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Sunday Vigil: The First Amendment and the Fence



We are gathered here tonight for the 698th Sunday vigil; every week since the last Sunday of November 1999, people have been present here to witness to peace.


These Sunday vigils are not the only gatherings that have taken place in this space.


Some of the public gatherings sponsored by OREPA have had, as their purpose, protest against the production of nuclear weapons components at the Y12 site.


Other gatherings in this public space have been purely educational in nature”several times a year students groups or members of the media meet with members of the public in this area for presentations about the activities at Y12 and the environmental consequences of those activities”this site is particularly appropriate for this activity because it 1) represents the location where contamination is released off-site into the community through the waters of East Fork Poplar Creek; and 2) it provides some documentation through signage of the environmental hazard present in the creek.


Other parties have also used this area for peace vigils: The Buddhist monks of Nipponzan Myohoji hold annual public fasts in this public space, usually stretching from 3-5 days; they are present during daylight hours, drumming and chanting according to their religious discipline.


This public forum area has been the site of Sunday vigils sponsored by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance every sunday for more than 13 years. These vigils structured as public witnesses to peace rather than public protests against nuclear weapons. Members have gathered in this space for more than 690 consecutive Sunday evenings with no serious security incident. In the early days, they sent a team of security guards out to sweep the area with metal detectors and conduct a search of the area when we left. The only time they found anything was when my daughters left two library books under the bushes where they had taken shelter from the summer sun; we were grateful when they brought them back to us. The books were not a security threat.


Eventually, and for many years, the NNSA didn’t even bother to send security out to watch us in person.


Events sponsored by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), attended by thousands of people over the past 25 years, have an unblemished record”never once has an event been marred by an act of violence perpetrated by a member of OREPA. When large gatherings are expected, OREPA conducts nonviolence trainings, designates and trains “peacekeepers,” and coordinates crowd management with local police. (Counter-protesters have, on fewer than a handful of occasions, confronted protesters in a violent manner and, on at least two occasions, exercised themselves in acts of physical violence, one of which resulted in an arrest of the counter-protester.)


At some events”less than two dozen over 25 years”demonstrations have included acts of nonviolence civil disobedience”either a ceremonial crossing of the 229 boundary or a symbolic blocking of traffic on the road leading into the Y12 Complex (often after authorities had already closed the road to traffic and erected barriers in anticipation of demonstrations). At a typical demonstration, OREPA coordinates crowd management with local authorities to guarantee public safety.


Security at the Y12 Perimeter


At no time in the twenty-five years of gatherings has any member of any demonstration, vigil, or public education event presented a threat of any kind to the security of the Y12 National Security Complex even when the only barrier interposed between the public and the facility was a three-strand barbed wire fence or a line painted across an open road.


In December 2012, NNSA spokesperson Steven Wyatt declared publicly that NNSA does not consider the outer perimeter fence surrounding Y12 to be a location of significant security concern and dismissed speculation that breaches of the perimeter fence, even in the heavily wooded areas surrounding Y12, would present any threat to the security of Y12:


“Wyatt emphasized that the perimeter fence, which defines the plant’s boundaries, is not a high security area. “˜There’s no barbed wire, it’s just a demarcation of the property line,’ he said.”

(4 1/2 months after unprecedented break-in, there’s still a hole in Y-12’s fence, Frank Munger: Knoxville News-Sentinel, December 19, 2012.)


This is the history, plain, simple and indisputable, of public assembly in the public forum space at the front gates of the Y12 National Security Complex.


Wiping Out The Public Forum in the Guise of Security


On March 28, NNSA announced the intent to erect a fence which will prevent access to the long-standing public forum space outside the plant boundary. The new barrier will be located approximately sixty yards from the actual perimeter fence. A temporary fence will be erected by April 4, 2013, with a permanent fence to follow.


The decision by NNSA to erect a physical barrier to prevent access to the public space outside the Y12 National Security Complex clearly infringes on the right of the public to free assembly and free speech in a public forum.


The timing of the fence”the hurry to construct a temporary fence by April 4 when the next OREPA event is scheduled for April 6, announcing it only on March 27″indicates the express intent to preclude a gathering, already widely advertised in print and on the internet, by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. There is no other credible explanation, and there is clearly no actual urgency apart from the desire to prohibit this legal, peaceful gathering. If the fence were truly needed for security, it should be erected immediately, with crews working around the clock.


The NNSA’s claim that it needs a fence at the roadside fails

the test of history; it is based on imaginative speculation unmoored from historic reality. It attends to the need to project an illusion of security more than it achieves any true security purpose”a sturdy barrier at the existing fenceline is sufficient to meet any security requirement and has the added virtue of preserving the public forum area.


The proposed new fence will not provide any barrier to vehicular traffic. If they were serious about security, they would do something to make sure a person with a truckload of fertilizer and some diesel fulel could not drive unimpeded for a quarter mile on to plant property.


