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The Ongoing Call for Nuclear Abolition at Los Alamos

The sick people who prevent gun control and support AK47s are the same people who support the building and maintenance of nuclear weapons, which put millions of people at risk from some unimaginable massacre to come.

The sickness of our widespread gun violence epidemic is connected to the sickness of the nuclear weapons industry, and the numbness and despair among us allow these lethal epidemics to threaten us all. (Photo: John Dear)

The sickness of our widespread gun violence epidemic is connected to the sickness of the nuclear weapons industry, and the numbness and despair among us allow these lethal epidemics to threaten us all. (Photo: John Dear)

This week, we drove back up the remote New Mexico mountains to the "atomic city" for our annual peace vigil, sit in and rally. This was our 16th year in a row. Every time I go to Los Alamos, I’m shocked all over again by its beauty, its normalcy—and its frightening, zombie-like culture of death.

For me, Los Alamos remains the world’s greatest terrorist camp, its most sinister place, the embodiment of evil. For while the people are good, and the surrounding cliffs, rocks, forests and mountains are stunning, the National Laboratories where we spend hundreds of billions to build nuclear weapons is the most evil place on earth. There we prepare for the end of the world like it was a perfectly normal thing to do. There our despair reaches its climax and we give in to our addiction to death and say, go ahead, blow the whole thing up.

But the drive up the mountain presents a gorgeous view. The two lane road takes you along sheer rocky cliffs on one side of a majestic canyon. Far down below you can see pine trees, junipers and sagebrush across the canyon floor. Across the way, stands the other side of the canyon wall—a wall of light brown, almost orange and white mysterious rock.

It’s a hot August day, but as usual massive white rain clouds tower overhead threatening rain, as they do this time of year. Oppenheimer picked this remote place precisely because no one would ever make the trek up here. Few still do.

When you reach the top, a large sign greets you: “Welcome to Los Alamos—where discoveries are made.” We gathered for our annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki commemoration at Ashley Pond Park, the exact place where long ago the Hiroshima bomb was built by Oppenheimer and his mad scientists. Now the streets honor that proud achievement with names like Oppenheimer Drive and Trinity Drive.

This year we noticed that the National Park Service has taken over Ashley Pond Park, and set up a little visitor’s center which celebrates the atomic bomb. You would never know it was ever detonated. No, there are no photos of the 200,000 sisters and brothers killed 74 years ago. No, there is no hint of regret or a commitment to make sure these atrocities never happen again. To me, it would be like visiting the Auschwitz museum and finding the museum approved what happen. I told the friendly park ranger that I found the whole thing quite disturbing, and that we were going outside to protest this mad rush to death. He laughed out loud.

I step outside into the park and lightning strikes the surrounding hills. Dark clouds hover over head and thunder breaks the silence every few minutes. A light drizzle starts. We decide, at over 7000 feet above sea level, that it’s too dangerous to be walking around during these lightning strikes, so we cancel the walk, and gather near the stage area by Ashley Pond for our witness.

We pick up a peace sign, put on sackcloth, and pour ashes on the nearby ground, and sit for thirty minutes of silent prayer to repent of the mortal sin of nuclear weapons, as the people of Ninevah did long ago according to the Book of Jonah. We beg the God of peace for the gift of nuclear disarmament. We look ridiculous, of course, but unbeknownst to passers-by, we have undertaken a symbolic spiritual/political act of protest--the oldest known form of protest in history.

Then we heard from our speakers. Jay Coghlan of Nukewatch New Mexico talked about the seriousness and stupidity of the Trump Administration’s decision last week to pull out of the Arms Control Treaty, a decision that has gotten lost in all the other bad news (see: www.nukewatch.org). Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety New Mexico spoke of the latest shenanigans by the Labs, to bypass the legal oversight of its water purification system so that plutonium contaminated water can continue to poison the land (see: www.nuclearactive.org). Alicia from Nukewatch explained the latest progress with the U.N. treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons, organized by the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winning group, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (see: www.icanw.org).

Since we were a small group of forty or so, we took turns sharing our reflections on this solemn occasion, from our experience of sitting at the place where the Original Bomb was built, to our personal efforts for peace. One friend spoke of the money spent by the city of Los Alamos to beautify the park. “I hate all this beauty,” she said through her tears, “because it covers up all the evil that happened here and continues to happen here.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

Last year we started to hold regular organizing meetings to plan our events for next year, August 6-9, 2020, when we will mark the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6, and 9, 2020, we plan to walk around Ashley Pond Park, perhaps 500 of us or more, and then join hands in silence to mark the occasion, then hold a rally with speakers and music.

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In between those days, we will hold the Campaign Nonviolence National Conference in Albuquerque with speakers including actor Martin Sheen, Civil Rights leader Dolores Huerta, religious leader Rev. Richard Rohr, social scientist Dr. Erica Chenoweth, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the HipHop Caucus, myself and others.

I invited Beatrice Finn, leader of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, to fly from Geneva next year to speak to us. She wrote me that the Mayor of Hiroshima had also invited her to speak, so she would be in Japan during that time. She recommended we invited Dr. Ira Helfand of ICAN to speak instead and he gladly accepted.

But Beatrice Finn also said, in effect, that on August 6 and 9, 2020, there’s only two places to be on the planet—Hiroshima, Japan, or Los Alamos, New Mexico, calling for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

We encourage everyone not going to Japan next year to make places to join our national march and commemorations in Los Alamos, NM. (For details and to register, visit: www.paceebene.org/cnvconference2020). I hope every peace, justice and environmental group in the national can send a delegation.

Only later did we learn that while we were praying and speaking out for nuclear disarmament in Los Alamos through our public nonviolent witness and action, down the road on highway 25 south, just pass Las Cruces, NM, into El Paso, Texas, a gunman was opening fire on people at the local Walmart. It was a blatant racist, anti-immigrant, terrorist massacre, fueled by the hatred of the racist president and the racist Republican party. Like everyone, I grieve for all those killed and injured in El Paso, Dayton and elsewhere, and I see a direct connection between Los Alamos and El Paso and the insanity of our gun violence and nuclear violence.

The sick people who prevent gun control and support AK47s are the same people who support the building and maintenance of nuclear weapons, which put millions of people at risk from some unimaginable massacre to come. The sickness of our widespread gun violence epidemic is connected to the sickness of the nuclear weapons industry, and the numbness and despair among us allow these lethal epidemics to threaten us all.

We need to wake each other up, now more than ever, and speak out and resist violence in all its forms, and call for a new culture of nonviolence, where not only ban machine guns and nuclear weapons, we fund decent jobs, housing, education, healthcare, and dignity for all people everywhere—and nonviolent conflict resolution as the way forward.

In September, CampaignNonviolence.org will organize over 3,000 marches, rallies, and public events across the U.S. during our national week of action (Sept. 14-22) against a wide array of issues—racism, war, poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction—to call for a new culture of justice, peace and nonviolence. We want to keep the movement moving; connect the dots between the various struggles; put our nonviolence into practice; and build up the global grassroots movement of creative nonviolence. It’s the way change has always happened—when ordinary people take public action through bottom up people power grassroots movements. Join us! (www.campaignnonviolence.org)

It's strange, but later, driving back down the mountain, after a day of meetings, and now an afternoon of public witnessing for peace, I felt oddly consoled, grateful, even hopeful. One would not expect that after looking Hiroshima and Los Alamos in the eye.

I recalled the words of my friend and teacher to me long ago—Fr. Daniel Berrigan: "If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things."

So we go forward, doing our small hopeful things, no matter what, hoping for the best, come what may. And we take heart once more.

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