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A People’s History of Grand Rapids: The Anti-Nuclear Movement

August 5, 2021

(This post is in commemoration of the 76th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. In addition, today’s post is part of the forthcoming book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids.)

The Anti-Nuclear Movement

The third major US foreign policy movement that was organized in Grand Rapids was the anti-nuclear, or the Nuclear Freeze Movement. This movement also began in the late 1970s, which grew into a full fledged movement in the 1980s all across the US and in Grand Rapids.

Beginning in the late 1970s, many people in the US began to learn about the dangers of nuclear weapons and possibility of nuclear war.

The US and the former Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear arms race, with both countries increasing their nuclear weapons stockpiles and placing these weapons of mass destruction all across the planet.

A movement to challenge the proliferation of nuclear weapons was born and involved not only seasoned activists, but included physicians, social workers, scientists and teachers. Groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility help push an anti-nuclear agenda that focused on getting the US to sign on to an arms reduction treaty as the beginning stages of a total nuclear disarmament campaign.

In Grand Rapids, a local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Institute for Global Education (IGE) and various faith-based groups formed a coalition to educate the community and organize for nuclear disarmament. The group pictured above, were some of the main organizers of the Grand Rapids campaign. This picture was taken in front of the YWCA building on Sheldon SE, where IGE had an office in the early 80s.

The educational campaign focused on hosting forums, creating and distributing literature, screening films like If You Love This Planet and holding regular demonstrations in public spaces in order to engage the community. One tactic was to get communities, organizations or congregations to declare themselves Nuclear Free Zones, as is pictured here. The Nuclear Free Zones were part of the Ground Zero Campaign, to help people understand what would happen to communities hit by a nuclear bomb.

Another tactic used to draw attention to the harsh realities of a nuclear attack was to hold a Die-In on the First Friday of the month in downtown Grand Rapids. At noon, a siren goes off as a test, but it is the same siren that would be used if an impending disaster would happen, such as a nuclear attack. People involved in the Freeze Campaign would be on the old Monroe Mall downtown and when the siren went off they would scream and fall to the ground. Other members of the Freeze Campaign would hand out flyers to people walking by to let them know what would actually happen if a nuclear bomb fell on Grand Rapids.

Over time, some of these same activists would use the old weather ball (formerly located on top of the Michigan National building) as a way to draw attention to nuclear war and nuclear winter by saying, WEATHER BALL BLACK, NUCLEAR ATTACK.

However, the organizing against nuclear war and nuclear proliferation by people in Grand Rapids involved taking action outside of West MI. Several campaigns involved people confronting nuclear madness where the bombs were deployed and where the bombs were made.

In August of 1982, several people were arrested at the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, which was a Strategic Air Command base in the UP. Barb Lester, Matt Goodheart and Lisa Markucki, all from Grand Rapids, were arrested for trespassing at the military base.

In an interview with Barb Lester, she talked about what led her to get involved in the anti-nuclear movement:

“I remember the exact moment I became involved in Nuclear Freeze Campaign.  In the spring of 1982 I saw a photo on the front page of the Grand Rapids Press reporting on an antinuclear march that took place in downtown Grand Rapids.  Seventeen-year-old Louie Villaire, was carrying a nuclear “bomb” and I thought “finally, someone is doing something about the insanity of the arms race”. The march through downtown was one of the first in a series of events that would draw me into the local discussion about the nuclear arms race that was out of control and endangering the entire planet.  Within a week I became involved with the Ground Zero Project, an effort to educate people about the dangers of nuclear weapons.”

Another person who became involved in the Nuclear Freeze movement was Margi Derks Peterson. Margi, who had been working as a model, first got involved in the movement in 1981. She was deeply involved in Physicians for Social Responsibility and IGE. In an interview I did with with Margi in 2015, when asked about the importance of being involved in such a movement, she stated:

I realized, after many months of working hard on these activities, that the most important thing I could do to change the world was to change myself, and not be afraid to speak out about injustice. The experience of being part of a grass-roots movement gave me hope that “little people” without a lot of money could really accomplish something. 

Mark Kane, who was the main coordinator of the Nuclear Freeze Movement in Grand Rapids, said that they brought Dr. Helen Caldicott to town to speak early on in the movement. Dr. Caldicott’s 1981 oscar nominated film, Eight Minutes to Midnight, was used an both an educational and recruiting tool for the anti-nuclear movement, according to Mark Kane. “Then with the election of Ronald Reagan and his decision to escalate the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, people were really motivated to become involved in the anti-nuclear movement.”

Mark Kane told me that there was a statewide network on the nuclear freeze campaign, with regional chapters organized by Congressional district. He also said they tried to get a ballot initiative going that would allow the residents of Michigan to vote on a freeze to the US nuclear arms race. The ballot initiative was effective, with 56% of the state voting in favor of the freeze. This victory energized people, especially from Kent County, which had the second highest percentage of people in the state voting for the ballot initiative. This led to busloads of people from West Michigan traveling to New York City for the massive anti-nuclear protest later that same year.

