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Next stop: Prison, not prom

Priorities clear for twin radicals

By Robert George, Globe Correspondent, 02/04/98

From left, Jessica Stewart, Steve Cohen, and Audrey Stewart after their November 1997 arrest for boarding a Navy destroyer at Bath Iron Works. (Globe Photo / Paul Cunningham)
From left, Jessica Stewart, Steve Cohen, and Audrey Stewart after their November 1997 arrest for boarding a Navy destroyer at Bath Iron Works. (Globe Photo / Paul Cunningham)

ORTLAND, Maine - At an age when most teenagers are planning proms and signing yearbooks, the Stewart twins have been chaining themselves to fences and pouring their blood on the steps of the Pentagon.

Jail, rather than college, is where they figure they've been heading ever since they turned 7 and started saving the pennies from their lemonade stand to join Greenpeace.

''We need more radicals,'' said Jessica Stewart, 18, taking a break last week from stuffing envelopes at the Peace Action Network in Portland. ''Just writing your senator is not enough.''

Four days later, she was stuffing envelopes at the local gay-rights headquarters when federal marshals handcuffed her and took her to jail. They had an arrest warrant for Stewart after she failed to show up for a court date on charges she had trespassed outside the White House last fall.

Three days after that, it was Audrey Stewart's turn. A judge in Nashua, N.H., jailed her after she refused to pay a $100 fine for trespassing at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, Nashua, where she had handed out leaflets and put roses in office windows.

Since turning 18 last April, the twins have been arrested seven times for protests in five cities. They've walked out on judges, boycotted hearings, and left many in the peace movement awed by their boldness. And nowhere more than in their adopted state.

In Maine, writing letters to lawmakers is a lot more common among activists than trespassing, committing vandalism, and engaging in other acts of civil disobedience. And the mostly gray-haired men and women in the movement here are as worried about two of the country's youngest activists as they are proud of them.

''We try not to treat them like kids,'' said Jack Bussell, 60, director of Maine Veterans for Peace. ''But you can't help it if there's a little bit of parental feelings about this.''

Although Audrey was let out of jail last Thursday, she was back in court the next day in Washington, where she was sentenced to six months probation for trespassing outside the White House. Jessica is still in jail in Rhode Island, pending transfer to Washington for a hearing on the same trespassing charges.

Few in the peace movement expect either twin to stay free for long. Both are wanted in Bath for cutting the chain-link fence surrounding the Bath Iron Works shipyard last Nov. 9 before the sun came up. Along with activist Steve Cohen, they sneaked aboard a Navy destroyer under construction and dumped vials of their own blood on the deck.

A week later, police in Fort Benning, Ga., arrested them along with 600 marchers who carried crosses onto the campus of a military school. And in Washington, they dumped vials of their blood on the steps of the Pentagon Dec. 27.

At a court hearing, the twins are likely to do something to annoy the judge. Last December, for instance, both refused to answer Judge Joseph Field when he asked them how they pleaded for the blood-dumping incident in Bath.

''These courts are a travesty of justice and I won't participate,'' Jessica told the judge before stalking out in her ''It's a Death Ship'' T-shirt. Audrey followed.

Field had originally set their trial for last week, but it was postponed. Neither twin planned to show up anyway, which doesn't surprise Janice Forbes. Forbes met the Stewarts as children at Delta State University in Mississippi, where their father was a biologist and their mother a doctoral student in French.

They seem to have been born into activism, according to Forbes, who was a professor at the college before moving to Yarmouth. Their parents were liberal, but not radical. Audrey and Jessica joined Greenpeace and Amnesty International on their own initiative, she said. They made the decision to become vegetarians without asking their parents. And it was the twins who made the decision to stay out of high school and teach themselves.

''I don't remember them ever talking like children,'' said Forbes, who sees herself as their surrogate mother. ''Even at a young age, they talked about the environment and about injustice in the world.''

At age 9, they read ''Moby-Dick'' and ''The Odyssey.'' At 10, they got caught drawing outlines of dead people on a college sidewalk as part of an Amnesty International protest.

Neither Audrey nor Jessica can fully explain why they have thrust themselves into the most radical wing of the peace movement at an age when their peers are filling out college applications. Both say they will never finish college, or marry. Neither plans on having children.

''What we do in terms of our own lives is pretty irrelevant,'' Audrey said. ''What matters is that they are building these weapons of mass destruction that can destroy the earth.''

They also have a hard time explaining what they do for fun. Not much really. Jessica sometimes reads mystery novels. Audrey likes to hike. They are best friends.

Short and compact, hair buzzed to their scalps, they wear no makeup. Their ears are unpierced. Their thrift-store jeans and T-shirts are fit for comfort, not style. Their backpacks are their most valuable possessions.

''I have no intention of being caught up in the corporate world,'' Jessica said.

Their mother died five years ago at age 41 and they've barely spoken to their father in the past year. They won't say what caused the rift. Robert Stewart, 56, still Mississippi, is also reluctant to talk about it. His daughters puzzle him. He doesn't know what drives them.

''I'd like them to have a good life, one that means something to them and means something to someone else,'' Stewart said.

Most of all, he wishes they had both stayed in college. At 15, Jessica enrolled at the College of Atlantic in Boothbay Harbor, and Audrey at the state university in Orono, near where they had spent several summers as children.

Though they had made it to their junior year and may have graduated before turning 20, they dropped out after their arrests in Bath.

Now, the twins get by with the occasional waitressing job. Sometimes they take time off to stay at the Jonah House in Baltimore, a sanctuary where activists spend a few months rejuvenating themselves between actions. It was founded with the help of legendary peace activist Philip Berrigan.

A former Jesuit priest, Berrigan and his brother Daniel made the cover of Time magazine when the government tried them for conspiracy during the Vietnam War. The twins may soon be inspiring people in much the same way, said Ardeth Platte, a Dominican nun who lives at the Jonah House.

''They have a great consciousness of the world,'' she said. ''You can talk to them about interventions in East Timor, or in Iraq, or about the Chiapas rebels in Mexico.''

But Forbes worries that the path they have chosen may be harder than two 18-year-olds, no matter how bright and committed, can possibly realize. ''It's hand-wringing time for me,'' she said after they were jailed last week. ''This is not child's play anymore.''

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 02/04/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.