Women Politicals of the American Empire

There have been many women dissenters who have been jailed by the American government as political prisoners.  There are women in jail now who are undergoing punishment as perceived enemies of the American Empire.  Two such women are nuclear resister Elizabeth McAlister and alleged “terrorist” Aafia Siddiqui.  When I wrote about Pakistani-born Aafia Siddiqui as one of the “women  politicals (not) in the news” eight years ago, she had just begun her 86-year sentence at Carswell Federal Prison in Texas for allegedly assaulting US soldiers of the Empire in Afghanistan.  Now 46, she recently appealed to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for help:  “I want to get out of prison, my imprisonment in the US is illegal as I was kidnapped and taken to the US. . .”  Dr. Siddiqui was accused of being a would-be assassin and an Al Qaeda terrorist.  But she was the one who was grievously wounded in the stomach.  She was the one whose youngest child was killed when she was taken, “disappeared” in Pakistan, and her other two children imprisoned separately for years.  She was the one who was beaten, raped, tortured and kept in solitary in black site prisons of the American Empire.  Her “crime” was being a doctor in Boston who was a Muslim activist, and who, through a series of unfortunate and skewed connections, ended up on Attorney General Ashcroft’s “watchlist.”  For her “crime,” lshe had to endure the consequences of an extreme anti-“terrorist”/anti-Muslim era which began with the September 11, 2001 bombings.

Crimes against Muslims globally, and immediate repression of Muslims within the US, although not starting then, greatly intensified after 9/11.  The FBI, in its zeal to root out Arab “terrorists,” has been involved in questionable activities which fly in the face of civil rights or constitutional law.  We’ve seen the use of the grand jury as bullying tactic, wholesale surveillance, sweeps to arrest dissenters, and entrapment to create “terrorists” when real ones do not exist.

Pro-Palestinian activists have been victimized, along with young Muslim women who have been candidates for entrapment.  In 2013, Rasmea Odeh, deputy executive director of the Arab-American Network, was indicted by the US government for “immigration fraud” when she applied for citizenship.  Although the State Department was well aware of the circumstances of her moving to the US, Israel Lobbyists worked to get her arrested.  Caught in a “security sweep” in Israel in 1969, she was, although innocent, imprisoned for a supermarket bombing.  During her 10 years in Israel’s jails, she was tortured and raped.  After coming to the US in 1994, she became an activist for Arab-American women, and found herself jailed again.  She was deported in September of 2017.  In 2015, Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas were arrested in NYC by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, and charged with conspiracy to “use a weapon of mass destruction.” They were skillfully entrapped by an FBI informant, never planning or even thinking about bombings until the agent suggested they should.  They await their trial.  The climate of fear existing in America, along with “terrorism” charges needing no habeus corpus or rules of evidence, mean no justice and no sanity for Muslim women caught by the US “justice” system.

As a “terrorist” enemy of the Empire and its soldiers, Aafia Siddiqui had no chance at all.  She was mistakenly accused initially.  She was “disappeared” in Pakistan by helpful agents, and when her true story began to emerge, she was put in black site prisons, beaten and tortured.  When she was finally put on trial, she was a broken woman, and had only to be disposed of by a kangaroo court—sentenced to 86 years at Carswell.  She has been visited by Pakistan’s Consul General in Houston, who has complained to the US Justice Department about Siddiqui’s continued brutal treatment.  She says Siddiqui suffers “immense physical and sexual torment.”  Pakistani and American authorities all say they are looking into the matter, but nothing has happened.  One Pakistani official’s statement was that the US treats its prisoners “humanely and in a manner that complies with our human rights obligations.”  Indeed.

The Empire applies its “humane” treatment to more than its accused Muslim “terrorists.”  Women of the anti-nuclear Plowshares movement, who bear witness against weapons threatening potential annihilation of the planet, are also considered “terrorist” threats.  Elizabeth McAlister, former nun and widow of anti-nuclear activist Philip Berrigan, at age 73, is in jail in Georgia for her part in an anti-nuclear action:  Kings Bay (GA) Plowshares, carried out on April 4, 2018.  Seven stalwarts, three of whom were women—McAlister, Martha Hennesy of NYC and Clare Grady of Ithaca—entered the naval base which houses Trident submarines armed with nuclear warheads.  They were there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.  Their banners included King’s “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.”  They smeared the base’s logo with human blood.

And they carried with them indictments of the US government, President Trump and the base commander Brian Lepine, for war crimes.  They were charged with the felonies of conspiracy and destruction of government property.  Clare Grady and Elizabeth McAlister were jailed, and McAlister remains in jail today.   According to nukeresister.org, McAlister is in prison to fight the Empire:  “We resist militarism that has employed deadly violence to enforce global domination. . .  The weapons from one Trident have the capacity to end life as we know it on planet Earth.”  Such activists provide way too much transparency for the American Empire.

