A few questions with Elizabeth Murray, member in residence at the Ground Zero for Nonviolent Action center (Poulsbo, WA)

with William Pennington


The Ground Zero for Nonviolent Action is a group I will become more involved with as the years go on . Based in Poulsbo next door to the Kitsap Bangor Naval Base, they have a small presence in Seattle. But their presence is felt beyond their Center, beyond Seattle, beyond what the average person does in their heart and daily routine. They feel the injustice in their bones and in their soul, so much so that they would (and have) get arrested for peacefully protesting one of the greatest human danger in the history of our existence, the nuclear weapons housed at the Naval Base. This group is to be highly commended, and awarded the nonexistent annual Washington State Peace Prize for their efforts to spread the love and peace of nonviolence in the world.

What attracted me to the group at first was the advertisements on the side of the King County Metro Buses in Seattle, selling the idea that peace is still preferred over nuclear holocaust, and that storing them so close to where people live is not the smartest idea in the world. I connected with them immediately, due to my pacifist nature, and reached out to the group. Elizabeth Murray, the only person who lives at the Ground Zero Center in Poulsbo, was kind enough to answer my questions. Here is our conversation.

I've read where many people are ignorant of all the stockpiles of nuclear warheads nearby at Bangor. But might some of it be an intentional ignorance (apathy)?  An issue of this size feels impossibly large to tackle mentally.  How do you break it down into doable action size pieces?

Public ignorance regarding the extent of nuclear stockpiles at Bangor - and what it could mean for civilian populations - might be deliberate in some cases (i.e., the "I don't want to think about that - it's too scary" syndrome).  Also, the fact that Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor provides a solid bread-and-butter income for so many in this area might induce a kind of cognitive dissonance in which local people who live and work on the base may not want to think about the reality of the nuclear threat - or maybe it makes them angry and defensive when that inconvenient truth is brought up.  

On the other hand, public ignorance could be unintentional; that is, people do want to know what's going on at Bangor, but accurate, reliable information simply isn't available.  This could be the result of a deliberate strategy by those who would much prefer an apathetic and ignorant public to a knowledgeable, aware, and energized community of active citizens.  Consider that information about the deadly potential harm that a radioactive leak from nuclear weapons could cause to the people living around Naval Base Kitsap Bangor is not something you read about in the local papers.  It is not taught to children in the schools, doesn't turn up with any kind of regularity in letters to the editor, TV talk shows, or even on social media - despite the huge danger that exists.  In fact, I would say it is almost a taboo subject of discourse in any segment of our society beyond the anti-nuclear organizations here and elsewhere in the world.

In that vein, I believe the Navy encourages a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” ignorance on this subject by not making information routinely accessible to the public as a matter of public safety. 

Back in 2016, when Rear Admiral Charles Richard paid a visit to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, he bragged that the Navy had succeeded in eliminating the nuclear weapons issue from "the national psyche."  He stated this as though it were an accomplishment to be proud of.  Richard was contrasting the current state of affairs with the acute public awareness of the threat posed by nuclear weapons during the Cold War period, especially in the early 1980's. That awareness manifested itself at Ground Zero when many hundreds of anti-nuclear protesters participated in a series of Ground Zero actions known as the Summer of Resistance.  Then-Seattle archbishop Raymond Hunthausen declared the Trident submarine as "The Auschwitz of Puget Sound" and advocated tax resistance.  And in a dramatic David vs. Goliath action, the first Trident submarine, the USS Ohio, was briefly surrounded and detained by a tiny but tenacious flotilla of anti-nuclear protesters.

Admiral Richard was correctly noting that this level of actionable resistance to nuclear weapons has declined in recent decades, and he took credit for it on behalf of the Navy and all those who profit in one way or another from Trident.  At the Ground Zero Center, we view his statement as a call to action.   

The nuclear weapons stored at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor are incredibly destructive and could wipe out millions of innocent lives in an instant.  That fact alone is a difficult pill for any person to swallow - so we take a local approach by educating the public about how close those weapons are to downtown Seattle and what the impact of a nuclear detonation — accidental or deliberate — would mean for the area.  We also use our downtown bus ads, flyers, newsletters and bumper stickers to remind them that as taxpayers, they have the power and the responsibility to change that which threatens all life on the planet.  It is we who pay for these weapons, so it is we who need to pressure our politicians to encourage diplomacy rather than nuclear saber-rattling in our foreign policy.  We try to get people to think about whether we need to be building more nuclear weapons (there is a trillion-dollar “modernization” project under way), or whether we might better use those funds to lift people out of unemployment and improve our nation's healthcare, education, public works and infrastructure systems.  Naturally, for that tiny but powerful minority profiting from those weapons systems, it makes sense for them to try to keep these things away from public scrutiny.

How do you (as an organization) decide what to do next?  Do you always act as a group, or do individuals go and do what they feel they need to?

