Having seen the wheel go around a few times, I advise we don’t re-invent it. Almost 200 years ago Thomas Dorr and his supporters occupied Providence and despite many failures ultimately achieved their goal of expanding the right to vote.
30 years ago we watched our leaders play nuclear games and wondered if the end of life as we know it was imminent. The threat remains, but we have pulled back from the brink of mutual assured destruction. The worldwide protests over decades included mass occupations…
The women of Greenham Common, in England, occupied the site of a US nuclear weapons base from 1981 to 2000. During those years tens of thousands of women participated in protest and thousands were arrested.
On the 5th September 1981, the Welsh group “Women for Life on Earth” arrived on Greenham Common, Berkshire, England. They marched from Cardiff with the intention of challenging, by debate, the decision to site 96 Cruise nuclear missiles there. On arrival they delivered a letter to the Base Commander which among other things stated ‘We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world which is the basis of all life’.
When their request for a debate was ignored they set up a Peace Camp just outside the fence surrounding RAF Greenham Common Airbase. They took the authorities by surprise and set the tone for a most audacious and lengthy protest that lasted 19years. Within 6 months the camp became known as the Women’s Peace Camp and gained recognition both nationally and internationally by drawing attention to the base with well publicised imaginitive gatherings.This unique initiative threw a spotlight on ‘Cruise’ making it a national and international political issue throughout the 80s and early 90s.
The conduct and integrity of the protest mounted by the Women’s Peace Camp was instrumental in the decision to remove the Cruise Missiles from Greenham Common. Under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the missiles were flown back to the USA along with the USAF personnel in 91/92. The Treaty signed by the USA and the USSR in 1987, is in accord with the stated position held by women, in defence of their actions on arrest, when it states :
“Conscious that nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences for all mankind”
The presence of women living outside an operational nuclear base 24 hours a day, brought a new perspective to the peace movement – giving it leadership and a continuous focus. At a time when the USA and the USSR were competing for nuclear superiority in Europe, the Women’s Peace Camp on Greenham Common was seen as an edifying influence. The commitment to non-violence and non-alignment gave the protest an authority that was difficult to dismiss – journalists from almost every corner of the globe found their way to the camp and reported on the happenings and events taking place there.
The Greenham Common action helped to inspire a women’s occupation in upstate New York, The Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.
The camp took place mainly during the summer of 1983, from July 4 through Labor Day, concluding with a Labor Day Action honoring workers and highlighting the inflation and job loss that militarism brings. The Encampment continued through till 1994 when it “transitioned” into a “Women’s Peace Land.” Through its entire existence it continued to make the same principled philosophical connections between militarism, high rates of inflation, unemployment and global poverty, personal violence, addiction, abuse in all its forms and global environmental destruction. The Encampment continued as an active political presence in the Finger Lakes area for at least 5 more years, supporting anti-nuclear education and the connections between eco-feminism, non-violence, the need for civil disobedience and the new ideas of…perma-culture, sustainability….etc.
The camp was located in Romulus, in Seneca County, New York, adjacent to the Seneca Army Depot. Thousands of women came to participate and rally against nuclear weapons and the “patriarchal society” that created and used those weapons. The purpose of the Encampment was to stop the scheduled deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles before their suspected shipment from the Seneca Army Depot to Europe that fall.
Vision Statement (From the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace & Justice Resource Handbook which was distributed between 1983 and 1986.):
Women have played an important role throughout our history in opposing violence and oppression.
We have been the operators of the Underground Railroad, the spirit of the equal rights movement and the strength of the peace movement. In 1590, the women of the Iroquois Nation met in Seneca to demand an end to war among the tribes. In 1848 the first Women’s Rights Convention met at Seneca Falls giving shape and voice to the 19th century feminist movement.
Once again women are gathering at Seneca–this time to challenge the nuclear threat at its doorstep. The Seneca Army Depot, a Native American homeland once nurtured and protected by the Iroquois, is now the storage site for the neutron bomb and most likely the Pershing II missile and is the departure point for weapons to be deployed in Europe. Women from New York State, from the United States and Canada, from Europe, and, indeed, from all over the world, are committed to nonviolent action to stop the deployment of these weapons.
I was there for this demonstration in NYC…
The biggest demonstration on earth (until the global anti-Iraq war march of Feb 15 2003) took place in New York on June 12, 1982, when one million people gathered in support of the second UN Special Session on Disarmament and to protest nuclear weapons.
Labor unions joined peace groups, other organizations and concerned individuals from across the country in the largest demonstration ever held in the nation’s largest city, in protest against the Reagan administration’s nuclear weapons buildup.
I remember people leaning out of windows cheering us on, and flying banners high on the buildings. I remember it was a beautiful day.
As the Occupiers in Burnside Park face the forces of cold, entropy, human nature and legal action from the City of Providence, they walk in the steps of others who gathered peacefully for a cause. They use group process refined by Quakers and anti-nuclear protesters, feminists and civil rights marchers. They do us all a service by maintaining a center for free speech and keeping the issue of economic inequality visible.
This is not new or even so radical. This is what Democracy looks like.
The unusually clement weather is beginning to break, a mild rain soaks the ground, the tents, the signs. One says, ‘As I am, so you can be Homeless’. This is a fear now gnawing at the edges of the middle class, but high rents and low wages have swelled the population of this park long before the occupation.
I see a Gadsen Flag– Don’t Tread on Me. No black flags of anarchy, the 2 Ron Paul posters still up have the words ‘Jim Crow’ scrawled on his forehead. A notice on the media tent reads–’In cooperation with the Providence police please make tents 10′ from fence- form rows of tents.’
Most are inside those tents, the temperature dropping last night and the rain are the beginning of an endurance test.
In the center of the park, two women set up a Sukkot booth, and the metal frame is strung with branches, lights and handmade cards with messages of peace and hope.
I see a man stretching a tarp over some tents. He says his name is Phil. I mention the Sukkot and he says he is a born-again Christian through a conversion experience at a low point in his life. He is a contractor by trade and constructing a pretty good shelter out of a tarp and 2 pallets with some help from another occupier.
We get talking and discover that we both were in the occupation of the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in 1977. Phil was with the Maine group. We discuss the pros, the cons and the pitfalls of consensus decision-making. I tell him that I now suspect that some of the people who held up consensus and dragged out meetings were there to disrupt.
The occupation has so far been civil and cooperative with the City of Providence. Phil said that 2 women walked through yesterday, tourists from Moscow. They were also visited by the public safety commissioner. The occupiers are keeping it clean and orderly. It’s a public park, the usual people who hang out there are still there and anyone can walk through. No leaders but a kind of mutual cooperation.
Phil said that if the weather is good this weekend the park will fill up with people. Seems likely. The tents are still there and this diverse group is still holding together.
I’m late for work–got to go–more to follow.