Living At Ground Zero

Committed opposition to the Trident submarine:
applied Ghandian non-violence

One of the articles in The Foundations Of Peace (IC#4)
Originally published in Autumn 1983 on page 48
Copyright (c)1983, 1997 by Context Institute

Shelley and Jim Douglass are at the heart of a small group of peace activists who have been working persistently for the past 8 years against the deployment of the Trident submarine system. In this interview, they talk about what it is like to be part of such a long term process. If you are interested in knowing more about their work, write to them at Ground Zero, 16159 Clear Creek Rd. N.W., Poulsbo, WA 98370.

Robert: WHAT ARE YOU doing here on the Kitsap Peninsula of Western Washington?

Jim: Well, as you can see by looking out the window, we live along some railroad tracks, and the tracks enter the Trident Submarine Base. We’re here engaged in what we understand as an experiment in the truth and art of non-violence. We are doing this through the Trident Campaign, which began in January 1975, and the Ground Zero Center for Non- Violent Action, which has been in existence since December 1977.

Robert: Could you say something about the Trident submarine and why you are involved with it?

Shelley: The first reason we’re involved with Trident is because it’s here in our region. When we first heard about it we lived in Vancouver, up in British Columbia, which isn’t very far away. We happened to know the person who had designed the missile system and he told us that it was a first-strike missile system. At the time nobody’d ever heard of – nobody knew what first strike was or could even believe that we were seriously contemplating building first-strike weapon systems. Since we lived in the area where it was coming and nobody but us knew about it, we felt a responsibility to become involved.

Since then, we’ve become more convinced that Trident itself, because of its nature, is something that needs to be stopped. The Trident submarine is about 2 football fields long and 4 stories high, and it’ll carry a total of possibly 408 first-strike nuclear warheads, that is warheads that are especially accurate and very highly explosive and that take out missiles in missile silos before they’re fired. When it’s put together with all the sister systems that they’re developing for it, the U.S. would hope to have the capability of launching a first-strike nuclear war and not sustaining what the military would consider unacceptable damage in return. So it unbalances the arms race. It means that once these things are in place the advantage lies with the side that begins the war, not with the side that doesn’t.

So as we’ve come to know more about it, we’ve come to see that Trident was a really important thing to work on. And because it’s so important to the Pentagon, it’s a real test of non-violence. If non- violence can somehow be an agent for change among people working on the Trident system and ultimately change the Trident system itself, then that’s a real sign of hope. So it’s a challenge and a test and a place where you can work hard and hope to make some difference.

Robert: How are you doing that work?

Shelley: We do a lot of different things. The first 3 years of the Trident campaign we didn’t live in Kitsap County, we lived mainly in Seattle and Vancouver, and we did a lot of education there because nobody had heard of Trident. We would come here and commit civil disobedience or have big demonstrations and people would go to court and raise the legal issues about the international law treaties forbidding building of nuclear weapons. So those two things went on from the beginning – education and civil disobedience designed to raise legal issues in court.

But as we thought more about non-violence and the fact that what we were trying to do was not just stop the weapon system but to change the way that we live and think, we realized that we couldn’t be non- violent if we were always outsiders coming in. It was at that point that we bought the land for Ground Zero and our family moved down here. And since then a large part of the work is simply living here – being people like everybody else and going to the soccer games and the PTA and stuff – and letting folks in the area have a chance to see that we’re not drug-crazed hippies or whatever they think we are, but that we’re people with another kind of view and that we’re fairly reasonable most of the time.

So we live here, and we hand out leaflets to the people working on the weapon systems once a week – we’ve done that now for 5 years. We go to people’s homes and talk about what we’re doing and especially the religious commitment behind it, why it is that we do it, what we believe, because often we find that we share that commitment although we don’t interpret it the same way.

Robert: Could you describe some of that commitment?

