Thanksgiving Day 1983. It was cold, rainy and blustery when Elizabeth McAlister and six fellow members of the Plowshares peace group crept with the dawn onto Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y. Silently they crossed the base golf course to a maintenance hangar housing a giant B-52 bomber. The hangar wasn’t locked, and the lights, as if in invitation, were on. The little company promptly set to work, battering the plane’s bomb-bay doors with hammers for more than 20 minutes, then smearing it with their own blood, leaving gory handprints on the fuselage.
Afterward, elated by their gesture, they prayed and sang, waved banners (“Swords into Plowshares”) and waited. An hour passed before base security police finally arrived and tried to shoo them from the premises. But they weren’t having any. They had their hearts set on arrest. “You better go and see what we’ve done in the hangar,” they said.
The B-52 was not beaten into a plowshare, but the Air Force totaled the damage at $65,000 and U.S. District Court Judge Howard Munson viewed the offense as serious. In his Syracuse, N.Y. courtroom last month the judge sentenced McAlister and friends to up to three years in prison. Even with time off for good behavior McAlister will probably serve 14 to 20 months. Withal, the atmosphere in the courtroom was at times buoyant, even festive. McAlister, 44, would occasionally glance back and smile at Philip Berrigan, her 61-year-old husband, the maverick former priest who with his brother Daniel, also a priest, and Elizabeth, herself once a nun in the order of the religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, form a celebrated trinity on the radical Roman Catholic Left. During the ’60s and ’70s they were dedicated to extricating America from Vietnam and now, in the ’80s, from the nuclear arms race. Elizabeth’s gaze lingered on Frida, 10, Jerome, 9, and Kathleen, the 2½-year-old toddler perched in Berrigan’s lap. They beamed back, matching their mom in cheerful stoicism.
Knowing that prison was inevitable she had hugged the children goodbye beforehand. “This is something we talked about a good deal and understand together,” she says, fingering a tiny black crucifix. “It doesn’t prevent you from feeling their absence, but you try to keep some sort of check on those feelings.” The kids, who have not seen their mother since the sentencing on July 16, are troupers in the extreme. “They don’t cry,” says Berrigan. “They’ve been raised in a resistance community, and they’ve seen their mother and father repeatedly brought to jail for nonviolent civil disobedience.”
For her part McAlister remains unrepentant. “We acted in a spirit of disarmament,” she says. “We were trying to be a sane instrument to release God’s spirit in our world. I have a deep faith that this kind of witness and action is necessary.” She suggests that the real “criminals” were the people at the Air Force base. “They’ve got cruise missiles at Griffiss, and that’s a violation of the 1968 Nuclear Proliferation Treaty,” she argues. “Under international law those responsible are criminals—and everyone has a duty to address their criminality.”
Indeed the only aspects of the five-week trial that appeared to give McAlister pause were the severity of the three-year sentence (“I had expected to get one and a half years”) and Judge Munson’s reference to her and her cohorts as “professional protesters.” It was “a put-down remark,” she says, her gray eyes kindling with anger.
Yet there was something to the judge’s remark. For there is a practical, if not quite “professional,” side to the idealism McAlister shares with Berrigan. For the last five years the couple has been careful to juggle protest activities so that both are not socked away at the same time. “After one experience in 1978,” says Berrigan, “where Elizabeth was doing 90 days and I was doing 60, we decided that one of us would try to stay around to be with the children.” Berrigan has lost track of his arrests (better than 50), but he guesses that during the 15 years of their union he and McAlister have spent six years apart due to jail terms. Of her more then 20 arrests McAlister regrets only one, a 1973 conviction in Baltimore for shoplifting, which promptly changed her theory that such crimes were politically justifiable.
The pair met in New York in 1966. Liz had been reared in Upper Montclair, N.J., a Catholic schoolgirl all the way. Phil had fought with distinction in World War II, and after four years at Holy Cross College decided to join the Josephite Order because it was devoted to living and working with blacks. By the time Liz came along Phil had largely shifted his emphasis from civil rights to the war in Southeast Asia. In October 1967 Phil and three other men poured blood on Selective Service files at a Baltimore draft board. Seven months later the Berrigan brothers and seven others torched draft records in nearby Catonsville, Md., achieving instant notoriety as the Catonsville Nine. In 1971 Liz, the brothers and four others were rounded up by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover for supposedly plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger. Throughout the case, which ended in a mistrial, Phil openly held hands with Liz, who had been a nun since 1959. They were formally married by a priest in 1973 and were automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church.
That same year they started Jonah House, a community of peace activists who share a three-story row house in a mostly black section of Baltimore. “We try to live under the ideal of poverty,” says Phil. The Berrigan-McAlister camp is set up in a two-bedroom apartment in the basement. The clothes they wear are used, the furniture contemporary Goodwill. But a generous assortment of plants brightens the living room, which is adorned by a cat named Pumpkin, the requisite picture of Gandhi and crayon drawings by the kids.
In McAlister’s absence Jonah House residents help Berrigan care for the three children. “Ordinarily,” says Phil, “Liz would read a bedtime story to Kathleen, but now somebody else does that.”
Liz writes to the children almost every day from the Federal Correctional Institution Prison in Alderson, W.Va. They are in her thoughts constantly, as is the prospect of nuclear holocaust. “The real point of what we did,” she says, “was to win some time for them.”