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In 1984, I spent 48 days in jail for refusing to sign a statement saying I would never do Civil Disobedience at a Nuclear Weapons factory in Michigan

December 1, 2021

On December 2, 1984, there were 13 of us who were arrested at Williams International, a Michigan-based company that manufactures guidance systems for nuclear weapons. 

It has been 38 years since I was arrested at Williams International, but in many ways it feels like yesterday. It was an unseasonably warm December day in Michigan, and just before the 1st Shift came into work, we blockaded the entrance to the factory, a factory where death was being manufactured.

After about 40 minutes, we were all arrested and taken to the local jail to be processed in, but ended up going in front of a District Court Judge and charged with trespass. When the judge got to me, he looked at my name and asked if I had been before him for the same charge. I said no, that would have been my brother. The judge joked that this seems to be a family affair and asked if anyone else from my family was involved. I said that my mother was in the courtroom that day, and pointed to where she was seated.

The judge then asked me if I had a problem with breaking the law. I responded by saying that December 2nd was the day that Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, thus breaking an unjust segregation law. I also stated that it was legal to manufacture, deploy and detonate nuclear weapons, which are weapons of mass death. Therefore, like Rosa Parks we were defiantly breaking a law that we believed to be unjust.

We were all sentenced to pay a $50 fine, which none of us ever ended up paying.

However, the 13 of us arrested at Williams International were also being charged in Circuit Court, since Williams International had created a court supported injunction, which barred anyone from doing civil disobedience at the company’s factory. So, we were back in court on December 3rd, but this time the judge gave us an indefinite sentence, meaning we would stay in jail until we signed statements saying that we would never go back to Williams International again. All 13 of us refused, so we were taken into custody and placed in the Wayne County Jail.

This was the first time I had gone to jail, so those in charge of the Wayne County Jail decided to separate those of us arrested. I was placed in a six-man cell with 5 African American guys. I had already planned to not eat once I got arrested, so when the meal time came around I told those in my cell that they could have my food. Offering them my food helped to break the ice between us. They asked why I was arrested. I told them for civil disobedience at a factory that manufacturers nuclear weapons and they said, “you are a crazy fucking white boy.” 

From that moment on, all 5 of the other men in my cell were joking with me and sharing the reasons why they were there. None of them had any legal support, so I asked our legal support team to look into their cases and get people to visit them and write letters to the judge. Within 5 days, I was moved to the Shiawassee County Jail, near Flint, because the Wayne County Jail administrators did not want people to any kind of organizing or solidarity work inside that jail. I really wasn’t the catalyst for this, since the other men in my cell were simply asking for solidarity and support. In fact, they were the catalyst, and they were acting in a long tradition within the Black Freedom Movement, using jails/prisons as a means of doing organizing work, a reality so well documented in Dan Berger’s book, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.

While at the Shiawassee County Jail, they put all of us into a six-man cell, utilizing cots and wanting to prevent us from “organizing other inmates.” Because the jail was so close to Flint, we were paid a visit by the editor of the Flint Voice, Michael Moore. This was before Moore had produced Roger & Me and wasn’t well known outside of the state. 

We also grabbed the attention of the group Amnesty International (AI). AI was interested in our case, since we were not in jail for something we had done, but because we refused to say that we wouldn’t come back to Williams International again and engage in direct action. In legal terms, the judge was binding our conscience, since we refused to sign a statement. Amnesty International saw us as prisoners of conscience and decided to organize a campaign calling for our immediate release, since we were now officially political prisoners.

The attention our case received had now expanded and Williams International did not want all of this attention, which included increased news coverage. In addition, several of us had not eaten since we went into jail, so that was also getting lots of press. At the same time, the Shiawassee County Jail administrators were freaking out, since they did not want anyone dying from a hunger strike in their jail.

The combination of our collective refusal to eat and the Amnesty International campaign eventually resulted in our release from jail, some 48 days after we had been arrested.

I learned a great deal about how the jail system worked, how the court system worked, and how corporations wielded tremendous power as a result of my decision to engage in civil disobedience to resist nuclear war. All Power to the People!

Art by Shelby Lijewski

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