Three decades ago next week, a group of about 17,000 protesters joined hands to encircle Rocky Flats. It was the culmination of five years of activism against the nuclear weapons facility — and the birth of a Boulder center that has been dedicated to economic, social and environmental justice ever since.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC), the organization birthed out of the protests at Rocky Flats, will mark its 30th anniversary with a couple of special events this fall. The first is a concert featuring Holly Near, one of the musicians who participated in the protests against Rocky Flats in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.
Center co-administrator Betty Ball says Near’s agent just happened to call her wanting to line up a show that has ended up coinciding with the RMPJC’s milestone birthday.
“It really is serendipitous and wonderful that Holly will be here on the 18th to celebrate our 30 years together,” Ball says.
The second event is the 30th annual Peacemaker of the Year award ceremony, being held at 5 p.m. on Nov. 16, also at the Unity Church. Special guests will include Jon Lipsky, who led the FBI raid on Rocky Flats in June 1989, and Wes McKinley, the foreman of the grand jury that examined evidence against the corporation that operated Rocky Flats. McKinley will be signing copies of his book, The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered up Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed, which he co-wrote with Caron Balkany about the jury and the closed-door deal that resulted in the evidence being sealed.
Also expected to attend both of the events are at least two of the RMPJC’s original six co-founders, Chet Tchozewski and LeRoy Moore, who recently suffered a minor stroke but is recovering nicely, according to Ball. (She says Moore is not quite ready for phone calls or visitors, but cards can be sent to him c/o the RMPJC, P.O. Box 1156, Boulder, 80306.)
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Ball and others involved in the Rocky Flats protests that prompted the formation of the RMPJC look back with both awe and fondness at what the activists were ultimately able to accomplish: the closure of the nuclear weapons facility.
Tchozewski says he and the other five founding members of the RMPJC — Moore, Karen Gruber, Jeri Brown, Sally Dowiatt and Rich Stafford — decided to create the center at around the same time the “encirclement” happened, but RMPJC didn’t officially open its doors until six months later, on April 15, 1984. It was a direct result of the Rocky Flats protests, and the need to have a formal organization to support such efforts going forward.
Tchozewski, who moved to Boulder in 1978 from the tiny mountain hamlet of Georgetown expressly to be involved in the effort against the nuclear weapons facility, recalls the 1978 sit-in to block the railroad tracks leading into Rocky Flats. That group, the “Rocky Flats Truth Force,” occupied the tracks for a whole year, and was joined by several prominent figures, including Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Daniel Ellsberg. The six founders of the RMPJC were there as well.
“It was a remarkable local protest that became international in scope,” recalls Joseph Daniel, who was a photographer for the Colorado Daily at the time. Daniel went on to publish A Year Of Disobedience And A Criticality Of Conscience, which chronicled the activism and was recently reissued with an update from Moore and a new foreword from Ellsberg.
Among the most iconic images that Daniel recalls from that time was the tipi that was erected on the railroad tracks for a year, and the heavy spring snows, with activists sitting on the tracks as a train would approach and stop, law enforcement officers and train workers trudging through the white drifts toward them.
“The most striking thing to me in all of this is that nothing has changed,” Daniel says. “We’re making the same statements and fighting the same fights.”
Five years of periodic protests and hundreds of arrests later, Tchozewski says the encirclement was a more peaceful approach than some of the tactics that the activists had taken in previous years.
“We realized we were turning a corner and could back off on the militancy,” he says, adding that the nuclear weapons plant was in the news almost every day thanks to the protesters. “We were just hammering them, even though every day we thought, ‘We’re not gonna win this thing, there’s just no way. We’re up against the military-industrial complex at the height of the Cold War.’”
Tchozewski, whose activist efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s primarily involved the American Friends Service Committee in Denver, says it became apparent that Boulder had a lot of activists, but no organization to support and coordinate it all.
“Boulder really needed an institutional base that was a permanent fixture that would adapt and become the kind of resilient institution that the Peace Center now has become over the last 30 years,” he says, adding that the RMPJC would become “the kind of stabilizing force that makes movements successful.”
He says that even back then, Moore was the “elder statesman” of the group, as he is today.
