Opposing Nuclear Subs and Climate Change (Sue Barnhart)

It’s June 14, 2016 and I’m interviewing Sue Barnhart.

It was the Vietnam era. By the time I was sixteen I was organizing protests against the war. And we were all wearing our black armbands at school and me with the principal because he didn’t like that we were having demonstrations, organizing protests with other high school students. And going to some protests on the weekend. That’s what my memory is. It was a while ago now. (laughs) And, you know, I became a vegetarian around that time so that probably helped to keep me, you know, a little more radicalized than some people. I still am pretty much. Once in a while I eat fish, but I’m, yeah, all that time.

So then, when I was probably in my early twenties, I met people who were war tax resisters. So then I became a war tax resister. Before that, I thought you had to pay your taxes. Certainly there’s consequences when you don’t pay but I got involved with people, this is still back in Connecticut, who were war tax resisters through the War Resisters League. And then the part of Connecticut I was living in, down in New London, these big huge submarines would be in commission. [The U.S. Navy’s main East Coast submarine base was and is in New London.] So, we would be protesting every time that happened.

There’d be a lot of us. Many, many of us go down for a demonstration. And there’d be a counter demonstration, the Ku Klux Klan would always go too.


So then people who came for the commissioning [of the submarines] they’d see that some of the counter demonstrators are part of the Ku Klux Klan. So, I always thought that probably made as much of an impression as us protesting.

Because it was a very negative image for them. And when you say a great many people, how many people are we talking about?

We would have a big march down there. I’d say there’d be maybe a thousand. This an area where there’s a big population, you know, in Connecticut. It’s a tiny little state. And it has more people in it than Oregon has in a huge state. So, yeah, I think there probably would be sometimes 800 to a 1000 people protesting against nuclear submarines, I mean it’s pretty bad.

That we were deploying all over the world. All over the world!

And you know, honestly, we really still are, I just don’t even know. We probably are. Sad. Then, when I moved out here besides protesting war I got more involved with, partially through my work of working with folks with disabilities, being an advocate for folks with developmental disabilities or people who use wheelchairs and people with any kind of a disability. And I did some things with Mobility International.

Oh, really. I don’t know anything about them.

Yeah, well they’re an organization started many years ago that promotes traveling even if you have a severe disability. And meeting up with people from all over the world and helping people from other countries to be better advocates to work on accessibility in their own countries. So we went to Mexico and met with activists, Mexican activists who had disabilities or who had family members with disabilities. It was really fun. That was maybe twenty years ago.

And then I’ve done forest activism work, too. That started, again, when I moved out here. It’s just so beautiful and I couldn’t believe that they were just cutting all this beautiful old growth. And that they’d cut all but 5%, maybe even more than that has been cut by now. So, I did get arrested a few times. And then I went down to the test site, the nuclear test site.

When you were arrested, tell me more about that. Did you actually go to jail?

I did not ever go to jail either for working on the test site issues or for forest issues. Those were the two times I’ve been arrested. And both times I’m assuming it’s partially because there’s so many of us being arrested. What they would do is, down in Nevada where they were testing nuclear weapons they drove us really far, like maybe fifty to a hundred miles, and would let us off in these tiny towns. We’d all be starving so we would buy food at the local restaurants. And then we would have to get rides back to where our tents were. So, it was an inconvenience and they would cite us but they never did anything else.

And then getting arrested for forest actions the same thing, I assume, cause there was so many of us. They did not put us in jail. But, for the forest actions they did make us go to court. And it was interesting cause the judge listened to all of us. And it took him, and maybe this is typical but it took weeks, maybe even a month for him to make his decision. And it was a violation for trespassing. We didn’t leave when we were asked to leave.

So, did you pay a fine or what.

I don’t remember if I had to pay a fine. I don’t remember. I might’ve had to pay a fine but I don’t remember paying a fine. Yeah. And then lately I’ve been doing some work with 350.org. [This is an international effort to decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.] We were all up in Anacortes where there’s two oil refineries. That was exciting.

Anacortes is a beautiful little town, right on the bay, surrounded by water. It’s like a two-hour drive north of Seattle and where there’s two oil refineries it was Native American land. Which of course was given as a reservation. It had been Native American land and the government let the Native Americans keep it as a reservation but then at one point they took it back and then the oil refinery companies at some point got it.

Fouling it up.

They are! You can really smell the smells from the factory. And evidently you can’t eat the shellfish anymore and the rate of cancer is very high in that area. The people who live there were really worried about all of us coming and then they got to meet us. When I was walking around places people would stop me and wanna talk. And they said, “Oh, we were so worried and scared but you all seemed so nice and …

So they probably had been given advance warning that these terrible people are coming.

Yeah. Yeah. And there was a group of people who …

Were these Native Americans you were talking to?

Actually, there’s a lot of different stuff going on there. There was a march one day and it was called Indigenous People Day and the Native Americans organized the whole thing. It was beautiful. They had a lot of rituals, they told us the history of the area. A group of them arrived in this beautiful hand carved canoe, really long, like there was twenty people paddling. They did some dancing for us. There were probably about a thousand people at that event. It was a march in to where the refineries were — about a thousand activists and then many Native American people, too. And they did this beautiful water ceremony. It was really a lovely day. And we kayaked to it.

You told me you were “kayaktivists.”

Yeah, we’re kayactivists. (laughs) Yeah! There was a big group of kayaktivists, maybe fifty kayaks. We had to get the kayaks into like a raft shape and then we would hold up signs. I was worried about doing it cause I thought, oh my gosh, a big oil boat could just bash us if they wanted to. But, when the oil refinery found out we were all coming up, they shut down the refinery for a few days. So there was no oil boats coming in and out and there was no trains coming in and out. But, unfortunately, of course, the workers weren’t paid.

