On the early summer morning of July 28, 2012, Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, the Oak Ridge Three, hiked down a wooded ridge to the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At the complex the hikers cut their way through three fences using bolt cutters, stealthily moved past guard dogs and then made their way past a sign noting that trespassers could be met with deadly force.
Inside the compound they made their way to a facility charged with processing much of the nation’s weapons grade uranium (enough to manufacture 10,000 nuclear bombs) and then splashed human blood on the building. The three spent over two hours within the compound, painting biblical slogans of peace around the facility. No one had any clue; it would be hours until the Oak Ridge Three were in custody.
Rice, an 84-year-old nun, and fellow peace activists Boertje-Obed and Walli have all been sentenced to prison for their actions. This case has garnered a lot of attention. The United States congress has held special hearings over the protest because it raised a number of questions about how the United States government manages nuclear weapons and high-grade materials. Furthermore, the activists illuminated how poorly private security corporations protect high-grade sites such as nuclear power plants.
The protest has also given rise to a strong showing of solidarity among fellow peace activists, the no nukes movement and other sympathetic supporters. The three have received thousands of letters of support from around the world – including the Union of Concerned Scientists.
On February 18th, Rice was sentenced to 35 months behind bars. Her comrades, Greg Boertje-Obed and Walli both received a sentence of 62 months.
Knoxville, Tennessee criminal defense attorney Chris Irwin represented the activist Michael Walli in the courtroom. Chris is a well-known criminal defense lawyer in the city – he is also a well-known, respected vocal political activist, community organizer and anarchist. When not in the courtroom, Chris can usually be found in the Appalachian coalfields – advocating the region move beyond coal. He has been taking the Tennessee Valley Authority and coal companies to task throughout the region for decades.
I first met Chris in the fall of 2010 when I started volunteering with the local environmental group United Mountain Defense. It has been rather enjoyable doing field work in the Cumberland mountains while talking politics with the enthusiastic activist attorney over the years.
When I heard that Chris was representing Michael Walli I was not surprised at all. The trial has been months in the making and I have stayed in contact with Chris throughout the proceedings – hoping for an interview the moment he could make information available to the public. On February 21st, a spring like day in the Tennessee valley, I got the interview. I sat down with the bearded attorney over a chocolate stout and barley wine outside of Suttree’s high gravity beer tavern in downtown Knoxville.
Our conversation (audio link here) explores the case, the defendant’s faith and the prison industrial complex. Chris notes how he managed the case as a lawyer and an anarchist. We also get insight as to who the Oak Ridge Three are – how their Christianity fueled their protest, about how they feel the legal system holds no power over them and how they have faith in a higher court. We also learn about their lives and how their beliefs inspire many inside and outside the courtroom. Furthermore, Chris and I discuss anarchism, state power and self governance – one cannot help but imagine the possibility of a peaceful, more secure, libertarian alternative to the nation-state: The stateless society.
Grant: When you first heard about the details of this case and knew you were going to be on it, as a lawyer, what went through your mind?
Chris: You mean my first legal opinion?
Chris: This is Bullshit. That’s my legal terminology. This is bullshit.
An 82-year-old nun got into the heart of the American nuclear arms production complex and I am having to represent this nun? What the Hell are these people [state officials] thinking?
… I knew people that worked there [Y-12 Nuclear Facility] and we had always been told for decades, “look – whether you believe these are mobile death camps or you think that we need them for our national defense, they are secure. This is the Fort Knox of security.” In a couple of hours everyone around here found out that was a fucking lie. We have been lied to. We were lied to by the state. There is even a joke, “What does Y-12 and the Tennessee defensive line have in common? Neither can keep an 82-year-old nun from penetrating their defenses.”
But this is un-arguably one of the most deadly plants or areas, not only on Earth, but in the history of the planet. There has probably never been anyplace more deadly and it was just mind boggingly crazy. Not only that they [the Oak Ridge Three] were able to do it, but that they brought the full force of the state against this nun and not a single person went to jail who accepted millions to secure this area.
And I know why! It’s because in World War II they had over 1,000 armed soldiers on that facility – just to secure it. They believed that’s what was necessary. They had maybe three [security guards] active during all of this. And it is because … private corporations who are supposed to be quote, “handling the security” [at Y-12] it’s about the bottom line. It’s cheaper to have cameras that don’t work, motion detectors that are ignored and fences than it is boots on the ground. Boots on the ground you have to pay for health insurance, pensions, salaries, and for a private corporation the tendency is always going to be to cut cost, cut corners, make it as cheap as possible.
