Thursday, April 11, 2013

Oak Ridge: "Zero Tolerance" for Dissent in the Secret City

Crime Scene at Y12 bomb plant.  photo by John Kernodle
Dateline: Oak Ridge, Tenn. April 6, 2013
by Clare Hanrahan
Police Chief James T. Akagi of Oak Ridge, Tennesssee  made it clear: his officers would show  “zero tolerance" for anything considered an infraction.

And he meant it. Answering the call for an “April Action Against the UPF!” about 75 people traveled from North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, D.C., nearby Knoxville and other parts of Tennessee to take a stand on April 6 against the proposed multi-billion dollar expansion of the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y12 National Security Complex, a nuclear bomb plant.

“The hostility is a mystery to us,” Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance longtime coordinator Ralph Hutchinson told activists gathered in Alvin T. Bissell park. Officers had just issued a parking citation to one of the out of state demonstrators parked in a lot adjacent to the park, and warned others who were helping unload props for the Catalystica Players, a family energized theater, puppetry and clowning collaborative setting up for a show on a park lawn.

Hanrahan observing  on the way to Y-12. Photo: Jim Brown
I was one of three legal observers on duty for the day, wearing the bright green hats provided by the National Lawyers Guild. My first encounters with Oak Ridge police were at the park as I moved closer to observe and to verify the name of the officer issuing the parking citation.  Chief Akagi  approached and warned me not to interfere with officers. Deputy Chief Massengel  inquired, “Is this a new tactic ya’ll have?”  I assured him that as Legal Observers, our role was simply to observe and record interactions, not to interfere with police.

Despite the unusually unfriendly police presence, the ephemeral beauty of early Spring graced us as we greeted one another at the International Friendship Bell. The solid bronze bell, crafted in Japan, was a gesture of friendship between Japan and Oak Ridge on the 50th anniversary of  the “Secret City.” Uranium enriched in Oak Ridge as part of the Manhattan Project was used in the A-bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

With cherry trees blooming,  golden daffodils clustered along the roadsides,  graceful willow-green branches waving,  and tiny blossomed bluets brightening the grass, OREPA organizers briefed peace walkers about some changes in this year's gathering.  A barrier, installed just days before the planned rally, had effectively cut off an area used for twenty-five years as a traditional forum for free speech. The $95k fence, consisting of waist high modular aluminum units, was erected on State right of way along Scarboro Road just outside the Bear Creek entrance to the Y12 bomb plant.
"Don't Fence Me In" Photo: J.Kernodle
District Judge Curtis L. Collier in Knoxville questioned the jurisdiction of his court to address a complaint filed by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, its board members, and others that the fence constituted an infringement on First Amendment Rights. The Group was given two weeks to make a case for jurisdiction.

Enriched Uranium storehouse at 12. The heart of the nuclear beast
The barrier is part of new security measures enacted after an embarrassing failure of plant security in July, 2012, when three unarmed elders in the Plowshares anti-nuclear movement cut through four security fences making their way on foot, undetected and undeterred, to the building storing the U.S. stockpile of highly enriched, weapons grade uranium. These elders had clearly demonstrated the inherent insecurity of the nuclear weapons complex. 

Later investigations revealed that dozens of pieces of security hardware — motion detectors, surveillance cameras, etc. — were inoperable at the time. Subcontractors pointed fingers at one another, and both Babcock & Wilcox of B&W Y-12, the managing contractor, and WSI-Oak Ridge, Y-12’s protective force contractor, lost lucrative contracts.

Since 1988, Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance has organized non-violent direct action protests at the Y-12 Complex in an effort to close down the weapons plant, and has maintained  thirteen years of uninterrupted Sunday vigils on a grassy field outside the gate. There have been over 200 arrests over the years, and many have served prison and jail time as a result of peaceful protest when activists either crossed over the boundary fence or blocked the entrance road to the bomb plant.

In July, 2010, Fourteen protesters crossed a barbed-wire fence onto Y-12 property, a federal charge; while another 23 received state charges for blocking a roadway into the plant. In July, 2012, the Transform Now Plowshares, including Viet Nam combat veteran Michael Walli, 64, who served 8 months for his 2010 arrest at Y12, Greg Obed-Bjorte, 57, and Catholic nun, Sr. Megan Rice, 83, turned the security culture of Y-12 and Oak Ridge on its head with their nonviolent walk onto the Y-12 bomb plant, which caused a suspension of all weapons production at the bomb plant for more than two weeks.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has proposed an oversized, “capacity-based” Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) in Oak Ridge to  manufacture thermonuclear secondaries for 80 nuclear warheads a year. The new production facility at Y-12 is estimated to cost somewhere in the range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion, or more. The recently released 2014 DOE Budget, as reported on Frank Munger's Atomic City Underground blog,  proposes $7.87 billion for weapons activities, an increase of $654 million, or nine percent above the 2012 enacted level, “to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.” An expanded Uranium Processing Facility would enable the production of new design nuclear weapons into the indefinite future, according to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.
The Catalystic Players dramatize the problem of nuclear proliferation. Photo: Jim Brown
 Sr. Mary Dennis Lentsch, who has seven convictions at Y12 and served time prison and jail for acts of conscience against nuclear weapons says it well:
“Continuing nuclear weapons production at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is in direct violation of the treaty obligations of the United States (The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Article VI), and therefore is a violation of Article 6 of the Constitution of the United States of America and fails to conform to our obligations under international law according to the ruling of the International Court of Justice, July 8, 1996.”

