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Remembering Hiroshima & Resisting Nuclear Annihilation: A Personal Story

August 6, 2019

Today is an important day for all of us to reflect on the arrogant display of US imperialism in 1945. On August 6th, the US military dropped a nuclear bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, making the US the first and only country to use a nuclear weapon against a civilian population.

The first time I ever really thought about this atrocity was in 1982. I went with my brother to hear a Catholic priest speak about his experience as a chaplain during WWII. Fr. Charles McCarthy was the chaplain and was on the plane with the US soldiers who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Father McCarthy told us he was there to “bless” the mission.

A few weeks later, Fr. McCarthy said he went to Hiroshima, or what was left of it, because he wanted to see for himself what he had happened. Witness the devastation and human suffering, the priest knew that in order to live with himself that he would have to devote the rest of his life to radical non-violence and resist militarism, especially nuclear war.

I remember being blown away by what this priest had to say, not because he was a priest, but because of how witnessing the affects of US militarism, that he then made the radical transformation to resistance. I had never encounter a religious person who actually gave a shit about humanity.

The following year I entered the seminary and thought that it was the best expression of living out my faith. After a few months of being in a catholic seminary I was disappoint and disillusioned. 

I left the seminary and became part of a housing collective later named, the Koinonia House in Grand Rapids. However, before we purchased that house, I was involved in organizing against nuclear weapons in Grand Rapids, specifically at the old Lear Siegler  plant on Eastern near 36th street. Lear Siegler made guidance systems for nuclear weapons and we were doing regular protests at the factory and handing out literature to workers.

At the same time, my brother was involved in a campaign at Williams International, another company in southeast Michigan that was making parts for nuclear weapons, particularly the Cruise Missile. He was arrested while protesting at the factory in 1983, which led to an ongoing campaign to resist weapons manufacturing at that facility.

The following December, just days before moved into the Koinonia House, I was arrested at Williams International and ended up spending 48 days in jail. The consequences of getting arrested at Williams International were usually handled in the District Court, but an ambitious prosecutor from Wayne County, L. Brooks Patterson, had worked with the weapons manufacturer to post an injunction against future protests at the facility, This gave the company the opportunity to prosecute people protesting at Williams International in Circuit Court. The injunction that the company had posted included at the top of the page a list of defendant, with my brother’s name appearing as part of the injunction. When the judge in our case saw the injunction, he said to me, “are you any relation to Jim Smith.” I said, “he’s my brother.” The judge replied, “so this is a family thing getting arrested.”

What the judge then did was to threaten us with jail if we didn’t sign a document saying that we would never go back and protest at Williams International again. All of us who were arrested that day, refused to sign such a statement, because it would bind our conscience.

We were initially taken to the Wayne County Jail, but eventually they moved us to the Shiawassee  County Jail, just west of Flint. I spent the next month there, until Amnesty International decided to identify us as political prisoners, since we were in jail for reasons of conscience and not because of something we did.

I eventually got out and joined the newly formed community of resistance at Koinonia House, a house that practiced radical hospitality, nonviolence and simple living.

For years we would be part of the annual Hiroshima/Nagasaki commemoration, organized by the Institute for Global Education. The picture here above, is from Barb Lester, who was part of the Nuclear Freeze Campaign in the 1980s in Grand Rapids, at an event on Calder Plaza on August 6th.

I remember one action we did in 1985 on August 6th. There used to be a US Army Recruiting Center at the east end of the Monroe Mall in downtown Grand Rapids. We obtained ground rubber, something that was used for outdoor dancing so that people wouldn’t slip on the surface. Some of us laid down on the ground and then others would pour the ground up rubber around us, leaving the outline of a body. This is what people saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since it was all that was left of the humans that were incinerated at ground zero.

The following year, there was a campaign to close the Strategic Air Command US Military base near Oscoda, Michigan. This base had nuclear weapons on it and would always have B 52 airplanes flying with nuclear weapons so that if the US was attacked, the US would still have nuclear weapons that were not destroyed. This, of course, was sheer madness, so our house became part of the resistance to shut down the base.

On August 6th, 1987, several of us from West Michigan were part of an action at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, an action that involved street theater and several arrests, which you can see in the picture here.

A few years later, we were part of another action at Wurtsmith, this time using the symbolism I had learned in Guatemala from the Mothers of the Disappeared. Again, several of us were arrested. We were book and then received court dates for sentencing. The judge presiding over these cases was in the National Guard and he consistently sentenced people to 3 months minimum for getting arrested at Wurtsmith. I decided that I would not go to my court date and wrote the judge a letter telling him why I wouldn’t be there.

Weeks later I received a second letter with a new court date. I wrote back and said that I was not coming, so they issued a bench warrant for my arrest. A few days later, federal marshals showed up at my house to arrest me, but I slipped out the back door and had a housemate tell them I wasn’t home.

I then spent the next several months at other people’s homes and generally just trying to lay low. Wendy Jo Carlton, who use to do a show on GRTV, did an interview with me, which is posted here below.

The US was getting ready to go to war with Iraq, so there were protests being organized in Grand Rapids in the fall of 1990. I started coming to those and one day federal marshals spotted me and grabbed me in front of the federal building. I spent the night in a holding cell on the 9th floor of the federal building in Grand Rapids and then went before a judge in the same building.

When I went before the judge I argued that international law compelled me to resist nuclear weapons, since such weapons killed indiscriminately. The judge actually agreed with me, but then said that he could not just let me go, so I ended up getting “community service.” The irony was, everyone else got at least 3 months for cooperating with the courts, while I got community service for going underground.

Two years later Wurtsmith Air Force Base was decommissioned and all the nuclear weapons were removed from the area.

Grand Rapids has a fairly rich history of nuclear resistance, with lots of committed people doing important work, which you can read about on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project.

I know that with the current political climate it can seem overwhelming and hopeless. However, it is important to remember that there have always been resistance movements around the world, made up of people who refused to give in and refuse to allow oppression and despair take over. We have power and we can take direct action to make the change we want. As the great liberation fighter Assata Shakur once said, Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”

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