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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Blockade of Nevada Test Site Highway

by Susan Lee, Austin Greens

At 4:15 a.m. on April 3, 11 days after many of us had met for the first time in a nonviolent direct action training camp on a mountain overlooking the Nevada Test Site (NTS), two vans loaded with activists intent on blockading both sides of US Highway 95 five miles east of the Test Site, pulled out for a short drive to the pre-determined point where we would unload our equipment and ourselves and set up what for me and a few others would be our first lockdown blockade. Several of us had questioned whether we could pull off the event safely, given the snow earlier that night and time pressures to pour the concrete, bring the junker car that would be used on the north side of the road, and weld the custom devices that would link seven humans to the car, to concrete-filled, barrels and to each other.

We were 7 women and 6 men, ranging from my age (55) to 20, the age of the young woman who mother-minded the strategy. Some of us had extensive experience with nonviolence training, peacework, environmental defense work, and prior blockades, lock-ons, etc. One young man had never engaged in a political action before that week. About 30 hours earlier we had committed to the action, though serious concerns were raised the night before we acted, given the weather, the lack of sleep of several key planners, the amount of work still to be done in unexpectedly harsh weather, and a serious injury sustained by a tripod sitter in an action earlier in the week at one of the entrances to the Test Site.

Our purpose was to protest the resumption of nuclear weapons tests…and the dumping of nuclear waste on Western Shoshone land at the Nevada Test Site.

Our purpose was to protest the resumption of nuclear weapons tests (the "sub-criticals," so-called because although they involve high explosives and plutonium in close proximity, theoretically no fission or chain reaction will occur, though that cannot be guaranteed) and the dumping of nuclear waste on Western Shoshone land at the Nevada Test Site. (President Harry Truman confiscated the land in 1951 and subsequently the US tested nearly 1000 nuclear devices there, at first above ground until President Kennedy in 1963 signed a partial test ban treaty which drove the testing underground, though not necessarily the radiation from the tests, which several times leaked egregiously.)

That resolve and perhaps other motives -- daredevilism, loyalty to friends, etc. -- pushed some of us past our reservations and into those vans, equipped with carabiners tied to our hands, several layers of clothing against the cold, even adult diapers in case our blockade worked longer than previous attempts. Before and behind our vans were supporters charged with crucial roles to our mission: experienced peace-keepers, slow down vehicles who would drive abreast of each other in both lanes both ways toward us to slow down oncoming traffic, paramedics, international observers, and a van filled with a Japanese public television crew and official representatives of hibakasha (Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) who would drape us with paper crane necklaces and anti-nuclear buttons once we were in position. Then there were our own media people, including an independent film crew from California and a Greenpeace campaigner who would bottomline the media, and the invited commercial media from Las Vegas.

I jumped out of the van onto the pavement and watched as our big guys laid down the concrete-filled PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipes and lockboxes in the arranged order and spacing. (A "lockbox" is a metal pipe big enough for one or two people to insert their arms in from opposite ends and hook onto a transecting metal rod with a small metal clip device known as a "beener" or carabiner, used by mountain-climbers.) I had never practiced with either of the devices into which I would put my arms, but before I got the chance to try, we realized something had gone wrong with the plan as headlights of a bus from Mercury (the test site town) were bearing down on us on our side of the road.

For a few minutes, the scene was like a cops-and-robbers shootout: people yelling and running toward the busses; I screamed at the Japanese driver of the media and hibakasha van which was parked near us to turn it around and point the headlights against the oncoming traffic and flash them to warn them; then our support people managed with flashlights and putting their bodies between us and the bus, to stop it some 30 feet away, while we laid down and locked in. That turned out to be not so easy in my case, as the rebar cross-section on the big heavy device on my right arm was deeper inside than my arm was long, and it took a minute or two and a few wholebody lunges before I managed to get my carabiner around it.

Supporters brought us extra sleeping bags to put under and over our bodies to protect us against a few snowflakes and the chill and keep up our morale; in the five hours that ensued before the state highway patrol and the NTS Wackenhuts (commerical guards used at nuclear and other facilities) managed to get us all unlocked or moved off the four lanes we held during that time, we were photographed, fed, watered, massaged, glared at, and in the case of the north side blockaders and the Greenpeace spokesman, threatened by an irate trucker with a gun he claimed to have in his cab. Luckily one of our peacekeepers and some of the officers present heard the threat and surrounded the trucker and calmed him down. Besides the Japanese, there was also an international observer from South Africa (a Zulu woman organizer for Mandela's party), the spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone (an elder named Corbin Harney), and a young man from the Czech Republic who is with Corbin's Shundahai Network that had initiated the nonviolent training and the days of action following the annual Easter-week peace camp.

I jumped out of the van onto the pavement and watched as our big guys laid down the concrete-filled PVC pipes and lockboxes in the arranged order and spacing.

