Saturday, May 11, 2013

“Woe Unto the Empire of Blood” – Transform Now Plowshares Convicted and Jailed

Mike Walli, Sr. Megan Rice & Gregg Boetje-Obed, & wife Michelle

“We’re here fighting every day,” 
Shelly Wascom, a longtime organizer with the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) said as people from fifteen states, and as far away as Arizona and Vermont, gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville in support of the Transform Now! Plowshares. Sister Megan Rice, 83, Michael Walli 64, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, faced felony charges of injuring the national defense and damaging government property for their protest inside the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 28, 2012, unarmed, undetected and undeterred, the three elders walked on to the Y-12 bomb plant in a symbolic act of nonviolent resistance to the continued production of nuclear weapons. In the tradition of the Christian Plowshares movement, they carried hammers, blood, Bibles, and bread as they inched their way down a wooded slope inside the perimeter fence of the bomb plant. Carrying white roses and wielding yellow and red-handled bolt cutters, they cut through three more fences, defeating the so-called  “perimeter intrusion detection and assessment system.”   

In a zone posted with the warning that “deadly force is authorized,” they lit candles, unfurled banners, scattered leaflets, poured the frozen blood of a deceased Plowshares activist, painted “Biblical graffiti,” and hammered on a corner of the concrete guard tower. 

In courtroom testimony, Sr. Megan Rice said she felt led by the Holy Spirit, and was “more and more surprised” to find herself reaching the highly enriched uranium materials facility, HEUMF., where they spray-painted on the bunker’s northwest corner, “Woe Unto the Empire of Blood.”  The HEUMF stores as much as 400 tons of the radioactive material, shipped from throughout the U.S. and the world, to a facility referred to several times in the courtroom as “the Fort Knox of uranium.”  No one was there to greet them, despite a security apparatus costing as much as $150 million dollars a year.

In Knoxville on May 8, after two days of argument and testimony and with just 2 1/2 hours of deliberation,  the federal jury of nine men and three women found the three seniors guilty of both charges: damaging government property over $1,000, and injuring the national defense, a sabotage charge levied by the prosecution after the defendants refused a plea agreement on a trespass charge and asserted their right to a trial.  The real damage, as testimony would later reveal,  was to the credibility of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Y-12 and the U.S. government.

After the guilty verdict, and at the request of the prosecution, the three defendants were immediately taken to the Knox County Sheriff's Detention Facility for the night.

According to reports from supporters who found a seat in the small courtroom on May 8, a frustrated District Judge Amur Thapar asked the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby and  Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore, "Don't you find it a little troubling that Congress would write a law that wouldn't let me distinguish between peace activists and terrorists?"  According to the law, the conviction of “injuring the national defense,” is a sabotage charge and considered violent, thus mandating incarceration prior to sentencing.  

The defendants were returned to the courtroom in shackles and tan prison garb May 9 and again on May 10 as defense attorneys Bill Quigley, of New Orleans, and Knoxville based Chris Irwin, and Francis Lloyd, Jr. discussed case law with the judge and prosecutor, arguing that the prosecution had not produced evidence of sabotage nor had they proved the "intent" of the three defendants was to injure, interfere or obstruct the national defense.

On May 10, according to Frank Munger, writing on his Atomic CityUnderground blog , the judge ruled that “defendants will be held until sentencing,” on September 23, 2013.  They each face a maximum of 30 years.

"It is very humbling to be in touch with folks like this who put so much on the line for what they believe,” said Knoxville resident and longtime OREPA supporter Todd Shelton. He credited his conservative parents’ teaching of “fairness and justice” for his support of the Transform Now Plowshares trio. 

Atomic Appalachia
Among the close to 200 supporters present throughout the trial, fifteen people traveled over the mountains of Atomic Appalachia from Asheville, N.C., following a National War Tax Resistance conference. Asheville is at the nuclear crossroads for radioactive materials transport. Another carload came from the Jonesborough and Erwin, Tennessee, where AeroJet Ordnance produces “depleted” uranium bullets and Nuclear FuelServices processes highly enriched uranium fuel for the Trident first strike submarines.

