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Just before the public comment session of Thursday night’s public scoping meeting to discuss the Department of Energy’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the crowd grew noticeably larger at the Cities of Gold Hotel conference room.
At that point, it was pretty clear this was not going to be an ordinary public comment session.
A group of about 20 members representing the Citizens of the American Constitution for Nuclear Non-Proliferation entered the room. That wasn’t all.
Reies Lopez Tijerina, a controversial figure who helped launch the Chicano Movement after leading an armed raid of a New Mexico courthouse over Hispanic land rights, was wheeled to the front row by one of his three bodyguards. The bodyguards were members of New Mexico’s Brown Berets.
“The man is an icon,” said Catherine Montano, who later read a 12-page letter outlining the “nuclear madness” in New Mexico.
Earlier in the day, Tijerina, 85, spoke at the Round House as he attended an event, which marked the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
According to the Associated Press, Tijerina has often contended that the U.S. government stole millions of acres from Latinos following the war. The United States pledged in the treaty to respect private land holdings, including land grants made under the Spanish and Mexican governments.
However, the U.S. government didn’t recognize many of those grants in New Mexico and courts have routinely turned away complaints made by displaced Hispanic families.
Speaking to an audience of ranchers and curious onlookers at the New Mexico Statehouse Rotunda, Tijerina urged activists to keep fighting. He also talked about his role in bringing the Spanish land grant conflict into the public’s eye.
Tijerina, however, probably is best known for the 1967 armed raid of a Rio Arriba County courthouse.
“I went in for God,” said Tijerina, who now lives in El Paso. “My raza (term for Hispanic race) was filled with fear.”
Tijerina and followers raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla to attempt a citizen’s arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez after eight members of Tijerina’s group had been arrested a few days earlier.
Sanchez wasn’t at the courthouse at the time, but during the raid, the group shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy and took the then-sheriff and a reporter hostage. They later escaped.
The hunt for the raiders even involved the National Guard. Tijerina eventually spent about three years in prison.
Tijerina did not say a word during Thursday’s meeting. But the same could not be said for Montano and her group.
For 51 minutes, Montano and one of her colleagues read a letter, which was addressed to everybody from President Barack Obama, his cabinet officials, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, her cabinet officials and all state senators and representatives.
Montano was able to speak that long because each member of her group signed up to speak. And each time, the four-minute time limit was up, they deferred to Montano.
One of Tijerina’s bodyguards unfurled a map, which was called New Mexico – A National Nuclear Sacrifice Zone.
The portion for Los Alamos National Laboratory read, “Elevated rates of brain and child cancers. Thyroid cancer is triple normal rate. Illegal storage of 17,000 barrels of radioactive waste, some corroded and leaking. Over 100 air stacks which could emit radioactivity are not monitored. State levied fine of $1.6 million for clean air and water violations.”
Montano summed up her speech by saying, “Better active today than radioactive tomorrow.”
A fair amount of the crowd left during Montano’s presentation. Most of the others who spoke after the public comment session praised the presentation.
But not everybody was happy.
Jay Coghlan from Nuclear New Mexico, who waited for about an hour and a half to speak, said, “I have known you for 20 years but I ask you to reconsider your tactics. You don’t win the war in hearings. You win it in litigation and budget battles.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: More on the DOE and NNSA meeting will be featured next week in the Los Alamos Monitor.