Profile of an antinuclear protest

''We are gentle, angry people/ singing, singing for our lives.'' These words, lifted in song from the voices of thousands of people, float across the Boston Common at an afternoon rally protesting the planned December deployment of 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe.

A dozen speakers stir the predominantly white, 5,000-strong crowd of down-vested students, professionals, grandparents, and small children into rounds of applause or chants of ''give peace a chance.''

At dawn the next day, in a cold, stinging rain, hundreds of the same ''gentle , angry people'' stage a civil-disobedience action at AVCO Systems Division, a manufacturer of components for cruise, Pershing II, and other missiles in Wilmington, Mass.

The demonstrators, including singing Buddhist monks in saffron slickers, carry ''Stop the Euromissile'' placards and parade in peaceful protest against AVCO's missile-related production. Many are dragged off AVCO property by not-so-gentle, riot-helmeted local police from the Northeast Regional Tactical Unit. Police dogs bark and whine as they strain at the leashes.

The Boston rally and civil-disobedience action were just two of some 150 related actions staged across the United States and Canada during the Oct. 21-24 weekend, in sympathy with the some 1.5 million demonstrators in Europe's continuing ''hot autumn'' of antinuclear protest.

Although the North American and European peace movements share similar tactics and a common aim of halting ''Euromissile'' deployment, the organization of the protest has been markedly different on this side of the Atlantic. Bruce Cronin, disarmament coordinator for Mobilization for Survival, notes that the weekend activities in the US were scattered from coast to coast rather than concentrated in large cities where sheer numbers had a visual impact.

Acting on an international call from the European peace movement last fall, eight national peace organizations in the US, including Mobilization for Survival, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and the American Friends Service Committee, put out a national call to coordinate actions during the October weekend.

Mr. Cronin says the national groups decided to ''decentralize the actions, to put together a series of local grass-roots actions instead of one large action or regional actions.'' (Although in retrospect, Cronin says he thinks ''it would have been better to have a dozen major actions around the country, on the scale of the New England regional action, since there was not as much national impact'' as organizers had hoped.)

''We left everything up to local groups to decide,'' Cronin continues. ''Except that we came up with guidelines and services for local groups such as a poster, a special button, putting together a speaker list, and arranging the media work.'' The major thing, Cronin says, was the establishment of a clearinghouse for information about the actions and their results.

The New England campaign to block the Euromissiles began four months before the weekend of actions, explains Brian Fitzgerald of Greenpeace New England, with ''a lot of paper, and a lot of phone calls - billions and billions of phone calls.''

By October, Mr. Fitzgerald says, the New England Campaign Against the Euromissiles comprised some 70 Boston and New England peace groups. The coalition included such groups as Artists for Survival, Boston Women's Pentagon Action, Nashua Committee to Halt the Arms Race, People Against Annihilation, and Watertown Citizens for Environmental Safety, among others.

Judy Freiwirth of the New England Campaign to Stop the Euromissiles explains that these are ''multi-issue groups - but all have a task force or group specifically dealing with disarmament. Each group may focus on different areas, '' she says. ''And some feel they may have a particular expertise, such as professional groups or people with different political perspectives.

''But the main idea,'' she says, ''is to expose what is coming up (in Europe); to raise people's consciousness.''

A 10-member steering committee chose a series of events to be held in the New England area and to coincide with the weekend protests across North America and in Europe. They planned:

* A legislative protest that Friday in which groups from the coalition lobbied their congressional representatives to support a one-year delay in deployment of the Euromissiles.

* A nonviolent civil disobedience action at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., on Saturday.

* A regional march through Cambridge, Mass., and the rally at the Boston Common on Sunday.

* And the civil disobedience and ''peaceful trespass'' at the AVCO plant north of Boston early Monday morning.

The steering committee and some 50 volunteers and staff people from American Friends Service Committee, Greenpeace New England, and Mobilization for Survival then went to work, Fitzgerald says. Groups were organized to deal with the media , public education, preparing for the legislative and civil-disobedience actions , and ''outreach to various political groups,'' he says.

In preparation for the civil-disobedience actions, the organizers required nonviolence training for those planning nonviolent entry and risking arrest. Those people were urged to form local community ''affinity groups'' of 5 to 10 people sharing common interests to serve as basic planning and decisionmaking bodies. Some 22 affinity groups participated in the nonviolent AVCO demonstration. (There were no arrests at AVCO, although almost 1,000 people were arrested in other protests across the nation that weekend.)

What kinds of people join in such demonstrations, risking arrest or abuse from police and workers at the AVCO plant?

''The people (participating in the Euromissile actions) come from a broad cross section of society,'' says Mobilization's Cronin. ''They are not only peace-movement people. There are many people who might not ever be involved in a peace movement but who are opposed to the missiles being deployed in Europe. There are many women, too. And a lot of these people are involved for the very first time.''

A woman standing with a group about to cross onto AVCO property in Wilmington says she is ''a mother and the wife of a Vietnam War veteran. I'm probably the only person out here from this community. I'm not with any group. I'm out here because I have two sons in college,'' she said with tears welling in her eyes, ''and I just don't want to see them have to fight in a war. I'm out here because my husband had to tell families their sons had been killed. I met him at the door when he came home one day with fingernail scratches on his face.''

Aside from three affinity groups from Tufts University, there were few college students involved in the AVCO protest. Cronin says ''there is not a great deal of campus activism because students are scared they won't find jobs when they graduate. Students are looking at their own interests right now. They just can't take off a semester to protest as students could during the '60s [ when jobs were easier to come by].''

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