In other news, besides the pandemic, insurrection, the economic crash, climate degradation, systemic racism and a few other “challenges,” did you stop to think this week about how most of the USA and much of the rest of the world could be destroyed with not much more than 15 minutes warning?
Me neither. Except that I did think about it briefly on Sunday, because of Patrick O’Neill.
Then he went to jail on Thursday for reminding me.
See what it gets you, Patrick?
I met Patrick O’Neill almost nineteen years ago.
It was early spring 2002; I had recently arrived in Fayetteville NC, to be Director at Quaker House, the peace project near Fort Bragg.
I was still new to the job, and new to the city. But that day I was getting ready something old: doing an antiwar protest. I’d been in them repeatedly since the late 1960s.
The occasion for this protest was the news that president George W. Bush was coming to town, to speak at the local arena and visit Fort Bragg. He was already well into the buildup to the Iraq War, though the actual invasion was another year away. And like many others, I wanted to tell him it was a bad idea. Lucky me, it was now part of my day job.
But Bush’s visit was a hurried one, with little notice, and I didn’t yet know the ropes for local organizing. So who if anyone would go with me? I’d done a few such vigils solo. They were were better than nothing, but lonely, and left you exposed to any pro-war troublemakers who might happen by.
And there were troublemakers around this huge army base, I figured. Somebody, maybe from there, had even firebombed the original Quaker House, in May, 1970, forcing its abandonment.
That was a long time ago, and the project had quickly bounced back; and of course I wasn’t there then. But still: the legend lingered.
Whatever; I made a couple posters, and was almost ready to go when a knock came at the door. I opened it to see a smiling gangly guy, with two little girls beside him.
Patrick O’Neill. The kids were two of his daughters (he now has eight kids, mostly all grown). He said he had heard there was somebody at Quaker House (the job had been vacant for over a year when I came), and hoped we were doing something about Bush’s visit.
As the French say, “Coincidence?”
So, soon enough, our not-so-massive peace protest was lined up on the edge of the All-American Highway, two kids and two guys, holding a couple of signs, and amusing a couple of bored cameramen across the street (probably security types; the press was set up on the base itself, where the visuals were better).
If it had just been me, I would not have brought my young daughters (and my three were grown by then), for general protectiveness, and wondering if they’d understand what it was all about.
Patrick wasn’t like that. He was and is a devoted parent, but such shielding was not on his menu; protest was much of the family business.
Besides, nobody bothered us. And soon a caravan of SUVs emerged from behind the arena fence: they all had smoky tinted windows, but we figured Bush was in one of them and waved our signs. The SUVs drove slowly right past us, so we figured he’d got our ragtag message.
That was about the closest I got to The Powers That Be in those years.
Patrick got closer than me. My gig kept me near Fayetteville and Ft. Bragg. He and his wife Mary were the founders of a Catholic Worker house near Raleigh. Protesting and witnessing for peace, an end to capital punishment, immigrants rights, and some other causes (I couldn’t keep up with all of them), while chasing after their growing brood and keeping their heads above water kept them occupied too. (Patrick, I understand, is a skillful and productive dumpster diver.) But we crossed paths periodically.
One common issue, which wasn’t on our initial agendas, was torture. Two events put it there: first the 2004 revelation that U.S. forces were running secret torture programs as part of the Iraq war. Torture is illegal under federal law; a serious felony. Still is.
Second was the additional disclosure that “torture taxi” planes which carried prisoners to these “black sites” and Guantanamo Bay were flying out of the Johnston County Airport, east of Raleigh. They were operated by a company called Aero Contractors, which was covertly run by the CIA.
I protested there dozens of times, and Patrick brought his own vigilers too; one of his daughters got arrested there on one visit.
The company is still there. The torture program was not only a moral blot, but also a shocking failure: most of the dozens of prisoners subjected to it were ultimately released because they had nothing to do with terror, after years of mistreatment. (Some are still being held, without trial.)