Jim: (laughing) Well, some people who are opposed to Ground Zero are opposed to it because everybody at Ground Zero’s a Christian, and some people are opposed to Ground Zero because everybody at Ground Zero is a Buddhist. Actually, there are both Christians and Buddhists at Ground Zero and everybody else is welcome. The belief that we have is that the different religious traditions all have a common non-violence as a basis, and that the more deeply we explore different religious traditions, the more we’re going to come to a common understanding of non-violence. The people in the core community at Ground Zero are Christian, at the same time as a Buddhist Peace Pagoda is being built at Ground Zero, and we’re very closely connected with the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist community.

In this area, our Christian roots have been a common ground with people in a lot of the different churches in Kitsap County. We’ve made presentations at some of these churches, talked to the different ministerial associations, and have received a good degree of support from key people within the churches. I wouldn’t say that by and large we’ve been supported by the churches of Kitsap County – there’s a lot of opposition to us as well.

Robert: In the things like the leafletting that you’ve done, it’s easy to imagine that these would not have a very large immediate impact. What have you found and how have relationships developed, for instance, with some of the workers on the Base? Do you feel that you’ve had any sort of impact?

Shelley: Yes. We’ve done two different leafletting campaigns. When we first began to leaflet, we were leafletting workers going into the submarine Base. The initial experience was one of hostility – people didn’t know who we were, what we were doing, they had a lot of stereotypes about what we would think of them, for example, and so it took a while for that to break down. But over the course of 4 years, we went from getting very few leaflets out to often getting out seven or eight hundred, which was quite a good response. Everybody drives into the submarine Base, so people really had to make an effort to get to leaflets. They had to be willing to stop and reach their arm out and get the leaflet from a person who was standing in the middle of the road by the Stop sign. And it meant something just to take a leaflet. We discovered that leaflets on the Base would get posted in odd places, like the Men’s Room, or on the Bulletin Board, or they would get passed around and people would read them who wouldn’t actually take them. A number of people that we’ve gotten to know told us that the leaflets mean a lot to the workers, that they get information that way that they wouldn’t get any other way. We know several people who’ve quit the Base at least partly because of the leaflets – both the questions the leaflets raised and the support that they gave to them.

Over the course of time both the traffic patterns of the new freeway and ticketing by the County Sheriff has made it impossible really to get any leaflets out at the Base, so while we haven’t given up hope there we’ve moved for the last 9 months into the Naval Shipyard Base at Bremerton.

Yet up until the very end at the Base, you’d get both reactions. You’d get people who would drive at you with their cars – out of hostility – but you would also get people who would quit their jobs or they’d give you a couple of bucks to help pay for the leaflets, or in some way would show their sympathy.

That’s true, too, at the Naval Shipyard. There the people walk in, so it’s easier to leaflet, and it’s also harder to be arrested, but the change is the same, from the initial hostility to more and more acceptance.

Robert: Do you think that’s just a matter of time, or are there some key things that you feel that you’ve done, either in the leaflets or just in the way that you communicate?

Jim: It’s both. Because certainly you can’t change much of anything by leafletting one or two weeks. It’s the sustained presence. We’ve tried to be clear that the purpose of our leafletting isn’t simply to give information, it’s to establish a relationship with the people in the different Bases, and that can happen only over months and years, it can’t happen in a matter of weeks. It happens only by people who take the leaflets getting a sense of the people who are standing there – people who are there day in and day out, week in and week out, no matter what the weather patterns or what the political situation or whatever…that we’re just always there.

And then, as time goes on, particular workers respond in special ways. There have been over the last couple of years five workers who have resigned their jobs publicly and become in one way or another members of the Ground Zero community and have responded to particular things we’ve done in leafletting also.

One of the most recent examples of a person resigning was Mona Seehale. Mona resigned especially out of the situation where we passed out bread to workers on the Base, which is a custom that we have every Thanksgiving – we pass out 400 loaves of bread to the workers.