Linda Cataldo Modica, an environmental activist from Jonesborough, Tenn., who organizes and educates with Erwin Citizens' Awareness Network about the uranium contamination in the area, said she “came to support sister and her colleagues in our effort to halt nuclear weapons production.”  Linda works with others in the region, including New South Network of War Resisters, on the Atomic Appalachia Project to support and network residents threatened by the nuclear military and industrial facilities in the Southern Appalachian area.

OREPA member Bill Myers showed we new arrivals where we could bed down for the night on the First Presbyterian church floor. OREPA member Rev. Erik Johnson of Maryville said he had approached the church pastor. “We have a need,” Johnson told him. “We kept engaging them,” and they agreed to help. As we spoke, folk musician Charlie King was singing,  Somos el barco, somos el mar.  “I sail in  you, you sail in me,” Rev. Johnson said, smiling. The cooperation of many in the Knoxville area and the “renewal of friendship with the First Presbyterian Church,” provided vital support throughout the trial, and Bro. Utsumi and Sr. Denise of the The Great Smokey Mountain Peace Pagoda, helped provide nourishing meals.
Sr. Denise & Bro. Utsumi lead the procession to the courtroom

Since 1988, Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance has been building relationships educating and organizing non-violent direct action protests at the Y-12 Complex in an effort to close down the nuclear weapons plant. The group has maintained thirteen years of uninterrupted Sunday vigils on a grassy field outside the gate. The previous Sunday the group stood in pouring rain confined to a swampy roadside across from the Y-12 gate, according to OREPA supporter Lee Session. Knoxville resident Larry Coleman who had been arrested April 6 as he stepped off the curb during a peace walk to the Y-12,  was arrested again by police who arrived with his photograph in hand.  “He thought that previous charges had been dismissed,” Session said.  “The police have never been this ugly to us before.”

“I think the fact that there have been people out at Y-12 every week for years is powerful, and drew the action here to the most significant nuclear weapons site in the nation.” Felice Cohen-Joppa, of Tucson, an editor of The Nuclear Resister, a publication chronicling decades of nonviolent nuclear protest.

With over 200 arrests at Oak Ridge over the years, 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. The July, 2012 action was the first time that Sister Megan, a member of the Holy Child Jesus Order of teachers, had been to Oak Ridge, and the first Plowshares action inside the nuclear weapons complex. "My regret was I waited 70 years," Sr. Megan later testified.

“It is invigorating to see people from so far away,” Shelly Wascom said. “People who have never been here before now know what is happening.” Shelly was  tasked with coordinating hospitality and transportation for the scores of out of town supporters.  Lisa McLeod, a puppetista and longtime OREPA organizer, speaking in front of the courthouse added, “It’s another step toward the transformation that has to happen.  It’s been a huge gift and chance for people to have conversations in this community that  have not happened before.”

 “We wanted to bring the truth,” Sr. Megan Rice said.  "Let's stop pouring our billions into false, impossible security....Nuclear weapons are war crimes."

Jeff Theodore, assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors in closing arguments "When you interfere with Y-12, you are interfering with the national defense." 
OREPA's Shelly Wascom, SaraMargaret  & Ralph Hutchinson

Steve Erhart, manager of the National Nuclear Security complex at Y-12 testified that Y-12 historically has received and stored nuclear materials recovered from vulnerable sites around the globe. "It will be hard to explain how protesters penetrated the plant's detection-and-assessment system to countries looking to give up their nuclear materials because of their own security concerns," he testified.

 “They were the thermometer,” Defense Attorney Bill Quiqley said. “They didn’t cause the fever; they exposed it. Don’t blame the thermometer.”

Quigley said there was abundant evidence, including testimony by Erhart, that security at Y-12 is significantly better now than it was before the July 28, 2012 security breach.

"The shortcomings in security at one of the most dangerous places on the planet have embarrassed a lot of people," said Knoxville Attorney Francis Lloyd, Jr. who represented Sister Megan Rice.  "You're looking at three scapegoats behind me."

Photos & Story by Clare Hanrahan