…The other thing that came across my mind is that it’s dangerous to tell the emperor that he has no clothes. You know? They pointed out that the emperor has no clothes and that was the result.
Grant: You are also an open anarchist, I don’t know how long you have been an anarchist, but –
Chris: … Since I was eight.
Grant: Since you were eight? OK – so, since you were eight years old you have been an anarchist. So then as an anarchist when you heard about this what ran through your head?
Chris: My perspective as an anarchist is that whenever you centralize power special interests hijack it and the greatest atrocities in history are the product of centralized power. The very production of nuclear weapons would not be possible without large, centralized, nation-states. The resources it takes to make such stupid ass deadly weapons you can’t do on a community basis. I am familiar with how, whenever you centralize power – be it religious, philosophical, in the media – special interests are always going to hijack it. But, I had never seen this aspect of the danger of the large nation-state. Statistically you’re safer having Hannibal Lecter move in next door to you and salt away a few boy scouts than having a nation-state living next door.
The greatest serial killers in history are the nation states. I use the term anarchist … I believe Henry David Thoreau said, “That which governs best, governs least.” From my training as an attorney, I went in as a lawyer from law school and I had bought the party line in my 20’s, “fuck the founding fathers, fuck the constitution, they were a bunch of slave holding bastards – blah, blah, blah,” but then I took a class on constitutional law and I read. I read what Thomas Paine wrote and realized that not trusting large centralized governments, there’s nothing more American than that…
For me it’s further evidence that large centralized power not only leads to atrocities, but then the institutions sell out to the lowest bidder, Private corporations – and they do a terrible, terrible job. If those [the Oak Ridge Three] had actually been hostiles that had gone in – we might actually be living in a giant crater right now. Seriously, if you had a detonation there it could probably crack the Earth’s mantle and wipe out all life on the face of the planet. You’re dealing with an amazing amount of weaponry. But, the scientist there, or the people in charge are like, “Oh, there was no chance. They couldn’t have detonated. They couldn’t have gotten anything.” But, these are the same people who told us that the facility was secure and safe.
Grant: And an 82-year-old nun and her comrades were able to break in. That kind of gets into the next question I want to ask. So we have heard the story. They used bolt cutters, came in.
Chris: Which they didn’t need.
Grant: Which they didn’t need?
Chris: Well, they needed them on the inner fences but the outer fence was just shot full of holes.
Grant: Oh, really?
Chris: A reporter went out and they [Y-12] didn’t even find where they had gotten in. They had gotten in [Y-12 officials] in the wrong location – they had to be told where this gap was. [Y-12 for months had the wrong location. The reporter found the correct one, then wrote about it.]
Grant: Oh, wow.
Chris: It had been tied back together with yarn.
Grant: So, I guess that is it – is there anything about the action that they [the Oak Ridge Three] did that we don’t know about? That wasn’t reported in the media so far or that we know the details of?
Chris: The media didn’t report it at all. They [the Oak Ridge Three] had a picnic. They had a bloody damn picnic. They got in, they had time to eat bread, they had time to sing, they had time to spray biblical graffiti on the side of the wall and then they got bored. Finally, they basically walked up to this one security guard that was on his cell phone in his SUV and he then realized what was going on.
Grant: They walked up to a security guard?
Chris: Well he was there, he pulled up and they walked up to him and immediately began singing.
Grant: Oh my God!
Chris: If you really research it you can kind of get the idea of what happened. It’s just so fucking shocking and my favorite quote was when it was pointed out how fucked up that fence was on the outer perimeter, the security at Y-12 said: “Oh that’s not really a fence,” and quote, “We consider it a border marker.” The truth of it is, is that it’s a fence. It’s supposed to be a fence. It looks like a fence and it is in terrible condition – it’s shot full of holes.
What I hate to say as an environmentalist is what they need to do is – they have all these trees that give perfect cover all the way to the top of the hill – they need to clear-cut those. They need to have a clear line of sight to the top. But they’re not taking the security there seriously, they’re still not.