Over 1 million people descended on New York City during a United Nations gathering in 1982. Several people from Grand Rapids participated in that march, with lots of people from the Institute for Global Education attending the march. There were also 2 women from Grand Rapids who were arrested at the massive Nuclear Freeze march in New York, Lori and Beth Smalligan.

Tim & Deb Pieri were part of the contingent that went from Grand Rapids to that march, pictured here.

Despite all of the growing energy around the nuclear freeze movement, there wasn’t any major shift at the federal level to push policies of disarmament or even reduction of nuclear weapons. Reagan won a second term in 1984, which led the anti-nuclear movement to shift tactics and strategies that challenged the larger military industrial complex and the manufacturers of nuclear weapons.

There were campaigns that targeted weapons manufacturers in 1983, such as Williams International in Walled Lake, MI and Lear Siegler, located in the southeastern part of Grand Rapids. Numerous people were involved in both of those campaigns, which attempted to shut down production of nuclear weapons at both of these factories. These campaigns used educational literature, vigils and direct action to stop the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction. 

Grassroots resistance groups engaged in physical occupation of facilities where research and weapons manufacturing took place. Resisters got arrested at Congressional offices when elected officials voted for more funding for weapons of mass destruction. Other people entered US military bases where nuclear weapons were being deployed, particularly Air Force bases, which transported nuclear missiles on B-52 Bombers. And then there were those who began planning direct action, sometimes involving the taking jack-hammers to missile silos peppered through rural US.The later form of direct action activist became known as the Plowshares resisters, named after the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah’s vision. The first of such actions was captured in a docu-drama known as In the King of Prussia, which dealt with activists arrested for entering A GE plant in the town of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, which made nuclear weapons components.

West Michigan saw its share of activists participate in such actions, both across the state and here in Grand Rapids.

Beginning in the early 1980s, with the Reagan administration aggressively promoting the use of nuclear weapons, activists began doing research on Department of Defense contracts with private companies to make parts for nuclear weapons. This research was critical at the time, since these contracts were with companies who only made one part of the nuclear weapons, thus making it harder to determine how many were involved in nuclear weapons production.

A group of activists came together in Lansing, known as Covenant for Peace, which began a years long campaign against a nuclear weapons manufacturer in Walled Lake, Michigan, Williams International. The campaign began with research and reconnaissance work before engaging in direct action. The first direct action took place in 1983, with people entering the property of Williams International and to prevent workers from entering the building in order to build more nuclear weapons parts. One of those arrested with Matthew Goodheart, who was working for the Institute for Global Education in Grand Rapids in the early 1980s.

Goodheart and others were charged with trespassing in the District Court. However, out of fear that such actions would continue to take place, Williams International worked with the legal system and got a judge in the Circuit Court to adopt an injunction (front page seen here). This injunction would allow the court to demand that anyone who was arrested resisting the weapons manufacturing at Williams International, be required to sign a statement saying they would never take such action again. If those arrested did not sign the court document, they would be given an indefinite sentence, meaning they would stay in jail until they signed the statement or until the judge decided to release them.

I also participated in civil disobedience at Williams international in late 1984. A group of 13 of us attempted to block the entrance of Williams International, thus preventing workers from entering and manufacturing more cruise missiles. All 13 of us were arrested and found guilty in District Court. However, because there was an injunction that Williams International had obtained in the Circuit Court, we were given an indefinite sentence, not because we had protested, but because we failed to sign a statement saying we would never go back and protest again.

We all refused to sign the statement and I spent 48 days in jail because of my failure to comply with the injunction. I remember Michael Moore, who was editor of the Flint Voice at the time, came to visit and interviewed some of us about the action. After a few weeks in jail, Amnesty International got involved in the case, since we were technically prisoners of conscience. When Amnesty International became involved in our case, Williams International eventually decided that it was too politically costly to keep us in jail and eventually everyone was released.

The campaign against Lear Siegler began in fall of 1983, with students from the Aquinas College Social Action Committee raising awareness about the military contract that the company had to make flight systems for nuclear weapons. In the Spring of 1984, Aquinas students, several of which were seminary students, organized a Good Friday Stations of the Cross action from the campus to the Lear Siegler plant several miles away. 

Some 200 people took part in this action, which got a fair amount of news coverage with information about the fact that parts for nuclear weapons were being manufactured right there in the Grand Rapids area. Students who had organized the action were then confronted by the Aquinas College President who told them that this action was “shameless and judgmental.” The students said they were acting on the US Catholic Bishop’s recent pastoral letter, which called nuclear weapons immoral. It was later discovered that the CEO of Lear Siegler was a major financial contributor to Aquinas College. 

The Aquinas students who were involved in that effort, then began a weekly leafletting campaign outside of the Lear Siegler manufacturing facility, with leaflets focusing on the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation and economic conversation. However, the leafletting campaign only lasted for 5 months and then Lear Siegler was bought be a British corporation called Smith Industries.

A few years later, there was a campaign that began at the Defense Logistics Agency, located on Front St. in Grand Rapids. This office channel all of the US military contracts from the Pentagon to West Michigan companies, which made it an important target for actions.

