The Concord NH Monitor

Even Peace Has Its Consequences

Monday, January 26, 1998

Monitor Staff


78-year-old may go to jail for Sanders protest

After 78 years, Ruth McKay's smile is sculpted in her face. Her nearly 6-foot frame barely stoops. The soft-spoken grandmother is like a monument to the cause she's promoted for nearly 30 years.

A demeanor shaped by a dogged dedication to peace, it cannot be shadowed by the dark prospect at hand. Today McKay may go to jail.

"I know I can handle being in jail," said McKay, sitting in her small apartment at Havenwood Heritage Heights retirement community, a home crammed with family pictures, well-worn furniture and peace paraphernalia and shared with a plump tabby cat. "I really, really like people and I love to hear people's stories. . . . The time will go fast that way."

Part of that confidence comes from experience. McKay has been arrested six times and spent a month in jail for past peace protests. But that was over a decade ago, and this time, McKay could be facing some serious time.

At a hearing today in Nashua District Court, McKay will learn the consequences of a Dec. 10 protest at Sanders Co. in Nashua, a plant that manufactures electronic weaponry. On that day, she and a dozen other protestors with N.H. Peace Action marched to the plant and demonstrated their defiance by standing on the building grounds, passing out pamphlets and praying. McKay threw ashes on the company's sign and draped it with a string of paper cranes. Others placed flowers at the base of the sign. When security guards and the police came, the group refused to leave. One man had to be carried away.

McKay and the others were handcuffed and carted to jail, where they were then freed though they refused to pay the $20 bail. "I don't believe in paying fines, because poor people can't do that," McKay explained.

McKay was charged with criminal trespassing, a Class A misdemeanor that is punishable with up to a year in jail and up to a $2,000 fine. Right now she has no idea how likely it is she'll go to jail or how much time she might end up spending there. Almost all of the other protestors' charges were changed to a Class B misdemeanor, and McKay's lawyer says it may have been an oversight that hers wasn't. If so, she'll face only a $1,200 fine. But since the group refuses to pay fines, the debt may have to be worked off at $20 a day in jail.

It didn't have to go this far. The group could have pled nolo contendere (which would subject them to conviction without admitting guilt) and avoided a trial. But they view the trial as a mouthpiece. Besides, McKay has never been one to take the easy route.

It was in the late 1960s that McKay, a school teacher and Sunday school teacher watching the Vietnam War pluck young men out of her community, first began to question the morality of war . One Sunday morning, during an informal discussion about God's love, a teenage student became a mirror for her own inner struggles.

The young man jumped to his feet, swept all of his books off the desk and into McKay's lap and said, "Either you believe all this stuff you're teaching about love, or you don't. Which is it?"

The action transfixed McKay, a wife and mother raised with solid Republican roots. Not long after that, McKay's own daughter took a stand against war by refusing to play her French horn in the Memorial Day parade.

Inspired by her resolve, McKay and her husband, Ralph, decided on a way to make their own anti-war statement. They began withholding one dollar of their annual income taxes as a symbol of their defiance. To this day, McKay withholds the symbolic dollar every year that she has income to report. The IRS levied her paycheck in the past, and now takes its cut from her social security check, but McKay believes she's still making a difference.

That first act of defiance has been followed by many similar small gestures of peace, the effects of which can't be measured in dollars or paperwork.

From 1983 to 1993, McKay could be found outside Sanders Associates every Friday evening, quietly protesting the manufacturing of weapons. In the early days, her husband or a friend stood with her. Later, she stood alone. At one protest, in front of the Seabrook Nuclear Power plant, her 94-year-old mother-in-law went along. Both were arrested and sentenced to community service.

Suffering from poor health and tending to her bedridden husband and mother-in-law, McKay gave up the weekly protests a few years ago. But since her husband and mother-in-law are dead, McKay has undergone heart and hip surgery. "I feel young again," she said.

So instead of hanging up her picket signs, she's resuming her activism with growing vigor, though she knows it's the small, human interactions that have defined her efforts.In her decade of picketing outside Sanders, McKay became a fixture. "Some people probably figured, oh well, she's a harmless old lady," McKay said. "And some probably thought, 'She's right. I should have a different job.' A lot of people would say, 'Oh, I agree with you.'"

One employee regularly watched McKay from a distance, finally mustering the courage to approach her one day. "He was really nervous. He was afraid to be seen with me," McKay recalled.

She suggested they go to lunch in town, but the man was afraid of being seen there also. Then she suggested dinner at her house, and he cautiously accepted.

"It was a really wonderful exchange. He really didn't want to work there, but he was divorced and paying child care . . . he had a lot of debts to meet," McKay said. "He was really anguishing over these conflicts."

By the end of the evening, McKay had convinced him to apply for a transfer to the company's commercial plant in Hudson. He did, and received the transfer.

When the work led her to jail, McKay carried her soapbox there too. She served more often, though, as a counselor than a preacher. She remembers a prostitute she met in prison, a hard, bitter woman who was pregnant with twins. One night, another inmate asked McKay to go and talk with the woman. She found her curled up in a ball in the corner of her cell, sucking her thumb. McKay just held her and let her cry.

A few of her cell mates turned into friends. Whether or not she's sentenced to another stint in jail, McKay revels in what she accomplished last month.

"It was like a class reunion," she said. One of the security guards who met the group on the grounds was the same one who'd dealt with her numerous times in past protests.

McKay proudly shows the pictures the group took at the protests, especially the one of her throwing ashes on the company's sign. "I had this ashes dream that was ready to go," McKay said. "It's very symbolic. What (the company) makes becomes ashes. People are burned to ashes. As a Christian, it also represents resurrection to me too. I was really pleased to be able to do that."

One of the things that impressed McKay the most was the way the police, whom the group had informed of their intents ahead of time, handled the protest. Though they had to handcuff them and lead them away, they were kind and compassionate, McKay said.

One of McKay's black-and-white photos shows a policeman apparently steadying McKay from behind while she reaches up to drape the string of paper cranes over the company's sign.

"I thought the police had a pretty good understanding of what we were trying to do," McKay said.

What they were trying to do was expose the company's actions. According to the group's leaflets, Lockheed-Martin, Sanders's parent company, sells thousands of dollars of weapons to countries such as Indonesia, which invaded the tiny island of East Timor in 1975 and has since killed one-third of its population.

McKay believes that exposure is what led the company to have the group arrested. "I think the primary thing is the disclosure of it . . . saying this company makes awful stuff. But free speech is not a crime. So they had to come up with something else."

With the trial looming closer, McKay spent much of last week getting her things together, making sure her finances were in order and giving her son instructions on how to tend to her affairs should she end up in jail.

Her family, she said, has been extremely supportive. "They're wonderful to me," she said. "They're anxious. But they allow me to make my own decisions."

That freedom is a long-time family tradition. Chrissy, the daughter who helped McKay sort out her stance on war, ended up marrying a military man.

"You have painful stuff like that," she said. "But we have practiced allowing each other to make our own decisions."

Her family also has taught her to defend her own decisions. "My grandson says, 'what good does it do, Grammy,'. . . a lot of people ask that question in one way or the other," she said. "And I guess my answer is, you never know when some little thing is going to make a big difference."

(Sarah M. Earle can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 323.)