By D. E. Gibson ©
Power comes down to two things. Money and People. When they have the money, we need the people!
It was dusty, hot, and the air and the ground around us, seemed yellow. It was sandy, rocky, sage brush with a few stunted trees all around. On one side of US 95, was a steel chain link fence some 10 feet high or more, which stretched for miles in both directions, topped with concertina razor wire. On the other, about 3,000 individuals from all over the country were lining up to support hundreds who were illegally entering the gates on this side of the fence. Beyond this throng, just a mile north, organized in a sand pit past some small hills on Bureau of Land Management property were a collection of tents, small and large, pitched as I recall, about 100 yards from the road. White ones. Bright yellow and orange ones, blue ones. Olive… There were a number of vehicles as well. Support vehicles, generators, water trucks, and personal transportation of a wide variety. Some of the tents were individual one and two person affairs. Some were much larger canopies, and house size structures used for kitchens, dining halls and communal meeting spaces. I remember flags on poles. Peace flags. Rainbow flags, even American Flags. (I will have plenty more to say about the American Flag in later posts)
I have been told that you could hear the sound of the drums in the back ground. I do not remember this myself but do remember drums and other musical instruments there, so … why not? Sounds like something we would have been doing then. Playing drums and clanging cymbals and making noise in celebration of life and resistance to oppression. And if we were not, we should have been. Like the Canadian activists who have come out recently banging their pots and their pans during their protest marches! How cool.
Here was the layout:
In 1988, in the Nevada desert, I was part of an event involving civil disobedience where about 3,000 people were arrested over the course of 10 days. I have read that this was the largest civil disobedience action in US history with a record of arrests.
We were protesting underground nuclear weapons explosions to test and develop new and more dangerous bombs and missiles about 1,000 of which, could destroy most life on Earth. (There were about 70,000 in the world then, ready to launch) The demonstration was named “Reclaim the Test Site.” I had trained and prepared for this event for months. I had flown out here all the way from Montclair NJ to meet my crew. They had driven out earlier, caravan style, meeting up with other caravans and rolling into “Peace Camp” within hours of many others that I had spontaneously coordinated by phone and fax back in our office in Montclair before driving to Newark Airport and boarding a plane to join the fun. (This was all before cell phones… Members of other caravans from the South and the North East and the East, and the North West called in to their headquarters by pay phone… Does anyone reading this remember those?) I spoke with their home offices. They, in turn, would let their folks — who would call in from time to time – know how far in miles they were from some other group of fellow travelers and on what particular route some other caravan from some other part of the country might be. Some joined up en-route thanks to this. Some joined up outside of Peace Camp. Others aimed to roll into peace camp as close to a common arrival time that we organized in an impromptu fashion over the phone. Me with my map spread out on my cluttered desk with my speaker phone in front of me… No google maps in them days … Most of the travelers arrived on the same day within hours of each other… an intermittent procession of caravans arriving from all over the country. I imagined cheering campers greeting them, which indeed is what I was told later actually happened. This helped build solidarity and gain us some local media attention too.
I was up most of the night alternately on the phone and at our brand spanking new copy machine, my back pack and travel gear stored on the floor by the door, as I was running off materials for a professional door-to-door canvass we had organized as one of our contributions to this effort. While the protest was set for Nye County, the canvass was in Las Vegas, which was the next county over. Since none of the money we collected was for the protest, but to set up a group in Vegas of locals who would call for conversion of the test site to peaceful purposes, we were completely legal,– much to the chagrin of Las Vegas police who wanted to arrest us, like their Nye County Compadres, but were unable to. So… Ha!
My crew, all experienced professional canvassers, had caravanned out to meet some other canvassers from other canvass offices — most from SANE/FREEZE, (The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy merged with the Nuclear Weapons FREEZE Campaign.) Some were committed to the canvass, and others were committed to the action and planning arrest. We were well represented.
When I arrived just hours after most of the caravans got there, I disembarked at Las Vegas Airport. As I got off the plane the very first thing I saw drove home what we were really resisting. I saw a line of Slot Machines. “Yes” I thought to myself with a wry smile. “Makes sense”.
