Anti-nuclear protesters at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA, 16 April 2011. Photo: Brian Stansberry / Wikimedia Commons.
President Obama - pardon the 'Oak Ridge Three' anti-nuclear activists!
Kevin Alexander Gray
19th March 2014
After a peaceful protest against nuclear weapons showed up shoddy security at a $19 billion nuclear bomb factory site, writes Kevin Alexander Gray, Uncle Sam got mad - against the protestors, now jailed for up to five years. Will Peace Prize winner Obama set them free?
From 'misdemeanor trespassers' to 'multiple felony saboteurs' ... a 30-year possible sentence for a peaceful non-violent protest.
"The truth will heal us and heal our planet, heal our diseases, which result from the disharmony of our planet caused by the worst weapons in the history of mankind, which should not exist.
"For this we give our lives - for the truth about the terrible existence of these weapons."
So spoke Sister Megan Rice, an 84 year-old Catholic nun, imprisoned last month for almost three years for making a symbolic act of resistance against nuclear weapons.
We have our Mandelas - and like Mandela, we put them in jail
Right after Nelson Mandela died President Barack Obama said "they don't make folk like Mandela" anymore.
True there was only one Mandela, but there are plenty of people today cut from the same cloth. Gregory Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice, and Michael Walli are three of those "folk like Mandela".
Yet on February 16th, US District Judge Amul R. Thapar in Knoxville, Tenn. sentenced Rice to 35 months in prison and three years probation.
Rice is a sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She became a nun when she was 18 and served for 40 years as a missionary in western Africa teaching science.
Sentenced along with her was 58-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed, an Army veteran who lived at a Catholic Worker House in Minnesota, and Michael Walli, a 64 year-old two-tour Vietnam veteran who lived at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington DC. Both received five years in prison and three years probation as well.
The three chose the Y-12 plant for their action because of plans for a $19 billion Uranium Processing Facility to produce thermonuclear cores for B-61 gravity H-bombs and ballistic missile warheads.
They and others believe the production of nuclear weapons components at Y-12 is n "unlawful", a "criminal enterprise" in violations of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that "obliges the US to pursue good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons."
The activists did "a symbolic act to bring attention to America's stockpile of nuclear weapons, which they view as both immoral and illegal ... "
They could have gotten up to thirty years. A sentence of time served would have been fair.
A terrorist threat?
Nobody can honestly argue that the three non-violent, Christian peace and anti-nuclear activists represent a danger or a terrorist threat to the nation.
William Quigley, Loyola law professor and co-counsel for Walli, argued that prosecutors had not produced evidence that showed "the 'intent' of the three defendants was to injure, interfere or obstruct the national defense."
Thapar also ordered the activists to collectively pay a grossly excessive and punitive $52,900 as restitution for materials and overtime costs to fix the openings in four wire fences and paint over the slogans painted on walls.
In the early morning hours on July 28, 2012, Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli snuck into what's suppose to be the 'Fort Knox' of nuclear weapons facilities.
Armed with blood and bibles
They carried bibles, written statements, peace banners, spray paint, flower, candles, small baby bottles of blood, bread, wire cutters and hammers with Isaiah 2:4 written on them:
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
They cut through a boundary fence which had signs stating "No Trespassing." The signs indicated that unauthorized entry, a misdemeanor, is punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
No security officers - under contract through a joint venture of the Babcock and Wilcox Company and Bechtel National Inc. - arrived to confront or stop them.
The three then climbed up a hill through heavy brush, crossed a road, and walked until they saw the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) - the country's warehouse of weapons-grade uranium, surrounded by three fences and lit up by floodlights.
Still no black SUVs
So they cut through three more fences, crossed a "lethal-force-authorized" zone, hung up their peace banners, and spray-painted peace slogans on the HEUMF's building.
They prayed and sang songs like 'Down by the Riverside' and 'Peace is Flowing Like a River'. They poured blood on the walls and spray painted "Woe to an Empire of Blood" and "The Fruit of Justice is Peace".
They also chipped a corner of the concrete wall with a small hammer, a symbolic act reflecting Isaiah 2:4:
When security finally came the three activists surrendered peacefully and were arrested. They carried a letter which stated:
"We come to the Y-12 facility because our very humanity rejects the designs of nuclearism, empire and war. Our faith in love and nonviolence encourages us to believe that our activity here is necessary; that we come to invite transformation, undo the past and present work of Y-12; disarm and end any further efforts to increase the Y-12 capacity for an economy and social structure based on war-making and empire-building."
Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli were jailed, arraigned and charged with federal misdemeanor trespassing and were facing a year in jail.
A danger to the community?
