Revisiting Rocky Flats: Joseph Daniel brings his 1979 protest dispatch back into service
Hundreds of people in bandanas, bell bottoms and boxy Buicks came to the Colorado scrubland in the shadow of the Flat Iron mountains between Golden and Boulder to sit on a small stretch of train tracks at Rocky Flats. They sat for months. They were pummeled by the elements and finally dragged off by the police and hauled into court. But by that time, the spring of 1979, the world more or less knew about the tracks.
“That little railroad spur, 18 inches of iron rail in Jefferson County, was a true seat of power,” said Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers and went onto become an icon of the era’s peace movement.
The spur led to the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. It carried the trains that brought in bomb parts and that carted out radioactive waste.
Thirty thousand nuclear weapons had been made in the United States by the time of the protest. Many thousands of those weapons were warheads, each one thousands of times more powerful than the two bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Rocky Flats was the only plant that made the plutonium components needed to make the Cold War weapons. Sitting on the tracks stopped the trains and made news. The American public suddenly was forced on some level to digest the business being conducted at the site and give consent to what the protesters thought was an insane industrial operation fueled by ignorance.
Fledgling photojournalist Joseph Daniel was there on assignment for the Colorado Daily in Boulder. “The events at Rocky Flats — right there in our backyard — would soon become international headlines of critical importance,” he said. He turned his photos into a book called “A Year of Disobedience” for which he tapped Ellsberg to pen a preface and Allen Ginsberg to contribute the one-off poem “Plutonium Ode.”
The book conjures a United States that would have looked more foreign a decade ago than it does today. It’s the end of 2013 and for twelve-and-half years straight the nation has been waging war — ground wars, air wars, border wars, drone wars, information wars — snooping on a scale as disproportionate as the world-gone-mad nuclear arms race that colored the sad and determined faces captured by Daniel decades ago at Rocky Flats.
Even though the Cold War is long over, its nuclear missiles, as far as most of us know, are still standing in their silos, their payloads and plutonium triggers accounted for or not; new secretive transgressive War on Terror operations allegedly supported by the American public come to light at a regular clip; conscience-plagued whistleblowers are criminalized and chased around the planet; and plutonium-laced Rocky Flats — “right there in our backyard”– is being turned into shiny new suburbs.
As Daniel told the Independent, he thought it was a good time to bring the book back into service.
For the new edition, Boulder-based peace activist LeRoy Moore contributed a sober history of the events that includes an assessment of the 1970s anti-nukes movement and of the major Rocky Flats cleanup effort, which he believes stopped a long way short of clean. The residential developments being built near the site now, he writes, are being erected on land that “Atomic Energy Commission scientists showed in 1970 to be contaminated with plutonium.”
“People ask me whether they should buy houses in the area. I only say why I would not chose to live there,” he says.
[ Images courtesy Joseph Daniel. ]
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