Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Punishing the peaceful

Fr. Bill Bichsel is a tall skinny priest who founded a Catholic Worker community in Tacoma, where he has been a parish priest for decades. He's in his 80s. He has extended care, comfort, hospitality, food and shelter to countless who have come to his community in need for many years. Now he's hurting.

Bix, as he is called by the thousands who know him, is in jail in Knoxville, Tennessee, on trial, at the same time he's serving a federal prison sentence for his participation in a Plowshares act in 2009 at the Trident submarine base in Poulsbo, Washington. His Tennessee trial is with some others who did a nonviolent protest at a nuclear bomb facility there in 2010.

He's in frail health when he's on the outside, but prison will ruin your health completely if anything is wrong, especially if you are a new inmate anywhere. Meds sometimes don't travel with you, jailers are unbelievably callous as a generalization that almost all inmates would verify, and those in poor health know they will be in for trial and then tribulation when they head out to commit any serous nonviolent witness. Bix knew the drill; he's been in prison for his nonviolent resistance to the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, serving various sentences over the years. But it's still unjust and inhumane to get reports like the one that came to us from a lifelong buddy of his, Joe Power-Drutis, who drove to Tennessee from our Pacific Northwest to support him. Part of what Joe sent out:

I am not sure what I expected to encounter but, what I did see was a broken and very hurting soul. Pale, frail, mildly shaky, complaining of being unable to hear because of fluid in his ears, dizziness and lightheadedness, pointing with his fingers that he is struggling to push the right numbers on the phone – eyes glassed over, flat affect, and complaining that his gait is so poor, yet he has been commanded to “keep moving”, requesting a wheelchair and being refused. (Well that was the easy part to listen to) – Then he began to talk about the week he spent in Atlanta.

Looking back we all spoke of our grave concern of his traveling via federal prisoner transport, but I sincerely believe none of us realized he was going to go through at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He went onto tell me, with tears in his eyes, that he was placed in a cell and locked in there, with woefully inadequate bedding and clothing, for a week. He repeatedly asked guards for clothing and an extra blanket, and was laughed at and ignored. At some point after repeated requests, another inmate gave up his loan blanket to Bix.

Bix’s medical problems create a lack of blood and oxygen to his hands and feet; leaving those extremities white and ice cold when his overall body temperature falls. Following this, much like one drowning in a frozen body of water, your hands, and feet are filled with pain, like being jabbed repeatedly with needles. He then spoke of the never ending pain, leading to sleep deprivation, insomnia and ultimately disassociation and hallucinations.

Bix was certainly aware of what he was doing as he walked onto the base at Bangor and across the blue line at Y-12; and for these acts he is ready to remain in prison and pay the ultimate price. But, this in no way permits this system of criminal injustice to do what it has done to him. These unjust and unlawful acts perpetrated on him in his trip from Seattle are tantamount to torture. I have consulted with his attorneys both here and in Tacoma; legal avenues are being looked at to ensure Bix is not returned to SeaTac in the same form of prison transport that was used to bring him to Knoxville.

On a happier note: Kathy Boylan and I went to see him on Sunday evening and we could see even then that his overall frame of mind had improved. On Monday, May 9th, the trial began for Bix and 11other defendants charged with trespassing at the Department of Energy Y-12 facility in Oakridge TN on July 5, 2010.

Bix was with Anne Montgomery, a tiny nun also in her 80s, and three others in their 60s, when they had the audacity to trespass onto the nuclear base in Washington, and the severity of the charges were because they cut a fence to get in. When they were finally discovered they were hooded and made to lay on the ground for four hours. The MP said this is what they did in Iraq so he did it here.

The war and torture are coming home.

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