Cindy Sheehan's occupation in Crawford, Texas in protest of the current war on Iraq and the loss of her son Casey reminds me of another occupation nearly thirty years ago.
On April 30, 1977, over a thousand people walked onto the site of a proposed nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. The site had become the focus of local protests as area residents became aware of the dangers and problems with nuclear power. Around the same time, a proposed nuclear plant was defeated in Montague, Massachusetts and New England activists felt that if Seabrook could be stopped, nuclear power could be stopped. This has proved true as no new plants have been ordered since the 1970s (in the U.S.) and the few that were in the pipeline either straggled on line like Seabrook Unit One (Two was abandoned and is a rusting hulk today), or were not turned on like Shoreham on Long Island.
An organizing effort was undertaken throughout New England during the winter months of 1977; modeled on an occupation of a nuclear plant site in Whyl, West Germany, an occupation was planned.
When speaking at my college, Nobel Laureate (Physiology or Medicine) George Wald said if you believed in freedom and democracy you would sign up for nonviolence training in preparation for the Seabrook occupation. I signed up for the training session; moved by role-playing an 'occupier', and singing 'This Land is Your Land', I decided to join in the protest. I formed an affinity group with school friends and local folks in Worcester, Massachusetts. We prepared ourselves--arranging equipment and food, discussing possible scenarios, naming ourselves the 'Worcester Quahogs.' The morning we left (April 29, 1977), Governor Meldrim Thomson was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying 'terrorists were descending on New Hampshire.' I remember our apprehension as we looked at each other; we did not know what to expect.
We drove to the seacoast and arrived at a farm that was a staging area for the protest. We formed a huge circle with other occupiers and everyone sat on the person behind them: united we sit. This was to encourage trust. I slept outdoors for the first time in my life. The next morning, after eating oatmeal prepared by our support person and putting on all our gear, we set out. By the time we reached Route 1, I was bent double under the weight of my borrowed Boy Scout rucksack but I was determined to keep up with my group. We entered the site easily, marching onto it from various access points; some even came by boat. We danced in circles on the site, elated, chanting 'No Nukes!' As it got dark, we set up tents and prepared ourselves for whatever would happen next. Streets were established, (one was named for Oklahoma whistleblower, Karen Silkwood who had been killed in a suspicious car accident while on her way to deliver proof of falsified nuclear safety documentation to a reporter).
Arrests began late on Sunday, May 1 and went through the night. Arraignments were held in hastily convened sessions at Portsmouth Armory. We were fingerprinted and matched with our arrest photos and went before judges. Most of us pleaded not guilty and were transported to other armories in the area.
We were detained for 12 days in armories around New Hampshire. We read the newspaper coverage of our protest: we were in all the newspapers--local, national, international--and on TV news. New Hampshire authorities had been caught off-guard and did not know how to handle the situation. This became more clear over the next few days as people were brought into courts and sentenced to jail in a 'sharp break with legal practice' (NYT, 5/6/77) following an 'unusual' appearance in court by then State Attorney General David Souter.
My armory (Dover) drafted and signed a public letter quoted in the NYT 5/7/77: 'Radioactivity is a silent and invisible killer. You cannot see it, hear it, or taste it. Can we tolerate having such a killer in our midst? Having such a killer strangle our planet? We believe the answer is no.'
We made history during those two weeks. We maintained the principle of bail solidarity to protect people who had been arrested the previous year from being singled out and treated more harshly and insisted on being released on our word that we would come back for trial (personal recognizance). When the authorities finally released us, some 700 of us were still in the armories. Freedom and the reunion with my original affinity group was a truly joyous moment. The grass was green, the sky was blue, we were free and it was on our terms.
We put forth a good, even a beautiful vision nearly thirty years ago: to develop solar and wind power as renewable energy sources that would not deplete precious, yet polluting resources and to conserve energy. We put forth that vision out of love for human beings and planet Earth and backed it up by putting our bodies on the line.
It is still a good vision. Had it been heeded back then, we might not be in a catastrophic situation in Iraq today, with control of oil resources underlying the reasons for war. The environmental damage observed recently from space by shuttle Discovery Commander Eileen Collins perhaps would be less.
The road is narrowing before humanity. On one side is an abyss of environmental destruction due to our use of oil and gas. On the other side looms nuclear proliferation (through use of nuclear energy or black market-style) and the nuclear weapons that will exterminate life on earth should these weapons be used.
Until the nuclear catastrophe we fear takes place, there is still time to take action and build the critical mass of protest that must be built. We should have faith, faith lies somewhere between desperation and hope.
Cindy Sheehan is showing a way forward, demanding accountability from our political leaders who have placed this planet in such a dangerous position. Support Cindy Sheehan, from Hiroshima to Harrisburg to New York to Baghdad, spread the word, Peace and No Nukes!
Portions of this article appeared in Peacework, July/August 1996. Dedicated in memory of environmental leader John T. O'Connor, 1954-2001.