Why arms protesters in US turn to civil disobedience

Like the civil rights movement and Vietnam war protest in the 1960s and '70s, the nuclear disarmament movement of the '80s is escalating its tactics, coast to coast, from lawful demonstrations to mass civil disobedience.

At dawn June 21, thousands of protesters, singing ''Give Peace a Chance'' and wearing ''Stop the Bomb Where It Starts'' T-shirts, gathered on the edge of this cowtown-turned-suburb 20 miles east of Oakland to illegally blockade the gates to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Together Livermore and its older rival in Los Alamos, N.M., have designed every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal.

Says Jack Kahn, associate director of the Livermore lab, ''The goals of the lab employees and the protesters are similar, but our approach is significantly different. To achieve peace we believe you must have discussions from a point of strength.''

The blockade, potentially the largest disarmament civil disobedience action in the nation's history, comes on the heels of a demonstration a week ago in midtown Manhattan, in which 1,600 nuclear arms protesters were arrested while attempting to block the entrances of United Nation missions of countries with atomic weapons. The Livermore Action Group (LAG), which organized the California blockade, anticipates similar civil disobedience throughout the United States in the coming months, focusing on nuclear weapons depots, Strategic Air Command bases, and production plants in the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons complex spread over nine states, from Texas to Ohio.

By 9 a.m. Monday the Alameda County sherrif's office said police had arrested more than 1,000 unresisting demonstrators. Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame was among them. Between 1,500 and 2,000 blockaders were expected to be jailed before the demonstration was over, said a representative from LAG, a broad-based coalition of ''affinity groups'' including feminists, clergy, students, unionists, and veterans of last fall's blockade of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in southern California.

''This nation's independence began with civil disobedience, and apparently for the American government now to take notice (of the disarmament movement), people will have to get arrested,'' says Leonard Post, an Oakland antinuclear lawyer in basketball shoes, who has given legal counsel to Livermore blockaders. ''Women didn't get the right to vote until tens and thousands took to the streets and got arrested,'' he continues. ''There was no civil rights movement until Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. The protesters here (at Livermore) have filled out petitions, referendums, and letters to Congress. They did everything they could before breaking the law.''

Dr. Ellsberg, one of President Kennedy's nuclear weapons advisers who later leaked the top-secret ''Pentagon Papers'' in 1971, told the Monitor before the mass arrests at the lab gates: ''The action at Livermore shows more and more Americans are willing to go to jail to get their message across.''

From the outside, the lab looks like an industrial park. Inside, many of its 7,000 scientists are imagining and modeling new weapons. Since it was established in 1952 by Dr. Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, the Livermore lab has designed warheads for Poseidon, Polaris, Minuteman, and more recently for the Lance and cruise missiles. It is also credited with developing MIRVs and the neutron bomb and is at work on laser and particle-beam weapons for use in outer space.

Fueling the Livermore controversy, critics say, is first the lab's storage in Building 332 of several hundred pounds of deadly plutonium 239, enough to level a dozen cities the size of Nagasaki. Second is the likely renewal this year of the University of California's contract with the Department of Energy as nominal administrators of the weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos.

California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has unsuccessfully lobbied the university's board of regents to withdraw its ''academic cover'' and sever its bond with the nuclear weapons business, begun 38 years ago. Says Dr. Ellsberg, ''The university is providing a civilian cover for nuclear bomb design and providing one more barrier to public scrutiny. UC has to take responsibility for being the front man without knowing what's going on.''

According to Mr. Post, LAG and the Abalone Alliance (which coordinated the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant blockades) represent a new breed of protest organizations for the 1980s. Unlike the hierarchical, male-dominated radical groups of the last two decades, he says, the antinuclear movement appears to be forming into a loose, sometimes eclectic collection of activists, highly schooled in nonviolent resistance, and committed to ''Quaker style'' consensus decisionmaking. Leadership is rotated, Mr. Post says, and more often than not rests in the hands of women.

Among the women in the informal Livermore blockade leadership is Barbara Levy , a soft-spoken, silver-haired bookstore owner from San Francisco. She was arrested at the Diablo Canyon blockades in 1978 and 1981.

''I was opposed to the bomb in college in the '50s, but until now felt powerless in the face of the weapons issue,'' she says. ''My oldest daughter, Myra, was arrested in 1977 at Seabrook (N.H., an A-plant site), and that's when I got involved.

''More people like me,'' she adds, ''have been pushed to the point of civil disobedience. It's not just students out here. It may sound funny, but even my stockbroker told me the other day, 'You're blockading Livermore for the increasing number of people like me who are opposed to the arms race. Someday I'll be out there getting arrested with you.' ''

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