Their intent to break into the facility was to follow the words of Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”
On June 28, 2012, three longtime peace activists — Sister Megan Rice, 82, Greg Boertje-Obed, 57 and Michael Walli, 63 — cut through a chain-link fence surrounding a nuclear weapons production facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which had signs saying “No Trespassing.” Their goal was to symbolically disarm the nuclear weapons industry, using non-violent tactics.
Knowing full well that unauthorized entry onto the plant grounds was a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, they continued. The three climbed up a hill covered in brush and crossed a road before they reached their final destination: the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), which was surrounded by three fences and illuminated by many lights.
Carrying bibles, written statements, peace banners, spray paint, flower, candles, small baby bottles of blood, bread, hammers with biblical verses written on them and wire cutters, the trio of pacifists cut through the fence surrounding the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear weapons facility and trespassed on the property, which housed hundreds of metric tons of highly enriched uranium and works on every single nuclear weapon maintained by the United States.
Rice has been a Catholic sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus for more than 60 years, and has been arrested at least 40 times for committing acts of civil disobedience. Boertje-Obed is an Army veteran and carpenter living at a Catholic Worker house in Duluth, Minn. Walli is a two-term Vietnam veteran who became a peace activist, and lives at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C.
The trio described themselves as members of the Transform Now Plowshares group, and said their intent to break into the facility was to follow the words of Isaiah 2:4: “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.”
Peace banners were put up, peace slogans were painted on the HEUMF, and the three began praying and singing songs such as “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace is Flowing Like a River,” before the plant’s security team showed up around 4:30 a.m. — hours after the three trespassed onto the property.
All three activists surrendered peacefully, were arrested and charged with federal trespassing and taken to jail.
Danger to U.S. security?
The fact that the protesters were able to not only trespass on the grounds, but to do so for hours without security knowing, sparked concern for the nuclear plant’s operators. “If unarmed protesters dressed in dark clothing could reach the plant’s core during the cover of dark, it raised questions about the plant’s security against more menacing intruders.”
All nuclear operations at Y-12 were ordered to be put on hold in order for the plant to focus on security.
Though the government asked all three be detained and not released on bail since they were a potential “danger to the community,” the U.S. Magistrate allowed all three to be released.
“The shortcomings in security at one of the most dangerous places on the planet have embarrassed a lot of people,” said the activists’ attorney, Francis Lloyd. “You’re looking at three scapegoats behind me.”
After walking out of jail in August 2012, Rice spoke to a group of reporters that had gathered, and explained why she trespassed on the plant’s property. “We were doing it because we had to reveal the truth of the criminality which is there, that’s our obligation,” Rice said, before challenging the entire nuclear weapons industry: “We have the power, and the love, and the strength and the courage to end it and transform the whole project, for which has been expended more than 7.2 trillion dollars,” she said.
“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.”
After Rice’s address to the media, the government increased the charges against the anti-nuclear peace protesters. An agent from the Department of Energy (DOE) filed a federal complaint against the three for damage to federal property, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
A letter submitted by the DOE agent 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.”
All three were charged with one misdemeanor and one felony. That still wasn’t enough in the government’s eyes, who added another charge: damage to federal property in excess of $1,000. Possible jail time for all three now was around 16 years — but authorities didn’t even stop there.
On Oct. 4, 2012, the defendants said they had been advised that unless they pleaded guilty to at least one felony and the misdemeanor charge, the U.S. government would also charge them with sabotage against the government.
About 3,000 people signed a petition to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking that the protesters not be charged with sabotage, but on Dec. 4, 2012, the new indictment was filed against all three:
“Defendants were charged with intending to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States and willful damage of national security premises in violation of 18 US Code 2155, 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 fifteen more years in prison.”
Verdict is in: guilty
On May 8 all three were found guilty on all counts by a jury. Though the activists took the stand to explain why they did what they did, the federal manager of the nuclear plant said the protesters damaged the credibility of the site in the U.S. and claimed their acts had an impact on nuclear deterrence.
Since they cut fences and spray-painted slogans, the government argued the property damage constituted crimes of violence and the law requires they be incarcerated until they are sentenced. Though defense attorney Bill Quigley pointed out that none of the three activists were involved in any incidents while out on bail, attorneys for the government argued the protesters violated their bail by going to a congressional hearing about the security problems at the nuclear facility — even though their presence was approved by their parole officers.
Prosecutor Jeff Theodore also added that the activists testified during the trial that they felt no remorse for their actions.
Because the charges could potentially land the activists in prison for 10 years or more, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar said that releasing them would be too lenient. “The defendants’ offenses fall within the category of more serious offenses that triggers the stronger presumption in favor of detention,” he wrote.
Now these nonviolent peace activists now sit in jail as federal prisoners, awaiting their sentencing on Sept. 23, 2013 in Knoxville, Tenn.