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Who's the real criminal?

‘The last time you arrested protesters, they were all acquitted,’ I told the officer as four of us were booked for ‘trespass’. The cop scoffed and said, ‘That won’t happen again.’ But he was wrong.

At trial six months later we were all found not guilty. By refusing to leave Alliant Techsystems headquarters in Edina, Minnesota, until we were granted a meeting, we merely attempted an act of crime prevention.

Alliant Techsystems, or ATK as it calls itself, is the US’s number one producer of depleted uranium (DU) munitions. It has produced over 18 million DU rounds (including 15 million 30mm rounds for the Air Force, and 2 million 120mm shells for tank warfare). In February 2006, the US Army placed a new $38 million order for more of the 120mm DU rounds.

With 16,000 employees in 21 states and $3.9 billion in annual revenue, ATK (a spin-off of US multinational Honeywell) is the Pentagon’s biggest supplier of ammunition. The company claims it made 1.2 billion bullets in 2005; in 2006 this had risen to 1.4 billion. ATK also sells machine guns, rocket motors, cluster bombs and (formerly) landmines. As the prosecutor told the jury during our December trial, ‘ATK doesn’t make anything you’ll be giving your kids at Christmas.’

ATK says it produces ‘27 million rounds of ammunition each production day’. It also sells ammunition to the torture boys at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and it makes rocket motors for the drunkards at NASA.†

ATK helps drive the old-fashioned thermonuclear war machine too. It is ‘refurbishing’ or manufacturing rocket motors for all the Pentagon’s land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles. With all these irons in the fire, it’s no wonder the staff has no time to meet radical pacifists.

Protest on ATK’s doorstep; John LaForge (wearing scarf) and co-defendants freed in Hennepin County Court.

TOM BOTTOLENE / CircleVision.org

Instead, when protesters have demanded to meet them, ATK calls the cops. Yet since 1997, four separate juries have found four different groups of anti-war activists not guilty of trespass. Such politically charged acquittals are extremely rare in the US, but the legal case against uranium weapons is easily made and easily understood.

In one of the groups, three out of four defendants had visited Iraq and seen first-hand the consequences of shooting radioactive waste at human beings. Jane Hosking, John Heid and Mike Miles – all from the anti-war Anathoth Community near Luck, Wisconsin – testified as eye witnesses to the cancers and leukaemia in Iraq’s children’s hospitals.

The four acquittals (one of which was focused on landmines) – presided over by three different judges – have vindicated a total of 106 people, turned the tables on the accusers and posed the question: who’s guilty of criminal conduct?

Since then, two small groups of alleged trespassers have had their charges dropped, along with a group of 34 activists whose charges were dismissed in 2006, and another 76 in February 2007.

ATK clearly wants to avoid having its ‘dirty bomb’ enterprise publicized. It has removed from its website most references to DU as well as photos of a haphazard DU decontamination effort. It now calls DU munitions ‘high density penetrators’. The company was probably behind the city of Edina’s 2005 adoption of a new trespass law. It denies jury trials to nonviolent protesters and it eliminates the right to explain the outlaw status of DU weapons. In March 2007, the ordinance was validated by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Freebies from the state

ATK’s armour-piercing DU shells are made of toxic, radioactive uranium-238. The 120-mm anti-tank shells contain 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) of this solid waste uranium.

DU waste was originally left at Government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge (Tennessee), Paducah (Kentucky) and Piketon (Ohio), where about 700,000 tons is now stored in dangerously aging and corroding 14-ton cylinders.

This waste uranium is given free to weapons merchants ATK, Aerojet and General Dynamics, who then sell their wares back to the Government at an obscene profit. The 30mm shells – that the Air Force’s A-10 warplanes shoot at a rate of 60-per-second – sell for a whopping $21.50 a piece, according to the _Wall Street Journal_.

