Memo to Judge: Really?

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Feb 19, 2014 26 Comments ›› orepa

We’ve heard it from the bench in Oak Ridge city courtrooms and from state judges in Clinton, Tennessee. And on February 18 we heard it from a federal judge—there are two variations. The first: There are plenty of ways for you to protest and deliver your message without breaking the law. The second: If you people would just put this time and energy into working for the change you want in the political system, you might get the change you seek.

Both sentiments are either disingenuous or naïve.

I. There are plenty of ways for you to protest and deliver your message without breaking the law.

As one who has spent hundreds of hours in nonviolent protests outside the gates of the Y12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where workers are, right now, making thermonuclear cores for W76 warheads, the judges who lecture us—and who have never so far as I know troubled themselves to protest in any way at all from the security of the bench—have no clue. Sure, you can go to Y12 and protest all day long to the wind. It’s the preferred option of everyone who wants to maintain the status quo, second only to “Why don’t you shut up and leave us alone to do our dirty business.”

There is no sign at all that it is effective. We don’t do it because we think President Obama will drive by one Sunday evening and notice us and say, “Wait a minute! Didn’t I say something in a speech in 2009 about how we are committed to a world without nuclear weapons? Then why am I spending nineteen billion dollars on a new bomb plant? And we promised the world in 1968 that we would disarm? Gosh, these protesters are right!”

Not gonna happen, judge, and I suspect you know that. But we do those legal protests anyway.

We do it because it is important not to be silent whether anyone is listening or not. We do it because a commitment to nonviolent social change includes being present to say “No” when the government is preparing for crimes against humanity and crimes against creation. There is an old story activists tell of an old man who day after day goes out to the sidewalk with a protest sign to hold a lonely vigil. One day a young man stops. “Man, I’ve seen you out here for months. What in the world are you doing? You’re never going to change the government this way.” The old man smiles. “I’m not out here to change them. I’m out here to keep them from changing me.”

I go out every Sunday to stand for peace because I have two daughters to answer to and “I was too busy to do anything,” is not an acceptable excuse.

There have been times, at demonstrations I have attended, where hundreds of people came out to protest and the media ignored it. No TV cameras , no newspapers. The next day, it was as if nothing happened. But I have also been at demonstrations where people got arrested for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Guess what—front page of the paper. Lead story at 11:00. When the first goal is to raise awareness, to provide people with information the government would like to keep secret, media coverage is essential. And with only a few exceptions, most media require the drama of arrests before they will cover a story that includes criticisms of the regions largest economic powerhouse.

So to judges and prosecutors who say, “You can protest all you want as long as you keep it legal,” at least be honest enough with yourself and us to say, “even though—or especially though—it means no one will know you are there.”

Of course, that is one of the fundamental tenets of nonviolent direct action, a truth that was lost on the last judge who lectured us, in federal court. The judge said he was “obviously” a fan of Gandhi—but he’s like a fan that cheers for Derek Jeter but has no clue how hard it is to field a hard, low one-hop line drive just outside the baseline behind third base, turn, and deliver the ball on target to first base. The fan admires the pure beauty of it, knows it was hard as hell, knows he could never do it, but that’s as deep as the understanding goes.

Gandhi knew, and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, that the point of nonviolent direct action is to confront injustice in a way that can not be ignored. When the powers and institutions that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo react by punishing good people for their audacity—breaking a little law to expose a greater crime, or ignoring an unjust injunction—it is a question posed to the rest of society who, seeing good people being punished, is awakened to ask, “Wait—dogs and firehoses? On children?” or “What is going on here that these good people are going to prison?”

II. Channel this energy into working to change policy—make democracy work.

The second suggestion, offered by Judge Amul Thapar from the bench in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee, was even more tortured. He praised the defendants before him for their intellect and clarity of thought. He noted that they had legions of supporters because he had gotten hundreds of letters and thousands of signatures on a petition. “Channel this energy toward changing policy in Washington, DC,” he said, implying they could not help but be effective.

Only two problems with that, Judge. One: without the Transform Now Plowshares action, there wouldn’t be hundreds of letters and thousands of signatures. The action was the stimulus which created the response. That’s how nonviolence works—it’s a dynamic and unpredictable thing. “Extraordinary,” Gandhi said, “and then it becomes a miracle.”

