Monday, October 17, 2011

"Y-12 protestors' sentences too harsh for the charges" by Garner NC CW Patrick O'Neill - Sept 24, 2011 Knoxville News Sentinel

Posted September 24, 2011

Knoxville News Sentinel


Patrick O'Neill: Y-12 protestors' sentences too harsh for the charges


There's a saying among lawbreakers: "If you can't do the time, don't

do the crime." There's also another saying for law-keepers: "Make the

punishment fit the crime."


The latter was not the case recently in Knoxville as U.S. Magistrate

Judge Bruce Guyton handed down several severely punitive sentences of

up to eight months in federal prison with no chance of parole for

defendants found guilty in U.S. District Court of misdemeanor trespass

at the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear weapons facility on July 5, 2010.


On that sweltering summer day more than 14 months ago, I watched 13

people, among them four Catholic nuns and a Catholic priest, step onto

a patch of grass — moving from state to federal property — in broad

daylight and in full view of more than 100 uniformed police officers

from several Tennessee and federal jurisdictions.


Acting in the nonviolent tradition of Indian pacifist leader Mohandas

Gandhi, the group, which stood opposed to the production, testing and

possible use of nuclear weapons, engaged in open resistance to Y-12's

nuclear weapons program. After a few minutes the friendly group

(several police officers kindly gave water to some of the elderly

folks who were wilting in the heat) was rounded up by police in what

was a gentle, largely symbolic and moving act of civil disobedience.

Those of us on the other side of the fence cheered our friends as they

were handcuffed and taken to jail.


The folks arrested at Y-12 that day were among a cadre of some of the

nation's best-known anti-war and anti-nuclear activists who had come

together at nearby Maryville College for "Resistance for a

Nuclear-Free Future," a weekend conference about ways our nation and

the world can move out from under the ominous cloud of nuclearism.

Locally, the conference was sponsored by the Oak Ridge Environmental

Peace Alliance.


The 13 defendants (now 12 after the untimely death of Sister Jackie

Hudson) followed a noble U.S. abolitionist tradition in which people

of conscience take a stand, risk personal freedom and subject

themselves to arrest in order to challenge unjust government policies.

In past eras, civil disobedience has been successfully employed to

oppose British tyranny (the Boston Tea Party); to stop slavery and

segregation, to gain suffrage for women and in opposition to the

Vietnam War.


Those of us who are nuclear abolitionists believe nuclear weapons

represent the preeminent threat to human survival. Preventing nuclear

war requires abolishing those weapons of mass destruction. There has

never been a weapon developed that was not eventually used in war. Any

use of nuclear weapons would be horrific beyond imagination. Untold

millions could die. Preventing nuclear war is the life's work of many

of those arrested at Y-12. These are good people who devote their

lives to warning the rest of us about the moral imperative of nuclear



While most readers likely believe some form of punishment was in order

for the 12, it is also critical that said punishment be reasonable in

light of the offense. The response of the federal government in

Knoxville was unreasonable. Guyton imposed overly punitive sentences

on most of these activists for what was a minor transgression of the

law. Three of my friends — Bonnie Urfer, Michael Walli and Steve

Baggarly — will miss Christmas with their families this year because

of their harsh sentences.


Throughout their sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby

stressed to Guyton the importance of imposing stiff sentences as a

deterrent. Rather than concern themselves with deterrence, Guyton and

Kirby would have better served society if they had recognized the

important role those defendants play in keeping a check on the U.S.

military-industrial complex. Our democracy needs people like those 13

brave folks, who stood on principle and took a risk for peace. Why

deter them? Their punishment surely did not fit the crime, but those

good people of conscience are doing the time for the rest of us.



Patrick O'Neill [mtoneill at] is cofounder of the Fr. Charlie

Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, N.C.


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