The NNSA says the reason for the fence is “Events of the past several months have shown that there is a greater threat of trespassing on the site, and the costs for responding to this threat are increasing.” This is a lie and a dengerous one for two reasons. One is the security risk is not increasing at all”it has always existed at just this level”and it is huge. The change is NNSA has noticed it, they’ve been embarrassed, and they are scrambling to make it look like they are securing the site. This is dangerous because they aren’t doing the right things to make this site secure.


The second reason the lie is dangrous is that it is being used speciously to wipe out our first amendment rights, and this is not a small thing.


In a statement to the media on March 28, 2013, NNSA spokesperson Steve Wyatt said:


“Although the fence isn’t designed to prevent people from crossing it, it does notify individuals that they are not permitted to go further into the site. This particular fence is in a highly visible area, and will allow Y-12 security to take action sooner if the fence is crossed.”


The last sentence of this statement reveals both the confusion of NNSA and the true reason for its brazen attempt to wipe away the public’s long-standing assembly area. The public forum area is obviously highly visible; this makes security easier and makes entrance more easily preventable. Moving the barrier sixty yards, as the current proposal would do, will offer no appreciable enhancement to security nor will it appreciably effect the response capability of security personnel. Response time? How long would it take an intruder to cover these sixty yards on a dead run? Ten to twelve seconds? How quick do guards expect to get here?


In the event of a peace rally here”which this fence is to prevent”any intrusion from this site would not only be inhibited by the 8′ fence they should put up as a replacement for the barbed-wire fence, since guards will be present by the dozens, they should have time to get here before the intruders get across this ravine and East Fork Poplar Creek and obviously, ten to twelve seconds means nothing.


But of course, an intruder is not going to come through the fence”not if it’s here and not if it’s at the roadside. An intruder is going to drive into the plant. Not while dozens of security are out here for a peace demonstration. Not in broad daylight.


I don’t intend this to be sarcastic, because making this place secure is serious”if they think an imaginary assault from a peace vigil is their first $245,000 security threat, we all have a profound reason to be concerned about security at this plant. The people making the plans are dangerously bereft of rational thought!


That’s only true if this fence is for security. But it is not.The NNSA’s true motive for this action is not about security at all; it is to remove the public from a “highly visible area,” where they have freely and peacefully assembled for more than 25 years, and relocate them to a less visible place, fencing them inside a government controlled property”inside the security fence!“requiring the public to bear onerous expenses for the use of that property, and reserving the right to deny the use of the property at any time, without or without advance notice to the public.


Today, OREPA calls upon the NNSA to:


1. Abandon the ludicrous plan for a $95,000 construction of the “temporary” fence; you can achieve the same increase in security by simply taking $95K and burning it in a bonfire right here.


2. Recognize and respect the fact that this space is a “public forum” used by thousands of people over 25 years at hundreds of peaceful gatherings during which time Y12’s security has never been threatened;


3. Incorporate the public’s right to free assembly in the established public forum area in any effort to achieve its legitimate security purpose absent a clear, compelling and rational justification for depriving the public of its First Amendment rights.


We believe the government can achieve all the security it hopes to achieve with this fence quite simply with the construction of the proposed security barrier along the already established (and fenced) 229 line; moving the fenceline to the roadway provides no significant increase in security.


Our rights are precious, and the Constitution asserts they are inalienable”we don’t have the right to free speech or peaceable assembly because the government gives it to us”we have it because we are human beings and citizens of a free nation. There is no compelling reason to restrict or limit our right to be here, in this place, and to speak truth to power. The government has no compelling interest that allows it to overrun our right to peaceable assembly.


If the government were truly concerned about security at this point they would take steps immediately to fortify the present fence”in fact, they would have done it years ago”to prevent entry onto the Y12 property. What’s more, they would take clear the brush that breaks their sight-lines; they would move the guard station out to the street and prevent traffic from travelling onto the Y12 site for nearly a quarter mile before it arrives at a lightly staffed checkpoint. They would move signs warning travellers not to proceed outside the fence line. They would erect and staff a barrier at the lower east end entrance to the facility”there are many, many things on the “true security” list that are way above $245,000 dollars to put up an 8′ fence at the roadside.


We denounce the roadside fence”it is a petulant and childish effort to lash out at peace protesters because of the embarrassment suffered this past summer. It is not a security measure. Taking this action”and using the false claim of security to strip away our fundamental rights as citizens is a shameful act that reveals the moral bankruptcy of this federal agency and demonstrates that when one undertakes the nasty and immoral business of producing weapons of mass production, one no longer has a moral compass.


March 31, 2013


Reflections for Nonviolent Community


Sunday Vigil at Y-12 in Oak Ridge Tennessee

Sunday Vigil

OREPA has held Sunday vigils every week for more than 22 years at the main entrance to the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex (intersection of Scarboro Rd and East Bear Creek Road) at 5:00pm ET. We are outdoors and space our chairs; when covid numbers are up, we encourage people to wear masks. Bring your own chair, we have some umbrellas for sun shade or rain.

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