Those who ran the program have been given impunity by succeeding administrations; some even got promoted. The terrible physical, legal and moral toll of the torture program still hangs over American public life as a big ugly blob of unfinished business. Patrick dramatized it vividly.
One other thing interrupted my impulse to get together with Patrick and Mary more often: Patrick’s penchant for going to jail. He’s been part of several intrusive but nonviolent protests against nuclear weapons called Plowshares Actions, by a network of mostly Catholic radicals brought together by the late radical brothers, Dan and Phil Berrigan. I’ve been arrested in similar protests a few times; but at Quaker House I was also a bureaucrat, keeping the lights on, and had to steer clear of arrests.
I don’t know how many times Patrick has been jailed with Plowshares brethren; and I can’t call him to ask, because he’s inside again, beginning a year’s stretch. Several of his “co-conspirators”, including Elizabeth McAlister, the widow of Phil Berrigan, have done serious time.
Their current case began on April 4, 2018 (the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination), when Patrick and several others sneaked onto a Trident missile base in southern Georgia, and took hammers not to the missiles themselves, but to replicas posted as monuments of the base’s mission. King’s Bay is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world.
Patrick and the others argue that nuclear weapons are deadly in many ways even while sitting on their near-hair triggers. Not to mention obscenely expensive and bad for the environment. Since their beginning of Plowshares in 1980, the group has mounted a hundred similar nonviolent antinuclear actions. (More about the group here.)
The seven filmed themselves carrying out their mission. They turned them over to the police, and later had the unusual experience of watching their own videos being used by the prosecution in their trials.
Patrick chuckles talking about this, because it was part of their plan, another way to dramatize it for the nonplussed federal trial judge. Their message was that, as Patrick puts it, they had no malign intent, but were there by “The grace of God.”
For Patrick and the others, taking on the discomforts of prison is part of bearing witness to the court and any onlookers to the continuing dangers and waste of a nuclearized world. In doing this they’re following their understanding of the Christian gospel.
Last weekend, a large “send-off” party for Patrick gathered on Zoom. On Thursday, he reported to FCI Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio, a low-security prison.
FCI officially stands for “Federal Correctional Institution. But for last year and this year, the acronym would be more accurately rendered “Fast Coronavirus Incubator. “ Patrick, who is 64, asked the judge to delay his reporting date until he could get a vaccination; the judge refused.
This puts Patrick, as it has a multitude of prisoners, particularly those of color, at serious risk. “There’s no way to social distance in prison,” he said. “I’m going to prison for a nonviolent action. It’s not a capital crime.”
So his punishment could go far beyond confinement: the Raleigh NC News & Observer reported on January 14 that of 36,720 inmates in North Carolina prisons, 8132 have thus far tested positive, and 39 have died. Nationally, the paper added, at least 275,000 inmates have tested positive, and 1700 have died.
And speaking of prisons, here are a few facts about FCI Elkton: it is in Columbiana County, one of the poorer counties in Ohio, in an area devastated by deindustrialization. Yet the county’s voters, who are 95 per cent white, have been veering steadily to the right politically: in 2016, Donald trump finished 41 points ahead of Hillary Clinton. And last November, his winning margin increased to 51 points.
Meanwhile, in 2020, the county recorded 6900 Covid cases, with 124 known deaths. But in the first two weeks of 2021, it has tallied 775 cases; at that rate, it could surpass 18000 cases in 2021.
If he dodges all these viral bullets, Patrick will be out in a year or so. Perhaps under a new administration, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons will follow the example of some states and release inmates to home confinement until the pandemic abates.
And then he’ll start working on some other way to dramatize the continuing, chronically ignored perils of nuclear weapons. Meantime, interested readers can write to Patrick, to send encouragement and solidarity. Patrick’s prison address is:
Patrick O’Neill #14924-018
Federal Correction Institution
PO Box 10
Lisbon, OH 44432