I was up and animated when I got to Vegas thanks to the excitement of the occasion and adrenaline in my system, despite my tired state due to a night of little sleep. (Exacerbated by the little plastic bottles of bourbon I drank on the plane.) I made my way to the temporary office for the American Peace Test in Las Vegas. The American Peace test was, in a way, a splinter group of sorts, breaking off of the larger FREEZE Campaign to mount increasingly militant, disciplined, civil disobedience against the US nuclear weapons program, and the US’s overall policy of militarism. They coordinated with groups protesting in Greenham Common in England and at the test sites in, what then was still, the Soviet Union as well… making this a truly global organizing campaign. Most Americans would have been shocked and in denial of the fact that there was a robust peace movement in the USSR in those days.
The office certainly felt temporary. It was located in the rear of, some sort of commercial, newly and cheaply constructed mini-mall sort of thing, though it didn’t appear to have any retail outlets. It had small offices of the kind where you might find a moving company, a machine shop, or a fly-by-night furniture warehouse. Lots of white and silver and aluminum, and no trees to mention in the parking lot except for the small, spindly newly planted variety. The kind held in place by some cable tied to the ground and supported by fresh pine one by twos. Even the doors seemed to be made of a hollow aluminum frame. The office was located across from the rear parking lot of one of the smaller casinos… (Casinos were everywhere. So were more slot machines. They seemed to be in every commercial location one entered, including super markets.)
Some of the canvassers took what they made canvassing and leveraged it at the gaming tables. One guy won enough money to buy an airplane ticket back to Los Angeles, which was fortunate as he did not have a return plan when he got there. All of us took advantage of the very cheap food, steak dinners and the like, and cheap booze that the Casinos made available to attract out-of-towners to come in and lose their savings. What a racket! But it was, after all, Vegas! Back at the office there was a kitchenette kind of deal, with a sink a very small refrigerator, and a microwave.
We lived on peanut butter, bagels and bread, and some whole wheat pasta which I would cover with tahini sauce. At Peace Camp there was a communal kitchen with lots of … well… chili and salad I imagine… I never ate there myself. We ate pretty well off of the money we canvassed. Which was also OK because the contract called for paying us from revenues that we raised while signing people up. Not a bad system.
The whole operation was run on consensus, which immediately ended my role in the canvass as a leader as soon as we had our first meeting. It stung my ego but enriched my soul. I was suddenly no longer the architect of this unique first ever organizing model, but simply the driver and another canvasser. It was kind of liberating in a way and immensely satisfying seeing everyone step up and take responsibility. My ego healed quickly.
Upon arrival I met with an organizer or two. The details are a bit hazy, but we arranged, from previous contact, to have access to either one of the two rental vans that were around to bring people to and from the office to Peace Camp and back.
We also arranged whose couch I would sleep on as I did not have a tent at Peace Camp. I don’t remember getting much sleep anyway. As I remember I moved around a lot, staying on the weekend with other canvassers and activists at some out of town lawyer’s home for a night and a day. I was charged with going to the grocery to pick up food for a large group meal, and since I had not yet gotten my paycheck, I was to do most of the labor for my part of the meal. When I got to the super market, I dropped a few quarters (all I had left) into one of the slot machines up front and won enough to cover my share of the groceries and a little extra, saving me from a night of indentured servitude at the whim of my fellow activists… WHAT a relief. Capitalism came through for me that time.
We would have access to the van at around 2:00 PM each day to bring people to the City and then, after meeting and preparing for the field at about 3:00, we would drive canvassers to their neighborhood and drop them off. Then I would drive back to the office, and pick up whoever needed a ride back to Peace Camp. Then I would turn around, and head back into the city giving anyone who needed it, a ride and drop them off. If I had time, I would go out and canvass. If not I would just go and pick up the crew. Then drive back to Peace Camp. To get around during the day or on the weekend, I used the little red Mazda owned by one of my crew, a young man with blond dread locks.
I found myself going back and forth to the city for various reasons during the day while some members of my crew joined hundreds of others crossing the line and being abducted by Wackenhut Security on the test site grounds and put in a large metal “pen” in the desert until they could be loaded on buses and driven to the town of Tonopah, some 65 miles from the vicinity. We called it “The Cage”. It was a 28,800 square foot chain link fence built in the shape of a square near the South Entrance not too far from the road. As activists crossed the cattle guard at the gate’s entrance, or scaled the fence, they were picked up by security guards, some on foot, some driving souped up dune buggies. Once herded into the “cage” they were taken, as a group, to the buses.