One highway patrol officer who showed up expressed sympathy with our protest of the plans to store irradiated fuel rods from the nation's commercial nuclear power plants in or near the sacred mountain of the Western Shoshone, who still have title to the land used for the NTS. However, some of the truckers were quite angry despite our supporters' handing out flyers explaining our motives. Traffic was backed up several miles on each side of the highway, mainly trucks (including one or two hauling low-level radioactive waste to be buried in shallow trenches at the NTS) and busses, as smaller passenger vehicles were able to slip past on the shoulders once they moved our end people slightly from our original placement. (Bonnie Urfer of Nukewatch got a reading of 179 counts per minute -- about 10 times the normal reading -- by the seam of a truck marked with the radiation symbol.)

The blockade was in place by 4:30 a.m. that Thursday, and it took until about 9:30 a.m. for the various agencies dealing with us to get the equipment to cut through metal and heave the pipes and barrels filled with hundreds of pounds of concrete with, in some cases, us still attached to them, off to the side of the road. The hour or so during that procedure was scary-some of us were locked down in a very uncomfortable if not downright painful position, with a narrow range of vision and hearing screams of our people, the shriek of the machine cutting on metal, and not knowing what was going on. They had ordered all our support people at least 100 feet off the road before they began to move us, and they beat up and arrested a friendly, freelance photographer so he couldn't document how they went about this task.

After our removal from the highway, we were handcuffed and loaded, in several cases with gratuitous brutality, into vans, and taken to one of the holding pens at the NTS for an hour or so until the Clark County jail sent a bus for us and we were transported to Las Vegas. At the county jail we were held in the hall for quite a while before we were sent to the holding tank, minus our jewelry and extra clothing. At one point the women's tank contained 56 of us in a space about 10 by 25 feet, including a semi-private toilet with a sink on the top of it. There were no toothbrushes issued and no blankets, though it was cold at night and there was only the concrete floor to sit or sleep on; no mattresses or cots. Along either wall there were long wooden benches, but they were filled before we arrived and held by pretty aggressive women who had experience in that facility. There was one working phone, also dominated by the most aggressive women, who seemed to be regulars and de-toxing from cocaine. Our men were in a tank for misdemeanors only, so a mellower crowd, but their toilet was stopped up and for 10 hours there was no toilet paper available. One of our men was the son of missionaries and apparently did a fine job of converting other inmates to our cause while incarcerated.

We went into the jail around noon on Thursday; by Friday early evening all of us were released on our own recognizance; 5 of the 7 women participated in some sort of fast, with four women refusing food and water for the 30 hours. Julia of Shundahai resisted release, being dragged out; most of our brothers participated in a sit-down, hold-onto-a-post resistance when they realized that while they were in the process of release, two of our younger women were still being held. They were brutalized (one lost a lot of hair) and thrown back into the men's holding tank for an hour or so longer, then finally released as were the two women, within a few hours of our release.

All but one of us returned for our arraignment on April 25 in Las Vegas; meanwhile we had secured the help of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP), which was looking for US test cases for the implications of the August 1996 World Court decision that the use or threat to use nuclear weapons is illegal (except in case of necessary defense-a vexing loophole). German missile protesters had their case dismissed in October of 1996 with a decision based on the World Court's action a few months prior. Anabel Dwyer of the LCNP board had faxed us a motion to dismiss based on international law, but since we didn't have local counsel yet, we simply requested and got consolidation of our 15 cases to the same date and judge, and the latest court date we could get. We were assigned the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, August 6! (We still don't know if the judge knew that, or if it was one of those random serendipitous events.)

We were originally charged with two misdemeanors -- trespass and obstruction of an officer, each carrying a maximum fine of $200 and a six month sentence. We agreed to refuse bail, fines, any plea of guilty or no contest, etc. At our arraignment our single charge was obstruction of an officer. We have found two sympathetic lawyers, who are asking a fee of $200 each or $3,000 total to represent us, and we have begun fundraising to that end. They will cooperate with our international legal advisors from the Lawyers' Committee.

In addition to the blockaders, three other men were arrested. Paul, a Black Star photographer, was beaten up and arrested just before the Wackenhuts and State Highway Patrol began moving us off the road -- presumably to keep him from documenting that process, which left most of us at least somewhat injured, though few were visibly hurt.

The other two non-blockading arrestees were Steve and Dustin, who were doing support and accidentally ran afoul of the officials on the scene, Steve by carrying a message to a television news team across the highway the supporters had been ordered away from, and Dustin by wheeling his bicycle onto the highway to leave.

It is questionable whether our case will be the case the international community is looking for in this country to test the World Court decision since we are only dealing with a local justice of the peace in county court. The Department of Energy, which runs the NTS, several years ago quit following through with arrests for direct action at the Test Site. But this summer an international campaign of civil disobedience to push the nuclear weapons nations (see accompanying article) may give us other opportunities to land in federal courts.

Contact either Shundahai Network at shundahi@intermind.net (702-647-3095) or Susan Lee Solar at nukemuse@igc.org or (512) 447-6222 or fax 447-8311 for updates on future actions.

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