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"Woe Unto the Empire of Blood" -- Transform Now Plowshares Convicted and Jailed

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(Article changed on May 13, 2013 at 18:10)

Defendants and Supporters prepare to enter courtroom by Clare Hanrahan

"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. "A Normalization of Deviation from the Optimum," is how Steve Erhart, manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Production Office, characterized the security at the Y-12 bomb plant at the time of the Transform Now Plowshares action.

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 prosecutors, 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.

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On May 10, according to Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Frank Munger, writing on his Atomic City Underground blog, the judge ruled that "defendants will be held until sentencing,"  scheduled for 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 Fuel Services processes highly enriched uranium fuel for the Trident first strike submarines.

Linda Cataldo Modica, an environmental activist from Jonesborough, Tenn., who organizes with the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network and educates about the extensive 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 the New South Network of War Resisters and Appalachian Peace Education  Center on the Atomic Appalachia Project to support and network residents threatened by the nuclear military and industrial facilities in the Southern Appalachian area.

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OREPA member Bill Myers showed we new arrivals where we could bed down for the night on the First Presbyterian church floor. OREPA organizer Rev. Eric Johnson of Maryville said he had approached the church pastor. "We have a need," Johnson told him. "We kept engaging them," he said, and they agreed to help. As we spoke, folk musician Charlie King was singing,   Somos el barco, somos el mar.  Rev. Johnson similed,  "I sail in you, you sail in me." The cooperation of many in the Knoxville area and the "renewal of friendship with the First Presbyterian Church," provided critical support throughout the trial.Others on hand were Bro. Utsumi and Sr. Denise, from The Great Smokey Mountains Peace Pagoda, who have been a presence at the gates of Y-12 for decades.  They prepared some of the welcome meals offered to activists gathered at the church.

Buddhists lead procession to courtroom by Clare Hanrahan

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 at the Sunday vigil 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."

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Clare Hanrahan is an Asheville, N.C. author, activist, organizer and speaker who has been participating in and reporting on direct action events throughout the Southeast U.S.A. for decades. She is an associate member of Veterans for Peace 099, a (more...)

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