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Risking your personal freedom for a worthy cause is as American as apple pie. Millions have done it for the revolution of 1776 and others like Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, the Underground Railroad and Abolition movements (against slavery and child labor), the Women’s Suffrage and collective bargaining campaigns, on up to struggles for civil and voting rights, ending the war in Vietnam, banning the bomb and equal rights for immigrants ant the GLBTQ community.
But putting your very life at risk in defense of others is rare, so rare that it can result in the individual actor being dismissed as “different” than the rest of us. A few people have said to me that Duluthian Greg Boertje-Obed was “crazy” for sneaking into a presumably high security nuclear weapons factory — the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — in order to make a bold, unequivocal, physical and crystal clear statement against the expensive, poisonous, delusional meanness of building thermonuclear bombs.
Of course, Greg is anything but crazy, even if he and Sr. Megan Rice and his friend Michael Walli could well have been shot and killed for daring to snip through the flimsy chain-link fences that surround Y-12 and then walk up to its new storage center for bomb-grade uranium. That’s what the three disarmament activists did in the wee hours of July 28, after a year of conscientious preparations for what would possibly be the most dangerous protest of their lives.
At the wall, they spray-painted peace messages, strung “crime scene” tape around the premises, poured blood and hoisted banners. Not a single guard responded. (The contracted security company Wackenhut was so deeply embarrassed by the walk-in, and later humiliated by revelations of internal corruption, that its contract was cancelled, heads rolled, a completely new agency was hired, and over $15 million was spent trying to reestablish some semblance of a well-protected nuclear weapons complex.)
After being held in jail several weeks, all three are out preparing for trial — now set for May 7 — on three serious felony charges that together carry a maximum of 35 years on prison. Yes, 35 years for spray painting.
But as the Knoxville Tennessee News Sentinel reported Feb. 3, Greg knows the historical context of anti-militarism. Greg “said that great change never comes easy,” the paper noted. “‘People in other countries are frequently killed because of their struggle for justice,’ he said.”
And great change is what Greg and his Transform Now Plowshares comrades want. The three were back in federal court Feb. 7 for a pre-trial hearing before federal magistrate Richard Shirley. Defense attorneys for Rice and Walli, and Greg representing himself, argued against the federal prosecutor’s attempt to forbid them from testifying about, get this, “nuclear weapons” or about their intention to enact a little crime prevention at Y-12.
The government’s so-called “motion in limine” (don’t call it a gag order) would if granted prevent the jury from hearing a word about the outlaw status of the warheads produced at Y-12. As in previous disarmament cases, the defendants contend that under binding U.S. treaty law nuclear weapons are illegal since they can only produce uncontrollable, indiscriminate and therefore unlawful mass destruction using radioactive firestorms. Considering the monstrously sociopathic turpitude of preparing the use of such weapons, all Greg, Megan and Michael are guilty of is an attempted citizen’s arrest. Of course the government doesn’t want the jury hear what those treaties say about preparing massive crimes.
For his part, magistrate Shirley said he wouldn’t exactly limit the discussions of the defendants’ intentions. Greg said afterward, “I did feel that the judge is more open to hear our case.”
Somewhat awkwardly however, the magistrate is only employed during pre-trial proceedings. The trial itself will be presided over by a federal judge who will rule on the “motion in limine,” choose the jury instructions, and decide on questions of “contempt” in the event that forbidden words are uttered by lawyers, defendants or observers.
It is a testament to the power of the H-bomb culture, that even when facing the possibility of 35 years in prison for nothing more than embarrassing that culture, a single judge could prevent peaceful civilian protesters from explaining the reasons for taking such grave personal risks. They don’t call nuclear warheads “overkill” for nothing.
-- John LaForge works for Nukewatch, the nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly newsletter.