Burning Fires (Spring/Summer 1995)

Nuclear Technology & Communities of Color (Vol.5, No.3&4: Spring/Summer 1995)

U.S. Army General Leslie Groves and nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer designed the Manhattan Project according to the military model: secrecy was created and sustained by compartmentalizing every phase of the work. The Project that produced the first atomic bomb was spread over thirty-seven installations scattered across the United States and Canada, each an isolated unit providing only a fragment of the bomb-making process. At Los Alamos, where scientists labored over the mathematical, chemical, and physical challenges of the task, the Project was characterized by a strict division of labor to deter communication among workers and a chain of command assuring that only a few people at the top understood the whole project.


In the crafting of the Nuclear Age, the same forces of compartmentalization and secrecy used in the Manhattan Project merged with the psychological, sociological, economic, and political forces that have shaped environmental racism. The result: a suspiciously high percentage of research laboratories, test sites, reactors, and waste dumps are housed in communities deemed “the middle of nowhere” and “the other side of the tracks” and inhabited by people deemed “poor, uneducated, and politically ineffective.”

How could it have been otherwise?

Ever since western world views emphasizing the domination of nature and “progress” replaced the older ecological philosophies of people-in-relation-to-the-cosmos, the theme of human experience has centered on arms build-up, expansionism, and colonization.

The unraveling of this union has begun. At the World Uranium Hearing in Austria in 1992, people of color from all over the world—from Namibia, Tahiti, Mongolia, Tibet, the American West, Canada, Peru, the Arctic Circle—testified to a board of scientists, journalists, and scholars about the effects of nuclear development on native peoples. Remarkable facts were revealed: over 70 percent of the world’s uranium deposits lie on lands inhabited and considered sacred by indigenous peoples. For every ton of uranium oxide used by the nuclear industry, up to 40,000 tons (still emanating 85 percent of the ore’s original radioactivity) remain behind—often left in mounds, seeping into the water table, scattering in the wind across indigenous lands. Nuclear testing disproportionately rains down upon people of color. And today industrialized nations are luring impoverished tribal governments with promises of money in exchange for storing nuclear waste on their ancestral lands.

Beginning with physicist Enrico Fermi’s revealing declaration at the moment the scientists realized they could catalyze a controlled chain reaction, this issue of Race, Poverty & the Environment marks the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Age by tracing the intertwining of the nuclear fuel cycle with the contamination—and activism—of communities of color.

People of color have borne more than the lion’s share of the toxic effects of development. And yet, despite the injustice of the situation, if we do not do our job of caring for and communing with our beautiful world, all is lost. In this issue of Race, Poverty & the Environment, we hope to reveal to you the tragic connections between nuclear development and the suffering communities of color—and to inspire you to join the struggle to stop this source of pain and dislocation before another fifty years pass.

--Chellis Glendinning


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In this issue...

2 "6 August 1945"

4 The American Hibakusha

5 Depleted Uranium: Legacy of the Gulf War
by Dolly Lymburner

6 Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis
by Carl Anthony

9 Los Alamos DC: Growing Up Under a Cloud of Secrecy
by Hilario Romero

11 Radiation and AIDS
by Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman

12 IQ Is Affected by Fallout
by Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman

13 Fight Back: Uranium Mining in the Grants Mineral Belt
by Simon Ortiz

16 The Jackpile Mine: Testimony of a Miner
by Dorothy Ann Purley

18 Secrecy and Disregard at Savannah River
by Mildred McClain

20 You CANT Do It in Claiborne Parish LA
by Citizens Against Nuclear Trash

22 Death on the Road: Transportation of Spent Fuel Rods
by Nancy J. Nadel

26 Another Broken Promise
by Manuel Pino

28 High Hopes: Testimony on Human Radiation Experimentation
by Caroline Cannon

29 Other Than Honorable: An Atomic Bomb Veteran
by William Hodsden

32 Indian Nations Go Nuclear Free
by Chuck Johnson

34 A Premonition Fuels Mescalero Apache Struggle
by Rufina Marie Laws

37 Who Here Will Begin This Story?
by Herman Agoyo

39 The Declaration of Salzburg

41 Only Justice Can Stop a Curse
by Alice Walker

43 Resources

Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: Freedom from Annihilation Is a Human Right