At the Ground Zero Center, we have a Stewardship Council which meets monthly, and which also holds a large annual session to set the strategic direction for the next year.  We operate by consensus, so nothing moves forward without the unanimous agreement of the group.  This can sometimes slow things down a bit, but amazingly, it has worked, and has kept our organization together since its founding in the mid-seventies.  Every member is respected, valued and even celebrated for his or her contributions; each has a voice that counts.  We are an all-volunteer organization, by the way; no one here receives a salary.  That’s pretty remarkable.

Is getting arrested something you think about?

It’s not something anyone wants to think about, but I think we all realize there’s often a price to be paid for standing up for what is right.  We have lots of role models that inspire us, such as Martin Luther King, Daniel Berrigan, and Gandhi.  And we look to each other for inspiration and moral courage.  It’s the strength and support of the community that inspires individuals to do things that they might never do otherwise.  Some of the finest people in the world have gone to jail for the noblest of causes.  We know that with a little perseverance, what is illegal today could become legal tomorrow. Consider the legacy of Rosa Parks, who stood in defiance of the law when she chose not to move to the back of the bus.  Consider women who broke laws to battle for their voting rights.  And what about all those who fought against a legal slave system in our country?  These are individuals whom we honor and revere.  Having to go to jail for opposing weapons that cause the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians is something we’re very honored to do.  But it still boggles my mind that our system wants to put people in jail for such things.

What is your treatise?

We do have our statement of purpose, which is the first thing you see when you go to www.gzcenter.org, our website.  You could consider our Pledge of Nonviolence a kind of treatise, since we are deeply committed to nonviolent action as a form of resistance to nuclear weapons.  Each of us recites the pledge around and promises to adhere to it prior to any action.  You can read our Pledge of Nonviolence here (scroll down):  https://www.gzcenter.org/nonviolence/  

By the way, in our meetings with base security officials - and we do have a cordial working relationship with them - we always show them the Pledge of Nonviolence.  They are invariably impressed by our commitment to it, and I think it has helped us to foster a respectful and courteous relationship with the folks on the other side of the fence.

Do you have a band? I'm thinking maybe along the lines of the Seattle Labor Chorus, or the Seattle Anti Fascist Marching Band...?

No we don’t, although we frequently host local musicians at our annual gatherings.  During our resistance actions we sing a lot of songs that were popular during the civil rights movement.  I would say that music is a fundamental component of political activism.

If the Ground Zero Center were to release a cookbook, what would it include? I mean both food and something like the Anarchist Cookbook but for peaceful methods.

What a great idea!  I’m guessing that homemade chili would be in the book, and maybe gluten free chocolate chip cookies, since these are favorites at our gatherings.  We’re not too fancy with food, however - we’re on a budget so whatever is simple, tasty and feeds folks efficiently is our general criterion.

Do you ever have meetings in Seattle?

 A number of our members are Seattle-based, so sometimes we do meet there.

What are your proudest accomplishments?

I think our proudest accomplishment is that we have remained together as a cohesive organization since 1977.  Many of our members have diverse views on issues and come from different backgrounds and creeds, but we have consistently come together to resist the Trident nuclear weapons system.  That unity is more important than ever, now that Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor is the site of the largest concentration of nuclear weapons in the United States.

Many Ground Zero members have made extreme sacrifices: spending time in jail, spending our own funds to further the cause of nuclear disarmament, and using up a lot of our personal time and energy.  As individuals, we fill in to provide what is needed at Ground Zero (administrative tasks, public speaking, newsletters editing & publishing, writing press releases and articles for the media, designing flyers, etc), often learning completely new skills in the process.  None of us are paid.  This can only happen in the presence of love and respect for one another and for our fellow human beings—this is what makes it possible to continue working together on a very difficult and daunting task.  This is truly our greatest accomplishment.

We have also brought an enormous amount of attention to nuclear weapons.  Experts have said (Larry Wittner, DOE officials and others) that organizations like Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action helped to create an atmosphere in the 1980s in which the Soviet Union and the United States could discuss the threat of nuclear war.  Some have said (Larry Wittner) that the work of grassroots organizations in the 1980s may have prevented a nuclear war.  But we will settle for the effort we have put forth, and which we continue to put forth.

We also stopped the White Train shipments of nuclear weapons with a jury acquittal of demonstrators in 1985—there are lots of events like this that we were directly responsible for.

Has anyone famous ever joined the group?

Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, James and Shelley Douglass, Sister Jackie Hudson, Father Bill Bichsel, to name a few.  I don’t know how well known these folks are to the general public, but they are certainly famous to us!

Where are the newsletters from the early days?  The website only has the past decade, yet the organization was formed about 40 yrs ago.

Our early newspapers are archived at the University of Washington, which maintains a special archive of the early documents of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.

Lastly, how can people support the group if they can’t make it to meetings?

Anyone wishing to donate to the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action or to the Ground Zero Community (our 501 (c) 3)  can click on the "donate" button on our web page.  Here is the donation link: https://www.gzcenter.org/donate/

WP - 6/2019