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Carmel Martin (above just right of centre) belongs to a group of Christians who campaign for nuclear disarmament through “civil disobedience”. That means they’re liable to land in prison. Margaret Hebblethwaite spoke to Catholic Peace Action
Carmel Martin strides up the steps of the Ministry of Defence carrying a large, round loaf of home-baked bread marked with a cross. At her side are two fellow protesters from Catholic Peace Action, one with a basket of flowers, the other with a letter for Michael Heseltine.
“I am very afraid,” said Carmel, as she walked down Whitehall on the way to the Ministry, “I’m hoping not to be arrested, but if they don’t receive the gifts then we will refuse to move.” Carmel, a mother of two small boys, has been arrested three times and has served one prison sentence.
Inside the Ministry of Defence are glass security partitions and double doors with red and green lights above. The three women speak to a receptionist who immediately recognises the name Catholic Peace Action. “l take your leaflets to a little prayer group I go to and I agree with you,” she says, and then claps her hand to her mouth as though she should not have said it. She rings for Mr Heseltine’s representative and says, “‘He’ll be down in a minute dear.’
A tall man with a grey beard comes down to reception. By now sounds of hymn-singing are floating through the doors. As the rest of Catholic Peace Action hold a demonstration on the steps of the building the women explain that they have been fasting for three days and that they bring these gifts as signs of light/life and hope to all the staff and to express their concern at the work that goes on in the building.
Mr Heseltine’s representative nods understandingly and says. “Well, thank you very much.” and “l fear I have to rush straight up again.” Important work calls him — the work the women are protesting against. It is a courteous exchange. But meanwhile security guards – some in uniform, some in plain clothes and with walkie-talkies – have rushed to the entrance of the building and are preventing anyone entering or exiting. They stand at the top of the steps, trying not to over-react.
All goes well and today the demonstration is successfully completed without arrests.
Carmel has an open face and long, straight brown hair falling down her back to below her waist. She wears a simple, gold cross on a chain.
Daniel (four) and Sean (two) need encouragement to eat their Ready Brek. It is an openly Christian home. Daniel wants his daddy’s beard “to grow like Noah’s”, and Leonardo da Vinci’s head of Christ from the Last Supper gazes down from a calendar on the wall. “We have plenty, ” says Carmel, “but we don’t have extra money. “At the moment we have £3 in the bank”. Carmel trained as a teacher of Art and taught in Grimsby and London before going over to California where she met Dan. They both began to “work for peace” out in America, but have been back in England now for four years. “There is a greater need at the moment for the work of civil disobedience in England. It’s just beginning to take off, but two years ago it was just being talked about.”
To explain the need for civil disobedience she tells the story of Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurloe. “She was 13 when the bomb fell on the school she was in. She just remembers the darkness, and the children crying. She happened to be on the edge of the building and somebody pulled her out just before the school ignited and the rest of the children were burnt to death. She lost all her family. Her sister and her niece were vaporised in the centre of Hiroshima, and she said that for years she felt a tremendous pain — not because she had been a victim of the bomb, but because of the silence of the Church.
“She says that the only thing which eases that pain is that she knows people in America are actively involved in civil disobedience and are suffering for speaking out against it — two are serving 18-year sentences for damaging a missile. That validates what I am doing for me.”
Carmel and Dan helped to found Catholic Peace Action, which they call an “affinity group”. “We arranged a four- day retreat which we held here in the house, and we began with a commitment to non-violence, to prayer and to Civil disobedience.”
So far, Catholic Peace Action has held six actions at the Ministry Of Defence, which they also leaflet every second Friday, handing out 500 leaflets in an hour. “We get quite friendly with them. They give us lovely smiles and say. “Oh, it’s Friday again, nice to see you. We’ve met with several of the people who work there and we’ve had letters — people disagreeing with us — and it’s the opening of a dialogue.”
Every fortnight the group meets for a meal, for prayer and reflection together, and to plan future action. One member is an anaesthetist at a London teaching hospital. Another works for a famine relief agency. Another works full-time for the homeless. The group itself, in addition to protesting against the bomb, also takes it in turns to help out twice a month at the Manna Centre, Melior Street, where homeless men can come in during the day to have soup and bread and shelter.