As far as we know, the Cuban Missile Crisis marks the closest the world has ever come to nuclear destruction. In the thirteen days between October 14, 1962, when CIA officials obtained photographic intelligence that Soviet missiles were being assembled in Cuba, until October 27, 1962, when Nikita Krushchev agreed to pull back, the people of the United States lived on the brink of nuclear disaster.

I was almost twenty-four years old, living with two roommates in a basement flat on the lower East Side of Manhattan, a student at Columbia University. As a result of my social activism in the civil rights movement, the segregated worlds which had formed my social practice and consciousness as a youth were unraveling. The summer and fall of 1962 had been a season of hope and bitterness. The hope came from mobilizations within and between communities. People I knew were talking for the first time about their dreams and passions for the future, love affairs, and a glimpse, previously unimaginable, of the end of racism. Martin Luther King had been arrested protesting segregation of public facilities in Albany, Georgia. The newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had galvanized the nation with courage. But a bitterness grew from the intransigence of Southern racists, the fickleness of the Kennedy Administration in protecting the lives of civil rights workers, and the powerlessness of African Americans to secure even the rudiments of dignity.

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The crisis can be understood as a conflict between three figures - Kennedy, Krushchev, and Fidel Castro. Kennedy represented the “great white hope,” the debonair Bostonian, the apex of American mastery and intelligence, the model of what every American of my generation had been conditioned to worship. Khruschev was his nemesis. He was fat, old, and bald. He couldn't speak English, and he had a habit of taking his shoe off and banging it on the table to make his point. But beneath the crudity of his image, the points he sought to make were closer than Kennedy's Camelot to my own hopes and dreams.

Castro was different from the other two. At thirty-five he was the only one who had actually made a revolution. The people of Harlem loved Fidel, and this made a big impact on me. Harlem residents remembered 1960 when Fidel came to speak at the United Nations. Planning to stay at a hotel near the UN in downtown Manhattan, he and his entourage were harassed by the management and unceremoniously evicted. In a move which greatly embarrassed the U.S. State Department, Malcolm X invited Fidel to stay in a modest hotel in Harlem.

Like many young African Americans of my generation in New York, I had met Malcolm X and talked with him. We had lunch several times at Mosque Number 7 on 116th Street. Yet Malcolm X frightened me. I would go up to Harlem to listen to him speak. There were usually 500 to 1000 Black people. Malcolm taught that African Americans should think of themselves as global citizens. He said the African American struggle was not for civil rights, but for human rights. Civil rights derive from the authority of the state. Human rights are natural rights that precede and transcend the restrictions of a particular sovereign nation. As a people unrepresented by the national government, we must demand our human rights. Malcolm counseled Black people to be peaceful unless they were provoked, in which case he instructed us to use “any means necessary.” I would gaze out over the crowd, beyond the barricades that had been placed to contain the Black people, and look into the eyes of the white policemen. I could see fear in their eyes.

Fidel accepted Malcolm's invitation to stay at the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. On his arrival, Fidel was lavishly welcomed by thousands of Harlem residents who lined the streets to greet him. They saw the abusive treatment he received by those in power as similar to the discrimination they experienced daily.

On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy's advisors told him that the Soviet Union was building nuclear weapons launching sites in Cuba. After a week of deliberation, Kennedy announced the crisis to the nation, charging that the Soviet Union had lied to him. Armaments and military equipment were being sent to Cuba, and now there was "unmistakable evidence that offensive missile sites were in preparation." Kennedy ordered a strict quarantine of "ships of any kind bound for Cuba," promising they would be turned back if they contained offensive weapons. He ended his speech with patronizing remarks to what he called "the captive people of Cuba."

