The Crime of Ms. Jean Gump | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Miscellany

The Crime of Ms. Jean Gump

She poured blood on a missile hatch and got eight years in federal prison.

by

2 comments

The 96-acre federal women's prison in Alderson, West Virginia, is surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. The penitentiary is set in the rolling Appalachian hills and is modeled after a college campus. Inmates live in ten-person dormitories, called cottages, or in single rooms if they've been there a long time. Fifty-eight-year-old Jean Gump receives her husband Joe, and other visitors who make the 12-and-a-half hour drive to see her from Chicago, in a room that resembles an airport lounge, with vinyl chairs and blaring televisions. In nice weather, however, she and Joe can go outside and walk past picnic tables and flower beds and playground equipment provided for prisoners' visiting children.

At Alderson the usual trappings of jail -- cells, bars, and watchtowers -- are absent. But the demeaning customs fostered by institutions still remain. Gump's mail is sometimes opened, she is strip searched, and inmates are counted regularly.

Gump views prison as a place to practice love and tolerance. "I have to think of my jailers as people. We have to have strip searches. I find it so vulgar, so demeaning, so intrusive, it just makes me cringe. But that guard is just trying to feed his family. Maybe, if there were no other jobs, I'd be doing that too."

Jean Gump broke the law in the early morning hours of Good Friday, March 28, 1986.

The early morning sun was beginning to glow red over the horizon as a trio ran through the dew-soaked Missouri field.

Silently, a young, bearded man cut the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, while his two companions, another man and a woman, hung banners beside the scarlet sign that warned them not to enter.

Beside the warning sign, the pair hung a photo collage of the woman's 12 children and 2 grandchildren. Alongside it, they hung a pennant that bore the group's logo: "Swords into plowshares -- an act of healing."

The trio then clambered through the hole in the fence and entered M-10, a Minuteman II missile site at Whiteman Air Force Base, Knob Noster, Missouri.

The missile site resembled an abandoned railway yard. Rust-colored tracks ended abruptly in the middle of the site. Tall signal arms and white concrete bunkers dotted the landscape.

Wordlessly, the three set to work. Ken Rippetoe, 23, swung a sledgehammer at the railway tracks, designed to launch a nuclear missile with the punch of one million tons of TNT.

Larry Morlan, 26, snipped the wires on the signal arms, which pointed blindly toward the sky.

And Jean Gump uncapped a baby bottle filled with the trio's blood and poured it in the shape of a cross on the gleaming hatch from which a missile could emerge. Underneath, she painted the words "Disarm and live."

The metallic ringing of the sledgehammer as it struck the tracks, the low-pitched hum of the live missiles underground, and the steady drumming of a lone woodpecker in a nearby tree filled the air. "I feel great," Jean Gump exulted.

Their work completed, the trio placed a six-page statement on top of a concrete bunker. The communique explained that the group, the Silo Plowshares, was enacting the biblical mandate found in Isaiah 2:4. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks."

At site M-10, the threesome sat cross-legged on the ground, held hands, and began to pray. Or rather, attempted to pray. A 60 Minutes crew was filming their actions, and Mike Wallace began to shout questions from outside the chain-link fence.

"Don't we need defense?" he asked. "Our government would say these [missiles] prove that we are strong, therefore it would deter someone from attacking us. They would call them an instrument of peace."

"These are not peacekeepers," Gump shouted. A short, compact woman, with shoulder-length brown hair that's starting to go gray, she looked about 10 years younger than her 58 years. She banged her fists on her jean-clad knees to emphasize her words. "The government only wants more power, more death capabilities. We're all hostages, I don't want to be that anymore. I don't want it for my children or my grandchildren. Enough is enough."

About 40 minutes after the group cut through the fence, while Wallace was still shouting questions at them, an olive green armored truck with a machine-gun turret on top drove up.

A voice came through a loudspeaker instructing the trio to leave the missile site with their hands in the air. The two men were frisked while other soldiers crouched warily in the field keeping their machine guns trained on them. The young soldiers were reluctant to frisk Gump but told her to remove her ski jacket.

Gump tried to discuss the morality of the missiles with one of the men guarding her. He explained that he couldn't talk to her while he was in uniform. "Perhaps," she said, "we'll meet one day for coffee when you're not in uniform and discuss this."

The soldier sighed. Good Friday was not getting off to a good start.

In suburban Morton Grove, Joe Gump's Good Friday was disrupted. Normally he and his wife would have celebrated Mass at Saint Martha's, the little church where they had worshiped for 32 years and where Jean was a minister of communion. They would have listened to the priest express sorrow over Christ's crucifixion, anticipating the joy that Easter Sunday would bring.

But this Good Friday was different. Gump was alone, and when the phone finally rang, a lawyer in Kansas City told him that his wife had been arrested for destroying government property.

