Politics & Government

The Rev. Bill Bichsel, longtime weapons protester and Tacoma-born priest, dead at 86

For nearly 40 years, the Rev. Bill Bichsel protested against U.S. military programs and weapons, resulting in dozens of arrests and making the Jesuit priest one of the most visible and admired protesters in the Pacific Northwest.

But to most folks, he was a Tacoma-born priest simply known as “Bix.”

Bichsel, who had a history of heart problems, died Saturday evening. He’d been in a coma recently and died peacefully in hospice care, surrounded by friends and family who were holding vigil at the Catholic community home where he lived. He was 86.

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.

In 1988, Bichsel shouted down then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in Seattle to draw attention to the homeless.

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.” That includes “resisting those forces that deprive us of life,” such as the “production and maintenance of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Bichsel said a cardiologist told him in 2011 he had one year to live. He had two open-heart surgeries and declined to undergo a third to repair leaking heart valves.

“I feel like I’m on a gravy train,” Bichsel said. “It could have happened a lot earlier.”

Bichsel said he didn’t think much about what happens after death.

“No. 1, I don’t know.”

But he added:

“I just believe in some way or another we become taken to God and we become part of the universal cloud of witnesses” to peace, Bichsel said.

He said he hopes his work for peace had been an encouragement and inspiration for others.

Civil resistance

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.

“I never got the sense that I am a lawbreaker or that I am a criminal,” Bichsel said in an interview in 2008. “I am an enforcer of the law.”

His protests and other actions made him a lightning rod for praise and criticism. Even some supporters said Bischel went too far when he trespassed and broke the law.

In 2009, Bichsel took another step that proved to be controversial.

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.

Born in Tacoma in 1928, William Jerome Bichsel was the son of a national union leader for Northern Pacific locomotive engineers.

Bichsel was still a teenager when he started the process of becoming a priest, and for three decades he followed a fairly traditional path as a student, pastor, teacher and academic.

His commitment to civil disobedience grew over time, from taking part in Vietnam War protests while studying in Boston to his first protest and arrest at Bangor in 1976.

In 1979, he moved to Guadalupe House in Tacoma to shelter homeless people.

Hundreds of supporters

His only income came from stipends he received for celebrating Mass as a fill-in priest at local parishes and presiding at weddings and funerals.

But he amassed hundreds of supporters.

In 2008, at least 300 people showed up for his 80th birthday party at Holy Cross Community Hall in Tacoma.

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.

Bichsel’s belief in caring for each person as family was rooted in the example set by his mother and her care for family and community, especially during the Great Depression, Power-Drutis said.

Despite his outward affection for people, Bichsel sometimes struggled “with deep loneliness and insecurity,” Power-Drutis said. He used that interior pain to build empathy and warmth for others, Power-Drutis said.

Even many people who disagreed with Bichsel’s politics had warm feelings for him.

Jack Donaldson of Tacoma was on the opposite end of the disarmament debate, but Bichsel wouldn’t get angry with him; he would playfully jam his fist in his friend’s chest.

“If you knew Bix at all, he could be a very funny guy; he would laugh easily,” said Donaldson, who hosted parties years ago attended by young priest Bichsel. “He walked the walk. Not that everyone agreed with him — I certainly didn’t — but he was a personality. He was always cheerful.”

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.

Bichsel’s last arrest came in July 2010 for trespassing in protest at a plutonium processing plant near Knoxville, Tennessee. He served a three-month prison sentence.

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.