The rally in Bissell Park was energized with music by the Knoxville band, Emancipators, and a creative puppet show dramatizing the human costs of nuclear weapons spending. The three Transform Now! Plowshares activists, in town for a court hearing prior to their May 7 trial, addressed the crowd.  Then we set off along the sidewalk for the two mile walk to the bomb plant.

“What we hope to do is tie peace cranes on the fence,  then move to the other side of the road,” Hutchinson told the gathering.  “If you want to cross the fence, expect considerable time in a federal prison.”  The Transform Now Activists are facing up to 35 years imprisonment for their nonviolent breach of plant security.
Police patrol cars cruised up and down the route to the bomb plant with some pacing the walkers by driving alongside.  One young peace walker recorded the vehicle numbers of nine separate Oak Ridge police cars.  We were under close scrutiny. 

As the walk began one legal observer, standing on a grassy median to observe,  was warned by police to get back to the sidewalk. He complied.  A few blocks later, on Tulane near Illinois, Legal Observer Bill Ramsey stepped off the curb to follow alongside the walkers.  A squad car pulled up, and two officers jumped out. 
Ramsey, of Asheville, NC, was whisked off into police custody. As a Southeast organizer with the American Friends Service Committee thirty-four years earlier, Ramsey had worked with local organizers to bring about expert testimony in public hearings about the environmental and economic impacts and health & worker safety of the bomb plant. Ramsey said he was concerned with the restrictive climate for First Amendment Rights in Oak Ridge, but felt joy at that so many were organizing to bring about a transformation from our reliance on nuclear weapons.

As the walk proceeded, turning onto Illinois Avenue,  passersby in cars and trucks yelled “Go home!” and “Remember Pearl Harbor.” No one responded to the taunts. 

Arresting the Peace Walking Monk. Photo: Ralph Hutchinson
Japanese Buddhist Monk, Gyoshu Utsumi and Sister Denise Laffin, of the Nipponzan Myohoji order, led the walk, chanting and drumming their traditional prayer for peace, as they have done for decades, walking to weapons plants, mountain top removal coal mining sites, military installations, and commemorations of civil rights struggles in the south. As the walkers stopped at a crosswalk at Tulsa Ave., awaiting the change of light, Bro. Utsumi and Knoxville resident Larry Coleman, stepped off the curb in anticipation of the changing light.  Five police rushed to arrest, and the Buddhist monk and the anti- nuclear activist were taken away.

One of the participants, Asheville Veterans for Peace member Jim Brown,  noticed soon after that his van, and other vehicles belonging to demonstrators, were not where they had parked them.  After several queries of police officers riding alongside the walkers, he discovered they had been towed. The fee for retrieval was $160 per vehicle. Maryville resident and OREPA organizer Rev. Erik Johnson's van was not only towed, but the bomb squad had been called in because of the small gas container in the van used to bring fuel for the generator for the rally musicians.

Occupying the Road to the Nuclear Nightmare. Photo: J. Kernodle
As we proceeded to the gate, somewhat bewildered at the hostile and aggressive police actions, it became clear that we would be prevented from approaching the fence with our origami peace cranes. Dozens of Oak Ridge Police were visible, standing at the Bear Creek Road entrance to the bomb plant. They directed walkers to a roadside grassy area across the rail tracks, to a space barely large enough for the walkers to stand, with water filled depressions and sloping ground. Each walker was filmed close up with a police camera and warned to stay five feet from the white line on the edge of the highway. In the distance, other security vehicles and personnel were visible at the guardhouse entrance further up Bear Creek road.

“There are a lot more out there than you can see,” OREPA organizer Hutchinson quipped.
After a period of silence, which lent a serious tone to our presence at the gates, with our First Amendment rights restricted, we realized that shuttle vehicles had either been towed or otherwise prevented from entering the area to retrieve walkers, many who were elders already tired out from the two mile walk. 

We headed back to the park, along the opposite side of the road, past ditches thick with green algae.  We were expecting a water break at a public parking area in front of Panera Bakery.  Even this level of hospitality was thwarted by police who warned walkers to keep moving and leave the parking lot. Evidently, as overheard on a police radio by arrested legal observer Bill Ramsey, police had succeeded in convincing management of the bakery to object to peace walkers on the lot.

FREE! Sr. Megan Rice greets Bill Ramsey & Ralph Hutchinson welcomes Bro. Utsumi
The three arrestees were transported from Oak Ridge to the Anderson County jail in Clinton, Tenn.  Jail support outside the county lock up was strong. Folks shared food, blankets, water and stories. It was not the first time OREPA had held vigil here.  Bail for Brother Utsumi and Bill Ramsey was set at $200, and Larry Coleman was freed on $100 bail. 

Sister Megan Rice, Greg Obed-Bjorte & Michael Walli have trial in Knoxville on May 7.

Contact Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance for more information.


  1. To see the violence of insane militarism or the insanity of violence makes me cringe in shame.-- such tons of money while people go hungry, education, health costs soar.


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