Living for Peace in the Shadow of Death

“The destruction of creation and its creatures is done in the name of profit, convenience, wealth. The truth is that capitalism is poison, and we are its victims.” -- Shelley Douglass
Shelley Douglass shares bread with Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen at peace vigil on the railroad tracks at the Bangor Naval Base, in protest of Trident submarines.

Shelley Douglass shares bread with Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen at peace vigil on the railroad tracks at the Bangor Naval Base, in protest of Trident submarines.

 

by Terry Messman

The path of nonviolence is a lifelong journey that leads in unexpected directions to far-distant destinations. One of the most meaningful milestones on Shelley Douglass’s path of nonviolence came on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 16, 1983, when she walked down the railroad tracks into the Bangor naval base with Karol Schulkin and Mary Grondin from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.

As the three women walked down the tracks used to transport nuclear warheads and missile motors into the naval base, they posted photographs of the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — a prophetic warning of the catastrophic consequences of Trident nuclear submarines.

The photos revealed the human face of war, the face of defenseless civilians struck down in a nuclear holocaust. The women continued on this pilgrimage deep into the heart of the Trident base, until security officers arrested them an hour after they began.

Their journey into the Trident base was both a political call for nuclear disarmament and a spiritual call to turn away from the ways of war. The three women spoke from the heart of their faith tradition by praying for peace and seeking arrest on Ash Wednesday.

The statement they released after their arrest merged the political and the spiritual, invoking both the principles of international law and the spiritual law of love. “We walk these tracks as an appeal to all people to take seriously the principles of international law against indiscriminate and aggressive weapons. We walk these tracks as an appeal to all people to heed the law of love written by our creator in the human heart.”

‘Not in My Name’

After their arrest, Shelley Douglass was jailed for 60 days. Karol Schulkin was also jailed and told the court: “I must stand up and say, ‘no more’ — no more bombings and burning of people and lands. Not in my name. I reclaim my humanity. I will act on what I know. I refuse to remain silent.”

As Ground Zero continued to organize acts of resistance to the Trident submarine, Shelley was led onward by a deeper understanding of what was at stake. She said, “We objected not to Trident in particular but to the entire arms race, and to the new first-strike policy which Trident represents.

“Our resistance had to be deep enough to address the societal causes of the arms race — our own selfishness and greed, our system’s exploitation of people for profit, the oppression of people based on their race, age, or sex. If a nonviolent campaign was to be successful in the deepest sense, it had to include these sources of violence and take into account the pervasive nature of many forms of violence in our lives.”

The history of nonviolent organizing for social change encompasses a vast and imaginative diversity of movements for peace and justice — a far richer legacy of resistance than the public generally realizes. The larger picture of nonviolence involves literally thousands of creative campaigns to protect the entire web of life wherever it is imperiled — “reweaving the web of life,” as a groundbreaking anthology of feminist writings on nonviolence once described it.

In fact, there are as many forms of creative nonviolence as there are threats to life on the planet. In the life of Shelley Douglass, we can trace a path that begins with antiwar actions, then leads to an inventive array of nonviolent methods to resist multiple forms of injustice and violence.

With her husband, the theologian and peace activist Jim Douglass, Shelley first became deeply involved in the antiwar movement of the 1960s, when she and Jim committed civil disobedience in protest of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam.

From the very beginning, she was equally drawn to the Catholic Worker vision of resisting not only the violence of war, but also the violence of poverty and hunger and homelessness. She devoted most of her waking hours to antiwar organizing in the 1960s, and to anti-nuclear activism in the 1970s and 1980s, yet she kept alive the hope of one day offering sanctuary to poor and homeless people.

 

Jim and Shelley Douglass in their younger days during the antiwar movement. outside Hickam AFB, Honolulu, in 1972 during the Vietnam War.

Jim and Shelley Douglass protest outside Hickam AFB, in Honolulu, in 1972 during the movement to end the Vietnam War.

 

Confronting Sexism, Racism and the Violence of Poverty

Her sense of nonviolence extended beyond antiwar actions because she clearly saw the connections between militarism and the other deeply entrenched forms of violence in American life. She wrote, “We believe that violence must be confronted on all levels — in sexism, racism, economic injustice, exploitation of the land.”

Her deepening commitment to nonviolence would lead her to create a house of hospitality for homeless families in Alabama, organize against the death penalty, and travel to Iraq to bring medicine to children victimized by U.S. sanctions.