Second problem: Really? Do you really think smart, articulate people have not written hundreds of letters to Congress, haven’t signed petitions, haven’t gone to the nation’s capital to press the case? I’ve met with three different Secretaries of Energy and dozens of other officials; I’ve done briefings on Capitol Hill with former Arms Control Ambassadors and the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ve served on state and federal advisory committees. I’ve spoken at scores of public hearings, written op-eds in the local newspaper, penned letters to the editor, been quoted in a dozen major national newspaper and magazines, been interviewed hundreds of times, done radio and TV for half a dozen international media outlets. And I’m here to tell you, judge, it doesn’t work that way.

Maybe you can ring up Mitch McConnell and get put through to the Senator, but I have to shame our local Senator into even sending a staff person to meet me outside—they refuse to allow more than three people to visit in their office at one time. I’ve gone to DC to meet with a Representative for an appointment and instead had a five minute meeting in the hallway with his aide who, for most of the time, found the woman down the hall behind me far more worthy of his attention. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of Congressional staffers, most of whom have this issue in their portfolio, and the level of ignorance is stunning. I don’t blame them—they have a million things to keep track of. But when I take a Department of Energy document to them, open it and show them where it says the new bomb plant will cost 2,400 jobs, and they insist on denying it—well, it doesn’t encourage me to put a lot of faith in your way.

I tell you what might work, though, Judge. If you called up the prosecutor and said, “Let’s look into this business about the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. It might be nothing, but we did take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and these people are intelligent. And Ramsey Clark says there’s something to it.”

Or, another thing I am pretty sure would work, because I’ve studied a little on how things get done in Washington: How about if we just give some major campaign donations to our Senators—it would only take half a million dollars, I bet, to outbid Babcock & Wilcox, Lockheed Martin and Bechtel. Then my eight page letter to Lamar Alexander would probably warrant more than a form letter with a paragraph inserted about nuclear energy (though I wrote about nuclear weapons) and a machine signature. I’d go in the “first name file.” They have those, you know. One summer, I helped a friend who was interning file the first name file letters for a Congressman from South Carolina. That’s how democracy works, Judge, in case you don’t know. The chance of Michael Walli getting an appointment with a Senator or Representative are zero or less (those DC people don’t actually have a real one of either, you know).

What I’m equally sure won’t work is 16,000 signatures on a petition. The White House requires 100,000 signatures before it will take a petition seriously enough to read it. Nuclear weapons are not a hot enough issue to inspire that many signatures—partly because they are so horrific people don’t want to think about them and partly because they sound so technical people don’t think they can do anything about them and partly because some people are afraid to say they might not be safe without them, but mostly because the fix is in—the money fix, the fear fix, and the politics fix. There is no conversation (without something like a Transform Now Plowshares action to create one) about nuclear weapons these days. About our nuclear weapons, I mean. Lots of talk about Iran’s.

Don’t take my word for it. Set aside this case you drew and ask yourself: how many times in the last year, two years, decade, have you given any serious thought or any thought at all to US nuclear weapons production? How many times have you wondered how many warheads and bombs we have? How many times has the nuclear nonproliferation treaty crossed your mind? Even when you heard a news story about North Korea or Iran’s nuclear ambitions, how many times have you questioned our own nuclear practices? See what I mean?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said nonviolent direct action seeks to create a kind of crisis in a community, to make a space for a creative tension that challenges the status quo or even makes it untenable, and opens a space for a new reality. That’s the point, Your Honors. The discomfort you feel, looking at these people in front of you who are among the best and brightest in your community, having to sentence them or fine them as though they are bad people or have done something wrong—that’s the tension. That’s one of the reasons we are there, in front of you.

Nonviolent direct action has as its fundamental goal shaking things up. It is an honorable tradition. In this country it goes back at least to the Boston Tea Party (though if you consider property sacred you might argue about the nonviolent part of that party). It’s not your normal kind of crime, not committed by your typical criminal. The law can’t take that into account very well, though. Because the law loves order and the beautiful clarity that it brings. The law doesn’t so much like dynamic things like nonviolence when it is loosed in the world or the courtroom.