By Easter Sunday Jean Gump was back in Morton Grove, released on bail. But her family's joy at seeing her was mixed with fear as they thought about the lengthy jail sentence she might have to serve.

Last August, Jean Gump, Larry Morlan, Ken Rippetoe, and two other Plowshare activists who had demonstrated at the air force base Good Friday, Darla Bradley, 22, and John Volpe, 39, traveled to Kansas City for their trial in federal court. The group chose to defend themselves, without a lawyer. Calling witnesses who were well versed in army procedures, the effects of nuclear arms, and the history of civil disobedience in the United States, they tried to demonstrate that they had acted out of necessity. Disarming a nuclear missile, even symbolically, they argued, was an act of self-defense.

During the trial Gump explained her motives to Judge Elmo Hunter and the jury. "We who stand before you today awaiting sentence for our act of disarmament believe that the real act of arrogance lies in the affirmation of empire. The 'powers and principalities' demand our complete allegiance, but by following the word of God we are saying 'No' to violence and killing, and to those forces which draw our human family and precious earth nearer to total annihilation."

Judge Hunter rejected the argument of necessity and sentenced Gump and three of the other activists to eight years in prison. John Volpe received a seven-year sentence because he has three young children. Jean entered the minimum-security federal prison at Alderson, West Virginia, on September 15, 1986.

At Christmas Judge Hunter voluntarily reduced Gump's term to six years, but the other conditions -- five years probation and $420 for damage to the site -- remain unaltered.

Ironically, Gump's sentence left her holding the key to her own jail cell, which she could unlock at any time. If she paid the damages and agreed not to participate in more protests, the government would be willing to free her for time served, says her husband, Joe.

But for Jean that's impossible. "It's hard being in prison, it's really hard, but I wouldn't be anywhere else. All the while I sit here everyone knows that disarmament is a crime but building weapons to destroy the world isn't a crime. It's something to think about."

Remembering that Good Friday morning still gives Gump a feeling of liberation, although she describes the scene from her prison dormitory. "I felt quite good. I am not much of a daredevil; at carnivals I don't even go on roller coasters. I thought I might be frightened, but as we were driving out (to the missile site) I felt a tremendous peace that I had never felt before. I was not in the least bit frightened. It's a very freeing thing to be able to say 'No.'"

Jean Gump has been saying no to injustice most of her life. The second of five children, she grew up in Saint Lawrence parish, on the south side. Even as a child, "she was very much a free spirit," says her older sister, Pat Foley. "Jean was the smart one, but she always got C's while I got A's. She wasn't going to please the nuns or anyone. People would say, 'Why don't you be more like your sister?' and she'd laugh. Why would she want to be like me?"

Jean traces her own sense of justice back to her mother. "Our mother had a strong sense of what was right," says Foley. "When people would say things like 'wop' or 'kike' my mother would say right off the bat, 'You don't say things like that here.'"

In 1944, during her senior year at Mercy High School, Jean met Joseph Gump, a student at a Catholic boys' school. The two shared a love of jazz and dancing, but when she brought Joe home to meet her family, she fought her first battle against bigotry. Joe's parents were Germans, and it was only after much persuasion that Jean convinced her family not to refer to her new fiance as a "Hun."

But as she read about Germany, Gump made a surprising discovery. "I really decided that given the time, the place, the opportunity, I could have become a Nazi," she says. "If the German people who were stunned by what the leaders were doing had said 'no,' it wouldn't have happened. Very early in my life I realized I would never have a child of mine come to me and say, 'What were you doing then?'"

Gump's activism began when her children were still young. One long weekend in 1965 Joe baby-sat while she went to Selma, Alabama, to march for civil rights with Martin Luther King. Later, when King came to Chicago's southwest side demanding fair housing for blacks, both Jean and Joe joined him.

The Gumps also became involved with civil rights closer to their Morton Grove home. During the early 1960s, when black families were harassed after they moved into Niles Township, Joe and Jean helped found a human relations council to support them. During the Vietnam War, Jean joined demonstrations and worked for candidates who opposed the war. In 1972 she was an alternate delegate to the Democratic convention for peace candidate George McGovern. Gump's beliefs also found a home at Niles West High School. As president of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association her duties included supervising student antiwar protests.

Surrounded by causes, Gump raised 12 children as well. The only casualty of her activism was her respect for the Catholic Church. One morning the Gumps awoke to find the epithet "Nigger Lover" painted on their garage door. Suspecting a neighborhood youngster, Jean asked the parish priest to discuss tolerance with the schoolchildren. "The pastor went into the classroom and told people it wasn't right to deface property. He never mentioned the moral issues involved," remembers Joe.

