Catie Brockman was a little worried when her mother recently called a family meeting. "Is there anything bad about it?" Catie, 9, asked her mother.
"Well, maybe," Beth Brockman replied.
At the meeting, Beth Brockman, a member of Durham's First Presbyterian Church, told her daughter and 4-year-old son, Matt, that she was planning to engage in civil disobedience and would likely go to jail on Aug. 6, the 60th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Brockman will be among the 1,000 protesters expected to gather Saturday at the gate to the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant in Tennessee, where the nation's "last full-scale operating nuclear weapons production plant" is located, says Ralph Hutchison, an organizer with the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), a group that has been leading opposition to the Y-12 plant since 1988.
Organizers say they expect the biggest crowd ever at the annual gathering that commemorates the U.S. decision to drop an atomic bomb on a civilian population in 1945. Three days later, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The two bombs killed thousands of people instantly and thousands more from accompanying injuries and radiation sickness.
While the Bush administration was unable to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Hutchison says every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal has been outfitted with components produced at the Department of Energy's Y-12 plant. The highly enriched uranium that fueled "Little Boy," the name of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was produced at Y-12.
Hutchison says Y-12 is now devoted to refurbishing all the nuclear warheads in the U.S. stockpile. Under the Department of Energy's "Stockpile Life Extension Program," old nukes, which were said to have a 30- to 40-year shelf life, are being given a "life-extension upgrade" that will certify each bomb for 100 to 125 years, he says.
When you have nuclear bombs that are certified to last 100 years, Hutchison says, "you send a very powerful message to the rest of the world that the currency of power for the next century is weapons of mass destruction."
After hearing a presentation about Y-12 at a Catholic Worker retreat in Chatham County last spring, Brockman says she began to pray and meditate about her decision to join the civil resistance action this Saturday. Brockman has never been arrested before.
Brockman says she plans to join others in blocking a road in front of Y-12, an action that carries a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail. Because she does not plan to post bail on Saturday, Brockman will likely be held in the Anderson County Jail. Brockman says she may request a jury trial. A local prosecutor has told OREPA organizers he will ask the judge to impose the maximum sentence for any defendants who are found guilty in a jury trial.
Says Brockman: "I think the 60th anniversary is a significant event, and that makes the timing of it better. To be honest, I'm just appalled that not more protest has centered around these horrific weapons that were designed to kill civilians, striking from the air and killing so many people in one fell swoop. It appalls me that it's six hours away."
Brockman says she gets her motivation in part from Mahatma Gandhi, who said: "Be the change you want to see in the world."
"I really am coming at this for creating change in myself, kind of putting myself in a position to act with love and kindness in a situation that will be uncomfortable," she says. "Acting at Y-12 will be completely symbolic."
Born in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran father, Brockman says her views of violence and war were transformed when she served three terms with the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka, a nation in the throes of a civil war.
In Sri Lanka, Brockman says she witnessed "what war and violence does to people; what violence does to a country ... I saw plenty of dead bodies and kids with AK-47s."
In Sri Lanka, Brockman also saw people committed to grassroots nonviolence, both nonviolent action and noncooperation.
Shortly after her return to the United States, the first Gulf War broke out.
"Being in a country that was at war, I was very traumatized by that, and I felt a lot of powerlessness," she says.
Two years ago, Brockman went to the trial of her friend, Father Ben Jimenez, a Jesuit priest who was jailed for his protest at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas in Columbus, Ga.
After Jimenez's trial, Brockman says she saw direct action as a possibility in the effort to bring about social and political change.
"Up until then I thought well, you just go and you work in the soup kitchens and you work with day laborers and you talk with people; maybe you go to a march," she says.
Although most of her Durham and church friends support her decision to risk arrest, Brockman has also faced criticism. Her father, Bob Velkey, does not approve, and others have asked Brockman, "Why are you leaving your kids?"
Brockman says her father believes in the just war approach. He told her: "Sometimes we need war. Sometimes we need violence. That's the only way we can stop violence."
Getting arrested as a mother of small children "makes it different," Brockman says. "I am also of that mindset that there's never a perfect time to do anything. If we waited until it was the perfect time we'd never do anything. I think you just have to use the resources that you have and the knowledge that you have and the ability and the love of the community around you and you just have to take a step, and just keep taking steps, concentrating on being in the moment, and I think this is the step that I just felt called to do."
Larry Brockman, who met his wife in the Peace Corps, plans to be at Saturday's Y-12 action with the couple's children. The family is behind her, Beth Brockman says, but everyone is a little nervous.
Brockman reminded Catie of other times they were separated.
"But you didn't go to jail," Catie retorted.
"She's right," Brockman says. "The whole family is involved in this action. Even though I might be the one who's going to be arrested and spending time in jail, we're all making sacrifices for this to happen. For them, it's going to be giving up me for a little while."