But when things are really messed up, really—like a nation that preaches nonproliferation to others but is busy building bombs and bomb plants—and no one in power wants to do anything about it, and most people in power actually have disincentives to do anything about it—what is a responsible citizen to do? If the mess up is obvious enough, and distant enough, and done by someone else—trains full of Jews heading for Dachau, for instance—we know what a responsible citizen is to do, and judges and prosecutors, too. We wrote the Nuremberg Code, we the US. But God help the citizen in the United States who sees a terrible wrong being done by the government and tries to raise the alarm.

Some years ago, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the country of Belarus voluntarily relinquished the nuclear weapons that ended up on its sovereign soil, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, praised them and welcomed them into the community of nations. I remember thinking, “Really? That’s the entry card into the community of nations—renouncing nuclear weapons? So what is Clinton doing there? Is he the doorkeeper? Because if that’s the entry card, we sure aren’t in the community of nations.”

I could go on, but I think my point is clear. Nonviolent direct action is required of us because the government responds to nothing less. It is required of us because our consciences and our unborn grandchildren—and yours—insist we do all we can on behalf of the planet and the future. It is required of some because they feel a divine imperative; the God they follow requires them to beat swords to plowshares and blesses peacemakers. It doesn’t seek an end in itself—it seeks to open a conversation, to encourage jurists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the public, to search themselves to see what they can do and what they should do.

Of course there is a price to be paid. That’s why Ramsey Clark said the main thing it took was courage—more than most of us have. But to those rare few who listen to voices; who don’t throw caution to the winds but carefully, thoughtfully, gently lay it down and then pick up a hammer; to those who find themselves surprised to be doing courageous things and go on and do them, we owe a debt of great gratitude. We may even owe them the future.


  1. Arn Dekker says:

    Thank you for this well argued letter and thank you to all those who give of their time and energy to oppose the evil of nuclear weaponry.
    They will all be in my prayers.

  2. Karen Wolf says:

    Thank you for touching on all that inspires peace activists to get out there every Sunday (NWOPC also is out there each week protesting war), to write letters, and to perform non-violent actions. The truth of your words is heart wrenching yet highly motivating.

  3. Bracing words. Thanks Ralph.

  4. Bill Hickey says:

    Thanks to you, and to the Plowshares folks, for reminding us what we are all about in this struggle against nuclear weapons making/proliferation.
    Bill and Billie Hickey
    Detroit, MI

  5. Dave and Barb Corcoran says:

    Way to go Michael, Greg & Megan!
    Way to go Ralph for the Memo to the Judge(s)!

  6. cletus stein says:

    Thanks for this. It’s a great summary I can use when possible. Keep up whatever work you’re doing. We are working on things here in Amarillo, with you brother plant, Pantex. Blessings!

  7. LeRoy Moore says:

    Ralph: Thanks for this admirable and convincing testimony on the value and necessity of nonniolent direct action, espcially with respect to nuclear weapons.

    In solidarity, LeRoy6

  8. Bobbie Paul says:

    This is brilliant, Ralph. Inspired, tough, and factual. Terrific.
    I want to share your letter (really your HISTORY) with as many activists and friends as I can.
    Thanks to the entire OREPA community in Tennessee for being there and to all those who traveled to Knoxville for the sentencing – like Diane Dougherty.

    How can we now help Megan and her friends?

  9. Alice Baker says:

    Though my heart was heavy as I read the judge’s decision, I am hopeful at your response to the judge, Ralph. Please publish in every newspaper in the land, if you can! I know I shall forward your message to as many as I know who want peace.

  10. Rick Brown says:

    Great response.

  11. Judith Burkhardt says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and very reasonable commentary, Ralph. Judges do what judges do: justify their positions while hiding behind the “law”. I hold out the hope there is a judge out there who one day will actively recognize the law of humanity and the duty of each of us to obey it. In the meantime I laud Sr. Megan’s comment to the judge that it would be a gift (or words to that effect) to spend the rest of her life in prison, meaning, I think, that one cannot be punished for a crime one did not commit.

  12. […] And as the struggle for America’s soul continues, Hutchison will continue to write and his latest is “Memo to the Judge: Really?” […]

  13. Hey Ralph,
    I took the liberty to quote you liberally in “America’s Nuclear Insanity and Scandal” for The Arab Daily News and when I popped back to alert you i see i ‘beat’ myself here as the link is above!

