When the judge called the defendant’s name for the last hearing of the day, a gruff and hearty “Here!” came from the back of the courtroom.
The Rev. Carl Kabat, a Catholic priest, rose and walked to the front of Courtroom G. He’s 83, used a cane and wore white sneakers.
He wasn’t looking to beat the rap. He was looking for a fight.
Facing charges of trespassing and destruction of property for splashing red paint on the door of the Honeywell plant in south Kansas City on July 4, Kabat wanted to put the federal government on trial for making nuclear weapons.
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“Nuclear weapons are insane,” Kabat, part of the original Plowshares Eight, said outside before his appearance in Kansas City Municipal Court. “These things will kill everybody. When did we vote to have them? No one ever did.”
His is one of the last of the loud anti-nuke voices from America’s Cold War period.
But right off Wednesday in court, he hit a problem: Neither the judge nor the prosecutor wanted to hear testimony about the morality of nuclear weapons. They wanted to limit the talk to Kabat’s coming onto restricted grounds and letting loose with red paint.
Plus, the witness against him, the security guard, was way too nice. Darned guy even called him “Father Kabat.”
As in, when asked by the prosecutor if the man he detained that day was in the courtroom, the guard, John Falcon, gestured to the defendant and said, “Father Kabat.”
“And how do you know him?” the prosecutor asked.
“He’s been a visitor to our property a few times,” Falcon answered.
Kabat, a priest for 58 years, has been arrested at Honeywell, which makes non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons, the past three July Fourths.
That’s just the top part of his sheet. Kabat has been arrested — he doesn’t know how many times, 35, maybe 40, at missile bases, defense plants and military installations all over the country. He’s spent more than 17 years in federal prisons, including a 10-year stretch for breaking into a missile silo in Missouri.
Now, with most of the old Plowshares group gone — including founders and leaders Daniel and Philip Berrigan — Kabat carries on the group’s fight, often alone.
But his court appearances these days lack the high drama of those long ago showdowns when Daniel Berrigan firestormed trespassing charges into fights about nuclear annihilation.
Kabat thinks authorities now just want to run him through and get him gone.
He’s usually found guilty, fined minimal amounts and told to stay away from the Honeywell plant. But his jail sentence is suspended, and he refuses to pay fines or court costs. He walks out, and nobody seems to object.
That should be a good thing for someone’s who’s 83 and from out of town. But for Kabat, victory can only be had with the bold argument.
“He wants to be taken seriously,” said Chrissy Kirchhoefer, a friend who drove him from Illinois for the trial. “He wants the issue taken seriously.”
In court Wednesday, Falcon told the judge that workers were able to clean the paint off the doors.
On cross examination, Kabat, acting as his own attorney, asked Falcon if he knew the significance of using red paint.
Falcon shook his head, and the prosecutor, Annie Booton, objected to the witness being asked to speculate.
Kabat then asked if Falcon was old enough to remember Hiroshima.
Falcon again shook his head, and Booton again objected. Relevance.
Judge Katherine Emke interrupted the line of questioning and asked Kabat if he had any witnesses to call.
“Yeah,” Kabat said, clearly frustrated. “Eisenhower.”
Kabat’s road to crime began with a bear hug.
It was Sept. 9, 1980. The Plowshares Eight entered the General Electric defense plant in King of Prussia, Pa., which made nose cones for the Mark 12A warheads.
The group had been founded by the Berrigan brothers, Catholic priests well known for social activism and anti-war activities in the 1960s. The “Plowshares” name comes from scripture. Isaiah 2:4 says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
On that day in Pennsylvania, as the bunch rushed past a startled security guard, Kabat embraced the man in a big bear hug. Inside, the others pounded away on nose cones, poured blood on documents and prayed.
They were all arrested and convicted at a high-profile trial the following year. Kabat served a year and a half in prison. In 1984, he and three others, armed with a jackhammer, broke into a missile silo about 50 miles east of Kansas City. He served nearly 10 years for that.
Since then, Kabat, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Order, has been arrested at defense and weapons sites for trespassing, malicious mischief, destruction of property, burglary, unlawful entry, tampering and more.
In 2009, he used bolt cutters to break through a chain-link fence in Colorado and climb atop the silo of a Minuteman III nuclear missile. He draped banners, prayed and waited 45 minutes until Air Force personnel arrived and hauled him away.
Henry Stoever, an Overland Park attorney, sometimes assists Kabat as he represents himself. Stoever knows exactly what keeps the old priest going.
“Carl maintains that the making, assembling, deploying and threatening to use nuclear weapons is genocide, clear and present,” Stoever said. “He doesn’t waver from that.”
‘Quirky and funny’
Before Kabat’s trial Wednesday, he and group of like-minded supporters, many from the group PeaceWorks, gathered in a nearby park.
A cold wind flapped the flags above them as they prayed.
Then they all walked the two blocks to court together. These people love Kabat, who lives in his order’s retirement community in Belleville, Ill. They see him as strong, noble and faithful to a cause that endures even if diminished consciously by the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago.
“He’ll never stop, and he’ll never pay his fines,” said Eric Garbison, a Presbyterian pastor who runs a Catholic worker house near 12th Street and Benton Boulevard where Kabat stays when he comes to Kansas City.
Garbison smiled: “He’s quirky and funny.”
The jacket he wore to court proved that. It was spattered with red paint.
In the courtroom after charges were dismissed against a defendant, the man walked past Kabat, who sat in the back.
“Way to go,” Kabat said, sticking his hand out for the man to slap.
The man did, and the bailiff smiled.
Kabat didn’t want to go free. He wanted to talk about the peril of a world with nuclear bombs and how several former secretaries of state have called for their removal. According to his scribbled notes, he wanted to say, “You can not kill babies and women and old people like me.”
But that wouldn’t happen this day. He thinks they just wanted him to leave.
Which he did.
But July 4 is coming again. And Father Carl Kabat, whose calling keeps his old cane busy, may do the same.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182