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Building a resistance to nuclear Kitsap
Off of a rural backwoods road in North Kitsap, several volunteers methodically work on the interior walls of a partially constructed community building.
Their work is set to the tone of steady rain and bullets occasionally ringing out from a nearby firing range.
They seem oblivious to the noise, focused more intently on a danger they find much more threatening, a possibility that lies only a short distance on the opposite side of their western property line.
“In the winter time you can see through the trees and see a bunch of bunkers,” said physician David Hall, pointing beyond a chain-link boundary fence. “Those are the storage facilities for the nuclear warheads.”
Hall is a member of Ground Zero Network for Nonviolent Action, a group founded in 1977 and dedicated to the end of nuclear proliferation, and the dismantling of the United States nuclear arsenal.
The property bought when the group was founded shares a 330-foot fence with the Bangor Nuclear Submarine Base, which is home to eight Trident-missile equipped, Ohio-class nuclear subs and an estimated 1,600 to 2,000 nuclear warheads – about a quarter of the active U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Members of the organization have been dedicating weekends to create a new community building and home for the GZ movement.
“This is the concrete prayer that those weapons will never be used,” Hall said. “Each Trident sub theoretically has the capacity to generate nuclear winter. That’s enough firepower to black out the entire sun for weeks to months. That sort of horror requires someone to say, that is not OK.”
Members of GZ come from across the Puget Sound and comprise diverse backgrounds, including activists, clergy members and former U.S. Navy captains.
“We have a number of supporters, but members of the core group are graying,” Hall said. “Some are Vietnam-era folks in terms of initial understanding of the dangers that these weapons pose. Part of the house building is to try and find a way to welcome a much wider community into the understanding of what’s out here.”
Indeed, many people have spoken up against the Trident nuclear program, and the movement has attracted activists from across the country.
Lynne Greenwald moved to Kitsap in 1983 to be a part of Ground Zero after managing a homeless shelter in Missoula, Mont.
She became interested in the nuclear cause when she learned that the railroad tracks just behind the shelter she managed were being used to transport nuclear weapons from Amarillo, Texas, to Bangor.
“Back then I was pregnant with my first daughter,” Greenwald said. “That, and knowing those warheads were parked behind the homeless shelter, inspired me to be part of a community that was addressing nuclear weapons.”
She visited the area to see how she would enjoy the community, and never went back to Montana.
“When we moved here Ground Zero was a tight community of people who met on a weekly basis,” she said. “We were part of keeping the campaign going and keeping track of the nuclear trains. But over the years things changed, life got busy.”
Interest in the nuclear arsenal was rekindled when the Iraq War began, Greenwald said.
Scrutiny of the U.S. military complex meant more activists voicing opposition to nuclear weapons at Bangor, and larger crowds attending peace rallies and participating in civil disobedience actions that usually result in members being arrested outside or just inside the Bangor facility.
Many GZ members have arrest records and some have spent time in federal prisons relating to trespass violations after they have crossed the blue line that separates the nuclear facility and the public.
Hall has been arrested eight times for defying the Trident nuclear program. His wife, a pastor at University Lutheran Church in Seattle, has been arrested more than 30 times. Greenwald has also been arrested and was recently given a community service sentence relating to a Mother’s Day arrest.
“When Iraq started, things changed. I started being more active and risking arrest again and using acts of civil disobedience,” Greenwald said. “We thought the end of the Vietnam War was a turning point, but it didn’t stop my kids from going though the same things I went through when I was young...the threats are greater now.”
The years after 9/11 were also some of the most controversial times for Ground Zero members to be protesting aspects of the U.S. military. Kitsap County Sheriff’s officers, who regularly monitor Ground Zero rallies, at times found themselves having to stop citizens from fighting during peaceful demonstrations.
“We do whatever we can to protect them from being assaulted by anyone else,” Deputy Sheriff Scott Wilson said. “After 9/11 there were a handful of occasions when someone tried to get out of their car and escalate the dialog. I have to hand it to them (Ground Zero members), they are always calm, cool and collected when confronted.”
Wilson has monitored and arrested numerous GZ activists and has testified at two trials of GZ members who have been arrested for failing to disperse or trespassing. He describes the relationship between protesters and authority figures as “cordial,” with members often telling police before hand who will be arrested at events.
Still, Wilson believes the heyday of the group was back in the 1980s.
“Back in the ‘80s there were a lot of protests and people positioning themselves on train tracks to stop the delivery of munitions to the sub base,” he said. “We had to remove them or they would have been killed.”
Sensitive nuclear issues — from Iran’s nuclear movement to the prospect of nuclear “dirty bombs” – and domestic scandals involving nuclear detonators sent to Taiwan and the accidental relocation of nuclear weapons on U.S. soil and have also raised awareness, and skepticism, of America’s nuclear capability. Some members of the group believe more people have clued into the movement in recent years.
“I think the community here right now is going through a real growth spurt with the building’s construction,” Greenwald said. “There are a bunch of individuals involved in different ways and we’ve seen an influx of younger people which is exciting.”
However, Ground Zero is not without it’s critics, who believe the groups tactics are not always productive.
“We all realize (nuclear weapons) are disastrous, as far as physical devastation, but those concerns need to be directed to folks in Washington,” Wilson said. “The folks at Bangor are average military family members who don’t have a lot of say in the implementation of national policy. They follow orders.”
GZ members counter that they want to engage in conversation with those who may be ordered one day to release nuclear weapons on the world.
GZ also has connections in Washington with pressure groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility, which actively lobby Congress toward the eventual goal of nuclear disarmament.
“We are back in D.C., and there are people actively working there,” Hall said. “This is the local vigil, this is the front line.”
Tom Karlin, a Navy veteran who lives in Tacoma, is one of the volunteers working on tending the front line, sawing wood and mounting braces in the new structure.
Karlin wasn’t a founding member of the group, but has been involved in Ground Zero and resisting nuclear weapons for over 30 years. He is one of a handful of ex-military members who say their experience on both sides of the issues has helped them cultivate a lifelong awareness on the potential devastation that sits a couple hundred yards from the Ground Zero site.
“I was assigned weapons handling details for four years in mid-50s,” Karlin said. “The first Taiwan Strait Crisis, that really scared me – our ship was carrying the bomb. I knew how close we were numerous times, not just during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The realization of how close the world had come towards all-out nuclear war inspired Karlin to eventually voice opposition to the U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, which many members see as a violation of the constitution and international law.
“It’s a gradual process, it’s a lifetime process of growing awareness,” he said. “Something was planted deep in my spirit to resisting this, to where now I am a pacifist and don’t support violence any more.”
“We have to resist what is going on behind that fence.”
On Monday, as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, citizens and members of the Ground Zero group will hold a nonviolent protest at the nuclear arsenal at Bangor. Local vigils also will be held at the Kitsap Fair Grounds. www.gzcenter.org.