Grant: How did these three come together? How did they know each other? What was their planning strategy? Did it go according to plan? Was this easier than they thought? How did the whole thing come together to begin with?
Chris: Well, they’re still my clients and I still owe them an obligation of protecting them.
Chris: And not disclosing too much because some of this could go get appealed. What I can say is what’s in the public record. They’re a member of a group called “Plowshare.”
Chris: [Plowshare] engages in direct action all across the world. I am not a Christian scholar but I believe it comes from a quote in Isaiah, “They shall turn spears into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.” They [the Oak Ridge Three] have this crazy idea that “thou shall not kill.”
Tolstoy had the same thing – if you want to look at an anarchist it would be along the same lines. Tolstoy became an anarchist through his Christianity. He believed “thou shall not kill” was something you cannot compromise. So, as such, you can have nothing to do with governments – all governments kill. He didn’t like the term anarchist, but he was. And they [the Oak Ridge Three] are kind of similar.
[The Oak Ridge Three] believe, not only that they should read the gospels of Jesus, but they should act the gospels. Their basis is really their Christianity but they are also influenced by Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau and other classic non-violent, direct actionists.
Grant: Are they anarchists? The Oak Ridge Three?
Chris: No, I wouldn’t know how to categorize them. It is interesting the backgrounds. Many people don’t realize Mr. Walli served two tours in Vietnam and was [a]decorated vet. He was on the Cambodian border twice. Once during Kent State, where he first saw people die, at least 50 people die. He knew first hand the results of the state and warfare…
It’s three different individuals as well, but in terms of militarization and the rhetoric that comes out of their mouths is ten times more militant than nine out of ten of the kids with an A sticker and patches that they wear around… I don’t know though, I would have to ask.
Grant: Okay, cool. So why did they do it? Was it to call attention to nuclear arms? Was it to call attention to war in general?
Chris: Both, and again, they believe thou shall not kill is something you can’t compromise on. [The Oak Ridge Three] view, those [nuclear weapons], basically, as mobile death camps. In World War II they brought the people to camps and in some weird twisted obscenity of consumer convenience culture, now we have figured out how to bring the death camps to the people. And they [the Oak Ridge Three] believe in a life dedicated to service – they can’t do that anymore.
They believe they’re Christians in the truest sense of the word… I just read the gospels for the first time… I came at it as an anarchist and as an organizer. I realized a couple of things. The reason Jesus got assassinated was … it looked like he was putting together a private army in the desert. I mean, most of his miracles revolve around logistics – water into wine. My favorite one is when had to feed all these people and they’re coming into a town. He sent two of his boys in and said “look, find the second guy that comes from the well in the town and tell him look, we’re gonna have our private army come into your town. We would like a room on the second floor and food waiting for us.” So, of course, what do you do when a private army is coming into your town? Sure enough, on the second floor, there’s food and they’re like, “This is a f’in miracle.”
… Jesus was an organizer first and foremost and he was becoming a threat to the status quo – to the rabbis. So they used the Roman military to take him out because they knew that the religious establishment couldn’t do it.
I think he gets a bad rap, just because of how he has been misused. I think if Jesus was around today, on the streets, well, he would probably be on death row or in the prison pretty quickly. They [the Oak Ridge Three] would be with him. They have seen through all the bull shit and the stuff that has accumulated…
I think that those three are closer to being true Christians than the pope…
Grant: Cool. So again, a lot of planning had to go into this obviously. You don’t just do an action like this. So, why did they pick when they did it? Why did they go that day?
Chris: I used to know… They had a reason… It had something to do with the date or time, but it didn’t come up in trial… So I don’t remember.
Grant: Okay, cool. In custody, how were they treated?
Chris: Sister Rice is pissed off! They all got a good look at the industrial prison complex and she dedicated about half her allocution during sentencing [she went on for about an hour and a half and about half of that was about prison] about the prison industrial complex. About the private prison systems – about how she was glad about how she had gotten a PhD in prisons. That the prisons were overcrowded, packed with non-violent offenders.
… They were in Blount County too, a cess pool jail really- overcrowded, sticky floors. Federal custody is typically better than state- more resources better jails and stuff. They spent some of their time in Ocilla, Georgia and that’s better conditions, you know, as far as being an animal stuck in a cage for a truly non-non violent offense.
