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After Three Decades, Trespass Prosecutions Resume At Nevada Nuclear Test Site

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With the United States ready to burst from the starting gate in a new nuclear arms race, a recent change in policy aims to rein in any renewed protest at the U.S. nuclear weapons test site in Nevada.

On October 8, Marc Page-Collogne was arrested with two others when they stepped across the line at the Mercury gate. He was jailed for a few hours and released pending trial for trespass on December 3.

The last time this simple act of crossing the line at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site) was prosecuted was in 1987, at the height of mass actions against nuclear weapons testing. From 1986 until the end of full-scale nuclear testing in 1992, more than 15,000 protest arrests were reported at the Nevada Test Site.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the federal government balked at prosecution, thereby avoiding the protesters’ best defense: the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. This treaty with the Western Shoshone people still stands in law, but was simply ignored when the federal government evicted the tribe after World War II and seized their land for testing more than 1,000 nuclear bombs between 1951 and 1992, first above and then below ground. The Western Shoshone Nation has never accepted the payments proffered to terminate their treaty rights, and for decades has regularly issued permits for nuclear resisters to “Come, Gather, and Go” on their territory under terms of the Treaty of Ruby Valley.

At the time, prosecution of the small number of periodic line-crossers was left to rural Nye County. Shoshone rights were still not considered, and dozens of people spent a day or a few in jail for trespass.

As international pressure for a comprehensive nuclear test ban grew, nonviolent protest and resistance at the Test Site escalated. In January and February of 1987, the arrests of more than 500 people threatened to bankrupt the county’s law enforcement budget. Demonstrating the power of nonviolent direct action and jail solidarity, the Nye County docket was overflowing. Dozens of their early trials ended with individual defendants choosing to serve six-to-24 days in jail in lieu of paying substantial fines. By early April, the mounting costs of Test Site enforcement and the potential of hundreds more choosing jail led Nye County to announce that it would lay off more than one third of the 79 sheriff’s deputies by mid-summer.

Then on April 30, 1987, District Attorney Philip Dunleavy, elected on a “get tough with the protesters” platform, dismissed all outstanding Test Site trespass charges and instituted a new policy that held firm until 2018: Nye County would continue to issue citations for crossing the line at the Test Site, but would not prosecute those cases. He added that back-country occupations and H-bomb truck blockades, both of which were part of the Nevada protests at that time, would still be prosecuted. For many years thereafter, the county received a special federal grant to underwrite the cost of policing the protests.

Completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992 ended the era of full-scale underground nuclear weapons tests. However, advanced “sub-critical” testing has continued under the media radar since then, as have regular, smaller protests and line crossings. These are often sponsored on Good Friday and other significant dates by the Nevada Desert Experience, a faith-based action group founded in Las Vegas in 1983. Notable among only a handful of Test Site prosecutions since then, in the 1990s three Los Angeles Catholic Workers were convicted on two occasions of cutting down some of the perimeter fence. One served 34 days and the other two served nine months in jail.

Fast-forward to August 9, 2018, when Page-Collogne and Nevada Desert Experience staffperson Ming Lai arrived to vigil and fast at the NNSS gate in observance of the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Japan. They arrived to find no one policing the gate. They crossed over the line and then back before a sheriff’s deputy arrived.

“Did you cross the line?”, the sheriff asked.

“Yes, of course. We cross the line at every opportunity we get,” Page-Collogne replied.

“Did anyone see you cross over?”

No, the men answered.

“Well, good,” came the reply. Because if anyone had, the deputy announced, the two men would have to be arrested, and something more dramatic would then happen because the policy had changed.

That change was revealed in full during the Justice for Our Desert vigil and line-crossing on October 8. Page-Collogne crossed the line together with Mark Kelso and Brian Terrell. Each carried a Western Shoshone permit, as they each had on multiple occasions of line-crossing over the years. Police escorted the men away from the road to issue citations. Kelso and Terrell produced their permits and also state-issued identification. They both received a written warning against trespass, and were released. Page-Collogne presented only his permit. For many years, a Shoshone permit or even just a verbal statement was accepted as identification. But no more. Lacking a recognized valid form of ID, Page-Collogne was cited for trespass and taken to jail and court in Pahrump, Nevada before being released pending trial.

In conversations with a sheriff’s officer, it was learned that federal Department of Energy officials, who oversee Nye County’s law enforcement activity at the gate, had recently compelled the change in policy. Henceforth, those crossing the line will have their names recorded for possible future prosecution. They must present government issued ID or they will be taken to jail. A warning will be issued for a person’s first reported trespass, and prosecution will result from any subsequent line-crossing.

Planning by Nevada Desert Experience is already underway for next spring’s Sacred Peace Walk to the Nevada National Security Site, an annual pilgrimage that routinely ends with nonviolent direct action at the Mercury gate. The United States has still not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and despite the global opposition and strong objections from most Nevada politicians, the prospect of renewed full-scale nuclear weapons testing remains on the table in the White House. Now is the time to build on the foundations of past protest and return in growing numbers to (again or for the first time) risk arrest at the Nevada test site, to uphold Western Shoshone treaty rights and demonstrate a growing resistance to a renewed nuclear arms race.

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