When we did that 2 years ago, we had a poem by Father Daniel Berrigan in with the bread, reflecting on our building weapons in lieu of ending hunger. Mona received the bread and the leaflet, and she said that as she drove into the Base she kept hearing this voice within her saying, you don’t belong here, you don’t belong here. When she got to her place of work, the secretary in the office came in, also had a loaf of bread and was reading Dan Berrigan’s poem at her desk. She looked up at Mona as Mona came into the office and Mona began to cry. The secretary came around and put her arm around Mona and said "I think you’d better go home." She did so, and shortly thereafter she resigned from the Base.

That particular step on her part has also made it possible for her to share a lot with other people because she since has become a novelist full time and she’s written quite a bit about her experience on the Base, and now she works full time on her farm also, alongside the Base. She’s an example in a lot of ways of people with whom we hold more in common than we have differences from, who work on the Trident Base, and whom we try to support in decisions like the one Mona made.

Robert: That’s a full jump. I’m interested in what are some of the stages in between. What are some of the initial steps that you see people taking after they’ve accepted a leaflet and read it and it’s begun to sink in. How do they approach you?

Jim: Something that’s been happening just within the last 2 weeks in the Shipyard is that we’ve seen workers take steps that are really quite remarkable. For example a couple of weeks ago we didn’t have enough leafletters at one of the gates, and one of the Ground Zero people leafletting saw a friend of hers going into the Base, and he said, "well how come you don’t have an extra leafletter this week?" and she said "well the person wasn’t available, would you like to help?" and he said, "well yeah, I would," and he took the leaflets and he devoted a half an hour before going into work at the Shipyard leafletting his brother and sister workers who were rather startled by seeing him take on that role.

A few months before that, a man named Bill Neil was going into the Shipyard and he noticed that Jean Clark, who was leafletting that day, was being hassled by another worker who was speaking to her in a very critical and abusive way. So Bill came up to Jean while she was leafletting, and said "I just want you to know that I’m glad you’re here," and tried to support her in that way. In fact a few weeks after that he was asked to work on a Trident submarine and decided that he would resign from the Shipyard.

These intermediate steps of supporting people, or of even taking on the risk of leafletting to your fellow workers, are tremendously important things. Some of the workers give us contributions, quite unpredictably. Someone you’ve seen coming in who may not have said anything for weeks on end will hand you a $10 bill.

There are a lot of things, but I think the most important, though, is just seeing people’s attitudes changing, and people who were extremely hostile or indifferent begin to smile at you. Many of them don’t take leaflets, but the relationship is what changes, and that is the most important thing. It’s like the monks who bow as they meet you, and they’re bowing to the Buddha within you – we try to realize that there is the presence of God within each of those workers and the offering of the leaflet is hopefully done in the spirit in which the monks bow to the person whom they are meeting.

Robert: How about some of the reactions that you’ve gotten within the local community?

Shelley: We get different reactions from different people in the community, obviously. We’ve been here for almost 6 years, and we’ve made some good friends. There are a number of people who either didn’t know us or who have changed and become friends or were friendly already and we’ve discovered each other, and that’s really positive.

The relation with the law people is fairly good. The security on the Base is particularly friendly because we’ve made a point of telling them what we’re going to do and having people trained for non-violence, so that it’s always pretty clear that what we’re against is the Trident system, not the people who are working in Security on the Base. We may have discussions with them that are critical of the jobs they hold but we’re not putting them down as people, or denying their right to choose but asking them questions about it. By and large I don’t think most of the security people on the Base feel hostility towards us, and the people who’ve been there longer and that we’ve had more contact with tend to be more friendly.

For example, not long ago the head of Security called up to get a copy of Jim’s book so he could give it to the Commander of the Base who was being transferred, and had Jim inscribe it for him. I wonder a little bit about that, but it means that at least there’s that personal feeling that at least he could call up and get the book and have it inscribed and it wasn’t a big hostility thing. They met at the gate and handed the book over.

Robert: It also indicates that your presence here is something that is viewed as significant by the people on the Base.

