TEN YEARS AGO TODAY –
When Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli were arrested deep inside the maxium security area of the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the early morning hours of July 28, 2012, they made national and international news.
The story the media told was of an audacious, daring raid by three peace protesters in the middle of the night that laid bare the utter and complete failure of the security apparatus of an operating nuclear bomb plant. It was a scandal story, with an extra exclamation point—one of them was an 82 year-old nun!
The bigger story, which most of the media just couldn’t seem to find words to tell, was the greater scandal, the reason for the Transform Now Plowshares action—the production of nuclear weapons of mass destruction in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. What Michael, Greg, and Megan wanted to do—and eventually succeeded in doing—was to call attention to the Y-12 weapons plant’s role in creating weapons that were, in their eyes, an abomination before God, and a threat to all life on the planet.
It could have been a different story—the moment they cut the third fence and stepped into the Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System zone, they were in an area that authorized the use of lethal force. They were aware of the possibility that they might be killed; they prepared for it. But the first guard to approach them was experienced with peace demonstrations and responded appropriately—an act for which he was fired.
In the course of preparing for trial, the Transform Now Plowshares action triggered some remarkable events. Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General for the United States, came to Knoxville to testify at a preliminary hearing. When questioned, Clark noted that he was the AG when the Nonproliferation Treaty was signed. He said in his opinion, the work at Y-12 was “unlawful” under the NPT and he described the work at the Oak Ridge bomb plant as a “criminal enterprise.”
When the prosecutor said the defendants were not compelled to undertake their action, Clark responded, “That’s the admirable thing. Somebody had to act, and they did.” Questioned further, Clark said, “They were justified. The only requirement is courage. If they had to cut through a fence, so be it. It was a minor action to prevent a calamity.”
In the end, the Judge did not allow the jury to hear Clark’s words—or any other testimony that might have undermined the government’s case that the Transform Now Plowshares action was a dangerous act of sabotage requiring long prison sentences for the three demonstrators. The jury found them guilty and they were taken off to prison.
But nonviolence, when it becomes active, said Gandhi, “travels with extraordinary velocity, and then it becomes a miracle.” The appeals court in Cincinnati heard the case and ruled that, based on the evidence,“no reasonable person” could have thought this was an act of sabotage. They ordered the release of the prisoners who had already served more than a year in prison.
The release triggered even more media coverage than the original crime and trial had, and the effort to call attention to nuclear weapons production in Oak Ridge had a second life.
Ultimately, Washington Post reporter Dan Zak, whose detailed coverage of the trial filled a seven page spread in the Style section of the Post, wrote a book built around the action, Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age.
The legacy of the Transform Now Plowshares action may never be fully realized. While awaiting trial, Greg, Megan, and Michael spoke to hundreds and hundreds of people. Articles were written, and the action was revisited when Megan died in 2021, having lived to see the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
When the story of the abolition of nuclear weapons is written, after the last warhead has been dismantled and its components disposed of, one chapter will tell the tale of the Transform Now Plowshares action on July 28, 2012.