Ground Zero

May 14th, 2019

“I remember once in the Holy Land seeing a sign in the shape of an arrow along a road. It said, “Armageddon, 4 kilometers.” If ever there was a sign that made you wonder whether you wanted to continue down a road, this was it.”

― Father Benedict J. Groeschel,  from “After This Life: What Catholics Believe about What Happens Next”

“If Kitsap County was an independent country, it would be the third largest nuclear power in the world.”

– Brother Gilberto Perez

The Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action occupies a small piece of land in Poulsbo, WA, that butts up against the U.S. Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. There is, in fact, a chain link fence with barbed wire separating the two properties. There is a large and intimidating “No Trespassing” on the fence. The imposing fence and sign were not put up by the folks at Ground Zero. They are obviously the work of the U.S. Navy. There is a road next to the fence that is regularly patrolled by Navy personnel. They are eager to protect the nuclear weapons which are on the base allegedly to protect us.

On Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day. Ground Zero sponsored a peace action directed against the Trident submarines that are stationed at Kitsap-Bangor. It was an all day affair that included breakfast and lunch, along with classes, and a demonstration in front of the main gate of the nuclear submarine base.

Karin and I rode to Ground Zero along with Senji, Gilberto, and Ben. Karin and I were staying with Gilberto and Senji at their temple on Bainbridge Island. It is only a short ride to Poulsbo from the Nipponzan Myohoji Dojo. I think we arrived there around 8:30ish in the morning. A few people were milling about. There was a tent set up in front of the peace center with a table for signing in and procuring a name tag.

Karin and I met a man named Michael who showed us around the property. He showed us the stupa that had been built. Then he pointed out a wooded area that covered the ruins of the original peace pagoda. The pagoda had burned down in suspicious circumstances over thirty years ago. The steel rebar from the structure was still there, buried under bushes and trees. A member of the Ground Zero community plans to cut down the woods and removing the rebar. Michael was unsure when that would occur.

A new peace pagoda is scheduled to be built on the site of the first structure. The reconstruction project has been a decades-long process, often hindered by local bureaucracy. Apparently, the last regulatory obstacle is being surmounted, and the new peace pagoda will be built. The monks from the temple have been deeply involved with this effort, and they have shown a very Buddha-like patience.

Elizabeth, who who runs the peace center full time as a volunteer, kept the day’s activities flowing. She gently, but firmly, encouraged people to get with the program. I don’t envy her. It was like herding cats. I would have lost patience within the first hour.

The schedule started with a light breakfast. After that, a video was shown concerning Julia Howe Ward, and the origins of Mothers Day as a day to promote world peace. It was a good video, actually quite moving. Then we all got to hear the Seattle Peace Chorus.

The chorus was tuneful and enthusiastic. They were also out of date. The song list included “Blowin’ in the Wind” from Bob Dylan, “If I had a Hammer” from Pete Seeger, and “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Don’t get me wrong: those are all great songs. However, those songs are usually only meaningful to a particular demographic group, and that group is old. 

Even a casual glance around the room showed that the people assembled for this peace action were up in years. There was a younger family with their children at the site, but they did not seem to be actively involved in the program. Other than that family, the youngest persons I saw were Ben and Ray. Ray is an Air Force veteran. I would guess that Ray was in his forties. Everybody else was old, by any objective standard.

Does this matter? I think it does. All of the people involved with Ground Zero are deeply concerned about eliminating nuclear arms. They all see these weapons as an existential threat to humanity, and to all the other life on earth. They are correct. However, nobody from the up and coming generations seem to share their passion. Younger people care about many other things, although I am not entirely sure what those things are.

I have been wondering what Hans, my combat vet, redneck son, would say about the folks that were gathered at Ground Zero. I suspect that he would shake his head and mutter, “Bunch of old hippies”. He would be right to say so. This senior crowd working to stop nuclear war is fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, they aren’t recruiting anybody to follow in their footsteps. Ground Zero needs some fresh blood, or the organization will go the way of the dinosaurs and the woolly mammoths. Extinction will not help the cause. I don’t know what can be done to attract young people to this effort, but whatever Ground Zero is doing now is simply not working.

Anyway, back to the meeting.

A lawyer, Blake Kremer, gave an outstanding presentation about how to deal with the police when involved in a protest. He gave us a list of magic words to use with the cops. The first of those were: “Am I free to leave?” Then there were: “I wish to remain silent”, and “I do not consent to a search”. He explained repeatedly that the police are professional evidence gatherers, and should be treated accordingly. He also discussed the legality of making videos of arrests. The bottom line was that a person recording an arrest would probably be charged with something ambiguous, something that basically meant “contempt of cop”. All in all, the information presented was excellent.

After lunch, Kathy Kelly spoke. She is a remarkable woman. She has been involved in peace actions all over the world. She has been arrested repeatedly. She has unlimited energy. Kathy also has the rare ability to recognize the humanity in the persons who are opposing her.  She hates war and violence and injustice, but I have never seen her hate another human being. Her compassion is universal.

The last part of the day involved the preparations for the action, and the actual demonstration in front of the main gate at the naval base. I was truly impressed with how that all went down. These people had trained and prepared for the protest, and everybody knew their role in it. Some people, like Ben, served as peace keepers to ensure the safety of the other participants. Some people planned on carrying out acts of civil disobedience, and thereby getting arrested. I carried a sign.

The demonstration itself went smoothly. There were plenty of cops at the gate, but they knew beforehand what would happen. They knew what we would do, and we knew pretty much how they would react. People from our group broke the law nonviolently. The cops arrested them. Our folks got fines, and were then released. We made our point, and there were no surprises. That’s actually a good thing, a very good thing. I have been to protests that were not well planned, and chaos ensued. It is not a good idea to do things that scare men carrying loaded firearms. Sometimes boring is okay. Drama is often overrated.

Did we close down Kitsap-Bangor? No.

Are there any fewer Trident submarines? No.

Did we make any difference at all? Maybe.

I think that we did make a difference, but one that is difficult to see. We may have made one more person aware of the danger. We may have influenced one person to look more closely at the American war machine. We may have planted the seed of doubt into the conscience of a serviceman who is working at that naval base.

Maybe that is enough.







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