With ATK’s profits soaring, and with their shells being used in the most cavalier fashion in the major conflicts of our time, voices of opposition haven’t given up. Back in Minnesota, for 11 years ATK has been the target of relentless protest. Alliant_Action!_ is the group of local volunteers that acts as the corporation’s watchdog and have maintained a weekly vigil at ATK’s world headquarters in Edina since 1996. The group’s protests have resulted in 699 arrests over the years, including nine on 31 July this year. The nine had intended to join the annual stockholders’ meeting and lodge a formal complaint – they had bought a share to get in the door. Recognized as vigil members, they were kept out, ticketed and charged with trespass. Organizer Tom Bottolene points out: ‘This from a company that says selling weapons to the Pentagon protects free speech!’ Another eight were arrested in August for delivering roses to Alliant Tech headquarters on Hiroshima Day. And 14 more on 2 October, in an action in honour of Gandhi’s birthday.

The campaign has been noticed. A pair of documentary films has been produced and dozens of news articles have been generated. In its annual Best of the Twin Cities listing in April, the weekly _City Pages_ named Alliant_Action!_ the ‘Best Hell Raiser or Activist Group’, noting: ‘Some have spent a night or more in jail, and they are familiar with many a local courtroom, but these activists always return faithfully to their post, week in and week out, resolute in a shared commitment to end violence and war.’

Right to resist

In court, we’ve explained to the juries that after 1945 the laws of war changed in two monumental ways. Prior to the Holocaust, acts of mass destruction were forbidden, but prosecutions were possible only after-the-fact. At Nuremberg though, where even private industrialists were tried, the ‘planning and preparation’ of illegal warfare was criminalized. Nuremberg’s purpose in punishing crimes-in-the-making – by outlawing production of weapons that can’t be used legally – was to insure that wartime atrocities could be prevented.

In addition, the Nuremberg Tribunal held individuals personally responsible for their actions even if they were fulfilling government contracts. Led by a US Supreme Court justice, the prosecution demanded that if mass destruction is made legal by the state, then the state must be disobeyed.

DU can’t be squared with the Geneva Conventions which require protection of civilians and forbid post-conflict effects or long-term environmental damage. By definition, any use of DU also violates the Hague Regulations’ ban on poison.

The cumulative effect of Nuremberg law, the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations is that private citizens are rightfully allowed to act to prevent criminal acts. In Minnesota state law, if a juror agrees that the defence of crime prevention is ‘reasonable’, they have to acquit. (The new city ordinance prohibits this defence.)

Steve Clemens is a self-taught treaty law scholar and a long-time Alliant_Action!_ vigil member. At trials, conferences and lectures, he explains that ‘treaties are “the Supreme Law of the Land” under the US Constitution. Treaty law forbids the use of poison or weapons that do severe, long-term damage to the environment, or weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and soldiers, or weapons similar to gas. The planning or preparation of wars that would violate treaty law is itself a crime. Individuals are personally responsible for their participation in these crimes – which is to say that we must all avoid such participation.’

In his instructions to the jury, Hennepin County Judge Jack Nordby explained what the defendants had to prove. Namely: ‘A good faith claim that permission was given to them to be upon the premises by… any law enacted by the federal or state government, any treaty to which the United States is a party, or any binding rule of international law.’

With the law on our side – although we had to risk 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine – DU opponents put ATK in the hot seat. Thanks to repeated resistance actions organized by Alliant_Action!_, Nukewatch, Christian Peacemaker Teams and others, ATK’s management knows its weapons have been condemned worldwide.

To date, four Minnesota juries have recognized a citizen’s right to nonviolent disobedience in the face of corporate wrongdoing. Not only did we beat the rap, but prosecutors can now consider bringing charges against the real criminals.

*John LaForge* works on the staff of Nukewatch (www.nukewatch.com), a nonprofit peace and environmental action group in Wisconsin, and edits its quarterly newsletter. His articles on nuclear power and weapons, radioactive waste and food irradiation have appeared in _Z_ magazine, the _Progressive_, the Minneapolis _StarTribune_, the Miami _Herald_ and elsewhere. Alliant_Action!_ http://alliantaction.org

† A reference to a July 2007 news story which claimed drunk astronauts had been allowed on NASA space flights. NASA rejected the claims in August as ‘urban legend’.

New Internationalist issue 406 magazine cover This article is from the November 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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