A Losing Streak Broken: Law Prevails Over Alliant’s Poison Weapons

By John LaForge
Dec 21 2004

After a perfect record of being convicted in every protest case I've been a part of for 25 years, a jury found me and three friends “not guilty” of an anti-nuclear trespass charge. Such a verdict used to be extremely rare, but four different juries have now acquitted activists who have refused to leave before confronting the biggest arms merchant in Minnesota.

The 6-person jury in our case (and in another, three days earlier) decided that weapons being made with radioactive waste are arguably illegal -- and that the manufacturer's look a lot like the German captains of industry prosecuted at Nuremberg for making Zyclon-B, the poison used in the gas chambers.

Our Minneapolis trial turned the tables on an ordinary “trespass” allegation and put the weapons giant Alliant Techsystems (formerly Honeywell) in the hot seat. Alliant has been the target of relentless protests because of its profiteering from land mines, cluster bombs, machine guns and uranium-238 shells, known by the misnomer “depleted uranium” or DU.

Headquartered in Edina, Alliant is an obvious focus of anti-war work because land mines and DU have both been formally condemned -- by treaty law in the case of land mines and by a United Nations Sub-Commission and by the European Parliament in the case of DU. In 1997, a group of 79 protesters won a “not guilty” verdict after proving that Alliant’s land mines are outlawed.

The company has produced 16-million 30mm DU shells and at least 2-million 120mm anti-tank munitions. The “penetrators” as the company calls them, are said to burn through tank armor better than anything else, and the United States fired 380 tons of DU into Iraq in 1991, another 170 tons during the current military take-over, five tons into Bosnia in 1995, and10 tons into Kosovo in 1999. Estimates of how much was used in the 2001 bombardment of Afghanistan vary widely, but the Uranium Medical Research Center (www.umrc.org) claims 2,000 tons were used.

The use of DU created a world-wide uproar in 2001, when the DU's radioactive pollution left from the bombing of Kosovo was found to contain plutonium and other highly radioactive isotopes. Since then, dozens of “trespass” arrests have taken place at Alliant.

The Pentagon calls the shells “tank busters.” We call them “gene busters” because when the uranium dust is inhaled or ingested it attacks the gene pool in successive generations -- for eons. Uranium-238 is a heavy metal toxin and is radioactive for 45 billion years (its radioactive half-life is 4.5 billion years).

Today the string of jury-rendered not guilty verdicts over Alliant’s DU weapons runs to 27 defendants. In October 2003, a group of 19 defendants was acquitted just as an international uranium weapons conference was finishing up its work in Hamburg, Germany. The international effort to rid the world of uranium weapons may be strongest in England and Germany -- two countries that know something about being bombed during war -- but Minnesota's court victories will put the United States' movement on the map.

In court, we explained that after World War II, the law of war changed in two monumental ways. Prior to the Holocaust, acts of genocide or mass destruction were outlawed, but only after-the-fact were prosecutions possible. At Nuremberg, where judges, military officers and German industrialists were tried, the "planning and preparation" of illegal warfare was criminalized. The Nuremberg Tribunal also held individuals personally responsible for their actions, even if they were fulfilling government contracts or just "following orders."

The purpose of punishing crimes-in-the-making or “inchoate crimes,” was to assure that individuals could prevent the worst atrocities of WWII by outlawing production of weapons that can't be used legally. The Nuremberg Tribunal declared, “International law, as such, binds every citizen, just as does ordinary municipal law. The fact that a person acts pursuant to his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law provided a moral choice was in fact available.”

The cumulative effect of these laws is that the building of weapons known in advance to be illegal is a criminal act with which citizens are rightfully allowed to interfere.

So many reams of United States treaty law forbid poisoned weapons, indiscriminate weapons, environmentally toxic weapons and, since 1945, the very manufacture of such things, ordinary juries can excuse simple trespass as a “right,” as long as no criminal intent is involved.

We tried to deliver a letter of warning to Alliant’s managers. The jury agreed that this effort was an attempt at crime prevention. Not only was our arrest that day unlawful, but prosecutors can consider bringing charges against the real criminals.

John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch and edits the group’s quarterly newsletter, The Pathfinder. Another group of alleged “trespassers” from Duluth’s Loaves and Fishes Community is scheduled for trial January 19.



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