The Pacific Life Community and the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action were founded by a small group of activists who were still recovering from exhaustion and burn-out after years of resistance to the Vietnam War. As the price of their peace activism, they had endured lengthy jail sentences, separations from families, and intensely difficult struggles that led some to despair.

They were still committed to peacemaking, but for these activists, embracing a new political struggle against nuclear weapons meant something far more personal than simply using the methods of Gandhi and King to build a movement. It meant embracing nonviolence as a way of life, trying to make peace on both the outer political level and in their inner personal lives.

Shelley and Jim soon moved next to the Bangor Naval Base near Seattle, where they lived next door to hundreds of nuclear warheads with the explosive power of thousands of Hiroshima bombs. They devoted many years of their lives to resisting the Navy’s fleet of Trident nuclear submarines, and their repeated acts of civil disobedience often resulted in months-long jail sentences.

The Rich Get Richer

Although the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s rarely made the connection between militarism and the economic injustice faced by poor people, low-wage workers, and homeless and hungry people in the inner city, Shelley Douglass repeatedly made those connections in the pages of the Ground Zero newspaper.

She wrote: “Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear is well aware that we ignore the poor and suffering, while giving admiration to those who have wealth and power. In our government the same values apply: taxes are cut for the rich; assistance programs are cut from the poor. The rich are enabled to get richer, the poor are forced to get poorer.”

Soon, her voice became even more passionate and outraged: “The destruction of creation and its creatures is done in the name of profit, convenience, wealth. The truth is that capitalism is poison, and we are its victims. Dorothy Day was quite clear and prophetic when she said that the fault lies in ‘this filthy, rotten system.’”

This photo was taken two hours before Leroy White was led away to be executed. La Tonya is second from left in the front row (in a black shirt), sitting next to Leroy (in a white shirt). Jim Douglass is at far left and Shelley Douglass is at far right.

This photo was taken two hours before Leroy White was led away to be executed. La Tonya is second from left in the front row (in a black shirt), sitting next to Leroy (in a white shirt). Jim Douglass is at far left and Shelley Douglass is at far right.

 

In “Truth (and) Consequences,” an article from the spring of 1990, Shelley told the readers of Ground Zero that her path of nonviolence had led to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama. There, she was able to fulfill her desire to create a haven for poor families, a Catholic Worker community called Mary’s House.

She lived there with low-income families deprived of housing and the necessities of life by an economic system that has abandoned millions of people to poverty.

Douglass writes about the desperation and hardships faced by her neighbors in a regular column for Pax Christi USA, a prominent peace and justice organization. Jim and Shelley Douglass were recipients of the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Award in 1994, an annual award given to the person who gives outstanding witness to the peace teachings of the church.

In her Pax Christi column, Shelley describes the poverty, racism and deprivation she sees on the streets in Ensley, one of Birmingham’s poorest neighborhoods. “Ensley is full of poor and forgotten folks. Our city schools are wretched, our streets are cracking and decaying, we have blocks of boarded-up stores…”

The Ensley area never recovered from the exodus of Birmingham’s steel industry years ago, and now is impoverished, deteriorating and abandoned. The people of Ensley are “ignored or written off,” she writes, and many people avoid the area as a dangerous, high-crime district. “I have known parents who wouldn’t allow their children to come for a work-day at Mary’s House, fearing for their safety.”

The New Jim Crow

Yet Jim and Shelley Douglass have chosen to live in the poor part of the city for more than 20 years. There are signs of great hope alongside signs of brokenness and despair on the same streets; and it has been an eye-opening experience to see the extent of racism and poverty in present-day Birmingham, a city that experienced some of the worst racial violence in the nation for more than 100 years after the Civil War.

Shelley writes about the staggering extent of injustice and racism that began with slavery and continues to the present.

“In a conspiracy of silence, we ignore the fact that this country, and especially this state, is built on centuries of oppression and exploitation of people with black and brown skin who were kidnapped from their homes and forced to labor as animals to benefit white landowners. We ignore the years of de facto slavery that followed Emancipation; we ignore the structures of racism that continue to define our society, and the way in which people of color and poor people generally are disenfranchised and forced into a shadow caste by voting restrictions and the prison/parole system.”

Her reflections on the prison/parole system have been sharpened recently by Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In her interview with Street Spirit, Douglass said that along with the disenfranchisement of black voters and other forms of ongoing discrimination, widespread imprisonment is another tool of racial oppression.