Shelley: The Sheriff tends to be caught more in the middle, because he’s a politically elected official. He appreciates us in the sense that we do what we say we’re going to do. If we say that we’re having a rally for 9,000 people up in the Northern part of the County, we do that and we don’t bring 9,000 people down on Clear Creek Road. We cooperate with him in that sense on traffic and parking and all of that kind of thing, which makes his job easier. So he appreciates that about us. I think he has some understanding of what we’re trying to do and probably some sympathy with at least some of it. On the other hand, he is also an arm of the government, and he’s politically appointed in a very conservative county. Over the last couple of years he has had to pretty much end our constitutional right to hand out leaflets at the Trident Base because of the pressure that’s been brought on him, I think probably, by the Navy and some local residents. I think that’s probably some kind of conflict for him because he does know us.

As for other people in the County, I’ve already mentioned the people who support us, that come and work at Ground Zero or help leaflet or give money, or whatever. There are also some people who are quite hostile, who feel that we’re just dead wrong, that we’re probably Communists and who want to shut us down. So there’s a whole spectrum of relationships. And there’s a lot of hostility, kind of irrational hostility, that gets directed especially toward the Buddhists because they’re Japanese, and there are a lot of people who feel that World War II ended any human relationship we might have with Japanese people. It gets thrown out to them a lot that we don’t want a bunch of Japs around. They’re Buddhist, and there are a lot of people in Kitsap County who feel that this is a Christian country and that Buddhism is an idolatrous religion and we don’t want them here. And they’re pacifist, and that’s the third thing that you can’t be. So because of all of these 3 things together, the Buddhists especially take a fair amount of hostility. And some of that transfers to the rest of us.

Robert: What reflections would you have on the role non-violence can play both in the immediate challenges we face around the world, and also in a longer-term sense, the role that it might play in a planetary culture?

Shelley: I think there are two things that non- violence can do, right now, if you let it do it. One is to challenge us, white middle-class Americans, because a lot of the problems that are happening all over the world are at our door and the reason that they’re there is that unconsciously we’ve adopted a lifestyle that’s exceedingly violent.

Robert: Can you bring out some examples?

Shelley: We North Americans are about 6% of the population and we consume about 40% of the world’s resources. That doesn’t happen by accident and that doesn’t happen without being defended because people are starving to death. So the fact that we overconsume leads directly into the oppression of third world peoples which leads into the arms race. If you study the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR, you find that it’s as much a collusion between the two super-powers against the third world as it is a rivalry between the two super-powers. We want nuclear weapons for ourselves and so we block out the third world together. We also want to keep the third world down, both of us, so we use the nuclear weapons to keep our own influence over our own spheres, but also to threaten the people within those spheres. The ideologies are different but the effect is the same. The nuclear arms race is a part of that, just as conventional weapons are a part of that. I don’t think that there will be any legitimate disarmament that will help until we learn to scale down our standard of living and have a more reasonable way of living in harmony so that we don’t have to defend the kind of consumption that we’re doing.

Robert: How does non-violence work into that scaling down?

Shelley: Well, non-violence is more than just not punching somebody out. Non-violence has to do with living in harmony with other creatures on the planet including other human beings. If you’re trying to be a nonviolent person and you’ve been in a situation in which much of the world is starving while you’re overconsuming, that perception leads to lifestyle changes that scale down. It also often leads to some political action to better the condition of everybody.

Non-violence isn’t just nuclear disarmament and it isn’t just solving an argument without hitting somebody. It’s creating the conditions in your life that lead to not having to use violence, and for us that has a lot to do with consumerism.

The second thing that non-violence offers is some hope – if you can readjust society to something that can be legitimately defended and isn’t indefensible by its very nature – that there’s a way to provide for defense without hurting other people. That in fact we can develop civilian defense strategies, develop a satyagraha of peace where people will go and interfere in violent situations and help to bring about a non-violent solution that allows both parties to respect themselves. Some things like that are happening. There are now non-violent groups, for example, on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua who are just there to try to prevent some of the violence that happens in invasions, by their presence, because they’re white westerners and they "count" more.

