In the early hours of the 5th of August 2005 a group of planters entered AWE (Atomic Weapons Establishment) Aldermaston and planted vine and fig trees. They were soon arrested for their conversion of a nuclear weapons research facility into a peace garden. This is the story of the trial that followed in Newbury Magistrates Court the 7-9th of February 2006.
A letter came to my apartment in Stockholm in December 2005. It read: Court order: Take notice that by reason of your bail being extended in your absence you are now under a duty to surrender to the custody of West Bershire Magistrates Court sitting at Mill Lane, Newbury, Berkshire on the 07.02.2006 at 09.45 AM. I ask you, who can resist such a kind invitation? Our vine and fig tree community, about ten people from five countries, began preparing for the upcoming trial. We sent out invitations to friends to come to the trial. We received good help from the law firm Bindman and Partners. They sent us a CD with pictures from the action and a DVD with a video recording of ”the crime scene”, both recorded by the police. We also received transcripts of the police interviews following our August arrests, and witness statements from police officers involved in our case. Our solicitors from Bindman’s gave us some good suggestions about how to approach the case, but they wrote to us in their last letter: ”Unfortunately, we have come to the conclusion that you don’t have a viable defence which can be argued on your behalf at the trial.” They added at the end of the letter: ”I say this with great regret and I hope that you will not conclude from this letter that we are unsympathetic to you, your campaign or values.”
Our community of vine and fig tree planters met at St. Francis House (a Catholic Worker community) in Oxford on the 4th and 5th of February to prepare ourselves for the trial, now joined by more planters who were going to be support during the trial. We shared stories, meditated, cooked dinner together, created art, strategised and role-played. Les facilitated a session where we practised thinking of the trial as a gig, where we all supported one another when we performed. Mike went through the trial procedure and we all got to practise cross-examination. To take the edge off our fears of prison we also role-played some difficult situations that could happen in prison and we tried different nonviolence responses.
The big day finally arrived. Tuesday the 7th of February and the first day of our trial. Two cars waited outside to take us to Newbury Magistrates court. Chris Cole, the secretary general of Fellowship of Reconciliation in England, drove me in his car. Before we entered the courtroom in Newbury we all, supporters and planters, gathered in a circle, holding hands. We stood in silence, gathering collective strength for the trial. Going inside we, the accused, were seated at the back of the courtroom with our supporters behind us. Malin, my friend from Sweden, sat behind me giving me comforting massages and words of encouragement. My Israeli friend Lior was also behind me, giving the courtroom a homely feeling by knitting throughout the whole court procedure. The court clerk sat a little bit higher up than us, with the highest seat being reserved for the judge. When the judge entered the courtroom we were told by the court clerk ”Please stand!” We all stood. In came Madame Leigh, a district judge. We addressed her Madame or Ma’am. She asked us each whether we considered ourselves guilty or not guilty. All eight of us answered ”Not guilty”. The prosecutor, a young man in a striped suit, by the name of Gregor McKinley, was addressed ”Crown” by the judge. The prosecutor had called 27 (!) witnesses to prove the Crown’s case. We intervened and managed to reach a deal where only five witnesses were called. One of the witnesses called into the witness stand was PC (Police Constable) Judge (yeah, for real). Since all eight of us conducted our own defence we were all entitled to cross-examine all the witnesses. Per Herngren asked PC Judge: ”If you found out that AWE Aldermaston was committing a crime would you have a duty to report it?” He answered ”Yes.” ”Would you have a duty to stop that crime?” Again he replied ”Yes.” We used this later on in the trial to say that the police have a duty to stop the ongoing crime that is being committed at AWE Aldermaston through the development of illegal nuclear weapons. Next up in the witness box was PC Mullins. I asked him: ”Did you feel threatened in any way by us at AWE Aldermaston?” Mullins: ”No.” ”Did you carry any weapon?” Mullins: ”No, we got the order to disarm from the sergeant.” After the five witnesses had been at the witness box they were released. When the 27 police officers left the court building I offered them all grapes. All of them kindly declined.
DI (Detective Inspector) Stackhouse: Why were you actually at Aldermaston?
Stephen Hancock: As you know Aldermaston is the Research and Development Facility for Britain’s nuclear weapons, and we really wanted to convert this dedication to the military and dedication to creating weapons into something useful for human life. I am very inspired by the prophecy of Micah about turning swords into ploughshares and everyone sitting underneath their vine and fig trees, so by taking vines and fig trees to Aldermaston and beginning the conversion of the base and inviting good football fans like yourself and anyone else who we come into contact with to join in?
DI Stackhouse: Do you really think that planting fig leaves at Aldermaston will convert it into a garden?
Hancock: Well it has, yeah.
DI Stackhouse: It is the taxpayer who will pay the repair of the fence. Do you feel any sorrow about that?
Susan Clarkson: I feel more sorrow when I think of the taxpayer paying for AWE Aldermaston as a place of development of nuclear weapons.
DI Stackhouse: Why did you have to get into Aldermaston?
Michael Hutchinson: Because it was a relevant place to plant vines and fig trees and embody that vision, because Aldermaston embodies the exact opposite of that vision.
