Open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder


Attorney General Eric Holder
US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

RE: US Attorney in Eastern Tennessee District

Dear Mr. Holder,

Let me begin by saying “thank you” for challenging the recent Arizona law seeking to intimidate immigrants. This is the kind of leadership I hoped for with President Obama’s election and your subsequent appointment.

However, the subject of this letter is less optimistic. I write to you as a nonviolent activist with a long history of nonviolent protest against war and weapons, the death penalty and present prison policy, and other justice issues. As a result, I have found myself as a defendant or supporter in a number of courtrooms since my first arrest at the White House during the last major demonstration against the Vietnam War in March of 1975, mentored that day by Daniel Berrigan, Jim Peck, Dick Gregory, Liz Macalister, Ladon Sheats and others.

While I always enter the courtroom with the hope that somehow truth and justice might prevail, I have seldom left feeling optimistic. A few times when juries have been allowed to consider International Law and Treaties, I have been acquitted. Most of the time, however, I see the courtroom as a place to continue my witness for nonviolence, truth, and justice despite the outcome. I consider it an honor to have been a prisoner for reasons of conscience several times over the past 35 years.

So my recent experience in Knoxville on July 6, 2010 shouldn’t have shocked me – but it did. Please allow me to set the stage for you. Along with 200 + others, I attended a Conference for a Nuclear Free Future at Maryville College over the 4th of July weekend which concluded with a nonviolent protest at the entrance to the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant (now called the Y-12 National Security Complex since the 9-11 attacks in an attempt to further obscure the dirty secret of our continued production/modernization of nuclear weapons in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). On Monday morning, July 5th, under the banner reading “Independence from Nuclear Terrorism,” 23 of us chose to peaceably block the state road entrance to the facility with the banner (the road had already been blocked by Oak Ridge Plant security) and were arrested and charged with “obstruction of roadway.” That, being a state/local matter, is not the focus of this letter.

13 others, with two in their 40s and most in their late 60s, 70s, and 80s, chose to risk Federal Trespass charges by ducking under a barbed wire fence and then sitting in a circle singing, praying, and sharing poetry prior to their arrest. Most anticipated spending the night in jail, although, with at least three of the arrestees in their 80s, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they would have been cited and released with a court date. All were jailed overnight.

The following afternoon, many of us crowded into the Howard Baker Federal Courthouse in Knoxville to witness the first appearance of our friends under these federal charges. They all knew of the possibility that they could get up to 1 year in prison for their act of conscience but it was still shocking to me to see 83-year-old Jean Gump, 82-year-old Brad Lyttle, and 73-year-old nun, Sister Mary Dennis Lentsch, enter the courtroom with leg irons and hand cuffs attached to waist chains. This for a nonviolent protest offense! (I’ve written at greater length about this in my blog ( ).

After overcoming the shock and disappointment that these defendants weren’t even released from these ridiculous shackles during this entire court appearance (for which I hold both your US Attorney, the US Marshalls, and the Federal Judge accountable) I was further taken aback when the Judge asked your Assistant US Attorney to read the charges and legal consequences for the offense. (I’m sorry I did not hear her name. She is a blond-haired woman in her 30s.) I almost fell out of my bench in the back of the courtroom when she replied that the defendants not only faced “up to one year in prison with supervisory release of not more than a year and a $100. assessment” but they were also subject to “a fine of up to $100,000.”

That’s correct. I didn’t accidently add a couple of zeroes. One hundred thousand dollars! For a nonviolent offence! For people of conscience intent on peaceably demanding that our nation live up to International Laws and Treaties (and the ruling of the International Court) which clearly identify nuclear weapons as illegal. For such an absurd (and obscene) penalty – even if only threatened and never meant to be carried out – I hold both you and the President to account. Those Assistant US Attorneys are acting under your jurisdiction and supervision.

Neither you nor President Obama can pretend to take the high road by lofty speeches calling for the abolishment of nuclear weapons like he did early in his term in Prague or more recently with the signing of the New START Treaty while at the same time threatening and intimidating men and women of conscience who should be your allies in this struggle for a world with fewer threats of annihilation.

Setting aside the “criminal trespass” offense itself, do you really wish to convey a message with such outrageous threats of hundred-thousand-dollar-fines for nonviolent protest? Have you learned nothing from the legacy of Rosa Parks and Martin King, from Susan B. Anthony and Cesar Chavez, from Dorothy Day and AJ Muste? (The list, as you well know, could go on and on. … ) President Kennedy presciently said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

Frankly, I expected such reckless and calloused threats and charges from some of your predecessors like Ashcroft and Gonzales, John Mitchell and Dick Kleindienst. But from Eric Holder and Barack Obama? Surely we can hope for real change – but so far, it hasn’t been too much in evidence.

Please, Mr. Attorney General, use your position and office to help our nation realize and appreciate the valued contribution that civil disobedience has played in our history and instruct your US Attorneys to adjust “punishment” to “fit the crime.”

(Still) Hopefully and Respectfully yours,

Steve Clemens
2912 E. 24th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55406-1322