Oak Ridge, TN is the site for the Y-12 Nuclear Bomb Plant, renamed “Y-12 National Security Complex” after the attacks in NYC and Washington, DC on 9/11/2001 – a day that led to hysterical power grabs and a multitude of retrenchments on civil and human rights around our nation. It is an appropriate target for political and moral dissent due to its continued role in producing a new generation of nuclear weapons.
OREPA, the Oak Ridge Environmental and Peace Alliance, has held a weekly Sunday vigil by the entrance to the large facility for several years. Committed to active nonviolence, the group has occasionally encouraged activists to engage in conscientious civil disobedience in opposition to the continued role Y-12 has in threatening the rest of the world with nuclear death and destruction while squandering financial and scientific resources which are desperately needed to address needs in our own local communities.
A pernicious combination of hatred and fear of government, especially on the federal level but now creeping ever and ever closer to local governmental expressions as well has been growing ever since President Reagan opined in his grandfatherly way that “government IS the problem” [rather than the solution]. “Tea Party” members are merely a louder, more visible manifestation of this philosophy.
“Philosophy’ is maybe too strong a word since it implies a well thought out position rather than a knee-jerk reaction. But one constant theme of these reactionaries is to “cut taxes” – to “starve the beast”, to downsize the government so it is small enough to “drown it in a bathtub”. [However, most notably, at the same time increase the military budget (which has less and less to do with “defense” and more and more to do with projecting empire/domination over others) and local police forces and private “security” outfits like Xe (formerly Blackwater), Wackenhut, and other mercenary types.]
This downsizing, coupled with a persistent economic recession, had led to a crisis in many areas of both federal and local governments. Although the federal entities can run a deficit and borrow from our grandchildren to pay the debt later, state and local governments are forced to balance their budgets and often find novel means to accomplish it. It is particularly evident in the criminal justice system.
How does this manifest itself in Oak Ridge, TN? For one, Anderson County now charges inmates (often those with the least ability to pay) $50/day for their use of the jail while incarcerated. To add insult to injury, the jail is grossly over-crowded with about 1/3 of the inmates sleeping on the floor, some even without a mattress, at any given time. Maybe the motto “crime doesn’t pay” needs to be adjusted if it comes to mean that one needs to subsidize ones own captors. (I think the term for that used to be “being held for ransom” or kidnapping; now it is fiscal solvency). But apparently (as I discovered last week), the “per-diem fee” doesn’t accrue until after one is sentenced – pre-trial time is courtesy of the taxpayer.
But getting to sentencing and thus contributing to ones own “room and board” expense comes also with other charges. When activists are arrested for “obstruction of a highway” for blocking the entrance, nonviolently, of the Y-12 facility (which had already been blocked by the Wackenhut security so no vehicular traffic could enter while the demonstration was taking place so the protest is primarily symbolic), the normal sentence for a first offense has been a fine of up to $50, the legal limit set by the State of Tennessee. However, coupled with the fine are “court costs” now in the range of $240 – much more if one seeks ones constitutional right to a jury trial. So even if a principled civil disobedient agrees to expedite the case with a guilty or no contest plea, taking up very little of the court’s time, the disproportionate court costs are levied.
If the true penalty for obstruction of a highway should be a fine of up to $50 (along with up to 30 days in jail for truly criminal offenses), then there should be a mechanism where one could take responsibility, pay the fine, and avoid taking up the time in the court system. However, we were told no such option exists. We were given the ultimatum of staying in an illegally overcrowded jail for 8 days before seeing a judge and being told to pay a $50 fine (and court costs) as first-offenders of this law or returning to court after release from custody-upon-arrest and booking 8 days later only to be socked with court costs of $240 and the fine. So, no credit is given for one’s 8 days in the Anderson County Jail.
One of the purposes of civil disobedience has been to create an [artificial] crisis in the judicial system in order to draw attention to the injustice they wish to address. What happens when court costs become punitive is essentially a tax on one’s conscience. One remembers President Kennedy’s warning: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.” Fortunately for Anderson County officials, those arrested at the “Declaration of Independence From Nuclear Weapons at Y-12” event are committed to nonviolence. But the growing divide in the US between the haves and have-nots is increasing at an alarming rate and the more desperate a people becomes, the greater the variety of responses they may choose.
The Bomb (and its protection by the judicial system) does not make us more secure – it breeds fear (occasionally) but mostly contempt and consternation from the world community. The blatant hypocrisy evidenced in our crusade (yes, that is a deliberate choice of word) against Iran for trying to get what we already possess in spades is mostly ignored by Americans because of their acceptance of the doctrine of American exceptionalism.
The fact that any President is held hostage by militarists in both political parties makes “change we can believe in” very unlikely in this area. We are captivated by (and captive to) the Bomb. Back in the 1980s, some religious leaders used the term idolatry to describe the relationship between Americans and “national security”. Since 9-11, many of those voices have been stilled or grown weak – precisely at a time when they are most needed.
I suspect we will have to decide if filling the jails to create a crisis (or expose the conflict that has been below the surface for decades) is the way to go. We could be at an historic turning point – or once again, by our inaction, we may fail to act in a timely fashion.