For nearly 40 years, the Rev. Bill Bichsel protested against U.S. military programs and weapons, resulting in dozens of arrests and making him one of the most visible and admired protesters in the Pacific Northwest.
The Tacoma-born Jesuit priest died Saturday evening. He was 86.
Bichsel, who had a history of heart problems and had been in a coma recently, died peacefully in hospice care at the Catholic community home in Tacoma where he lived.
Bichsel devoted decades to his pursuit of peace, at home and abroad. He protested Trident submarines and nuclear missiles at the Navy’s Bangor submarine base. He chained himself to the doors of the federal courthouse in Tacoma after the U.S invasion of Iraq. And he repeatedly protested at the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia, alleging that it trained Latin American soldiers involved in human rights abuses.
The priest was arrested dozens of times for trespassing during protests. He was convicted and incarcerated more than a half-dozen times, spending about 21/2 years total in jails and prisons.
More quietly, he also helped feed and shelter homeless people in his hometown. Bichsel was part of the Tacoma Catholic Worker community he co-founded in 1989.
When asked during a recent interview if he had any regrets, Bichsel said he wished he had done more.
“I wish I had been more conscious of the call to peace and nonviolence” earlier in life, Bichsel told The News Tribune in August. He urged people to recognize “the divine works in all people and to trust their calls to reach out to others, to be more human.”
Bichsel called his protests civil resistance — not civil disobedience — because he didn’t believe he was breaking the law. He said he was upholding international laws, such as the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which prohibit war crimes and crimes against peace and humanity.
His protests and other actions made him a lightning rod for praise and criticism. In 2009, he helped lead a group that traveled to Japan to ask forgiveness for the destruction caused by the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The so-called “Journey of Repentance” sparked an outcry from those who said it ignored the attack on Pearl Harbor and atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II.
Longtime close friend Joe Power-Drutis remembered Bichsel as a prophet who cared for others.
“Bix’s civil resistance has had little direct impact on our military industrial complex or the general consciousness of our nation regarding nuclear weapons, war, or other violence,” said Power-Drutis, a Tacoma resident who knew Bichsel for 45 years.
“He is more a prophet than a political change agent,” he said.
By his own count, Bichsel estimated he’d been arrested some 45 times. Most charges were dismissed, Bichsel said in 2008, because judges didn’t want to take up court time or give the protesters publicity.
In 2011, Bichsel expressed no regrets when he and four other war protesters were given prison sentences by a federal judge in Tacoma for breaking into the Bangor Navy base in 2009 to protest nuclear weapons kept there.
They were convicted of using bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences to enter an area where nuclear warheads were stored on the base about 40 miles northwest of Tacoma.
“I’m so glad for the action we took,” Bichsel said at the sentencing in Tacoma. “I think the only law that we tried to carry in our own hands is God’s law.”
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle called the protesters’ actions a “form of anarchy” that, left unchecked, would lead to a breakdown in society. Settle sentenced Bichsel to three months in prison and six months of home detention.
Settle also praised Bichsel for caring for the needs of others in the community.
“It’s not easy to sit in judgment of people who have lived such sacrificial lives,” Settle said.