In the late 1970s, a group of protesters blocked the railroad tracks at Rocky Flats in an attempt to keep trains from delivering nuclear bomb-making supplies to the plant.
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 group of protesters included six people who, a few years later, founded the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, an organization that not only played a crucial role in shutting down the nuclear bomb factory but continues to play an advocacy role in everything from ending conflict in the Middle East to standing up for the homeless right here in Boulder.
But with the recent economic downturn, the center has fallen on hard times and has been forced to lay off its paid staff. Now, it seems, the organization needs people to return the favor and stand up for it.
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LeRoy Moore, one of the six founders of the RMPJC, was among those who helped block the railroad tracks at Rocky Flats from April 1978 to April 1979.
“It was the year of disobedience,” he recalls. “We decided to stay on the tracks, and when people were arrested or removed, others took their place. People were bringing food, clothing and tents. They were on the tracks in the dead of winter and the heat of summer.”
Moore says that while the protesters weren’t successful in shutting down operations at Rocky Flats, they did delay deliveries and raise awareness by generating media coverage.
When almost 300 of the Rocky Flats protesters were arrested toward the end of the year-long protest, Moore was among them. Later, in July 1989, he fasted for 24 days outside the state Capitol as a show of solidarity with Rocky Flats victims.
It was the summer of 1983 when he and five others he met during the protest on the tracks decided to launch a center that would not only engage in nonviolent activism, but would offer trainings in nonviolent protesting, which set it apart from other activist groups at the time. (Moore taught nonviolent activism at the University of Colorado’s Denver and Boulder campuses.)
In addition to Moore, the founders of what was originally called the Boulder Peace Center — and then the Rocky Mountain Peace Center — were Chet Tchozewski, Karen Gruber, Jeri Brown, Sally Dowiatt and Rich Stafford.
In October 1983, just as the fledgling center was setting up shop in rented space in the basement of what is now the Boulder Mennonite Church, the RMPJC engaged in a landmark protest at Rocky Flats known as the “encirclement.” About 17,000 people joined hands and successfully surrounded the 17-mile perimeter of the property, “with the help of some jackets and scarves,” laughs Betty Ball of the RMPJC.
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If the center didn’t operate through consensusbuilding and didn’t have a non-heirarchical organizational structure, you might call Ball the director of the organization. Until last month, she was the only full-time paid staff member at the RMPJC.
Ball moved to Boulder in 1960 to go to college.
She, too, was at the Rocky Flats encirclement, selling environmental T-shirts and getting people to sign petitions. Then, in 1984, she and her husband, Gary, moved to Ukiah, Calif., where they ran the RMPJClike Mendocino Environmental Center for 10 years.
While in California, the Balls worked closely with prominent environmental activist Judi Bari. When asked about Bari, who was the Earth First! organizer known for her efforts to save redwood forests during the 1990 “Redwood Summer” — and the subsequent car-bomb attempt on her life — Betty Ball singles out another of her talents, calling her “one of the most skilled drywall installers I’ve ever seen.”
She laments that the person who planted the bomb under Bari’s car seat “is still out there,” because law enforcement chose to investigate the activists themselves instead of the real perpetrators. Ball calls Bari a brilliant strategist who would read books on labor history and civil rights movements to ascertain where she and her fellow activists were in their own efforts, and to plan their next steps.
“She knew on whose shoulders we were standing,” Ball recalls.
One thing Ball learned from her experience with Redwood Summer is that nonviolent activism can sometimes delay things — like logging — long enough to let the legal process work, until an injunction can be issued, for instance.
“Sometimes people fail to see the value of nonviolence, but that’s part of it,” she says. “And it makes the distinction very clear who’s doing the violence and who’s not. If we aren’t totally nonviolent and don’t stick to that no matter what’s happening, then it muddies the waters.”
Ball moved back to Boulder in 1997, a few months after Bari died of breast cancer. One of her first projects upon her return was to deal with the tension-filled aftermath of riots on University Hill, leafleting houses in the area and hosting a pizza social under the Broadway bridge so that students and police could mingle and get to know each other.
“I have long considered the RMPJC to be one of the best resources for activism in the community,” says Sabrina Sideris, a local supporter of the center. “Whenever something needs to be responded to, I would call Betty Ball before anyone else.”
Still, Ball doesn’t think her prospects of landing a new job are too promising.
“At the age of 68, I don’t think a lot of people are going to come clamoring to my door,” she says with a wistful smile.
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Carolyn Bninski, who until recently was a halftime RMPJC employee, was a neighborhood organizer in New York City before coming to Boulder in 1986 while working for the Nuclear Freeze campaign. That campaign’s offices were located next to the RMPJC’s, and the two organizations worked together on initiatives, which is what led Bninski to join the center as a paid staff member 10 years ago.
She puts the center’s financial challenges in a larger perspective, citing statistics on the current economic downturn and how philanthropic giving to organizations like the RMPJC is usually one of the first things people cut from their budgets when times are tough.
“It’s happening to groups like ours around the country,” says Bninski. “There’s a concentration of wealth at the top, the middle class is being decimated by these economic policies, and the only way that’s going to change is organized pressure on our lawmakers.”
It’s not just donations that the center needs, it’s volunteers. Now that there are no paid staff, volunteers are needed to do things that the employees did. Of course, it’s not just about answering phones and sending announcements to the 2,500 people on the center’s e-mail list. The RMPJC is organized into collectives that focus on topics ranging from international affairs to nukes to economic justice. Volunteers can choose to participate in the collective that best suits their interests.
“We’ve always had a huge amount of work done by volunteers,” Moore says, adding that people don’t become activists for the money. “It’s certainly a low-paid profession.”
But he emphasizes the importance of being able to pay “peace professionals” like Bninski and the Balls. (Gary Ball was a one-quarter-time employee who acted as the center’s bookkeeper.)
The center is overseen by a “spokescouncil” and has about 200 active volunteers. The RMPJC has been active on a variety of fronts both locally and globally, including single payer health care, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israel/ Palestian conflict, corporate personhood, local pesticide use and the BP oil spill.
Moore and Judith Mohling, who coordinates the center’s Nuclear Nexus Project, are still active in the clean-up at Rocky Flats and “nuclear guardianship,” which Moore describes as the need to take care of this dangerous man-made substance during its active life, which in some cases can be 250,000 years. Mohling says the RMPJC not only hosts local nuclearawareness events but belongs to the national Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and lobbies on the issue in Washington, D.C.
She says the center has long stood for the concept of the “living wage,” and should be able to provide that to its professional staff.
But Ball says the reality of the situation was having to choose between providing the salaries and keeping the center’s doors open.
In the meantime, until the center’s fundraising levels recover, the RMPJC will continue its work on the backs of volunteers.
“Change doesn’t come by itself, it requires work,” Bninski says. “Change is possible, but it’s not going to come from the top. It’s up to the people to do it. People have to sacrifice a little bit. And it’s not going to happen just on the Internet.
“Our government will not represent us unless we keep the pressure on. They’re getting too much pressure from the elites in this country.”