The Rocky Flats site in 2007 | Photo courtesy of the EPA
“One of the greatest achievements of the Peace Center was putting LeRoy to work for 35 years,” Tchozewski says, noting that the RMPJC gave Moore “a stable base of supporters who would work with him.”
In the end, their efforts at Rocky Flats paid off. Tchozewski recalls the Denver Post headline in June 1989 announcing that the nuclear arms facility had been raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after a secret six-month investigation — raided by a team of about 40 agents who shut down the operation and collected hundreds of documents. Eventually the plant was shut down for good.
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The first RMPJC office was at 15th Street and Euclid Avenue, in the Center for United Ministries, he says. There was a short stint in an office above the Boulder Book Store, then it moved back to its original home when it was bought by the Boulder Mennonite Church.
“We stayed there until the Mennonites sold it to the Catholics, who kicked us out,” Tchozewski says.
Currently, the RMPJC is based at 3970 Broadway, near Lucky’s Market, where it operates Rockin’ Betty’s Thrift Shop, named for Ball.
And in the years that have passed since Rocky Flats, the organization has made its mark in many other movements.
Tchozewski recalls the center being active in trying to shut down nuclear testing in Nevada in the late 1980s, where activists took to the backcountry by foot in an attempt to thwart the government’s activities by introducing the real possibility that people would be killed if they continued detonations. He says security personnel were constantly pursuing fleeing activists as they attempted to evade detection.
“They would chase us in helicopters, it was wild,” Tchozewski says.
He also lists among the center’s accomplishments its outreach during the Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua, which included building a school in that country and helping lead to Jalapa becoming one of Boulder’s sister cities. The RMPJC was also involved in bringing the Dushanbe Teahouse to Boulder, because it was one of the driving forces in making a Soviet Union municipality one of Boulder’s sister cities, according to Tchozewski.
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Ball, who participated in the encirclement and other protests at Rocky Flats, didn’t join the RMPJC until 1998, after a stint with the “Redwood Summer” movement in California. She agrees that while the Boulder center may have gotten its start at Rocky Flats, it has effected change in many other causes, including protests against the First Gulf War and efforts to reform the criminal justice system and lobby for the rights of prisoners, which was spearheaded by the RMPJC’s Christie Donner, who went on to lead the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, an organization that has helped secure many needed improvements to the state’s criminal justice system.
“We’re very proud of that history,” Ball says. “We launched Christie.”
She adds that the RMPJC was involved in American Indian Movement (AIM) efforts, including acting as a mediator during land grant disputes in Tierra Amarilla, N.M. The center’s nonviolence work there landed it an award presented by activist and actor Russell Means of Colorado AIM, according to Ball.
The RMPJC also helped organize Boulder’s first food co-op in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she says, and it has been active in fighting the Patriot Act as well as modern-day conflicts in the Middle East. Ball recalls that the center’s nonviolence training sessions have been infiltrated by authorities on multiple occasions, from the Arapahoe County law enforcement officers who testified against those arrested in a 2003 protest against the Iraq War in Colorado Springs to undercover officers who attempted to provoke activists into diverting from their nonviolent protocols during a sit-in at Rep. Mark Udall’s office a couple of years later. The law enforcement infiltrations came to light when the RMPJC obtained its “spy files” from the Denver Police, Ball says.
More recently, the center has been involved in the fight against genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs,” and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” It has been active in uncovering the contamination at Valmont Butte, which was the subject of a national award-winning series by BW in 2012, and it continues to police the Rocky Flats property and the plans to build the Jefferson Parkway through the former nuclear arms facility.
The fact that the center has come full circle, refocusing on the possible contaminants that could be stirred up by the construction of the parkway, speaks to the enduring need for such an organization, supporters say.
And as leaders like Ball and Moore grow older, Ball acknowledges that young activists will have to pick up the torch. She says some good representatives of the next generation of activists are expected to attend the RMPJC’s fall retreat, and hopefully they can be groomed to take over where their predecessors left off.
In the meantime, she says, Betty’s Rockin’ Thrift Shop still needs help to continue the RMPJC’s efforts.
“We need volunteers,” Ball says. “And shoppers.”