Jean, an avid bridge player, had attended a few card games at the church, but she didn't return after hearing her fellow players speak scornfully about Jewish and black families moving into the neighborhood. Eventually she left the church. It was about six years before she returned, satisfied that she was seeing some stirrings of social awareness.

After the Vietnam War, Gump channeled her energies into a number of causes. As a member of the Illinois Alliance for the Mentally Ill, she helped the group find housing for mental patients, painting and wallpapering the apartments and soliciting secondhand furniture from friends.

In 1981, she became the membership chairman of the committee formed to pass Morton Grove's handgun ban. And twice the Gumps opened their crowded home to Southeast Asian refugees who had recently arrived in Chicago.

"I'd come into her kitchen and she'd have the phone on one ear, she'd be mixing a big pot of spaghetti and talking to me, all at the same time," recalls her friend Belle Sanders.

But all of Gump's volunteer work was a dress rehearsal for her latest battle against nuclear warfare, which began in 1982, the day her first grandchild was born. "When my grandson was born I realized I had to do something. He would have no world to grow up in unless I did something," she told Studs Terkel in an interview shortly after her arrest. "I felt peace marching was fine but I wanted to start a freeze group, so I called up my friend Isabel Condit and said, 'Let's get involved.'"

In 1983, Gump and a committee convinced the Morton Grove village trustees to support a nuclear freeze and to write their congressmen and senators, informing them of the village's stand. But she began to grow disillusioned with the peace movement. "You go through all the normal channels that are open to you. You distribute petitions, you lobby politicians. But it seemed that while I worked in the peace movement, the state was building three to five nuclear missiles a day. I have grandchildren. I just thought, 'There isn't going to be any future.'"

In 1984 she joined the Chicago Life Community, a religious peace group, and began protesting and picketing in front of government arsenals and corporate headquarters of weapons manufacturers. She was arrested four times before the Missouri action, but never spent more than a night in jail until last Good Friday.

Gump describes herself as "pretty ordinary when I'm not doing these things," and in some ways she is. Friends say she is a wonderful cook who loves to entertain. A prodigious knitter, she also enjoys cross-country skiing, dancing, and long bicycle trips with Joe.

"Jean would come to the door always smiling. She talks a lot and she talks fast," says Condit. "Everything she did, she did with a tremendous amount of energy and concentration. She can be extremely enthusiastic and then she gets disillusioned."

Gump's children are all adults now. The youngest is 21, the oldest is 35. Only two children live at home; the rest are scattered across the country, some with their own families. Joseph, one of three sons, describes his mother as "the cement to our family. She's the one who'll invite us over to dinner. She's the spark plug."

For Joe Gump, also 59, Jean's conscience and jail term mean he is keeping the home fires burning, alone. Although at first Joe did not share Jean's passionate opposition to the military-industrial complex, he has now adopted her fight as his own. A salesman by profession, Joe is the balance to Jean's enthusiasm and eloquence. He speaks slowly, weighing each word carefully. As Jean's proxy he wants to be sure to give the right impression, the facts about nuclear arms.

Because Gump didn't want to implicate her family, she didn't discuss her Good Friday plans before she carried them out. "I was handed a fait accompli," recalls Joe. "And frankly, I was not very pleased with the prospects. It's been a conversion on my part that's brought me to this point."

In December Joe was arrested for the first time in Water Tower Place, where he and a group of about 100 other people were singing carols -- the lyrics had been changed to reflect the carolers' opposition to American involvement in Central America.

"You begin to assign a different scale of values to things than you had before," he says. "My job, for one; earning an income has absolutely no interest to me anymore. I think I've become much more involved in resistance to those things which need to be resisted."

His son Joseph, a 27-year-old law student at DePaul University, says his mother's trial also changed his views. "[I have] a great tendency to move away from being a rich lawyer. Rather, I'm working now for a public interest law firm. I hope to defend people who have committed acts of civil disobedience. I'm going to help people who can't defend themselves."

Five of Gump's children attended her trial, and all but two, who have young children, visited her at Christmas. Joseph says his siblings support their mother, but he wonders if they all understand her decision.

Understanding Jean Gump is not easy. It's difficult to comprehend a woman who would leave her home, her family, and a wide circle of friends to serve a jail sentence.

Isabel Condit understands why her friend traveled to the Minuteman missile silos last Easter and why she remains in prison today. "Jean's a person who wants not to compromise. Most of us spend our lives compromising. We don't want to make too much trouble because we're too comfortable. It's not enough for her to say it won't help. She has to do it because it's right."

Gump harbored few illusions when she decided to join the Silo Plowshares action in Missouri. Hers was the 15th nonviolent Plowshares protest, and previous activists had all received lengthy prison terms. She weighed her options carefully before reaching a decision. "I had prayed. I really felt that disarmament begins with disarming a weapon, just like Rosa Parks began desegregation on a bus."