"I speak to you as a friend, as one who knows your deep attachment to your fatherland . . . Now your leaders are no longer Cuban leaders inspired by Cuban ideals . . . We know that your lands and lives are being used as pawns by those who would deny your freedom."

From a white perspective, the Cubans were only a marginal factor in the struggle between superpowers. The perspectives of Black people in the United States were irrelevant. But today, in a world fraught with ethnic tension, it may be important to understand the crisis from these undervalued points of view.

Cuba is a Spanish-speaking, multiracial Caribbean Island. One third of the population is visibly African, and a much larger percentage of the population views the struggle against slavery as a defining crucible of national identity. Much of the culture reflects a New World amalgam, blending ancient Yoruba, Carib, and Iberian traditions. It is a culture inaccessible to a U.S. nation which, despite its large multicultural population, regards itself as "white." The majority of the Cuban population had been dispossessed by exploitative global military, economic, and political forces. In 1961, the U.S. had launched an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Castro feared that the United States would try again. It was this fear of U.S. aggression that led the Cuban government to ask for Soviet missiles. But Kennedy read the crisis as an act of Soviet aggression rather than Cuban self-defense.

By October 24, the quarantine was in full effect, and Russian ships, including a submarine, were nearing the 500 mile barrier. Kennedy now faced a major choice. The US had to intercept or announce withdrawal.

That afternoon, I learned that the confrontation was about to take place as I came up out of the bowels of the subway and fixed on a newspaper headline: NUCLEAR WAR IMMINENT.

It infuriated me that somebody's program of blowing up the planet would interrupt the business of my growing up and healing the searing, corrosive scars of segregation that were tearing me in half. How could they do this to me when everything was finally coming together? I remembered when I was a kid; air raid sirens would go off every few days in our neighborhood. My father instructed us to get under a table when we heard the wailing sound. He told us not to look out of the windows when the whistles blew as bombs might be dropping from the sky. I stared across the intersection at a sullen sky, expecting at any minute to be confronted with evidence that a war had begun. Would there be a warning siren? Would there be a flash of light? Would the ground tremble beneath my feet?

Later that day the news came. Inexplicably, Russian ships had not challenged the quarantine. "We have a preliminary report which seems to indicate that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water." The report was confirmed. Still the crisis was not over. Russian technicians were in Cuba, uncrating and assembling bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the U.S. mainland.

The President had said that the missiles could hit targets 1000 miles away. How far was it from Cuba to New York? More than 1000 miles I thought. The missiles might hit Atlanta, Charleston, Albany, Georgia, cities tom apart by racial strife. I was struck by the absurdity of Black people risking their lives so they could sit at picnic tables in public parks or go into public bathrooms marked “white only.” Southern racists feared black bodies in public swimming pools. They didn't want Black people to vote or go to white colleges. They sent police officers to beat up pregnant women, and backwoods vigilantes shot up homes of civil rights workers. Meanwhile hour by hour, minute by minute, missiles to be aimed at these same cities were being erected in Cuba.

During those days in October, I experienced a crisis of consciousness. I couldn't find a point of balance, a center. As I read the news, a space opened up within me to two types of terror: one concrete, routine, familiar; the other abstract, technological. Which was worse? I couldn't say. It was eerie waiting for the bomb to drop, trying to sort out my emotions of rage and impotence. My anger came from the reluctant admission that maybe the peace activists were right all along. Maybe preventing a nuclear holocaust was more important than gaining civil rights for Black people.

Webster's Dictionary defines the verb to annihilate as "to destroy all traces of, to obliterate, to nullify or render void, to abolish." It is possible to argue that segregation is a lesser evil than annihilation because in the former, a human being may be degraded but is at least allowed a physical existence. In a nuclear blast, all people would be eliminated. This instant stands in contrast to the social death routinely enforced, which allows one set of people, through conscious and unconscious acts of commission and omission, to abuse another people. I couldn't accept the possible truth that total annihilation was worse.

