Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Crime and Punishment of Jean Gump, Pt. II

Peace Museum, Hiroshima

     This is the second part of a two-part story on Jean Gump, the anti-nuclear activist who died March 16. You can read the first part here. 

     Yet, during the half hour she was at the missile site, she was not afraid.
     "It was really interesting," she said. "I expected I would be paralyzed with fear. But it didn't happen that way. I felt kind of good. I felt like singing. It was an easy thing to do, because it was so right."
     Along with their news release the group had prepared a six-page document headlined, "Today we sound the alarm!" It outlined the group's beliefs—that nuclear weapons are an unconscionable peril that must be resisted by all good people—and presented a legally phrased indictment of the government of the United States for "development, deployment and willingness to use nuclear weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction" and against the institutional Christian church for "its complicity in preparing for mass murder of the earth's people."
     After her arrest, Gump was taken to the Federal lock-up in Kansas City, Mo, interviewed by F.B.I. agents, and then, to her vast surprise, released on a signature bond. On Easter Sunday she had dinner at the home she thought she would never see again.
     The trial took place in June 1986 on the sixth floor of the Kansas City Federal Courthouse, in courtroom 666. Gump, with her finely tuned sense of the symbolic, points out that the number 666 is the biblical sign of apocalyptic evil in the Book of Revelation.
Jean Gump
     The accused decided to serve as their own counsel, seeking legal advice from several sympathetic lawyers and from Gump's son Joseph, who is a third-year law student at DePaul.
     Kansas City attorney Henry Stover reviewed transcripts of earlier trials with the five, trying to give them an idea of what kind of witnesses the government would call and the sort of testimony they could expect. Stover says that, while self-representation was not the smartest legal tactic, it was an extension of the group's protest.
    "I think, from their perspective, it was a way to meet the jury more often," Stover says. "So often at a criminal trial the defendant just sits there, and in many cases does not take the witness stand. This way, each took turns, asking witnesses questions. At conferences at the bench with the judge, they actually got to express themselves fully. They had more opportunity for a conversion, personal conversion, to take place."
     The government's case was simply. these five people—Gump, Morlan and Rippetoe were tried along with Darla Bradley, 22, and John Volpe, 39, who committed a similar "action" at a nearby missile silo the same morning, and were also part of the Silo Plowshares group) had conspired to break into a national defense facility and destroy property vital to the defense of the country. There was no question of guilt—a national television network had filed it, after all—and motive was irrelevant.
     The Plowshares employed a version of the "necessity defense." The necessity defense acknowledges that, in certain dire situations, a person can act illegally because of overwhelming circumstances. For instance, if upon seeing a house on fire and a person yelling from the upper window, you broke into the house to rescue that person, and the owner of the house for some reason decided to press breaking-and-entering charges, you would use the necessity defense to excuse what would otherwise be an illegal act.
     In this case, the Plowshares argued the overwhelming danger of nuclear weaponry was, in effect, the moral equivalent of a house on fire, calling for their illegal actions.
     Judge Elmo B. Hunter would not permit the defense.
     "That type of argument," he said later, "if it were recognized [in court] would lead to a near anarchy situation. Every person has an ideal in which they believe, and the total result would approximate anarchy. You might have a kick on abortion. I might have a kick on the Sanctuary movement, and another might have a kick on the gold standards. If we are to pick and choose what laws are to obey, there is no law.
     With their basic defense ruled impermissible in court, the Plowshares had little chance for anything other than a guilty verdict, which the jury reached after deliberating for one hour and 47 minutes. Gump says that before reading their verdict, the jury asked Judge Hunter for permission to deliver, along with it, some sort of apology, but Judge Hunter denied permission. Judge Hunter says that no such request was ever made. "I don't know where she dreamed that up," he says.
     According to Stover, who has been involved with several Plowshare defenses, more than 700 pieces of mail were delivered to the courthouse, asking for leniency. The actual count of mail, kept on file at the courthouse, is closer to 35 letters.
     Judge Hunter sentenced Ripetoe, Bradley, Morlan and Gump to eight years in prison, followed by five years of probation. Volpe, in consideration of his three young children, aged 4, 8 and 9, was given a reduced sentence—seven years in prison. At sentencing, he offered to cut the sentences in half if the five would pay the several thousand dollars damages claimed by the government (Gump's share was $424.48). All five refused.
      The length of the prison terms surprised some people, but Judge hunter denies that the sentences were unnecessarily severe. "I wouldn't use 'severe' because of the circumstances," he says. "Very substantial, yes, but they're not severe because part of the reason for sentencing people is to get a deterrent effect—trying to deter that person and others in the public who might be tempted to do the same thing."
     After sentencing, the plowshares sent a series of personal, impassioned letters to Judge Hunter, trying to prick his conscience over his decision. ("Sometimes I wish we had said more at our sentencing, for I really had the feeling of being a lamb led silently to the slaughter," wrote Ken Rippetoe in the middle of a 2,000-word document cheerily titled "Greetings Judge Hunter!")
      "I wondered to myself, 'Are they abusing him because they're so forcefully approaching him on this issue?" says Stover.
     In retrospect, Judge Hunter feels his beliefs—in respect for law and a just society—permitted him no other choice than to give Gump the sentence he did.
     "I take no pleasure out of her situation," he says. "It's simply that she has made it impossible for me or any other judge to do anything appreciably different from what I did ... I don't care if they advocate their cause to the whole world as long as they do it using legal means and don't break the criminal law. They don't have a corner on fearing atomic warfare; we all fear it. They don't have a corner on wanting peace; we all want peace. They know they can advocate their cause in dozens and dozens of legal ways, most of them more effective than the one they've chosen, the illegal way."