Much of her strength comes from her faith, something she says the secular press doesn't emphasize. "I believe that God created all of us in her image. We are capable of doing a whole lot if we allow the spirit to move in us," she explains. "We are trying to live our lives as though this was God's world and we're about to implement some of the things that Scripture talks about. Each of us has a contribution to make and it has to be nonviolent."

Reverend Bob Bossie met Gump in 1983 when they were both arrested at a demonstration outside Motorola's Schaumburg office, protesting the company's involvement in weapons manufacturing. Bossie, who works at the Eighth Day Center for justice, run by Catholic groups dedicated to social issues such as world hunger and the arms race, is also a spokesman for the Silo Plowshares. "I've seen a depth of faith in Jean that has me taken aback," he says. "She's an example to me and she continues to be a prod to me. [The Plowshares activists] aren't heroes or idols, they're merely living out their faith."

It is Gump's literal understanding of the Bible that propelled her first into the peace movement, and then ultimately to Whiteman Air Force Base. "[You need] a willingness to totally commit oneself to the kingdom of God, over and above anything that is demanded by our society and culture," says Bossie, explaining the activist's motivation. "The question is what are you willing to risk if you see injustice? What values are we willing to place on our lives?"

Reactions to Gump's arrest have varied in Morton Grove. Some neighbors have gone out of their way to tell Joe that they support his wife, others have steered clear of him. But the most painful rebuff was dealt by the parishioners of Saint Martha's.

Shortly before she entered prison, Gump and two other members of the Silo Plowshares spoke at the church. Only four people attended the meeting, and they came solely to tell Gump they disapproved of her actions.

Neither Jean nor Joe dwells on the church's repudiation. Joe compares the church to the courts -- both are afraid to condone protest. "It's kind of disappointing but I suppose it's understandable," he says. "To expect support from the institutional church is like expecting judges to buck the system. They stand to lose more than they'll gain."

Jeff Pounds, managing editor of the Morton Grove Champion, was sympathetic to Jean's goal, but not her methods. Shortly after her arrest in Missouri, Pounds wrote an editorial that lauded the achievements of Rosa Parks and Vietnam War protesters, but drew the line at Gump's activities: "This is not meant as a defense of persons who destroy government property in the name of some higher moral authority," he wrote. "I think that pickets and peaceful protests are more effective than headline-grabbing sledgehammering. . . . A simple-minded ideologue would say she's a dirty, Commie dupe, or a pacifist paper would say, 'God save her.' We don't fall into either camp. It's an issue that makes you think."

John Slater, commander of Morton Grove's American Legion post, declined to comment about the Plowshares or Gump, saying the legion didn't have an official policy on such activities.

Jean thinks people are just afraid to back her publicly. Since she entered prison she's received unsigned letters from Morton Grove residents supporting her. "Even middle America is scared out of their heads. They don't want to be involved and my church is part of it."

Prison is an education for a woman whose social circle didn't previously include drug dealers and other felons. But after a lifetime of raising children and working for causes, Gump has embarked on a second career at Alderson.

Her friends say that she ha's given away most of her clothes to fellow prisoners and that any money she receives is used to buy toothpaste and other necessities for her roommates. She is learning Spanish so she can communicate with the penitentiary's large Hispanic population and she is active in the prison's religious programs.

"I've met so many wonderful people here," she wrote to Reverend Bossie. "The prison is getting quite crowded and privacy is a bit hard to come by. . . . I am fascinated by the wonderful humor and camaraderie that is manifest in this cottage among the inmates."

Gump is critical of the American penal system. Only protesters need to be imprisoned, she believes, saying, "There are only five of us here who pose a threat to the government's policies. Only we belong here; everyone else should go home.

"There are two businesses here, and wages start at 38 cents an hour. The government is building a slave economy. The factory made one million decals that read 'hazardous waste.' Isn't it kind of scary that there is a need for one million decals?"

Despite the harshness and loneliness of prison life, Gump tries to remain optimistic. Talking from the phone booth in her cottage, she describes the scene. "Right now we have about ten inches of snow here and many of the Hispanic women have never even seen snow, so everyone's outside going down hills on sleds. Maybe you appreciate the really neat things when there aren't too many of them," she says wistfully. "I'm learning to appreciate the beautiful mountains here. In Morton Grove I'd be busy going to meetings. I wouldn't notice these things."

But she expresses no regret for her actions last Good Friday. She is obsessed with peace and the nation's arsenal, and remains convinced that nuclear missiles must be destroyed before they destroy us. "I can't afford the luxury of sitting back and hugging the babies," she says. "I can't allow that love to interfere with what is best for them in the long run. If we leave things go, they won't have a world."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Luster.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment
 

Add a comment