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Part of a Nieman Watchdog series, ‘Reporting the Endgame

[Also read our follow-up story in which a Washington Post editor tries to explain his paper’s lack of coverage of antiwar protest: Coulda, woulda, shoulda coverage of antiwar protests.]

In December, 131 antiwar protesters were arrested in front of the White House.Antiwar activists repeatedly stage dramatic acts of civil disobedience in the United States but are almost entirely ignored by mainstream print and broadcast news organizations. During the Vietnam era, press coverage of the fighting and opposition to it at home helped turn public opinion against the war. This time around lack of homefront coverage may be helping keep military involvement continue on and on.

In the past two years, protests of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, killer drones, torture, nuclear weapons and other war-related issues have been carried out at nuclear weapons silos and production facilities, military bases, unmanned drone facilities, major defense contractors’ headquarters and offices, the Nevada Nuclear Test site, nuclear weapons design laboratories, military recruiting centers, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, federal buildings in various states, the U.S. Strategic Air Command, and numerous other war-oriented sites across the country.

The protests don’t begin to approach the level of those during the Vietnam war or in the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – but that’s not a reason to ignore them. The fact is, protest is much more widespread than citizens might gauge from coverage in newspapers and television, which seldom report antiwar actions regardless of how significant or newsworthy they may be. As we briefly observed in a previous article: By ignoring antiwar protests almost totally, editors are treating opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan much as they handled the run-up to the war in Iraq: They are missing an important story and contributing to the perception that there is no visible opposition to the U.S. wars and ever-growing military budgets, even as polls show overwhelming support for early U.S. military withdrawal.
Although arrests are indicative of only a small portion of antiwar activity, a case-by-case compilation by prominent civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley shows more than 2,600 arrests nationwide for various protests on progressive issues from 2009 until late May of this year, with nearly 1,400 of them coming in antiwar-related actions‚ almost all of which stem from protests involving nonviolent civil disobedience. Quigley derived most of his information from the newsletter The Nuclear Resister , which for several years has tracked arrests of anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons activists nationwide as much as it can, given the lack of press coverage.
In the last seven months alone, there have been more than 550 documented arrests of antiwar protesters and some important court trials which, while often receiving local coverage, seldom find their way into major news organizations’ reports.

"Although we haven’t recently had the gigantic demonstrations of those Vietnam War years,” Quigley told Nieman Watchdog, “in my experience, what you have today is a lot of smaller, passionate and persistent activities going on all over the country. A lot of peaceful protests and civil disobedience. The mainstream press doesn’t cover that." Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and associate legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Regarding the arrest figures he compiled, Quigley said they “certainly underestimate the number actually arrested” because so many of them go unreported in the press. This, he said, is in contrast to the media standard for covering overseas dissent, which is to “focus so intently on arrests of protestors in other countries.”

Some of the more noteworthy protests in the last two years have been carried out by activists from the religious-based Disarm Now Plowshares movement, which began in 1980 when antiwar priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan and six others were convicted on an array of state felony and misdemeanor charges after they hammered on nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood onto documents and files at the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

The pattern of the national media is to ignore courtroom trials also, regardless of their drama, leaving them to local news reports or websites.

One example: In a Tacoma, Washington federal courtroom in March, an 84-year-old Society of the Sacred Heart nun, Anne Montgomery, 82-year-old Jesuit priest Bill Bichsel, and three other activists over the age of 60 – another Jesuit priest and two women – were sentenced to jail terms. Montgomery, it should be noted, was one of the Plowshares Eight some 30 years earlier. Their sentences ranged from six to fifteen months, plus one-year supervised release. Their crime: attempting to “symbolically disarm” the Trident II missiles stored in the Strategic Weapons Facility-Pacific (SWFPAC) at the U.S. Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, 20 miles from Seattle.

According to their own account, the five defendants, all affiliated with Disarm Now Plowshares, at 2 A.M. on All-Souls Day in November 2009 “used bolt cutters to break through a [perimeter] chain-link fence in an area where Trident submarine nuclear warheads are stored.” They then walked almost four miles into the base and cut through one double-layered chain link fence and then another barbed wire fence and alarm wires, “ignoring a sign warning that deadly force was authorized against intruders.” They had entered a bunker area that protesters said housed “the largest nuclear weapon stockpile in the United States” – reportedly more than 2,300 warheads, or almost one-fourth of the entire U.S. arsenal. They said their action was designed “to call attention to the illegality and immorality of the existence of the first-strike Trident weapons system.” After putting up banners and scattering blood and sunflower seeds, and hammering symbolically on a road and fences, “they prayed until they were arrested,” thrown to the ground, handcuffed and hooded. They said they were then questioned by base security, the FBI and the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service).