     The government views Gump as a criminal. And, for some, the story ends there. but the temptation, given the circumstances, is to ask whether or not she is a fool, a Cassandra or a martyr.
    After all, while it was her crime that put her in Judge Hunter's courtroom, it was her refusal to recant that put her in prison. A few mea culpas, a check for $428.48, and Gump could very well be home now in Morton Grove. Whether this is foolishness or personal courage depends solely on how you view the delicate interaction between the individual and the state. Many people probably won't understand why she didn't pay the money and avoid the sentence. Others might never even think to ask the question.
     In Gump's eyes the illegality of the act is meaningless. She uses the example of Nazi Germany. Those who opposed the Nazis, though "lawbreakers" to the ruling order, were honored by later generations. Whether Gump, and people like her, will be similarly revered in the future probably depends on what that future brings. if, someday, the disarmament movement grips this country the way the civil rights movement once did, Gump might be viewed as a sort of Rosa Parks, whose insistence on riding in the front of the bus, while landing her in jail, sparked a movement.
     On the other hand, if another 40 years go by without the use of nuclear weapons, if the weapons turn out to be in fact "peace-keepers," then Gump's actions might, ironically, be viewed as having been contrary to the interests of peace.
     if the missiles are used, and anyone remains to sort through the past and care about it, perhaps Gump and the Plowshares will be seen as a small cadre of people who looked ahead and saw the true future, something like John Brown and his raiders, who seized the arsenal at Harpers' Ferry in 1859, hoping to set off a slave uprising, and were condemned as traitors and hung by the federal government, the same government that would be fighting for Brown's cause less than two years later.
     Gump has become bitter. "Americans—they've lived the soft life," she says. "They're a marshmallow country. Everybody wants peace and nobody wants to pay for it. I wouldn't want to go back to Morton Grove—they're living in a utopia. It's really an illusion. People shop at Field's."
     From prison, Gump looks out and sees a government that works, "hand in glove," with the media. She sees a prison system set up, primarily, to get cheap labor from prisoners. She compares Judge Hunter to Adolf Hitler, and sees his refusal to permit the mention of international law in his courtroom as being predictable, since "Hitler wouldn't have permitted Nuremberg trials."Defense, she believes, has nothing to do with the existence of nuclear weapons—they are created purely for the profit for the big defense contractors.
     But to examine Gump's politics too closely is to miss her central driving force, the impetus that put her, and the other Plowshares, atop that silo on Good Friday: Catholicism. Bible quotations and religious imagery are found throughout her writings, and while she denies her going to jail is an act of martyrdom, her explanation of her actions is, at the core, a religious one.
     "I don't know how a person could come at it other than from a religious perspective," she says.
     Gump is not advocating general social action—not encouraging people to read, write, think, march or care about nuclear weapons. She wants people to go to the missile sites and "disarm" the missiles. Period. All other antinuclear actions are a sop to the government.
     "Disarmament occurs when we disarm a weapon and in the 20 years I worked, not one missile was ever disarmed," she says. "As a matter of fact, three to five a day were manufactured. So all the work in the political area was wasted. Our government allows us to march in the street with signs because it is ineffectual."
     An explanation of Jean gump's actions is offered by her husband, Joe. "I liken it to the crucifixion syndrome," he says, "where individuals take upon themselves the suffering of the world in order to redeam the world."
     Joe Gump has put the house on Linder up for sale. They had planned to do so before last March, he says, because it seemed so empty with all the children grown and gone. With Jean gone, it seems even emptier. Joe, like Jean, would prefer to talk about the issues and not about "personalities," but he will, sitting in their immaculate Early American living room, with knickknack cabinets and embroidery on the wall, talk about the changes in his life.
     "It's something you try to find a way of adjusting yourself to," he says. "I always have had complete confidence in what she's done. We've been married 37 years, and we met four years before that. I can't say I was enthused at the prospect of being separated from your wife. It's difficult to live with."
     Gump's friends get together, now and then, to exchange copies of her letters and discuss the situation. The impact of Gump's action affects them differently. 
     "We all realize that we're cowards," says Carmen Pappas. "We're enjoying the goodies and don't want to join Jean in Jail." Isabell Condit doesn't feel like a coward.
     "I don't agree with her on a lot of things. I think she's a little extreme when she talks about the government. I think she's a little extreme when she talks about disarmament in the face of a perceived enemy. I believe in what Lincoln said when asked what you do with an enemy. He said you make him a friend."
     At the Federal Correctional Institution at Alderson, Jean Gump lives in a room with nine other convicts. There is little privacy. and Gump likes to wake up early and spend time alone in the day room, writing letters. She has a job. From 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., with a half hour for lunch, she works in the prison greenhouse, raising plants for the prison. She earns 11 cents an hour.
     According to the terms of her sentence, she is eligible for parole in January of 1991, but she feels her chances of parole are slight, because she will neither pay restitution nor agree to cooperate with the terms of the parole. In fact, if released she might very well grab the bolt cutter and head for the nearest silo. "I will die in prison," she says.
     If she goes in search of a silo, she won't have trouble finding some. There are more than 1,000 in the U.S., equally divided between Minuteman II and Minuteman III missiles. The Minuteman II (The type of missile at the silo Jean Gump broke into) is 57 feet tall, weighs about 36 tons, and if fired, could deliver a thermonuclear warhead with the explosive power of a million tons of TNT to a target 7,000 miles away within 20 minutes. But none has ever been fired. Yet.
     —Originally published in North Shore magazine, February 1987

