Wednesday, July 15, 2009
The Nevada Desert Experience (No Nukes, No Drones!)
Last time we wrote, we were on our way to Las Vegas from Santa Fe. Along the way we stopped in Grants, New Mexico, and were blessed with a kachina doll, “The Healer.” We prayed it would heal the seared lands of New Mexico and Nevada from their radioactive poisons as we passed through.
We awoke the next morning on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Ellen was chided from there to Yosemite to stop using the camera while she was driving. But only her grandchild Emma will be able to say if the footage was worth it (Emma, and the terrified motorists in the oncoming lanes). “But the mountains are all so different!” Ellen explains.
We were hosted for two nights in Las Vegas by Jim Haber and Sister Megan of Nevada Desert Experience (NDE), who welcome all activists who come to join their witness against nuclear weapons. We were drawn to Vegas thanks to an invitation from Code Pink – Phoenix. Liz Hourican was one of a group of wonderful women staying at the Goddess Temple in Cactus Springs for a series of actions against war in general, and especially our ongoing remotely-operated drone war in Afghanistan/Pakistan.
On Monday, July 13, we joined NDE and Code Pink in a sunrise demonstration at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, north of Las Vegas, to protest the Predator Drones which are tested and used for training on the base. Some of the base personnel remotely operate drones which are in the air halfway around the world, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At this demonstration was Father Louis Vitale of Pace Bene, who to our great fortune was in town for a rare homecoming. (The current home of the Nevada Desert Experience was previously home to the Franciscan Order that Father Louis founded there in the early 1970’s.)
We displayed our vintage yellow banner that reads: “Proposition One - Convert the War Machines – visit our website prop1.org” and noticed a number of military folks looking closely at the website (http://prop1.org) as they passed our yellow and Code Pink pink displays. A few of the local police took offense when Fr. Louis, Sister Megan, Code Pink sister Lisa from Washington state and Toby from Code Pink in the Bay Area knelt in the entrance to the base at 7:30 am, briefly stopping busses full of incoming workers. The guards were quite rough as they got impatient, tossing 79-year-old Sister Megan onto the asphalt, dragging her on her back and dropping her head on the gravel at the side of the road. Lisa was grabbed by the nose and hauled out of the street. Incredible dedication. . .
After promising Jim Haber and Sister Megan that we would return to Las Vegas soon, we set off late Monday morning across the mountainous desert (it’s all Basin and Range in Nevada, friends) to … and too fast through … Yosemite National Park. The sunset skylines of Half Dome and other wonders visible from Tioga were spectacular – but no suitable campsites were to be had. So we slept on the edge of the Merced River, then drove this morning to Livermore, California, home of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and Sandia Labs - the other two major nuclear weapons labs in the country, after Los Alamos (Sandia also has a large facility in Albuquerque).
There was a small adventure awaiting, the first of its kind on this trip. Our friend Marylia Kelley—head of Tri-Valley Cares, undeterrable local watchdog of LLNL and Sandia, and one of the premier complex transformation advocates in the country—suggested we pay a visit to the one-square-mile lab site (as compared to the 47 square miles of Los Alamos, or the some-1500 sq. mile, bigger-than-the-state-of-Rhode-Island Nevada Test Site) just down the road. So we headed south, searching for the Visitor Center and optimistically hoping to find an expert to help us with our new, already haywire geiger counter.
Turning into the western gate, we quickly determined it was employees only, u-turned around and headed away, rolling the videocamera all the while. Apparently the Department of Energy employees hired to protect the Labs were not impressed by our drive-by filming, so we were swifly followed down the northern perimeter of the lab (set back from the road and protected by a 100-yard belt of barren land), and pulled over before we reached the east-side Visitors Entrance.
The officers were not amused by or interested in our geiger counter, and demanded ID from Ellen, who was driving, and Jay in the passenger’s seat. After 20 minutes of slow broil in the July California valley sun, they returned with a more pleasant aspect and gave back our documents. Seemingly satisfied that we were who we said we were, they gave us the go-ahead into the complex, but no sooner had we parked then another officer came up to Ellen, this one an Alameda County Sheriff. He explained that Livermore took these labs quite seriously, and politely put us all through the same rigmarole, filling out little ticket-looking “crime investigation” sheets on all four of us, rousting even Troy, who was napping in the back of the van, as Steve played “Wish You Were Here” on his 12-string guitar.
Finally cleared of wrongdoing we were allowed to enter the Visitor Center—but not with the geiger counter OR the video camera. The Energy Dept. Cop who pulled us over originally assured us that “nobody in there knows what to do with that thing, and anyway we don’t know what’s in it.” Jay resisted the temptation to show the internal workings of a vintage 1984 Civil Defense geiger counter to four men who guard the number one radioactive weapons lab in the country, and we walked into the Visitor Center armed only with the audio recorder.
Inside was actually a lovely display, and a lovely woman – Diane – who accompanied us around the displays, while indicating that her husband has worked at the lab for almost 25 years, as had her father. We explained our geiger counter plight, and she showed us theirs: a lovely (and working) lime-green model with a hand probe and an audio tick that accelerated when brought close to the three radioactive display items: tungsten welding rods, Coleman lantern mantels, and shards of bright orange Fiesta Ware plates that were popular in the seventies until it was discovered that the paint was radioactive (the hottest item in the display case, as it turned out). She did admit that the device could not tell the difference between alpha, beta and gamma rays, and that she wasn’t sure about it herself.
The rest of the center included descriptions of the actual weapons that had been developed at the lab (including an almost 6 foot tall model of an MX III warhead); aerial photos of the lab territory and “Area 300,” the actual physical test site about 10 miles away; a timeline of the lab and the historical events during its history; a section describing the technologies available for fighting terrorism; and even a section mentioning carbon-free energy and describing how LLNL scientists helped produce the data for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Two orange bikes hooked to light bulbs help youth understand how to create electricity, and show off the program that lets employees across the complex pick up a bike in front of any building and drop it off in front of any other, no locks needed. Incredible what you can do with a budget of a few billion dollars a year, isn’t it?
We’re told that tours are available on Tuesdays, two weeks’ reservation required, and we hope to see one before we have to move on—after all, how many [particle accelerators] or [laser intensifiers] do you get to see in a lifetime? But we’ll leave the videocamera at home. . . IF we pass the security check and get a badge. . . As we told the officers today, we’re only tourists – antinuclear tourists, to be sure, but good Americans all the same.
Now we’re safe in an East Oakland base camp with another friend of Prop 1, artist Ruby Pearl, and we’ll be in the Bay Area for a few days before heading on a short Northern California loop, then back through on our way to Southern Cal, AZ, and back to New Mexico for Think Outside the Bomb in Albuquerque on August 13-16. The tour is finally solidifying, and dates and places will be posted at this site as they congeal.
Ellen, Jay, Steve, and Troy