When I met Carmel and Dan they had a homeless lad from Rotherham staying with them while he looked for a job. He had stopped them as they came out of a Vivaldi concert, to ask them for money, but instead they took him home. The group sees the issue of bombs and world hunger as crucially interlinked. “We want the money redirected to those who are starving. I think the greatest suffering that anyone can have is not suffering themselves but watching a child suffer and I feel complete empathy and agony for the mothers who have to watch their children starve to death. Twenty-one children die from hunger every minute, and meanwhile 51% of all scientists are working on defence-related projects. There comes a time when we have to speak out and say that things have to change. The bombs are falling now and they’re falling on those who are starving.”
Carmel thinks the most likely outcome of the arms race is a catastrophic nuclear accident. “In 1979 the Americans came to the point where they were six minutes away from firing nuclear weapons because their computer registered a nuclear attack. Miraculously it was discovered it was a flock of geese. Six minutes,’ What are we risking? We’re risking the whole of creation being destroyed as the result of an accident. That seems to me to be the ultimate blasphemy, when you can choose to destroy God’s creation.
“One of our group [Sarah Hipperson] lives at Greenham Common, and when the nuclear weapons convoy comes out, the people involved with putting it on the road don’t know at the time whether it is an exercise or whether it is the real thing. Children of air base personnel are taken from their beds at four o’clock in the morning and put into shelters. They don’t know either if that is an exercise or if it is the real thing. As a Catholic I couldn’t be part of that. It’s easy to depersonalise when you’re working with papers and files, it’s easy to fool yourself and say this isn’t really what I’m doing. That is the position a lot of people are in, either they can’t face it or they choose not to.”
And so one of the aims of Catholic Peace is “to try to bring about some conversion of heart, and as a group we have seen that take place. During our first act of civil disobedience in April 1983, I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a profound way. Other people did too — it wasn’t just me.
“We poured ashes and our own blood on the steps of the Ministry of Defence, and then knelt in prayer. We used the symbol of blood because it represents the choice between life and death, and for those in the third world it’s a reality — they are losing their life’s blood slowly through starvation or through persecution. We wanted to use a symbol as powerful as the evil we are trying to resist.
“After that act of civil disobedience the gospels took on a new meaning for me. The feeling and the enlightenment — Pentecost must have been like that, when the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples with tongues of fire. It was as though I saw things with new eyes.
“It left me with great hope, and that hope is very marked for me, because previously I had been despairing of the situation, sort of in the darkness. I had been completely powerless, but then I was empowered again and given a renewed sense of hope.”
Carmel’s first arrest was on October 11, 1983 after she, and others, had chained themselves to an eight-foot cross on the steps of the Ministry of Defence. She was asked to sign an undertaking to keep the peace. “It was three days before Christmas, and although previously I had decided I was not going to sign, because I felt that the peace I would be keeping was different from the peace the court was asking me to keep, when it actually came to doing that and spending Christmas in prison away from my family, I could not refuse to sign.
The second arrest was on Ash Wednesday. 1984 when the protesters marked their foreheads with ashes and Carmel wrote “Repent” on the pillars of the Ministry of Defence with charcoal. “We took the message of “Repent” from the Ash Wednesday liturgy. We are not only repenting of our own silence and sinfulness in contributing to the build-up, we are asking the people in the Ministry of Defence to do the same thing, and through them, the Government and the nation.”
Carmel was given a fine of £50 or seven days in prison. “Think about the children,” said the magistrate trying unsuccessfully to persuade her to pay the fine. Carmel says. “l thought that was so ironic. I am doing this partly because of the children.
When she turned herself in before serving her sentence she found she was able to explain the whole thing to the policemen. At the end of the conversation one of them said, “I’m a Catholic. I know you’re right, we all know you’re right.” It seemed that because I was prepared to pay some sort of price for what I believed in, the ears of the policemen were opened.”