But every step along the way the government played this case with a heavy hand. At their first pre-trial hearing on August 2, 2013, the government wanted the three be held behind bars until trial calling them a "danger to the community". The US Magistrate allowed them to be released.
Then the government upped the ante. Immediately upon their release the Department of Energy filed a federal criminal complaint against the three for damage to federal property, a felony punishable by 0 to 5 years in prison.
A week later the government expanded the charges against the peace activists to three counts.
- The first was the original charge of damage to Y-12 - punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
- The second was an additional damage to federal property in excess of $1,000 - punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
- The third was a trespassing charge, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in prison.
Now they faced up to 16 years in prison. The activists were then told that if they didn't pled guilty to at least one felony and the misdemeanor trespass charge, the federal government would charge them with sabotage.
A potential 30 year sentence
The three didn't plea bargain. So on December 4, 2012, the government charged Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli with "intending to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States and willful damage of national security premises", punishable with up to 20 years in prison.
Counts two and three were the previous felony property damage charges, with potential prison terms of up to 15 more years in prison.
In five months the non-violent activists went from "misdemeanor trespassers" to "multiple felony saboteurs". That's how the government arrived at a 30-year possible sentence for a peaceful non-violent protest.
Forbidden to present their defense - it might 'confuse the jury'
Prior to their May trial Justice Department attorneys filed a "Motion to Preclude Defendants from Introducing Evidence in Support of Certain Justification Defenses" which Thapar upheld.
The order barred defendants from presenting any evidence about the "illegality of nuclear weapons, the immorality of nuclear weapons, international law, or religious, moral or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons, the Nuremberg principles, First Amendment protections or the defense of necessity - that unlawful government actions may be interfered with by citizens acting in the spirit of crime prevention or US policy regarding nuclear weapons."
Thapar ruled that whether nuclear weapons production is unlawful was not relevant to the case and would confuse the jury although when juries are allowed to consider such evidence they often find protesters not guilty.
Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli all took the stand in their May trial, admitted what they had done, and explained why they did it.
The only danger was the lax security
Officials at the plant said "there was never any danger of the protesters reaching materials that could be detonated or made into a dirty bomb ... " - which the three had no capability or intentions of doing so anyhow.
Although the New York Times citing nuclear experts, called their actions "the biggest security breach in the history of the nation's atomic complex."
Steve Erhart, federal manager at the plant claimed the security breach "damaged Y-12's credibility - in the US and abroad - as a safe haven for special nuclear materials" as well as their stunt having "an impact on nuclear deterrence."
After their convictions the government immediately jailed them saying cutting the fences and spray-painting slogans was property damage and thus "crimes of violence" defined by Congress as federal crimes of terrorism.
The government also claimed that two of the activists had violated their bail by going to a congressional hearing about the Y-12 security problems although it had been approved by their parole officers.
Is it a crime to embarrass the Government now?
Simply put, the government gave the activists 9 months in jail (pending sentencing), and now 3 more years for Rice and 5 more for Boertje-Obed and Walli, for embarrassing the government.
Assistant US District Attorney Jeffery Theodore wanted longer sentences claiming that the activists "harmed the national defense" because the "break-in destroyed the "mystique" of tight security around nuclear weapons factories.
No. The contractor's shoddy security destroyed whatever "mystique" might have existed.
At her sentencing Sister Rice told the judge: "Please have no leniency with me ... To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me."
Nuremberg Principles - or 'total disrespect for the law'?
Still, their attorneys asked that their sentences be time already served "because of their record of good works throughout their lives." Thapar rejected their pleas accusing the three of showing "complete disrespect for law."
In response to the judge's condemnation Walli, said: "I'm offended by the notion that Auschwitz had a legal right to exist. The gas ovens, the crematoria, fences and buildings there all had a purpose that was not legal or just. The name of the law used by the US to protect the criminal state terrorism going on at Y-12 is preposterous. ...
"The law codified in the Nuremberg Principles forbids complicity in ongoing crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes" - such as the planning a preparation of mass destruction.
Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli are people of peace. Neither piling on charges nor the resulting sentence fit the deed. It seem that overcharging in hopes of a plea bargain has now replaced justice for a lot of prosecutors these days.
Will Obama feel shamed by his Nobel Peace Prize?
It's not surprising that the government thinks that by being heavy-handed it will discourage others from protesting it, but that remains to be seen.
President Obama and Attorney General Holder ought to stop overly punishing these folks.
The government needs be more concerned with military personnel cheating on exams so they can work with nuclear materials and reactors, or in nuclear missile silos - and go easier on three Christians singing hymns, praying for peace, and wishing the soldier didn't have a reason to cheat.
Write: Transform Now Ploughshares provides information on writing to the prisoners and to the judge in the case.
Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch / AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvon, to be published this spring by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published on CounterPunch.
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