So, there was other legal events that a lot of people attended where they had talks about global warming and pollution and there were some talks about working with the unions. I think some union members came to some of those talks.

And then there was also people who were down at the Farmers Market just talking to folks and listening to their concerns. So, we tried to do what we could to work with the local people and you know, we’ve said that we want the workers to get jobs that make hopefully as much money or even more money working in the field of renewable resources. Renewable energy. Cause we aren’t angry with the workers.

Where did you get the kayaks from?

Some people did bring their kayaks up. But, it just seemed like too much to do that. So there’s this big organization that borrowed a lot of kayaks and also rented a lot of kayaks, I mean, those of us that could afford to, we paid to rent ‘em. It was a big operation, to get us all life preservers and paddles and kayaks and make sure that everybody knew some of the basics. And they had a lot of people who had a lot of first aid experience and experience helping people if they fell out into the water or whatever. And I don’t think anybody got hurt.

Good thing. Now I’d like to go back to tax resistance. What kind of consequences have you had from the …

The government? Well I always when I fill out my taxes — and since I’ve always worked for school districts and the county and different places, they report what I owe so the IRS knows already. So, when I fill out my taxes, if I owe money I don’t pay it. And I explain why. I write them a letter saying that I wish I could pay all my taxes, I’d be happy to pay all my taxes cause it’s going to life affirming things. To schools and clean up the environment, and making sure there aren’t homeless people, but since at least 50% is going to war and the consequences of war, I don’t feel I can morally pay it. So, then at first they start with writing me a letter basically saying, “You forgot to pay.” As if they never read my letter. Which maybe they haven’t.

And then it escalates to them eventually sending me a certified letter saying that, “If you don’t pay we’re going to put a lien on your bank account, or a lien on your house or, you know, we’re gonna get your money.” And then they have taken money out of my bank accounts and they have garnished my wages.

And I always use it as an opportunity to educate, you know. Explain to the bank why it’s happening. Or explain to the bookkeepers at my work why it’s happening. The first time it happened it, I felt really horrible because my grandmother who was not a rich person, she saved money for each of her grandkids. She would give each grandkid like a dollar a month into this bank account and it would grow over the years and then she’d give it to us when we graduated from high school. So, the first time they took the money out of that account and I felt bad and I wrote a letter to my grandma about it and she said, “Well, I don’t really believe in what you’re doing but I admire that you are living your morals. And, you know, that’s ok.” Or whatever. “I love you.” So then I’d always take it as an opportunity to educate my relatives, too.

Is there anything in your childhood, in your family background, that would make you an activist, so politically aware and socially aware?

Well, you know, I was raised to be a Christian and the first commandment that, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ I think I just took it really seriously.

Now are you from a Protestant tradition?

Yeah, I was a Protestant. Yeah, Episcopalian. And when I was a teenager, too, we were in a youth group. My parents made us go, but we liked it. And the youth minister was just out of college probably and he, too, was against the war. So I think, really, my family’s responsible. (laughs)

Blame them. (laughs) Or thank them.

Yeah. And my dad and I had many fights, many, many fights cause he had been a civil engineer in the Korean war. And he was a Republican and believed strongly in defending the country. I don’t know what he would think about all the wars we’ve been having lately. I can’t imagine that he would approve of them all, but maybe he would, I don’t know. He’s gone now.

You seem not to object, or it’s not painful for you to have all that trouble from the federal government about the taxes or whatever. How do you keep going with those kinds of problems?

Well, I’ll tell you, there’s an issue right now — my daughter’s going to college next year. So, I filled out the forms that everyone fills out to have financial aid and you have to let them know what your income is. Which I did. I figured it all out. And so the federal government picked me for an audit. Financial aid people. And they need a transcript of my taxes.

So, I’ve been having a hard time getting it because I resisted this year, as always, and I guess it’s affecting whether or not we’re gonna get financial aid. So it’s a consequence that I hadn’t thought of and I do remember other activists stopping their war tax resistance while their kids were in college and I didn’t really put it all together why. So, I’m wondering if it’s gonna be an effect for us. I’m annoyed by that.

You’ve never been bothered by it before that they were just taking your money and so on?

Well, not that I love it, I mean, they normally take my money at Christmas time, too. Which I always thought was more than just a coincidence. Christmas is not a big holiday for us, I really don’t believe in a lot of commercialism anyway so it didn’t really make that much difference. I’ve always just felt that I ended up in the end paying more because I have to pay some interest and penalties. Though it’s not that much more.

But I’ve always felt like it was a statement. And I have felt like if there were more people doing it, it would be a stronger statement. So, I’ve wished more people would even resist a dollar or two.

So I may stop doing it for a while because of this, cause it will be important for us to get some financial aid. But it’s just something I’ve kind of felt compelled to do. It’s hard to pay all that money knowing it’s going to killing other people and creating enemies all over the world.

You make me feel guilty [for paying my taxes] but I have done other things.

Oh, that’s ok. Everybody has something they can do. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t judge.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I guess what I have to say is that, I mean, not everything is fun. Actually, I’ll tell you, some of the hardest things for me is when you get arrested it’s just so boring. You just sit there on the ground for hours or you sit in a car or a van or a bus for hours. Waiting, waiting, waiting. (laughs) And you have to get processed. But I do feel that overall I’ve met such great people being an activist and that overall it has been a lot of fun. As well as I feel like at least I’m doing my part.

I mean, who knows what’s gonna happen. Can we really, quote, save the world, you know. But, at least I’m doing my part.









About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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