DI Stackhouse: What I don’t understand is why was that really necessary, I mean was anything really going to get gained by causing damage, wouldn’t it have been better just to stay outside the fence line and make a peaceful, I don’t know, sign or demonstration or presentation of how you’re feeling and try to sway other people’s views with peaceful activity and nonviolent and non-confrontational and non-unlawful activity.
Hutchinson: Well, that’s a very long conversation. Maybe we could meet in the pub at some time to discuss it?
DI Stackhouse: Right, a better location certainly.
DC Hughes: How come you ended up getting arrested for criminal damage?
Les Gibbons: I don’t know. I mean how do you get arrested when you’re planting vines and figs? I mean, that’s a bit of a warped way of seeing that planting vine and figs would be seen as criminal damage.
The second day of the trial we, the accused, were given the opportunity to give an oral presentation in the witness stand. Susan Clarkson, a Catholic nun, started in the witness stand saying: ”I went to Aldermaston because I am a Christian. I believe in a consistent life ethic. I believe that all killing is wrong. Aldermaston is contrary to the Gospel.” Stephen Hancock was next. He argued that ”an ongoing crime is being committed at AWE Aldermaston. Nuclear weapons are vehicles for mass murder. That is a fact. Developing nuclear weapons is conspiracy to murder.” He also pointed out that we were asked to swear on the Bible as witnesses. If the court asks us to do this they should know its content. The Bible includes the prophecy we tried to act out. Stephen also quoted Desmond Tutu: ”When it comes to oppression you are either for or against. There’s no sitting on the fence.” On the nuclear weapons issue there has been too much sitting on the fence. All eight of us were given generous room to present our defence and many of us also expressed a sincere gratitude to the court for letting us speak freely and for the good exchange of ideas. All eight planters went into the witness box were we gave our testimony and were asked questions by our fellow planters, the prosecutor and the judge. The role-playing we had done in our preparation really helped because we managed to create a really good dialogue and feeling of support for one another.
After a full day of really inspiring witnesses we left court. When we gathered in the circle outside the court house we received a testimony from Bengt, a supporter and pastor from Sweden. He told us that he had been transformed by attending the trial. He also said to us that his 12-year old daughter asked him to bring a message to us: ”Tell them that nuclear weapons are bad, vine and fig trees are good.” This was later quoted in court by Stephen who pointed out the fact that we often need children to tell us obvious truths, but then we adults must be grown-up enough to act on them.
Thursday the 9th of February. The judge had promised that today she would give us the verdict. My prison bag with some books, stamps, a pen, a notebook and a little money, was packed. I had prepared myself both mentally and physically to go to prison if that would be the sentence. Madame read solemnly from her laptop without looking up. In her verdict statement she called us ”9 peace protesters,” even though we had again and again tried to explain that it was not a protest action. She found each defendant guilty of criminal damage to a value of £1805. She also explained that issues like nuclear weapons are not for this court. The prosecutor wanted us to pay a fine consisting of compensation for the damaged fence and court costs. The judge asked us all for a ”statement of mitigation”. Every one of us said that we would refuse to pay any compensation or fine because of ethical reasons. We didn”t want to give money to the Ministry of Defence which protects illegal activity nor to the court which protects AWE Aldermaston. The judge went out for half an hour to consider her sentence. When she came back we were asked to stand up while she delivered her sentence: ”Four weeks in prison. Suspended for six months. And compensation for the damage to the defence of £201 each.” Madame Leigh left the room and we began to ask each other what that really meant. Those more experienced in the court explained that it meant that if we do not commit any criminal offence within six months we don’t have to serve the four weeks in prison. So for the moment we are free. We went left court and gathered for a final circle. Before we left the court we handed over thank you cards to the judge, prosecutor, the court clerk and the usher. They were all signed by all of us.
We spent the following two days in Oxford reflecting on the trial, creating art, meditating, telling stories and talking about the future of our planting. Many in the group felt that the verdict was almost like an invitation from the judge for us to continue the planting. She suspended our planting, and prolonged it. Perhaps because the conversion is not yet finished. Aldermaston is not yet a garden. Therefore many felt a strong urge to answer positively to the invitation and come back and plant within the six months. However, we didn’t make any concrete plans. Now is the time to go back home, rest and reflect and then decide if and when we will continue the planting of vine and fig trees at Aldermaston. Mike talked in court about the ripple effect that nonviolent actions often have. With our planting we wished to inspire, challenge and invite ourselves, and others to do some peace planting, in whatever form it might be. Our action has already had some documented effect. There will be a tree planting action at Easter at a weapons factory in Sweden. For me personally our tree planting and the following trial has strengthened me in my conviction that more of these kinds of actions are needed if we really are to create peace and justice. The power of nonviolence has never resonated more strongly in me than in the courtroom at our trial. I felt that we managed to transform the court room. It was no longer about a broken fence. It was instead about the illegality of nuclear weapons and about a vision of a world in peace. Even though they tried hard not to show it I felt that the judge, the prosecutor and the police were changed by the experience. We chatted friendly with the prosecutor in the breaks and a police man actually gave Les a hug! I invite every one of you to be a part of the next planting and trial and to experience some of the same wonderful feelings. From time to time in the courtroom I could actually see a disarmed world. It was a beautiful sight!