons of mass destruction that apparently do not qualify as
such for the Bushies. In Colorado alone, there are 49 nucleararmed
missile sites, each having explosive power 25 times that
of the Hiroshima bomb. Certainly one of the goals of the
action was to call attention to military and presidential warmongering.
Ardeth, in a letter dated November 12 of this year,
explains that part of the blood action is to expose the bitter
blood-letting of war, which Fox News does not show. The timing
worked so that the sisters’ trials were held in April 2003
during the War on Iraq, allowing anti-war activists to use their
case to expose systemic perversion. The thought of treating
elderly nuns as violent criminals is appalling proof of a cruel
military-industrial complex.
Carol’s and Ardeth’s letters from Federal Prison Camps in
West Virginia and Connecticut, respectively, indeed testify at
times to enraging prison conditions, especially for women who
are quite old. Carol is a sprightly 55 years of age, while Sisters
Jackie and Ardeth are in their 70s. Nevertheless, a woman who
has taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and has
been a member of the religious order for 38 years, who spends
most of her time knitting and writing in silence, Carol is
intimidated by guards “every chance they get.” On September
19, 2003, she wrote, “ I was told my attitude needs to be monitored
by the guards and they want programmed leisure time.”
So she was programmed with a schedule of classes like “Anger
Management.” Each of these so-called programs brings revenue
to the private companies administering them. Both
Carol’s and Ardeth’s letters are overwhelmingly positive, making
jokes about the prison wardrobe and profound statements
about the surrounding mountains, crisp fall air, and anonymous
women to whom they minister. Knowing fully the consequences
of plowshares actions and having been convicted of
numerous protest actions in the past, the women accept with
humility whatever position from which they feel they can
enact social change. Even from a prison cell.
Those of us who advocate nonviolent protest and acts of
civil disobedience but not necessarily on theological grounds
might question using blood as symbolic protest as going a
step too far, as political extremism so adamant as to undermine
its presumed peacefulness. In other words, when is
blood too violent? Does it ever undermine itself? I once asked
Phil Berrigan, infamous for burning a draft-card with napalm
to protest Vietnam, about this. His answer was something to
the effect that violence is in the eye of the beholder, that those
who see blood as violent do not see what others understand as
deeply religious. Yet those who advocate peaceful living
through practicing Ghandian resistance with or without subscribing
to the Christian tradition might react to blood as violating
the body, as a violent tearing-open of the vessels that
sustain our voyage towards peace. The plowshares argue that
they would rather see their blood shed than that of innocents
falling victim to war.
To understand how blood has been used to protest causes
other than war,we have to go no further than our state capital,
which was the site of a high-profile case in the early 80s.Mary
Lee Sargent, a former long-time (37 years) Champaign-
Urbana resident, teacher, and activist who was arrested in July
of 1982 for pouring blood at the state capital in Springfield
upon Illinois’ refusal to pass the Equal Rights Amendment
(ERA). Sargent and her comrades, unlike the sisters and Berrigan,
used pigs’ blood rather than their own. Part of a Champaign-
Urbana area group of radical feminists called the
Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, Sargent and others
practiced a number of acts of civil disobedience against
the state of Illinois that spring, including chain-ins, street theater,
and taking over the floor of the House of Representatives.
The most extreme action took place as the ERA was voted
down in the Senate. Right after the votes were counted, the
nine women who participated wrote the names of the Governor
and anti-ERA legislators on the marble floor outside senate
chambers using pig blood. Blood, according to Sargent,
was used “to symbolize the death of ERA and the blood of
women who suffer without legal equality.”
Women Rising in Resistance was a continuation of the
Grassroots Group founded in the early 1980s that served as a
network for radical feminist activists. Lasting until the early
1990s, it promoted high-profile direct action and encouraged
women to question their reluctance to take risks, because
women have been socialized into passivity and have “lost their
sense of adventure.” The action in 1982 in Springfield, which
gathered nation-wide media attention, communicated
women’s pain and symbolized back-alley coat-hanger abortions.
“We wanted something really dramatic to happen,”
explained Sargent in a recent phone conversation. The act of
“blood writing,” she explains, was a nonviolent but nonetheless
direct action against institutional oppression against
women that served to grab attention, even frighten, men.
Men, she claims, are not as used to blood because they don’t
menstruate. They are not as accustomed to the messiness of
womanhood and motherhood.
When I asked Sargent why, if it was a symbolic gesture anyway,
they used real blood, her response was that at that particular
moment – the death of the ERA in Illinois – feminists
needed to take dramatic action. The intention was to write,
with the blood, not splatter it about. Media coverage would
have it that the two gallons of pigs’ blood were dumped everywhere.
The women were charged with a felony destruction of
property amounting to more than $300which was bargained
into a misdemeanor. Sargent’s advice is to consider the costs
and consequences of direct action before engaging in it, to
pick and choose; but her mantra seems to be that “we need to
be really creative.” In the early 1980s, the feminist movement
was suffering the conservative backlash that continues today.
It is more and more difficult to have a progressive mass movement
when we are always on the defense, she says.
What might this mean and why does it matter now?
Women, says Sargent, continue to suffer the effects of the
1980s backlash and, if you are keeping track of waves and ebbs
and flows, have been lost among more and more talk about
firefighting heroes and shadowy enemies. What all of these
women express in their activism is that we need to pay attention
to politics; we need to speak up; we need to recognize
other women, whether in our cell bloc or cubicle. And sometimes
we need to take creative action. Locally, this might mean
re-interrogating the place of women and perhaps feminism
within political conversations such as those occurring in this
newspaper. Globally, it might mean re-opening conversations
about gender and sexuality while protesting the ghastly effects
of globalization, such as black-market trading of domestic
workers and child prostitutes, the effects of AIDS on mothers
and orphaned children in Africa, and large-scale human-rights
abuses against women in the Middle East and Asia.

Laura Stengrim is a graduate student at
the U of I. The motivation for this article
started while she was a college student
in Minnesota and took several
trips to Washington, D.C. There, she
met members of the Jonah House,
Dorothy Day House, and Catholic
Worker Movement, many of whom participate
in regular acts of civil disobedience as well as the
high-stakes protests described here.

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