Characterize it as the prison industrial complex- they’re just the slave ships of our century, but we don’t have a corresponding abolitionist movement that we had during the slave periods. Their [the Oak Ridge Three] perspective is more educated than, again, as most anarchist and their rhetoric is more radical. They really, especially sister Rice, … hate the sheer waste and destructive impact of the prison industrial complex. She educated the judge and everyone in the courtroom.
Here is a woman whose issue is Y-12 and nuclear weapons, she saw wrong while she was in jail, and dedicated half of what she was saying so the media and others would hear whats also going on in the prisons.
This [protest] wasn’t just a single act- this is just overall part of a life service and radicalism. They’re consistent. It shows that it is more a broad philosophy than just a single shot activist that got a good idea one night. Their philosophy shows, and how they treat injustice across the board – not simply money robbed from the poor through militarism, but also whats happening in prisons.
Michael Wallis serves food to the homeless, helps out soup kitchens, integrating former prisoners back into society. I mean their whole lives are dedicated, every aspect, to service to this philosophy. It was reflected in their outlook and how they worked and advocated for people while in custody.
You read Alexander Berkman’s autobiography? Everyone’s read Emma Goldman’s autobiography but they don’t realize hers kind of started where his starts. She got to have this cool life traveling around the country and speaking and all this stuff. They put him in the tombs for 22 years and tried to kill him. He continued his life to service and was just as radical and militant as she was while he was in this Hell hole catacombs defending other prisoners, refusing to rat, earning respect … They’re [the Oak Ridge Three] like rocks. They don’t bend, they don’t fold- they maintain consistency. These people have that same kind of classical anarchist consistency.
Grant: How about in the courtroom itself? How were they portrayed by the prosecution? As their defense attorney how did you try to combat that? Were these people smeared as people who advocate violence or anything like that?
Chris: No, that wouldn’t have floated at all. The prosecutor did his job. I mean he acknowledged he was Catholic too and this is a Catholic nun that he is putting away. He acknowledged that they were non-violent. He tried to focus that they were misdirected, misguided and then focused on the elements of the offense – did they have an intent to interfere with the national security of the United States? Did they damage or contaminate? He focused on the elements and used that to prove his case.
And then they [the Oak Ridge Three] didn’t deny for a second what they did. Hell, while they were out on bond they did interviews about what they did. They did it on television, they did it on radio – so he didn’t really need to demonize them. Theodore [the prosecutor], he is conflicted, but he did his job.
Grant: Cool. So that is it then. So, why are they asking for the max penalty? Or at least miss Rice is.
Chris: Well, the maximum is 30 years.
Grant: Right, well, she is asking for life in prison – why make that request?
Chris: Because they’re willing to be martyrs for their cause. They believe it doesn’t matter. They’re not in prison, you know? They are just in a cell that humans put them in.
Propaganda by the deed. She [Rice] meant it. She was like, ” You can’t .”… She is a being of light. They are uncompromising on principle and philosophy and that is really rare in this society. That’s their position.
They wanted to communicate and they saw also that people who engage in non-violent civil disobedience were watching what was happening. They were saying, “No, we’re not going to back down – we are principled human beings and the state, all they can do is take our lives. That’s all you’ve got – the worst you can do is take our lives and incarcerate these bodies we have.” For those who are truly embraced in the philosophy that’s no threat at all. It was no threat to her. She didn’t care. She was like, “Alright, I’m what, 85 now?” She’s like, “Yeah, put me away for life.”
Ten years sentence is probably life.
All three did not repent an ounce of what they did.
Chris: Made me proud to represent them.
Grant: Yea, I guess that is another question about the [cross talk] that might be about my final question. I mean, they weren’t repentant at all- which is great.
Chris: They said they would do it again if they released them.
Grant: So how was that? How was that reaction? Sitting from the outside, when a judge who just gives a sentence and then to have somebody say, you know, “That’s not enough,” or, “I’ll go do it again.” How does something like that go over in a court system like that? What was the reaction in the courtroom?
Chris: Well, I can tell you what my reaction is…
After I had argued for about two hours and then for my clients to basically be like, “All you can do, judge, is put us away for the rest of our lives. You have no power here. We consider ourselves to have a higher ruling from a higher court” – made me sweat blood a little bit. As an attorney my job is to get them the least amount of time possible and cost them as little money as possible – as an activist, even then, it was outside of everybody’s range of experience.
