Nun jailed after protest at APL hopes the pope understands her motives Activist challenges 'academic, military, industrial complex'

October 08, 1995|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

As Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass today in Baltimore, Sister Ardeth Platte sits in a cellblock at the Howard County Detention Center, serving a 30-day sentence after protesting weapons research at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel.

"John Paul understands very well that many people in our faith have been jailed while trying to speak the truth," said the 59-year-old Dominican nun, speaking through a telephone behind the thick glass of the jail's visiting room.

Sister Ardeth was charged with trespassing after a May 24 protest during which she and six other women distributed anti-weapons leaflets at APL, Howard County's largest private employer.

The lab -- which conducts research on submarines, missiles and satellites -- has been told it can expect authorization for up to $382.8 million in funds this fiscal year under a Navy contract. Overall, Johns Hopkins University received $673.6 million in government funding -- much of it defense-related -- in 1993, according to the National Science Foundation.

Sister Ardeth, who has lived for six months at Jonah House, a religious community of peace activists in Baltimore, is outspoken about the role of universities in military research.

"We try to unmask the academic, military, industrial complex at Johns Hopkins," she said. "Many colleges and universities survive off of the Department of Defense. This defies the concept of universities. They're not supposed to be dedicated to the exploration of militarism."

Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University, said the institution's national security work is important.

"Johns Hopkins exists to serve in a number of ways, primarily to teach and conduct medical research," Mr. O'Shea said. "Another way we serve is to assist in preserving the security of the nation. We've never made any apologies for that."

Sister Ardeth and Sister Carol Gilbert were arrested after going building-to-building at APL, passing out leaflets to women and refusing to leave when police were called. "We still had a mission to complete. We still had leaflets to pass out," Sister Ardeth said. "So we continued passing them out."

Dee Reese, an APL spokeswoman, said it is the lab's policy to have all protesters arrested if they refuse to leave when ordered to do so by Howard County police.

"In the past, protesters were risking their own safety by climbing towers and fences," Ms. Reese said. "We decided then that the (( best thing is to not have protesters out there at all."

Sister Ardeth said her belief that weapons research is illegal and immoral overrides the fear of a jail term. She has served time in jails around the country for trespassing and disturbing the peace during protests.

"I don't seek to be jailed. I seek to do the work," said Sister Ardeth, wearing navy blue prison clothes and a wrist tag bearing her name. "Jail is just the consequence they put on me."

A Michigan native, she became a nun when she was 18. She was an educator and school administrator for the next 19 years and a city councilwoman in Saginaw, Mich., for 12 years.

Sister Ardeth said she has been involved in what she calls "full-time peace and justice work" for 10 years. "I could have run [for office] again, but I felt that I should work on the evil of the arms race," she said.

Since she moved to Baltimore six months ago, Sister Ardeth has been arrested half a dozen times. Next month, she is scheduled to go on trial in Alexandria, Va., in the aftermath of a protest at Department of Defense headquarters during which she sprinkled the ground with baby bottles containing her own blood.

"We try to dramatize or have people reflect on what we have done with this country's weapons of mass destruction," said Sister Ardeth, whose current jail term expires Oct. 21. "The Roman Catholic Church speaks strongly against nuclear weapons. Hopefully, the pope will say something about [it] Sunday."

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