Locking the Gates of War

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On Father’s Day, June 17, 2018, thirty people gathered at noon for a vigil near the Naval Magazine Indian Island weapons transfer depot on Port Townsend Bay in Washington State. The depot is the largest weapons transfer facility on the West Coast.

Those of us who live near the depot see warships and enormous ammo-hauling ships coming and going on a daily basis, carrying the heaviest of war materials for all branches of the military: missiles, bombs, landmines, cluster munitions, thermobaric bombs, daisy cutter bombs, phosphorous weapons, “DU weapons” (made with depleted uranium), and napalm.

We gathered that day to contemplate how this cargo of death destroys the lives of countless people. We also gathered to make a citizen’s arrest.

Our vigil began in L. B. Good Memorial Park, across the road from the main gate of the weapons transfer depot. We built a large sculpture of sticks and ribbons in the park, which made visible the size of a container large enough to hold the blood of 600,000 people (8 feet high and 160 feet in diameter). We chose this size simply because it was the largest structure we could fit into the grassy field of the park. The death toll from wars fought since 1900 has been, at the absolute minimum, more than 150 million people.

Officers from the Washington State Patrol and from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department stopped at our vigil to ask what we were doing. I handed them copies of a writ that explained our reasons and our authority for making a citizen’s arrest of the weapons transfer depot. The officers courteously heard me out, took the copies of the writ, and agreed to deliver one copy to Navy base personnel.

The precedent for citizens’ arrests in the U.S. dates back to medieval England. Based in common law, the practice allows a private person to arrest another person for criminal conduct when they have reasonable grounds to believe that the conduct could create serious danger of injury to other people or property. This certainly describes the conduct of a weapons transfer depot. We planned to use our common-law power to arrest the base, then turn the matter over to the Sheriff to finalize the arrest.

Our vigil lasted three hours. We shared statements and poems and food. My children and grandchildren were there. We walked around the circumference of the sculpture and considered the devastation wrought by weapons at the depot. After the vigil, I asked if any others would join me in formally arresting the base.

Eight of us walked across the road, then across the blue line on the road that delineates federal property. We paused for a moment, then told the two deputy sheriffs who stood there, “We are going to walk up and arrest the base.” One of the deputies laughed, and the other said, “We will follow you there.” We walked to the main gate, where base security personnel, county sheriff’s deputies, and Washington State Patrol officers were present. I said to one of the base security officers, “As a citizen of the United States and a local resident, I arrest the legal ‘person’ known as Naval Magazine Indian Island.” Next, I asked one of the county sheriff’s deputies to accept the validity of the arrest and to lock the gate of the depot. I explained that we could not lock the gate ourselves without going to prison. I appealed to the Sheriff to defend the lives of people who live nearby. I said that we were following the citizen’s arrest procedure by quickly turning over the actual arrest to officers of the law.

The deputy complemented us for our peaceful civility, but said he would not lock the gate. I made a second request, in which I detailed the grounds for arresting and closing the depot. This second request was also politely refused. I made a third request in the name of all that we hold precious on this garden planet, our grandchildren, and all the life that we are interdependent with. This third request was met with silence.

We all stood there in meditation. Then I asked my seven friends what we should do. If we stayed, we would probably be arrested for a roadway infraction. We determined that we had accomplished our goal of presenting the authorities with our request to close the depot. We chose to see our action as a success, and we left.

What did we accomplish? We did not close the base down, but our action was one small step among many toward a world without war. Clarifying for myself why the base should be shut down was a helpful exercise in bringing my concerns into focus. The first executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, E Raymond Wilson, said in 1944, “We ought to be willing to work for causes which will not be won now, but cannot be won in the future unless the goals are staked out now and worked for energetically over a period of time.”

Forty people have been arrested over the years for peacefully protesting at the Naval Magazine Indian Island weapons transfer depot. Activist Glen Milner from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, near the Bangor Trident Nuclear Weapons Base, carried our concerns about the weapons transfer depot to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our local city and county governments joined our appeal to the Federal Government to require the Navy to respond to the freedom-of-information requests that we had filed and that the Navy had ignored. We had strong, specific concerns about so-called depleted uranium that is being trucked through our community routinely. Our appeal succeeded, and as a result of Milner v. Navy, the Navy was required to disclose information to the public about increased risks faced by everyone who lives near the weapons transfer depot, especially when ammunition-hauling ships are moving through Port Townsend Bay. After we won the case, our local Congressman told me that depleted uranium munitions purchases would be scaled back. Also, one of the commanders at the depot thanked me for helping to eliminate certain kinds of DU weapons from the warships he routinely loaded. 

After the Father’s Day event, I met with our county prosecuting attorney and asked if he could arrest the base. He explained that such an arrest would quickly overwhelm the county’s resources. There are only five lawyers on his team, and the military’s legal response to such an arrest would be immense. However, he didn’t deny the legitimacy of the citizen’s arrest procedure, nor did he contest the charges in the writ I had prepared. He suggested that I ask the State Attorney General to shut down the weapons depot. That course of action doesn’t seem very promising to me, since the level of military spending in Washington State is huge and is being sought by elected officials at both the State and Federal level. I think next, I’ll investigate whether the International Court of Justice in The Hague has jurisdiction. Maybe they could they send an arresting officer, put the case on their docket, and lock the gate.  ~~~

Douglas Milholland is a member of Port Townsend Friends Meeting (NPYM).