The legal system is a well oiled, life gobbling machine and having somebody say, “You got no power – put us away, give us more time” takes it out of the realm of that machine. They don’t know how to deal with it. It played into the deterrence argument.
Grant: What is that? Deterrence?
Chris: That’s one of the seven factors your suppose to look at in sentencing, is deterrence. And I wish now I had argued during, “There is no deterrence, here, your honor, you’re not going to deter them. We shouldn’t even be talking about that.” …
Grant: Whats this deterrence again? What exactly is that?
Chris: Keep other activists and keep them [the defendants] from doing it again.
Chris: He kind of dumped the keep them from doing it again and just used it to show other activists not to do this… You never see that.
You have gangsta’s that talk about it. But, you know, I’ve represented Bloods, vice lords, Crips, MS-13’s, crack dealers, meth addicts, prostitution’s, shooters- you know, across the board and they talk: “Fuck the police” and blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day most of them cooperate. They are all humble and are like “please, your honor” – they don’t want to be in these Hell holes.
It’s interesting to see a octogenarian, you know, show more true gangsta than your average Blood or Crip.
It was inspiring. It was definitely inspiring. I’m gonna get the transcript for the whole trial eventually and just to read it again…
Grant: So, I’ll ask you a final wrap up question but I guess the next few are on a more personal note – how did you come about the legal profession? So as an anarchist what led you into the legal profession and then from there, criminal defense? I kind of imagine that they [cross talk]
Chris: Well I got arrested so many times from civil disobedience that I had to sit through my court proceedings and usually they put us at the end of the docket. So I had to sit through everyone else’s court proceedings… I sat through it all and I was like, “You know, I could do that.” I like to argue, and then, I realized too I’m a dinosaur. You know? I mean, active anarchist organizers that are my age? [I can count on one hand radicals that started when I did that are still organizing.] We have a higher turnover rate than McDonald’s in this business.
My wife and I at the time were in our late 20’s. We sat down and we wrote down every reason we saw our activist people checking out. Often times it just came down to that dumpster diving and couch surfing is okay in your 20’s and stuff, but eventually, people- its a human thing- want a little bit more security, want a little more comfort.
You know, the classical anarchists all had straight jobs. Emma Goldman was a nurse. Some made shoes, some attorneys- unless you were born rich Russian nobility, which I wasn’t. I lost my job I had on 9/11. I was cleaning the outside of sky scrapers and my wife wanted to stay here and I wanted to go back to school just to hide out for a while. I was all, “Well, I’ll just go to law school.”
And law school is really like reading the rule box of society, you know? It’s reading the cereal box. I wanted new tools too. I had exhausted all the tactics I used up until then. First I get access to people. Then I learned some funky stuff…
Also my job as a criminal defense attorney is to take as much money from corporations as possible and keep people out of prison for bull shit victimless crimes. I’m okay with that.
Thoreau said that most men led lives of quiet desperation. I had no idea until I interviewed my first 100 clients what a relative life of privilege I’d lead as an environmentalist anarchist. I had no idea the amount of rape, children sexual abuse and how many people are just doing drugs to try and kill that part of their brain that [remembered what] happened when they were kids. It was brutally disillusioning but I believe illusions interfere with an ability to lead a good life so I embraced that.
Also, defense attorneys, we’re the ones that tell the state, “You can’t go further.There is a line here you can’t go further than.” I like being on the front lines. I like being able to hear and see exactly where the state is encroaching…
Also I noticed, I stopped a strip mine for a year and half. I used to lock myself by my neck to bulldozers and gates and I’ve organized protests against strip mines and we’ve shut them down for an hour. Where, with just pushing paper back and forth, I shut down a strip mine for over a year- …
I came into the system with no illusions. When I talk to my clients I give them clearly the anarchist wrap. I am like, “Look, if you have any illusions that this is about justice fairness or rationality you need to get rid of that. This is about money and time. The state wants your ass and I am trying to save that for you.”
Whats pathetic is 98% of my clients go, “Ha, yeah, I knew that”…
… being in the guts of what is going on has radicalized me.
www.paxchristiusa.org – … Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), and the speaking of truth by our three friends in the empire’s court was, for me, an infusion of hope!