As a boy, Steve Woolford remembered a visit to his grandmother’s home in North Dakota. A distraught man who lived a few doors away rolled his wheelchair out into the yard and used a gun to shoot himself in the head. Woolford and others in the neighborhood heard the gun blast and came upon the grisly scene.
“You could just see blood all over the side of the house,” Woolford said. “I guess there’s few things that look that clear that something that shouldn’t have happened, happened right there.”
The reality of splattered blood is sometimes lost in the rhetoric when politicians and generals talk about war. Woolford remembered that story when he decided to go to the Pentagon and make a statement of opposition to the U.S. threats to start a war with Iraq.
Just before daylight on Monday morning last Dec. 30, Woolford, co-founder of the Silk Hope Catholic Worker House, came up out of the “Pentagon” Metro subway stop with a small bottle of human blood tucked in his coat.
Woolford and two other Catholic Worker activists, Steve Baggerly and Bill Frankel-Streit, both of Virginia, went up a secondary escalator as a group of about 50 other mostly Catholic anti-war activists mixed in with scores of Pentagon employees heading to work. The armed military police checking identification badges immediately recognized the larger group as not being Pentagon employees, and turned their attention to that group. The distraction tactic worked. Walking slowly, but deliberately, Woolford, Baggerly and Frankel-Streit came to a set of huge Pentagon doors. Pulling the bottles out of their coats, the three tossed the blood onto the building’s doors and limestone walls. It pooled on the ground as streams dribbled down the walls and doors.
“This is the blood of the innocents,” they cried out as the surprised MPs screamed for the three to lie face down on the concrete walkway. They were arrested minutes later and released later, charged with disorderly conduct and violating a federal “preservation of property” statute.
In an interview before his trial this month, Woolford, who twice a week participates in anti-war vigils in Chapel Hill, acknowledged the likelihood he would be sentenced to prison for the action.
“For me the idea was to tell the truth about what’s going on with the Pentagon,” he said. “I tried things like writing letters and calling congresspeople and things like that, but when war breaks out, it’s other peoples’ blood being spilled.
“I don’t think people in the United States are very aware of that or thinking about that. I guess my motivation behind this was to bring people home to the truth of what’s at stake here,” he said.
“When I looked up at what we had done to those doors, it looked kind of horrific. It looked like what war is going to look like. That’s what it boils down to is blood being shed. That’s the heart of the terror here that’s behind all this.
“I guess it just brings people out of all the stupid ideas and the rhetoric and stuff and hopefully is a reminder of what this is all about. This is about the pain and suffering of humans and the spilling of blood and murder and killing.”
As they lay on the cold ground awaiting arrest, Woolford overheard a plainclothes cop say to Baggerly, “You make me want to puke,” and “You’re a faggot.”
The three Catholic Workers were part of what’s known as a “Faith and Resistance Retreat,” which is held in Washington, D.C., three times a year. Founded by the late Philip Berrigan, his wife Elizabeth McAlister and others, the retreats, which have been going on for 30 years, almost always include nonviolent direct action at places like the Pentagon, the White House and other institutions of power.
Before the action, Woolford said he was nervous–not about being arrested in the first post-Sept. 11 “blood pouring” at the Pentagon, as such actions are called–but because he might miss out on an opportunity to “portray the truth in that kind of graphic way of seeing the blood on the building.”
Had anyone been near the building’s doors, Woolford planned to only pour his blood on the ground as he had done in 2001 at a previous Pentagon blood pouring.
From the moment she sat at the bench on the morning of March 7, it was clear that U.S. District Court Judge Theresa Buchanan–a relative of conservative pundit Pat Buchanan–wanted the trial to be expedited. Woolford, Baggerly and Frankel-Streit were getting their day in court, but it looked like it would be a short day.
With an unwavering look of consternation–almost loathing–on her face, Buchanan rushed the trial along with obvious disinterest. At one point she scolded the U.S. attorney, “No repetitive testimony.” At another point she looked toward the prosecutor, apparently exasperated that he was not objecting to Frankel-Streit’s line of questioning. “Sustained,” Buchanan said even before the prosecutor spoke his objection.
The government’s key witness was U.S. Army MP Brian McWilliams. McWilliams, a tall, slender man about 6 feet 5 inches tall, was dressed sharply in military uniform. McWilliams identified the three defendants.
“They said it was the blood of the innocents,” McWilliams testified. “The blood was splattered up above the doors all around … eventually it all soaked in. It was pretty bad.”
A government witness, Michael Bryant, from the Pentagon’s building manager’s office, testified that blood is splashed so often on the Pentagon that his office employs a special device nicknamed the “blood cart” for the cleanup. Bryant testified that four men worked five hours each at a labor cost of more than $900 to clean up the blood. However, the workers were already on duty being paid whether they were cleaning up the blood or not. Bryant also testified the Pentagon spent $350.37 for cleaning material such as bleach, gloves, rags, drop cloths and duct tape.
During Baggerly’s testimony, Buchanan interrupted him and said, “Why aren’t you protesting in Baghdad about the weapons of mass destruction there?”
On the stand, Woolford told the judge he had no remorse or regret. He tried to help the judge understand the symbol of blood. “I am a regular blood donor,” he said. “Blood can certainly save people’s lives.”
Buchanan interrupted: “I don’t need to know how blood saves lives. Let’s move on.”
After the defense rested, Buchanan said to the U.S. attorney, “I don’t need closing arguments. I find the evidence is overwhelming.”
After finding the three guilty, Buchanan asked, “Do you have records for the defendants?” The elapsed time she reviewed those records was less than 60 seconds before allowing the defendants one last chance to speak.
“No, judge, I think the ball’s in your court,” said Frankel-Streit, an ex-priest and father of three young children who has spent several years in prison for similar acts of resistance. Baggerly, the father of two young children, said he would refuse to pay a fine. Woolford told Buchanan he wasn’t sure if his time would be better spent in prison or on the outside if war breaks out.
Before passing sentence, Buchanan identified herself to the defendants as a Roman Catholic and noted that Pope John Paul II “spoke out against the war the other day.” Then she got to the heart of the matter. Like the defendants, Buchanan is clearly appalled by the sight of blood. She has said so at previous political trials in which blood was used.
“I have absolutely no sympathy for you when you throw blood,” she said. “It only serves to discredit your cause.”
Under federal sentencing laws for a felony, a judge must seek a pre-sentencing investigation and follow sentencing guidelines. Aggravating and mitigating factors are supposed to be considered. In misdemeanor cases, however, a judge can do as she pleases, and since Sept. 11 many federal judges have been handing down severe sentences for relatively minor acts of civil disobedience.
Before sentencing them to the maximum six-month sentences without parole, Buchanan opted to learn nothing about the three men standing before her, each found guilty of a nonviolent property crime that required a few hundred dollars in cleaning supplies to address.
Woolford, who, like his co-defendants, embraces voluntary poverty in his work providing hospitality to homeless families, was asked nothing about the life he leads. As U.S. marshals led the three into custody, Woolford smiled at his wife, Lenore Yarger, and to his friends who had come to watch the trial.
The three are slated to be released from a private Virginia prison sometime in early September. Letters of support can be sent to:
North Neck Regional Jail
P.O. Box 1090
3908 Richmond Rd.
Warsaw, VA 22572