On March 13, 1988, the Los Angeles times had this to say about it: “Orchestrating the arrests were about 100 sheriff’s deputies, 50 Nevada Highway Patrol officers and an unknown number of Department of Energy security officials, who used helicopters, motorcycles and camouflaged dune buggies to track down the hundreds of trespassers who managed to evade a wall of guards manning the area near the entrance.”
The first time this happened, on the first day of the action, it was not expected… Organizers scrambled to find all manner of vehicles and gave chase. After about a day or two, we got really good at following the buses and retrieving our folks and getting them back to the scene of the demonstration pretty quickly thereby effectively thwarting the Nye County Sheriff’s office in their plan to break the civil disobedience.
The reasons they cited for this strategy, to bus our people far away, showed our evident effectiveness at gumming up the system, which, at its root, is one of the reasons for civil disobedience to begin with.
Also in the LA Times was this:
“Activist Jessie Cox was one of many who chastised authorities for using “the cage.” “This cage that has been built in the desert appears to be a detainment camp for nonviolent protesters,” Cox said. “We are not only concerned about its use, but about the historic precedent that the image of a stalag-like structure conjures up.”
But Chris West, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, which manages the test site, said the enclosure, which cost $35,000, was needed to control ever-increasing numbers of protesters here.
There have been 3,610 people arrested here since the first demonstration was held in 1957, authorities said. But 3,217 of those arrests were made in 1986 and 1987.
“We are sorry this is happening,” West said, “but we can’t just let people go haphazardly anywhere they want on the test site.”
Still, Nye County prosecutors stopped filing charges against most trespassers here a year ago in an effort to ease the county’s mounting court load.
“They are trying to use the Nye County criminal system as a forum and we are not going to waste taxpayers’ money by giving them that recognition,” said Nye County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Morrison. Instead, he said, “the complaint is routinely dismissed and they go on their merry way.”
So it was obvious that all of that work, demonstration after demonstration, was paying off from a tactical point of view at least.
But was it paying off strategically? A most important question. While the department of energy denied any effect on operations, which was true at the time, the effect on political policy was another matter.
Representative Pat Schroeder, a Congressional ally from Colorado introduced HR 3442, mandating the cessation of US nuclear testing (and thereby British tests, since they used our test site for their own nuclear tests… stopping the US would stop the Brits… A twofer) so long as the USSR maintained their moratorium on testing. The bill eventually gained over 100 co-sponsors, but was never voted on. Schroeder claimed its support was influenced by the civil disobedience at the test site.
The Soviets ended their unilateral moratorium on February 5, 1987, but the last US test explosion was 4 years after Reclaim “The Test Site”, in 1992, though the amount of tests were vastly reduced before that time.
However, later in 1988 the US and the USSR began the Joint Verification Experiment, where technical personnel from both countries traveled to each other’s testing facility to begin the actual monitoring program that would allow each to verify that the other side was not testing. So this, then, was the beginning of the end of nuclear test explosions by all countries to this day with the exception of North Korea, and it looks like possibly Pakistan (and then maybe India?) again soon. We have to organize to stop this if we can!
In 1992 the US Congress passed the Hatfield-Exon amendment, cutting funds to achieve a nine month nuclear testing moratorium. This cancelled the last three scheduled tests for 1993. The ban has held ever since despite our Senate’s refusal to verify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by Bill Clinton in ‘96.
My own belief is that what finally ended nuclear explosions was civil disobedience, like this action and the threat of continued demonstrations, along with millions of petitions, tons of letters and phone calls, and simply ongoing unrelenting pressure of ALL kinds from many, many regular folks from all over the place.
There was also the largest single demonstration in US history to end the nuclear arms race, earlier in Central Park in 1982, which can be seen as the start of the final grass-roots push to end all nuclear testing. Protests had been going on since the beginning of nuclear testing.
The nuclear weapons freeze referendum passed in many states across the country before being defeated in Congress… which helped change tactics to a more militant variety culminating in the mass arrests at the test site.
Who knows? The increasing acts of civil disobedience (CD) HAD to worry policy makers. As the protests and CDs grew in frequency and numbers I am sure, it is only common sense, that despite official denials, it had to worry those in power that this kind of thing might continue to grow until it got unmanageable.