In a joint statement after their arrests, they further explained their motivation: “As U.S. citizens we are responsible under the Nuremberg Principles for this threat of first-strike terrorism hanging over the community of nations, rich and poor.” Before their sentencing on trespassing and property destruction charges, each of the defendants spoke and‚ “focused on the personal responsibility they feel to disarm nuclear weapons, and their desire to prevent pain, suffering, and death‚” for “those deprived by our wars and military budget of a human way of life.” The judge, noting the defendants’ “lack of remorse,” called their protest “a form of anarchy” that could lead to a “breakdown in the social order.” Some 250 supporters of the group had turned out for a pre-sentencing rally featuring song and prayer.

You would think this story‚ with its angle of a nun, priests and lay people of an advanced age penetrating a high-security nuclear weapons installation, is what we used to call news. It is as least as newsworthy for the national media as, say, a congressman texting sexually suggestive pictures of himself to women, Sarah Palin’s latest gaffe, or the Canadian and U.S. travels of the newly-married duke and duchess of Cambridge. But while there were articles about the arrests in the Bremerton and Longview, Washington, newspapers, we have found no national news media coverage of this and similar significant incidents of civil disobedience or of the subsequent trial.

Here is another recent example:
This past April in a Las Vegas, Nevada, courtroom, 13 defendants from across the country – two Jesuit priests, two Franciscan priests, a nun from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, two Catholic Worker members and six other activists – were convicted on state charges of trespassing at nearby Creech Air Force Base two years earlier. Creech is the headquarters of U.S. drone operations from which Predator and Reaper drone surveillance and attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan are remotely “piloted.” The defendants, in their own words, were arrested while kneeling in prayer and begging for an end to the drone attacks. The judge rejected their “defense of necessity” – that is, as the defendants argued, “when an inherent danger is present…immediate action must be taken, such as breaking a no-trespassing law to uphold a higher law and save life.”
Judge William Jansen, after delaying a verdict in this non-jury trial for almost eight months to take what he said was time to think about the case, ruled that no inherent danger was present, found them guilty and sentenced them to time already served. One of the defendants was much-arrested, long-time Chicago activist Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

In remarks to the court before sentencing, Kelly told about a recent three-week trip she had taken to Afghanistan where she met with victims of U.S. drone attacks. She spoke in dramatic, graphic details about what she had seen and heard and victims she had met – including a nine-year-old girl “whose arm was amputated” by a drone attack and a man whose wife and five children had been killed by the same attack and “who showed me the photos of his children’s bloodied corpses.” She added: “It’s criminal for the U.S. to spend $2 billion per week for war in Afghanistan that maims, kills and displaces innocent civilians who’ve meant us no harm.”

In what the Las Vegas Sun called “a somewhat unusual trial,” Jansen had allowed the defense to present testimony relating to their “necessity” defense from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark; Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former State Department diplomat; and the aforementioned civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley. In the end, the judge rejected their line of testimony. (In addition to the Las Vegas Sun, Kelly told Nieman Watchdog that local Nevada Public Radio had broadcast stories on the trial but there was no national coverage.) After sentencing the defendants to time served, the judge told them to “go in peace.” Jansen also urged them to use diplomacy, rather than trespassing, in their attempts to get U.S. drone warfare policy changed.

Again, here was a story with several newsworthy elements, including answers to the question of why people such as Kathy Kelly time and again take actions that will surely result in their arrests, that will surely go unpublicized in the national media, that will likely result in jail terms, and yet will not cut one dollar from the Pentagon budgets or stop even one of our country’s growing number of wars and military actions. Publicity is not what motivates these folks, yet the news media’s failure to cover their protests essentially means the press is shielding its readers and viewers from uncomfortable news that raises disturbing and profound questions about our nation’s war-making activities. While the airwaves and print press are full of jingoistic war-makers’ pronouncements, the voices of the peacemakers are shut out.    

As Daniel Berrigan, now 90 and living in a Jesuit friary in New York City, observed in the summer of 2010 in an interview with author Deena Guzder for her recently-published book, Divine Rebels: "There’s resistance all the time today, but there’s no media. The media is a total sellout. You’re not going to know the earth is shaking if nobody reports it, but there are still plenty of people who are trying to read the Gospel and act as if it were true."    

Berrigan, who is also a noted poet, has repeatedly spoken out and protested against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and nuclear weapons. He was arrested – without publicity – for the several-dozenth time on Good Friday 2010. (He told Guzder that he had been arrested more times than he could count but “fewer than I should have been.”) He and a dozen or so other activists were arrested as they were reading out the names of civilians killed in the current U.S. wars as a way of dissuading tourists from going on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, now a floating military museum moored in the Hudson River. Berrigan and his fellow protesters view it as “a symbol of war’s destructiveness.” A Jesuit housemate of Berrigan wrote that the judge hearing the case noted that he himself had opposed the Vietnam War and had been a Berrigan supporter back then – and went on to dismiss charges against all the defendants. A good little story in and of itself.

Next: There’s no good answer to why the press gives such short shrift to antiwar activities.

John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI, and other news organizations. He is now on special assignment for Nieman Watchdog.

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