Shelley Douglass said, “The New Jim Crow makes the argument that it’s a conscious attempt or a semiconscious attempt to keep black people in their place — the same place that white people and the power structure have been trying to keep them in for hundreds of years.”

Shelley Douglass and Leroy White during a visit on Death Row at the Holman Correctional Facility in southern Alabama.

Shelley Douglass and Leroy White during a visit on Death Row at the Holman Correctional Facility in southern Alabama.

 

Opposing the Death Penalty

Seeking a nonviolent response to the inequities of the prison system, Shelley became involved in opposing the death penalty. She also began visiting Leroy White, a prisoner on Alabama’s death row in the Holman Correctional Facility.

After years of visiting Leroy White and growing closer to him, Jim and Shelley were at his side on his last day on earth, as he was led to a small concrete-block building where they witnessed his execution by lethal injection on Jan. 13, 2011.

In her Street Spirit interview, Shelley gives a heartbreaking account of what happens when the state uses its power to kill a prisoner in cold blood. Asked what she thinks of executions after having personally witnessed this death, Shelley said, “I think they’re brutal and barbaric and cruel and inhumane.”

She once wrote about the paradox of nonviolence: “Nonviolence is a way that often seems to lose when it is in fact winning.” That may be the best way to explain the many signs of hope and compassion that took place in the very midst of the seemingly hopeless and bitter struggle to save Leroy White’s life.

One such sign of hope was the change of heart by Bruce Gardner, the district attorney who had prosecuted Leroy. Gardner renounced the death penalty in a very public way, calling executions “a barbaric, abhorrent practice” and saying that Leroy should not be executed.

Another sign of hope was that even though Leroy was convicted of murdering his wife Ruby, Ruby’s side of the family — which would have been expected to strongly favor his execution — showed the depth of their mercy by advocating clemency.

Another sign was the compassion shown by Jim and Shelley Douglass who visited Leroy on death row for many years and were friends until the end, staying with him all day in his last week in prison.

A Hero of Nonviolence

Above all, there was the unforgettable love shown by La Tonya, the daughter of Leroy and Ruby White. La Tonya lost her mother and rightfully blamed her father for the murder. She might have harbored resentment forever; yet she somehow found a way to forgive Leroy, and formed a beautiful, loving relationship with him. Her love and forgiveness were instrumental in inspiring Ruby’s family to also forgive Leroy, and ask for clemency.

If there has ever been a hero of nonviolence, La Tonya is it.

On the last day, as the hours of her father’s life ticked away, La Tonya repeatedly called Alabama’s governor, asking him to spare her father’s life, but he refused to grant clemency. At the very final moment, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and delayed the execution for two hours while Leroy White was strapped to the gurney. Hope arose again for one brief moment, only to be dashed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to spare this man’s life.

Sometimes nonviolence does not win. Sometimes nonviolence means to visit the prisoner, comfort the dying and mourn the dead.

It is so very hard to comprehend this story. Does nonviolence mean standing in support of a man subjected to a terrible miscarriage of justice at almost every level of the criminal justice system, a man put to death in a horrible way? Or does nonviolence mean standing in solidarity with Leroy’s wife Ruby, a defenseless woman and mother who was murdered?

And, in the end, is there any hope at all in this story of two terribly sad deaths?

If you read the interview with Shelley Douglass carefully, I believe you’ll see that La Tonya got it right. No one on earth suffered the loss of her mother more piercingly than La Tonya. And no one on earth forgave Leroy more deeply than La Tonya.

Somehow, she found the depth of love to respond to Leroy’s desire to be her father. She built a relationship with him even behind prison walls. She became a loving daughter. On his last day on earth, La Tonya was fighting against all the odds to save her father’s life.

I believe there is great hope in this story. The hope resides in La Tonya. She demonstrated at a nearly inconceivable depth how we may love those who have wronged us. She showed us how we can both love the victim of violence — her mother — and yet find it in our hearts to forgive the one who has taken a life.

On Shelley Douglass’s lifelong path of nonviolence and peacemaking, she may have discovered one of the most beautiful examples of nonviolence and love from the daughter of a man imprisoned on death row in Alabama.

 

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For more on Shelley Douglass please visit:

Street Spirit Interview with Shelley Douglass, Part 1
Street Spirit Interview with Shelley Douglass, Part 2

 

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