Left in Andover: The singular steps of Martha Hennessy

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., honoring his call to action against “the triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism,” Martha Hennessy along with nine other non-violent Catholic activists, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, entered the premises of the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia.

They were arrested and subsequently convicted of conspiracy, destruction of government property and trespassing after symbolically spilling their own blood and hammering on statues of nuclear missiles. One of their banners read:  The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide. The Kings Bay Naval Base is home to an arsenal of at least 120 Trident thermonuclear weapons. Each one of these is 25 times as powerful as the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, killing 140,000 civilians.

Left in Andover, Nov. 25, 2019

The beginnings of 10 months in prison

Martha Hennessy feeds her woodstove.

After almost three years of bearing witness, house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet and a trial sentencing her to prison, Weathersfield resident Martha Hennessy reported to the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2020.

She is serving 10 months for her protest against nuclear armaments as a member of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7. In a letter to me post dated Jan. 13, 2021, Martha reflects upon her trial and upon life in prison, including the impact of Covid-19:

Sitting now in the TV room in federal prison I hear reports about Congress being quite nervous over the nuclear codes during the presidential transition.

During our trial in October, 2019, we attempted to bring evidence of the dangers and illegality of our first strike nuclear arsenal but to no avail.

While I was under direct examination the judge at one point stated, ‘Remember, I’ve excluded illegality as a defense. I am afraid you are going to lead this jury to believe that that is somehow a legal defense (her belief, and it can explain the context of her actions) but you’re turning this into a trial regarding nuclear weaponry.’

Imagine that, a federal trial regarding nuclear weapons. I was then sentenced in November, 2020, to ten months in prison and here I sit, dodging the Covid virus that has ravaged the women’s camp, putting the routines here in complete disarray.

In Martha’s witness against nuclear weapons, she is carrying on a long tradition of peaceful protest. In the 1950s her grandmother, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and icon of the Catholic Left, went to jail several times for non-compliance with New York’s annual nuclear civil defense drills requiring residents to seek shelter. She and her co-defendants always refused bail, choosing jail instead in order to publicize their protests.

In Dorothy Day’s view these drills were an attempt to create a false feeling of safety in the face of existential threat. There are no winners in a nuclear war. Seventy years later, not much has changed, and her granddaughter Martha continues to sound the alarm:

On January 22, 2021, the latest international Treaty for Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into effect, bearing down on the nuclear weapons states that have refused ratification and participation in nuclear abolition. Radical change is coming, forced upon us out of extremity and squandered opportunity in our lifetimes.

The Kings Bay Plowshares 7. Martha is third from right.

Every day, Martha dreams of a return to her “beloved family and farm in Vermont” but considers her sacrifice “tiny in the scheme of things.” She continues:

Covid is my only concern with being here and it is in this building, the women’s low security camp. I arrived on December 14th and had 23 days in quarantine. Half of the inmates have been sent home so thank goodness we are not wall to wall people. I wear a mask at all times and wash my hands a million times a day and try to stay 6’ apart, not easy.

The women do their best to help one another. One of my neighbors groans in pain. She is made to work in the warehouse and feeling it in her back and right elbow. Apparently the prison labor based factory is now on hold, but work goes on to maintain the plant.

Like the lifelong Vermonter she is, Martha Hennessy rues the food waste in prison, “Oh the compost that could be generated here,” she writes. She is able to consume only half her generous pre-sized meal portions. But, buoyed by the support of her six fellow Plowshares activists, each now passing through the legal system on an individual basis, she holds true to her convictions.

Of course it is not possible to know what impact the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 stand against nuclear weaponry will have upon our government, and the course of human history upon this planet.

But in the view of Dorothy Day, Catholic “Servant of God,” this is no excuse for inaction. Her maxim: “People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.”

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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