Carmel was admitted to Holloway, together with some of her friends. The admission procedures took eight hours and included a medical examination, which Carmel refused, and a strip search. All the women admitted on a particular day are put together, not separated according to crime. We were mixed with drug addicts, burglars, and the first thing people ask you is, “Why are you here?” Someone who I found out later was a prostitute said to her friend “She could be a spy.’ I said. “No, I’m a peace protester.” She said you look so innocent.”
Three of the protesters ended up together in the same cell. “We were treated with respect by the other prisoners because we were able to discuss it with them and by the warders for the most part. The worst thing was that time dragged terribly. You were always waiting for the meal, the mail.”
Carmel’s third arrest took place this year on a day of bitter cold and Snow — January 15, the birth date of the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King. She was to be tried on the day after I spoke to her. Catholic Peace Action had carried a large candle to the Ministry of Defence, as a symbol of Martin Luther King’s fight against poverty, war and injustice, and as a symbol of the light of Christ in the world. They put a poster on the centre door of the Ministry of Defence which read ‘Unarmed truth is the greatest force in the universe’, and they chained themselves to the door while they held the usual prayer service.
Carmel said about the prospect of the trial: “I’m nervous. I feel it is such a responsibility to speak the truth clearly and I sometimes think I am not really the best person to do that because I am so illogical. You’ll know if I’m nervous because my voice goes very high.
“Before the last trial, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you about it because I was so upset, because of the emotional strain of leaving the children. For me, being with the children is a priority — I choose not to work because I want to share the time with my children while they are little, so it was really wrenching. In court, I was extremely nervous but I was able to speak. I think the Holy Spirit gave me strength.”
Carmel suspected that she was likely to be given a fine of around £85 with the penalty of about 14 days imprisonment for not paying. “At the moment the children don’t know that I may be in prison but I will tell them that I may be gone for a while but I may not. I am very fortunate that Dan fully supports me and we have interchangeable roles. He’s very good with the children and does everything.
“We have the Catholic Peace Action meetings at the house here, so Daniel, one of our sons knows all the people very well. He knows that periodically Sarah is in prison, or Ray is in prison, Or Pat is in prison and I go to visit them. Last time the only reference he made was when I came out, and he said, ‘Why did you have to go to prison?’ and I said. ‘l had to go because I have to work for peace. so vou can grow up and be happy.’ And he said. • I don’t want you to work for peace any more if you have to go to prison. “
l wish there was another way. It would be great if someone would say to me, ‘you don’t need to do this.’ I would listen, because I don’t do this because I enjoy doing it. I do it because I think I have no choice.”
The next morning at Bow Street a little crowd of about 20 supporters turned up to attend the trial. Outside the door of the courtroom they held a little prayer service while half a dozen policemen laughed and joked on the other side of some glass swing doors. The prosecuting counsel walked through the praying group respectfully.
The five prisoners defended themselves. “Could you read the marked passage from the sheet we handed out at our demonstration?” asked one of the protesters of several police witnesses in turn. “It is a quotation from Martin Luther King. “
The policeman, who had just mumbled through his oath to Almighty God took the paper, coughed and read. “We come today as always in a spirit of friendship and love.”
“Would you say,” asked the defendant “that the action you witnessed was in accord with that spirit of friendship and love?”
The Inspector looked flustered. The Constable twitched his lip and said. “Well, sir, I’d say it was.”
The magistrate, who asked for a copy of the sheet afterwards to take home for his daughter who was doing a school project on Martin Luther King, looked over his half-lensed glasses and pronounced that he was quite satisfied that it had been a gentle, peaceful, well-mannered demonstration. Technically – “and I emphasise technically,” he said — he found them guilty of obstruction, but his sentence was an absolute discharge. And he added, “I am very grateful for the way in which the defendants conducted their case — with courtesy, discretion, intelligence, and. for the most part with relevance.”
“I’m feeling fantastic, lost for words” said Carmel, immediately afterwards.
Less than one month later. Carmel was on the steps of the Ministry of Defence again risking arrest in another act of civil disobedience. She will not be easy to silence.