That’s just a beginning. One of the problems in being who we are in this kind of a place is that people always say, "Okay, what will the world look like if we all disarm and have social justice?" We don’t know. It’s not like we have a blueprint or a plan – it’s an experiment, where you take a step, you learn and work with that, and then take another step. We call ourselves Gandhians, which means that we do a fair amount of reading on Gandhi and think that he had a lot of good stuff to say. His philosophy was a lot like, say, Schumacher’s, where he believed that people should be in small villages where there could be political self-government because people could work together with those kinds of numbers, and that each of the small villages should be as economically self- sufficient as possible, growing as much of the food they needed as they could given the climate and raising as much of the cotton or the sheep or whatever they would need for clothing, that kind of thing. Given the development of technology probably there would be more trade and communication than Gandhi expected, just because it makes sense, but somehow we’d be responsible for ourselves instead of making other people responsible for providing things for us.

Robert: What are your reflections on the relationship between the martial arts and the Gandhian non-violent approach you’ve been following?

Shelley: Non-violence is a continuum. You don’t suddenly get there and discover that you’re non- violent and know you’ll never use any physical force. There’s this famous quote from Gandhi, that "It’s better to violently resist an injustice than to allow the injustice to go unremarked." I think you do the best you can, particularly if you’re talking about a personal situation where you’re confronted with some kind of physical or psychological violence, you do the best you can according to the illumination of the moment. And the illumination of the moment may be that you sit on somebody. If they’re doing something that’s life- threatening and that’s the best way that you can think of stopping them, then that’s what you do. It’s not a theory, it’s how you act, which is why we do non- violence training in role plays, maybe using some of the same kind of ideas as the martial arts. There are always ways to get yourself out of a situation, especially if you think about it beforehand, and figure some of them out. But it isn’t like there’s a dogma laid down that says you can do Tai Ch’i but you can’t do Karate, one’s violent and one isn’t. It’s a way of life, and somehow trying to be open to the best way to deal with the conflict. I’m sure it’s better to deal with the conflict without getting into physical violence if it’s possible, but it isn’t always possible.

People are always asking us about some hypothetical situation which never applies, and if it does apply, until you’re there how do you know what’s going to happen? There’s the classic one of what if someone were raping your grandmother in a car going down a hill at 100 miles an hour and you had a rifle, would you shoot them, that kind of thing. People will ask, do you condemn revolutionaries in El Salvador, because they use violence, and the obvious answer to that kind of systemic question is to look at the source of the violence. The major violence in third world countries is governmental violence, which comes down through our own government over their government to the people. Until we take non-violent actions to change that situation there isn’t any way we’re going to convince third world people that we know how to solve their problems. We are their problem, and if there were non-violent action here then there might not need to be violent action there.

Jim: Gandhi wasn’t really a pacifist. He was a person who believed in the power of non-violence as being infinite, and he felt that if one could deepen enough in the power of non-violence – for example, if a plane were flying overhead with a crew about to drop an atomic bomb – that one could love enough to change the hearts of the people in that plane, and that bomb would not be dropped. That’s a faith in non-violence that goes very, very deep. On the other hand, he believed that the context in which we live and the limitations that we have in our development of that ideal are such that we’re always in the process of moving toward the ideal and that we’re going to have to be involved in limitations all the time, and that what we have to do is draw on the deepest resources we have on each of those steps, and there always will be a non-violent solution if we draw deeply enough on those resources.

Robert: What have we missed ?

Jim: Maybe one thing to come back to would be a sense of deep unity with the people on the other side of the fence. We try to understand the Ground Zero community as extending beyond that fence and try to find what we have in common wherever we can. It’s a hard struggle to keep doing that, because everything possible is done by the system, the institutions in which we live, to divide us. But it keeps happening, and it keeps happening when we don’t even know it.

We’ve had people over here for dinner at various times who work on the Base, or even are members of Trident submarine crews, and every time that happens I always re-experience an overcoming of prejudices I didn’t even recognize. I’m always skeptical in spite of myself of the attitudes of people on the other side of the fence. But when I meet them, they’re more open to me in a lot of ways than I am to them, so that’s just a constant experience, and it’s very hopeful.

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