Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center lays off staff, reinvents itself
By Jefferson Dodge
July 8, 2010
In the late 1970s, a group of protesters blocked the railroad tracks
at Rocky Flats in an attempt to keep trains from delivering nuclear
bomb-making supplies to the plant.
That group, the "Rocky Flats Truth Force," occupied the tracks for a
whole year, and was joined by several prominent figures, including
Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Daniel Ellsberg.
The group of protesters included six people who, a few years later,
founded the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, an organization
that not only played a crucial role in shutting down the nuclear bomb
factory but continues to play an advocacy role in everything from
ending conflict in the Middle East to standing up for the homeless
right here in Boulder.
But with the recent economic downturn, the center has fallen on hard
times and has been forced to lay off its paid staff. Now, it seems,
the organization needs people to return the favor and stand up for it.
* * *
LeRoy Moore, one of the six founders of the RMPJC, was among those
who helped block the railroad tracks at Rocky Flats from April 1978
to April 1979.
"It was the year of disobedience," he recalls. "We decided to stay on
the tracks, and when people were arrested or removed, others took
their place. People were bringing food, clothing and tents. They were
on the tracks in the dead of winter and the heat of summer."
Moore says that while the protesters weren't successful in shutting
down operations at Rocky Flats, they did delay deliveries and raise
awareness by generating media coverage.
When almost 300 of the Rocky Flats protesters were arrested toward
the end of the year-long protest, Moore was among them. Later, in
July 1989, he fasted for 24 days outside the state Capitol as a show
of solidarity with Rocky Flats victims.
It was the summer of 1983 when he and five others he met during the
protest on the tracks decided to launch a center that would not only
engage in nonviolent activism, but would offer trainings in
nonviolent protesting, which set it apart from other activist groups
at the time. (Moore taught nonviolent activism at the University of
Colorado's Denver and Boulder campuses.)
In addition to Moore, the founders of what was originally called the
Boulder Peace Center and then the Rocky Mountain Peace Center
were Chet Tchozewski, Karen Gruber, Jeri Brown, Sally Dowiatt and
In October 1983, just as the fledgling center was setting up shop in
rented space in the basement of what is now the Boulder Mennonite
Church, the RMPJC engaged in a landmark protest at Rocky Flats known
as the "encirclement." About 17,000 people joined hands and
successfully surrounded the 17-mile perimeter of the property, "with
the help of some jackets and scarves," laughs Betty Ball of the RMPJC.
* * *
If the center didn't operate through consensusbuilding and didn't
have a non-heirarchical organizational structure, you might call Ball
the director of the organization. Until last month, she was the only
full-time paid staff member at the RMPJC.
Ball moved to Boulder in 1960 to go to college.
She, too, was at the Rocky Flats encirclement, selling environmental
T-shirts and getting people to sign petitions. Then, in 1984, she and
her husband, Gary, moved to Ukiah, Calif., where they ran the
RMPJClike Mendocino Environmental Center for 10 years.
While in California, the Balls worked closely with prominent
environmental activist Judi Bari. When asked about Bari, who was the
Earth First! organizer known for her efforts to save redwood forests
during the 1990 "Redwood Summer" and the subsequent car-bomb
attempt on her life Betty Ball singles out another of her talents,
calling her "one of the most skilled drywall installers I've ever seen."
She laments that the person who planted the bomb under Bari's car
seat "is still out there," because law enforcement chose to
investigate the activists themselves instead of the real
perpetrators. Ball calls Bari a brilliant strategist who would read
books on labor history and civil rights movements to ascertain where
she and her fellow activists were in their own efforts, and to plan
their next steps.
"She knew on whose shoulders we were standing," Ball recalls.
One thing Ball learned from her experience with Redwood Summer is
that nonviolent activism can sometimes delay things like logging
long enough to let the legal process work, until an injunction can be
issued, for instance.
"Sometimes people fail to see the value of nonviolence, but that's
part of it," she says. "And it makes the distinction very clear who's
doing the violence and who's not. If we aren't totally nonviolent and
don't stick to that no matter what's happening, then it muddies the waters."
Ball moved back to Boulder in 1997, a few months after Bari died of
breast cancer. One of her first projects upon her return was to deal
with the tension-filled aftermath of riots on University Hill,
leafleting houses in the area and hosting a pizza social under the
Broadway bridge so that students and police could mingle and get to
know each other.
"I have long considered the RMPJC to be one of the best resources for
activism in the community," says Sabrina Sideris, a local supporter
of the center. "Whenever something needs to be responded to, I would
call Betty Ball before anyone else."
Still, Ball doesn't think her prospects of landing a new job are too promising.
"At the age of 68, I don't think a lot of people are going to come
clamoring to my door," she says with a wistful smile.
* * *
Carolyn Bninski, who until recently was a halftime RMPJC employee,
was a neighborhood organizer in New York City before coming to
Boulder in 1986 while working for the Nuclear Freeze campaign. That
campaign's offices were located next to the RMPJC's, and the two
organizations worked together on initiatives, which is what led
Bninski to join the center as a paid staff member 10 years ago.
She puts the center's financial challenges in a larger perspective,
citing statistics on the current economic downturn and how
philanthropic giving to organizations like the RMPJC is usually one
of the first things people cut from their budgets when times are tough.
"It's happening to groups like ours around the country," says
Bninski. "There's a concentration of wealth at the top, the middle
class is being decimated by these economic policies, and the only way
that's going to change is organized pressure on our lawmakers."
It's not just donations that the center needs, it's volunteers. Now
that there are no paid staff, volunteers are needed to do things that
the employees did. Of course, it's not just about answering phones
and sending announcements to the 2,500 people on the center's e-mail
list. The RMPJC is organized into collectives that focus on topics
ranging from international affairs to nukes to economic justice.
Volunteers can choose to participate in the collective that best
suits their interests.
"We've always had a huge amount of work done by volunteers," Moore
says, adding that people don't become activists for the money. "It's
certainly a low-paid profession."
But he emphasizes the importance of being able to pay "peace
professionals" like Bninski and the Balls. (Gary Ball was a
one-quarter-time employee who acted as the center's bookkeeper.)
The center is overseen by a "spokescouncil" and has about 200 active
volunteers. The RMPJC has been active on a variety of fronts both
locally and globally, including single payer health care, the
occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israel/ Palestian conflict,
corporate personhood, local pesticide use and the BP oil spill.
Moore and Judith Mohling, who coordinates the center's Nuclear Nexus
Project, are still active in the clean-up at Rocky Flats and "nuclear
guardianship," which Moore describes as the need to take care of this
dangerous man-made substance during its active life, which in some
cases can be 250,000 years. Mohling says the RMPJC not only hosts
local nuclearawareness events but belongs to the national Alliance
for Nuclear Accountability and lobbies on the issue in Washington, D.C.
She says the center has long stood for the concept of the "living
wage," and should be able to provide that to its professional staff.
But Ball says the reality of the situation was having to choose
between providing the salaries and keeping the center's doors open.
In the meantime, until the center's fundraising levels recover, the
RMPJC will continue its work on the backs of volunteers.
"Change doesn't come by itself, it requires work," Bninski says.
"Change is possible, but it's not going to come from the top. It's up
to the people to do it. People have to sacrifice a little bit. And
it's not going to happen just on the Internet.
"Our government will not represent us unless we keep the pressure on.
They're getting too much pressure from the elites in this country."