  14. Jim Rugh says:

    Thank you, Megan, Michael and Greg, for what you did.

    Thank you, Ralph, for what you have written (here and elsewhere). You articulate so well the cause for which so many have demonstrated — though, surely, none as effectively as Megan, Michael and Greg — in terms of getting the attention of the citizens of the US and other countries. Surely sane people everywhere question the hypocrisy of the US government’s policy of denying other countries the right to build nuclear arms, whle investing billions of dollars in building more and bigger bombs for itself. And the hypocrisy of a judicial system that strains at the ‘gnat’ of a peaceful protest and swallow the ‘camel’ of Y12.

  15. doug cox says:


    You lay it our our hearts and remind us of what is true about governments who want what they want and ignore reality to get it. Your letter
    laid back the veneer of deception and false justification for destructive nuclear devices presented by our government. As you said, “The fix is in”. What appears an impenetrable wall, however can crumble overnight. Nuclear security is an illusion.

    Keep on chippin’ away, chippin’ to the promised land.

    Thanks for keeping the faith.

  16. Dorothy Ritter says:

    Jeremiah 5:21
    Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.

    Thank you Ralph, Megan, Michael, Greg, and OREPA for your tireless work and being living witnesses of love and hope for all humanity and the entire Earth community! You are prophets for our time! And you know what happened to them! You are courageous indeed to speak truth to power!

    Acts 28:27 (NIV)
    For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

  17. Ralph, These three heroes deserve all the admiration and praise you have so eloquently stated. It is sad to realize that their actions are so casually dismissed by the corporately controlled media have barely create a ripple on the awareness of U.S. public opinion. Their actions are dwarfed by greatest crime, the state crime against our democracy, through the long term violation of the Constitution that avows the requirement that our nation comply with its treaty obligations.

  18. MaryAnne Coyle says:

    Thank you for this writing. As always you have given us the perfect talking points. In Mr. Munger’s blog Representative Fleischman claimed the UPF would go along as planned. Please inform folks out of the area what committee this will go through. Our friends gave up a lot and you folks have toiled so long.

  19. […] Our good friends and collegues, the Transform Now Plowshares, Sr. Megan Rice, SHCJ, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli were sentenced in Federal court on February 18th. You can read about it at the Transform Now Plowshares website. The judge toed the (National Security State’s) party line in his statement regarding the “legal” recourse available to people wishing to change policy.  Ralph Hutchison (of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance) wrote a “memo” to the judge, setting the record straight on the ridiculousness and naivete of the judge’s reasoning.  Click here to read Memo to the Judge: Really?. […]

  20. Yes, courage, and inspiration, and community. Such deep gratitude. Thank you all. I will post a documentary we’ve been working on for over a year, hopefully completed by this June… Should lend yet more encouragement and support on this.
    Way to go.

  21. Carol Green says:

    Ralph, you have passionately expressed our frustration with waking people up! The military-industrial-congressional-judicial complex continues to move toward building “new & improved” weapons of mass destruction. Tools at hand:
    1. Contacting Thom Mason who’s leading the “Red Team” to come up with alternatives to the super-costly, illegal Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) by mid-April.
    2. Insisting, with Sister Megan Rice, that our Representatives co-sponsor HR1650, the Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act of 2013.
    3. Continuing to support the TNP3 by spreading their message: Transform NOW!
    4. Praying that the peace community continues to grow in strength and wisdom.
    5. Singing songs to keep us walking forward!

  22. Tom McMillan says:

    Thank you Ralph, your heart felt words ring true. I have spent many hours at the gate of Y-12 with the fear of arrest resonating in my soul. While reading what you wrote I had visions of what a prison sentence would be like. Blessings to our friends who have done time and are doing time. We will hold fast to our conviction that we will eradicate fear of these weapons once and for all.

  23. sonface says:

    When Reagan began packing the courts with corporatist lackeys. no one worried about the consequences. This article exposes what that strategy intended to achieve: the corruption of the interpretation of law so that no alterating legislation was necessary. If global civilization survives, and if historians still exist, the US will be the subject of a great deal of discussion on how a nation which learned how to turn atomic power into weapons and put humans on the moon could have become so ignorant so quickly.

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