The US considers those who object to its global empire with its drones, bombs, universal surveillance and support for fellow oppressive nations—whether in the Middle East or Latin America—as potential terrorists.  So women who protest against the School of the Americas or unmanned drone attacks from US bases are arrested and jailed.  Since the 80s, women protesters have been jailed from six to 15 months for speaking out against the SOA, an American institution which has trained Latin American death squads.  Ann Tiffany and Nancy Gwin of Syracuse, both served six months at Danbury for “illegally entering” military bases, and shining light on the Empire.  Mary Anne Grady Flores (of Ithaca) got a year for anti-drone action, and very busy anti-Empire activist Kathy Kelly has had four stints in federal prison for protesting against the death and destruction brought by unmanned bomber drones in the Middle East.  Women who resist the ominous nuclear arms threat of the United States can receive particularly stiff sentences, as “terrorist” threats to government property and national security.

In part inspired by Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan began a movement to beat swords into plowshares by taking on the American nuclear arms (military and corporate) juggernaut.  Women—for the most part Catholic nuns—were enthusiastic participants from the beginning.  Sister Anne Montgomery took part in six Plowshares anti-nuclear actions including the first, along with four men (with the two Berrigan brothers), and Molly Rush, in 1980 at King of Prussia (PA).  Montgomery spent 11 weeks in jail for King of Prussia; she was indicted in 2009 at age 83 for her final action—Disarm NOW Plowshares in Bangor (WA).  Sister Montgomery was trained in civil disobedience at the McAlister/Berrigan Jonah House.

Sister Elizabeth McAlister was an art history professor at Marymount College when she met Father Philip Berrigan and was inspired by him to become an activist.  Such activism led to them becoming two of the “Harrisburg 7,” charged with conspiring to raid federal offices in order to bomb underground conduits—and to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  They had kidded about doing that in letters, but J. Edgar Hoover was not amused.  The government eventually had to downgrade the charges to anti-draft actions.  McAlister and Berrigan both left their orders and married in 1973.  Jonah House was founded by Elizabeth McAlister and her husband in Baltimore, as one of a number of “resistance communities” begun in the 70s; and was, and is, a base and training ground for civil disobedience and anti-nuclear actions.

On Thanksgiving morn 1983, the “Plowshares 7” entered the Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY.  They hammered dents into and spilled blood on a B-52, there on alert, armed with nuclear weapons.  They had to wait outside over an hour, singing and marching with their banner before security came to arrest them.  The “7” included four women—Jacqueline Allen (of Hartford, CT), Kathleen Rumpf (of Marlboro, NY), Clare Grady (then 25, of Ithaca), and in her first Plowshares action, Elizabeth Mcalister.  Their judge decided the defendants could not use a defense addressing the “imminence of the harm” of the weapons because they did “acts of destruction” to government property.  He sentenced them to federal prison:  two years for Rumpf, Allen and Grady and three for McAlister.  Daughter Frida Berrigan has said that her family has paid a price for her parents’ fight against nuclear weapons:  they were separated from each other or their children for a total of 11 years.

The work continues for Plowshares women.  Through the 1980s and 90s and beyond, they have been jailed by the Clinton, Bush (both), Obama and Trump administrations—administrations which all featured massive nuclear build-ups.  Sisters Jackie Hudson, Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert spent years in jail for, as Gilbert said, “symbolically disarming America’s weapons of mass destruction.”  After 2001 such women would be treated as terrorists.  Sister Megan Rice, 82, for her part in the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant (TN) action of 2012, got three years as a “violent offender.”  Elizabeth McAlister was jailed for the Kings Bay action in April.  She was charged under Georgia state law, according to nukeresister.org, for misdemeanor criminal trespass, but also for two felonies:  possession of tools to commit a crime and interference with government property.  The defense team has mounted a defense based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that the protesters were acting “from privacy of conscience rooted in their faith.”  The judge will decide on that—and never has any sort of defense based on moral grounds ever worked, mind you—at the end of January, and a trial date will be set.  McAlister and her fellow protesters were charged because they dare to resist militarism that employs “deadly violence to enforce global domination.”

Elizabeth McAlister, in jail since April, remains steadfast, modest and unassuming.  She hesitates to give interviews.  She did write after her arrest about why she resists the Empire’s weapons:  “We came to Kings Bay Submarine Base animated by the absurd conviction that we could make some impact on slowing if not ending, the mad rush to the devastation of our magnificent planet.”  Such sentiments, such absurd convictions, that anyone can interfere in the Empire’s global destruction, have to be punished.  Such female dissenters have to be jailed and silenced.  There should be no more silence surrounding America’s women politicals.  Whether considered terrorist threats because, like Aafia Siddiqui, they are part of a group deemed an enemy race; or considered terrorist threats because, like Elizabeth McAlister, they resist and expose America’s global domination—such women will be made political prisoners of the Empire. ((To learn more about America’s women political prisoners, please consult my new book Women Politicals in America.))

Linda Ford is a retired history professor living in Madison, NY. She is the author of Women Politicals: From Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart and Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party. Read other articles by Linda.