Anti-Nuclear Activists Face Prison After Breaking Into Naval Base In the midst of a pandemic that's wreaking havoc on prisons and disproportionately affects older people, activists known as the Kings Bay Plowshares have been sentenced to up to 33 months in prison.


Longtime Anti-Nuke Activists Face Prison, Again, After Breaking Into Naval Base

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A group of Catholic peace activists are being sent to prison. That's because they broke into a U.S. Navy base to stage a protest against nuclear weapons. NPR's Emma Peaslee spoke with some of them and their families before their sentences begin.

PATRICK O'NEILL: You want to go higher?


P O'NEILL: All right.

EMMA PEASLEE, BYLINE: A white-haired man wearing a black beret pushes a girl on a swing at a playground in Garner, N.C. The swing is for children with special needs.

P O'NEILL: All right. Hold on.

MARY EVELYN: (Cheering).

P O'NEILL: Hold on, girl (laughter). So when Mary Evelyn (ph) was little, you know, because she has Down syndrome, she used to go on them then before she got good at riding the regular swings. But she still likes them (laughter).

PEASLEE: They seem comfier.

P O'NEILL: Yes. This is the Cadillac of swings.

PEASLEE: Patrick O'Neill is the father of eight, a devout Catholic, a hospital chaplain. And in less than a month, he's going to prison. In 2018, he and six other protesters cut through a fence at the nuclear naval submarine base Kings Bay in Georgia. They poured their own blood on the base logo and attached a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. to a towering replica of a Trident ballistic missile. The protesters are part of a faith-based movement known as the Plowshares that, in the past, have done actual damage to military armaments.

P O'NEILL: People are always astounded that a bunch of old people can gain access to these weapons at all.

PEASLEE: The youngest member of the group is in his late 50s. And the oldest is 81. Their name comes from the verse in Scripture that talks about beating swords into plowshares. So they took a hammer and tried to damage the statue of the missile.


PEASLEE: That sound is from the video they took while stealing across the base. O'Neill says they passed through a restricted area where a loudspeaker played a warning.

P O'NEILL: It was creepy, you know? Deadly force is authorized, I mean, deadly force is authorized - hearing it dozens of times - deadly force is authorized.

PEASLEE: The group was arrested, and O'Neill sentenced to 14 months in prison. The others have so far been given terms of up to 33 months.

MARTHA HENNESSEY: Yes, this will be my longest prison sentence.

PEASLEE: Martha Hennessey has already been in prison three times. She's the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, who founded the anti-war Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s. Hennessey is now in prison in Danbury, Conn. When we spoke a few weeks ago, she was still at home, preferring to talk about the injustices she sees in mass incarceration.

HENNESSEY: I'm looking at serving eight months at this point in time, which is, really, nothing. I mean, there are people being thrown into prison for years for, you know, things that are not even crimes.

PEASLEE: Many of the Plowshares talk about prison this way. But their families are worried.

MAURA O'NEILL: I'm afraid that my dad might die in prison.

PEASLEE: Maura O'Neill is another of Patrick O'Neill's children.

M O'NEILL: I worry that he might contract COVID and get really sick. It feels like a real possibility.

PEASLEE: But in these last weeks before Patrick O'Neill's sentence begins, the family is making the most of their time with him, like 15-year-old Mary Evelyn did that afternoon on the playground.

MARY EVELYN: This is the fun day ever.

PEASLEE: Emma Peaslee, NPR News, Garner, N.C.

P O'NEILL: Whoa.

MARY EVELYN: (Laughter).

P O'NEILL: Dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun. Ow. Hey, hey, stop trying to hit me.


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