On the evening of October 25 Kennedy received a "very long and emotional" letter from Krushchev. Some people who reviewed the message ominously suggested it showed that Krushchev was unstable and incoherent. In his book, Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy thought otherwise. "It was not incoherent, and the emotion was directed at the death, destruction and anarchy that nuclear war would bring to his people and all mankind. That, he said, again and again and in many different ways, must be avoided. We must not succumb to 'petty passions' or to 'transient things' he wrote, but should realize that if war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war." Krushchev ended the letter proposing to withdraw weapons from Cuba. In exchange, he asked Kennedy to cancel the blockade and agree not to invade Cuba. The next day, Krushchev sent a more threatening proposal demanding that the U.S. dismantle missiles aimed at Russia, sited in Turkey. Kennedy ignored the second letter and agreed to the terms of the first. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over.

Great sighs of relief were felt throughout the land. But some saw in Kennedy's actions another example of white arrogance, the willingness on the part of Kennedy to risk the threat of global nuclear disaster rather than lose face. Kennedy chose to force Krushchev to back down unilaterally, with a potential loss of face. But the question remained: what would have happened if Krushchev had refused to back down?

Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists. While many are gloating over the success of the "free" market, we might pause to remember that it was Krushchev, not Kennedy, who saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. We are still faced with the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Many Westerners fear a future in which Third World nations have access to these weapons. The leaders of these countries are more like Fidel Castro than they are like Kennedy or Kruschchev. The ethnocentric bias and the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain with us.

Nuclear weapons are tools of a conquering, violent culture. Racism at domestic and international levels heightens the potential vulnerability and miscalculation surrounding nuclear proliferation. Few people of color have had any role in debate, development, or decision-making about the goals of this brutal technology. In a nuclear holocaust whole populations will be vaporized in the flash of an eye. People deciding the appropriateness of such a choice inevitably would bring their prejudices and fears to the devastating decision to annihilate whole peoples. The concentration of nuclear power in the hands of a Eurocentric technological elite, paranoid about the aims and aspirations of the majority of the world's population—people of color—magnifies the potential for global disaster. The great and growing gulf of human communication between the rich and poor, European and non-European, multiplies the potential antagonism that could result in planetary holocaust. In this context organizing against nuclear proliferation is, by definition, a multicultural effort, bringing the intelligence and wisdom of every community to the global task of defeating the excesses of racism, human aggression, and technology-gone-berserk.

Nuclear weapons are a violation of the sovereignty of the world's people. Freedom from annihilation is a human right.

Only Justice Can Stop a Curse

Anti-Nuke Rally

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco CA

 March 16, 1982

To the Man God: 0 Great One, I have been sorely tried by my enemies and have been blasphemed and lied against. My good thoughts and my honest actions have been turned to bad actions and dishonest ideas. My home has been ill-treated. My dear ones have been backbitten and their virtue questioned. 0 Man God, I beg that this that I ask for my enemies shall come to pass:

That the South wind shall scorch their bodies and make them wither and shall not be tempered to them. That the North wind shall freeze their blood and numb their muscles and that it shall not be tempered to them. That the West wind shall blow away their life's breath and will not leave their hair grow, and that their fingernails shall fall off and their bones shall crumble. That the East wind shall make their minds grow dark, their sight shall fall and their seed dry up so that they shall not multiply.