     Note: The United States now maintains 399 missile silos, less than half the amount it did when this story was written.


  1. All I can say is Thank You, again.

  2. That what Gump did we now see as foolish and misguided. However, her motivation no matter how naive was to help bring about a better world and so she was willing to pay a price to do so. Just compare that to our world of "looking out for number one" exemplified by our "disgrace in chief" in the White House. Gump may have been wrongheaded but she was not wronghearted.

  3. I went to High School with a few of the Gump kids ( if you were born between the early 50's and the mid 60's and attended Niles West that was inevitable). I know I was very aware that Mrs Gump wasn't like the other moms. Not only did she vastly outpace the number of offspring that 2-3 kids the other moms had but her activism was stunning in the face of our middle class stay at homes moms. And her kids ( the ones torwards the end of the line) sunny and golden. The entire family seemed not quite real but rather something out of a novel.

    She was also the first person to make me aware of socially liberal Catholicism, something that being rasised in a bit of a "Jewish Bubble" came as as surprise. The NYT obituary made me smile that she was honored for what she tried to do.

  4. As someone who protested the Vietnamese War without really paying for it -- I was given an honorable discharge and have used the benefits due veterans without hesitation, I am conflicted over Jean Gump's decisions to actively seek to destroy government property and to remain in prison for the crime when it would have been so easy to pay a fine and go home. A hero or a chump? Neil seems to imply she was both.


  5. Jean Gump was a true believer compelled to act on her conscience. It could be argued that she would have accomplished more out of prison, as her protest was beyond understanding even to those of us with similar views. But most of us did too little. Like tate, I stand accused of dropping the ball. While their action at the missile silo seems futile, thus worthless to most of us, the graphic representation of Hiroshima in todays heading is chilling to those of us who grow up under threat of nuclear war, and validates her fear for her grandchildren Jean Gumps offspring should be unreservedly proud of the life she lived.

  6. The fact is ICBMs (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) should be given 150 Nobel Peace prizes. We would have never been able to stop a Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe, the Reds outnumbered us in men and equipment 20 to 30-1 in some areas. But the Communists knew our plans to use nuclear weapons to stop an invasion of the West and there was an uneasy stalemate for 40 years. Same goes today with any terrorist or State actor that may decide to get cute and put one up at a large American city or sneak one across the border. Let em know we got them, they work, we will not be the first to use them but if we do it is 'Goodnight Irene' to any group that thinks a thought of using WMDs against America. I agree with one statement Bill Clinton made in his entire politcal career. When asked if a North Korea or Iran or Iraq would ever use those weapons against us, Clinton responded, "No, because the day before they use those weapons will be the best day of their lives".

    I want a world without nukes too I'm not a fool. But we're realistically 3-4 generations from that Star Trek like world. Will get there one day, maybe......


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