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Oak Ridge, Tenn. April 6, 2013
Oak Ridge, Tenn. Police Chief James T. Akagi made it clear that 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.
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
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. 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.
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 bomb plant which caused a suspension of all weapons production at the plant for more than two weeks.