Back in the late 80’s a one judge, Judge Sullivan, after listening to an emotional appeal from a family member who was in court on his trespass charge (which they received at the Test Site) stopped the proceedings and told the court and everyone there that “I just want you to know I think you are making progress through your efforts.” according to a personal account in a book entitled “A Family Says No to Violence: Personal Empowerment through Nonviolent Civil Disobedience.” by Sally A. Mack.
We must never underestimate our own power… It is, after all, all we can count on in the end… and when united with others, we can multiply that power to make real, and often lasting change.
But our power is not like the power we resist. The power of greed, suicidal greed, when one thinks of the polices that give us realities like 70,000 nuclear weapons, “Shock and Awe”, addictive use of fossil fuels resulting in increasing average global temperatures, and the very real and staggering threat of a possible runaway greenhouse effect.
Their power is massive, it seems to be everywhere, but it isn’t. It is pervasive, and it is coercive. Ours is different and, when planning to resist and work for change it is always, in my opinion and that of many experienced organizers, best to organize from a place of your own power. As a matter of fact, Saul Alinsky, one of my early organizing role models, had set down some principles for us to use when developing strategy. He said, we need three things to give an organizing campaign a decent chance of success.
1 – Give your people a sense of their own power. You do this by organizing from your own experience and outside your opponent’s experience. Mass CD is often a good case of this, but not always. It is good to assess the degree to which your target understands and knows how to respond to CD.
2 – Alter the relations of Power. Doing things outside their experience can win you a seat at the table.
3 – Win concrete improvements in your people’s lives…
The Anti-Nuclear Arms Movement has succeeded at all of these…
There are still dangers to be sure, and nuclear weapons still need to be abolished because they still pose a very real threat to each of us and all life on the planet, though we ARE in an undoubtedly safer position than we were in 1988.
But in terms of the goal of the campaign for the Anti-Nuclear Arms movement, I would say that if we can succeed in achieving a ratification of the Test Ban Treaty in the Senate, then we have won and we should have one hell of a very public and audacious party to celebrate because we need to, for our own psyches, reward ourselves for a hard-fought campaign that many of us sacrificed much for. But as importantly, we need to organize that celebration as a national event. We need to put some resources into it to give notice to those in power that – yes — we DID win. We went up against the most powerful death machine in history and we pushed it back from the brink and saved us all from annihilation.
That IS something to celebrate. And we want them to know that we will not take whatever else they have in store for us without a fight. We need not be violent. That is their way of playing the game. We will NOT let them reduce us to their level. We WILL overcome… That is the message a large victory celebration would send. Stand by, next chapter in the saga is coming up and we are prepared to win again…
We have no choice if we want to live. Because as soon as the hangover wears off, we will be planning our strategy for our next campaign to make this world we live in a better place to live the kinds of lives we want to live and that we all deserve. So, to spell it out, what I am proposing is a national celebration as a campaign strategy.
The powers we resist threaten to do us all in, globally and in our own neighborhoods. All to serve a system which more and more people have witnessed serves a very few at the expense of an increasing number of people at the bottom. A growing, and REQUIRED underclass that must exist for this system to operate.
This is what we resist: A war around the planet, and one in communities of poor and African-American people and other people of color and people who are divergent from the main stream life style.
We resist a system which pits us each against each other to purposely keep us divided so that we never learn our power. The power of our numbers. The power of the many, the power of people, the power that has been seen throughout history to eventually overthrow the tyrants that have oppressed them time and time again. The Power of unity. The power of love!
A power we can realize when we break down the barriers and differences that divide us and when we learn that everything IS connected.
Like the power of 3,000 people from all walks of life and an amalgam of backgrounds that came together in the hot Nevada Sun to stand up to the nuclear nightmare that had been created to threaten us all just to profit a few.
It is the same power that we use when we reclaim our streets by building community and sharing the burden to make the streets safe to walk again. The power to change how we raise our children so that they suffer less trauma than we have, and can grow with understanding of, and compassion for others. Nothing else will do… There is no other way for us to survive, otherwise, as things progress and resources dwindle and new ways of organizing society are called for, we won’t be competing and killing each other to eat, but feeding each other to prosper.
We ARE all in this together. So far, there is no other planet we can go to and the world as we know it keeps getting smaller. We must choose to run our own lives, personally and as a community. Power structures HAVE to change. Patriarchy, and yes, Capitalism, at least in its current form, must become a thing of the past. We must evolve or perish.