 I ask that their fathers and mothers from their furthest generation will not intercede for them before the great throne, and that the wombs of their women shall not bear fruit except for strangers, and that they shall become extinct. I pray that the children who may come shall be weak of mind and paralyzed of limb and that they themselves shall curse them in their turn for ever turning the breath of life into their bodies. I pray that disease and death shall be forever with them and that their worldly goods shall not prosper, and that their crops shall not multiply and that their cows, their sheep, and their hogs and all the living beasts shall die of starvation and thirst. I pray that their house shall be unroofed and that the rain, the thunder and lightening shall find the innermost recesses of their home and that the foundation shall crumble and the floods tear it asunder. I pray that the sun shall not shed its rays on them in benevolence, but instead it shall beat down on them and bum them and destroy them. I pray that the moon shall not give them peace, but instead shall deride them and decry them and cause their minds to shrivel. I pray that their friends shall betray them and cause them loss of power, of gold and of silver, and that their enemies shall smite them until they beg for mercy which shall not be given them. I pray that their tongues shall forget how to speak in sweet words, and that it shall be paralyzed and that all about them shall be desolation, pestilence and death. 0 Man God, I ask you for all these things because they have dragged me in the dust and destroyed my good name; broken my heart and caused me to curse the day that I was born. So be it.

This is a curse-prayer that Zora Neale Hurston, novelist and anthropologist, collected in the 1920s. And by then it was already old. I have often marveled at it. At the precision of its anger, the absoluteness of its bitterness. Its utter hatred of the enemies it condemns. It is a curse-prayer by a person who would readily, almost happily, commit suicide, if it meant her enemies would also die. Horribly.

I am sure it was a woman who first prayed this curse. And I see her - Black, Yellow, Brown or Red, "aboriginal" as the Ancients are called in South Africa and Australia and other lands invaded, expropriated and occupied by whites. And I think, with astonishment, that the curse-prayer of this colored woman—starved, enslaved, humiliated and carelessly trampled to death—over centuries, is coming to pass. Indeed, like ancient peoples of color the world over, who have tried to tell the white man of the destruction that would inevitably follow from the uranium mining plunder of their sacred lands, this woman—along with millions and billions of obliterated sisters, brothers and children—seems to have put such enormous energy into her hope for revenge, that her curse seems close to bringing it about. And it is this hope for revenge, finally, I think, that is at the heart of People of Color's resistance to any anti-nuclear movement.

In any case, this has been my own problem.

When I have considered the enormity of the white man's crimes against humanity. Against women. Against every living person of color. Against the poor. Against my mother and my father. Against me . . . . When I consider that at this very moment he wishes to take away what little freedom I have died to achieve., through denial of my right to vote . . . . Has already taken away education, medicine, housing and food. . . . That William Shockley is saying at this moment that he will run for the Senate of my country to push his theory that Blacks are genetically inferior and should be sterilized. . . . When I consider that he is, they are, a real and present threat to my life and the life of my daughter, my people, I think - in perfect harmony with my sisters of long ago: Let the earth marinate in poisons. Let the bombs cover the ground like rain. For nothing short of total destruction will ever teach them anything.

And it would be good, perhaps, to put an end to the species in any case, rather than let the white man continue to subjugate it, and continue to let their lust dominate, exploit and despoil not just our planet, but the rest of the universe, which is their clear and oft-stated intention; leaving their arrogance and litter not just on the moon, but on everything they can reach.

If we have any true love for the stars, planets, the rest of Creation, we must do everything we can to keep white man away from them. They who have appointed themselves our representatives to the rest of the universe. They who have never met any new creature without exploiting, abusing and destroying it. They who say we poor and colored and female and elderly blight neighborhoods, while they blight worlds.

What they have done to the Old, they will do to the New.

Under the white man every star would become a South Africa, every planet a Vietnam.

Fatally irradiating ourselves may in fact be the only way to save others from what Earth has already become. And this is a consideration that I believe requires some serious thought from every one of us.

However, just as the sun shines on the godly and the ungodly alike, so does nuclear radiation. And with this knowledge it becomes increasingly difficult to embrace the thought of extinction purely for the assumed satisfaction of—from the grave—achieving revenge. Or even of accepting our demise as a planet as a simple and just preventative medicine administered to the universe. Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.

So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying—not a curse—only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything alive) will save humankind.

And we are not saved yet.

Only justice can stop a curse.



Burning Fires       ?õ¬?       Vol. 5 No. 3 & 4      ?õ¬?       Spring/Summer 1995