Between 1987 and 1989, numerous actions were taken at the Front St. office location as an attempt to raise awareness about nuclear weapons contracts in West Michigan and to directly disrupt business as usual at this local cog in the Military Industrial Complex.

Most of the action involved the distribution of information about the Defense Logistics Agency to the rest of the tenants in the building and to people walking or driving by, since the office is located at the westside of the Sixth Street Bridge. On several occasions banners were hung off the Sixth Street Bridge calling attention to the technical work being performed inside in preparation for a nuclear holocaust.

However, most of the actions were in the form of resistance, where activists went inside the building to disrupt the daily workings at the Defense Logistics Agency. On one occasion, activists went inside and began putting flyers on all the desks or handing them to clerical staff about the dangers of nuclear weapons production and the horror of nuclear weapons being used. According to one of those involved in the direct action efforts (who choses to remain anonymous), the clerical staff were rather sympathetic to the message, but those in administrative positions would become immediately confrontational.

On several occasions activists would not leave the office when asked by office personnel. However, activists refused to leave the building and would stay and continue to make statements about the evils of nuclear weapons. Office staff at the Defense Logistics Agency would then call Federal Building security guards to come over and physically remove those involved in the action. Sometime activists would not cooperate and had to be carried or drug out of the building.

One other major action was when activists planned to enter the building and pour their own blood on military documents they had seen when disrupting activities in the office. However, the day that activists had planned to enter the building to pour blood on military contracts, the building was secured and only those who worked in the building could enter.

Those involved in the action decided to pour the blood on the steps of the building. The demonstration lasted for several hours with activists handing out information to people entering the building. During this process, people were unaware of the blood on the steps of the building and ended up bringing blood into the building on the bottom of their shoes. One activist, Richa, said that this was symbolic of the bloodshed brought about by US Militarism.

In addition to handing out literature, the Reverend George Heartwell performed a sort of exorcism of the building, a tactic that had been used by other activists around the country to dramatize the horror of nuclear weaponry and militarism. 

There were two other significant campaigns that focused on disarmament issues, both of which involved activists from Grand Rapids. The first was a campaign to shut down the US military base in Oscoda, Michigan. Wurtsmith Air Force base was was a nuclear-ready US military base, with B-52 bombers flying 24 hours a day, carrying nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear activists from Saginaw, Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids participated in actions every year at the Oscodo military base, usually around the anniversary of US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan during WWII. 

Several Grand Rapids anti-nuclear activists had been arrested at Wurtsmith Aid Force base in the 1980s. For first time offenders, activist would receive a ban and bar letter that basically said don’t come back again. For those who were arrested a second time, like Kay and Randy Bond, the sentence was 30 – 90 days. 

In 1990, several activists from Grand Rapids were arrested again at Wurtsmith Air Force base, myself included. We were all released, but were told that we would be receiving a letter in the mail within weeks of the action, in order to appear before federal judge for sentencing. I chose to not go to my sentencing and instead I wrote the court a response saying that I would not be coming. 

Weeks later I received a second letter, telling me to report on another date in court. Again, I refused to do so and eventually federal agents came to my house to arrest me. Not wanting to just hand myself over, one of my housemates said I wasn’t home and I slipped out of the house, thus avoiding arrest. I then went underground for months, staying at the homes of several different friends before being arrested in the Fall of 1990. I decided to participate in a demonstration against the US military build up just before the Gulf War, which took place in front of the Grand Rapids federal building. Some federal agents spotted me, arrested me and placed me in a holding cell on the 9th floor of the federal building. I was sentence to only community service.

Another example of nuclear resistance that took place in Grand Rapids in 1990-91, know as the Homes Not Bombs Campaign. This campaign was designed to educate the public about the cost of nuclear weapons production and how many homes could be built with the same amount of money. The other part of the campaign was to confront lawmakers who continued to vote in favor of weapons production.

The Homes Not Bombs Campaign in Grand Rapids lasted for over a year with their education efforts, plus there was a direct action component that lasted 2 weeks in the summer of 1990. Grand Rapids activists built shanties, like the one pictured here, and slept in front of the federal building on Michigan street. During the two weeks of action, activists handed out information on the campaign, had conversation with people who walked past the federal building, held workshops and some activists committed civil disobedience by having a sit in in the offices of former Congressman Paul Henry and former US Senator Carl Levin.

During the 2 week action, activist also built additional shanties during the night, when there was only one security guard inside. Sometimes those involved with this action built the shanty around some of the large exterior columns of the federal building on the Michigan Ave. side of the building. Using power tools, they bolted a wood frame around the columns and then added cardboard, which had messages written on the outside for the public to see.

The next day, federal building security personnel would recruit maintenance people from the building to tear down the shanties, with activists only turning around and building more the next night.

This campaign, and the shanty town action, also involved many people who were radicalized during the so-called US War in the Gulf, which began in January of 1991 and only lasted 45 days. For many new activists, this was the first time they witnessed the human and economic cost of US militarism in what some media scholars refer to as the first 24-hour TV war. 

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