Activists from the civil rights and antiwar movements turned, in the mid-1970s, to anti-nuclear campaigns, transforming the American left. Click to enlarge. (Drawn for Ground Zero bu William Livermore. Courtesy Ground Zero Records, Special Collections Library, Univ. of Washington.)
Click to enlarge. (Drawn for Ground Zero bu William Livermore. Courtesy Ground Zero Records, Special Collections Library, Univ. of Washington.)
This page is part of a special section. Click below to tour:
Click the picture above to go to a streaming video interview with Bill "Bix" Bichsel, a Jesuit priest and activist with Ground Zero.
A sense of social justice, drawn from Christian and pacifist teachings, motivated the Pacific Life Community. Click to enlarge. (Drawn by William Livermore. Courtesy Ground Zero Records, Special Collections Library, Univ. of Washington.)
This extensive two-part essay draws on oral histories and private archives to describe the non-violent philosophy and activity of anti-nuclear activists in Ground Zero and the Pacific Life Community. To go to the second part of the essay, click here.
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On August 12, 1982, the US Navy submarine, the USS Ohio, barreled in to Puget Sound. It was the end of its long journey from Groton, Connecticut, through the Panama Canal, and up the west coast of North America. The Ohio was the first of a new class of submarines intended to house the Navy’s newest nuclear weapon: the Trident missile. Mixed emotions greeted the Ohio at the newly expanded Bangor military base on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula. Some were eagerly anticipating the boat, elatedly waving American flags, dancing to the Navy band, and cheering on the sailors. Others waited anxiously, as they had for days, to create a blockade of “ridiculous little boats” in an effort to stop the 560-foot-long, four-story-high Ohio from docking.
The “Peace Blockade” was the most dramatic of several dozen direct action protests conducted at the base since it was designated as the future home of the Trident submarine in 1973. The blockade was organized by members of the Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action. Ground Zero was a small intentional community of anti-nuclear activists living on the Kitsap Peninsula, committed to non-violence in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Their campaign of civil disobedience, including trespassing onto the Navy base once a month for several years, has received praise and mention in several historical works but deserves a place in the long history of peace activism in the Northwest.Ground Zero’s campaign, along with that of its predecessor, the Pacific Life Community (PLC), was emblematic of the activism around the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the Vietnam War ended, many activists redirected their efforts to the issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The use of non-violent direct action was their dominant tactic. Having been overshadowed by more dramatic—and often violent—events during the war, non-violence harkened back to early tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, used to great effect during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins. Activist and author Barbara Epstein points out that during Vietnam, “non-violent direct action was largely supplanted by more strident approaches but never entirely lost.” From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, non-violence again became the dominant tactic, and was the trademark of the anti-nuclear movements. Ground Zero and PLC were an impressive example of this.
Founding a Non-Violent Community at Bangor
In 1975, left-wing political activism in the United States was undergoing a transformation. The Vietnam War was over, radical organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground had been crippled or had its members killed, and the student movement was far less vocal. For people like Jim and Shelley Douglass, who had given so much of their time and blood to the antiwar and Civil Rights movements, the question was how to move forward. Both were Canadians with deep roots in the United States’ antiwar movement, and shared strong Christian and spiritual values, a current of activism that had been overshadowed by the radical politics and move away from pacifism in the late 1960s. Jim was a professor of theology at the University of Hawaii when he was persuaded by his students to take action against the war in 1972. He responded by “pouring his own blood on files of bombing targets” at Hickham Air Force Base, resulting in jail time.
A witness at his trial was Robert Aldridge, a missile designer for Lockheed. The two became unlikely friends. Two years later, in 1974, in the mountains of British Columbia, Robert Aldridge paid the Douglasses a visit to discuss his recent resignation. “I saw that it was going to be a first strike weapon,” Aldridge said recently of his last project, which was on the design team for the Trident missile. “It was going to have the accuracy needed to hit things like missile silos and underground command posts. Things you would not hit in a retaliatory strike, you know, because they’d already served their purpose.” Aldridge pointed out the inherent contradiction of Trident’s usage to the prevailing international political theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD), which dictated that both the US and the USSR were safe from nuclear war because they would both be assured of annihilation. If the United States were to possess the Trident missile, the delicate balance of power would be disrupted, giving the US the upper hand and creating an incentive for the USSR to strike as an act of pre-emptive self-defense beforeTrident became operational. Aldridge quit Lockheed after experiencing a crisis of conscience.
By the time of Aldridge’s visit, Jim and Shelley had all but retired from political activism. “We were pretty burned out on protest,” Shelley said recently, “and then Bob comes along with this thing about, ‘Well, here’s my story and I’ve resigned my job for conscience.’ And we’re all very moved.” Then, said Aldridge, he showed them where the Trident would be based. “I got a map out, and I showed him where the Hood Canal was, and where the base would be, and how the submarines would be coming in and out. Anyway, they say that motivated them to start resistance to it.” Resistance began in short order.
Pacific Life Community was founded on January 4, 1975. A PLC flier from 1976 describes its establishment: “The Pacific Life Community was established at a weekend meeting of 16 people from Seattle and Vancouver … Many of us had never met before. … Almost the only thing we had in common was our concern with the nuclear arms race … and our hopes for peaceful social change.”
The flier goes on to articulate PLC’s mission, which was to live in an intentional community with the common purpose of egalitarianism and feminism, with a “Gandhian … commitment to truth and action.” The Trident campaign was its “immediate political aim,” but “the political aim was not the primary purpose of the community.” Specifically, they tried to confront “the Trident within” themselves and the myriad ways in which violence manifests itself in individuals’ daily life. Thus, PLC was a diverse group of like-minded people, working to find peace within themselves as part of a process of making peace in the world. At Bangor, this meant conducting non-violent direct action operations to thwart the most powerful new weapon of the world’s largest military.
PLC quickly agreed upon a common statement. This statement honored the commitment they were making to each other and to “all other peoples of the Pacific,” with whom they would “work for a nuclear free zone.” Their mission included not just erasing violence from Bangor, the Northwest, or the United States, but also from their own hearts. They resolved to search without and within for answers to the violent tendencies of mankind.
The group was physically scattered, with members living in Vancouver and Seattle. Weekly meetings were held locally; monthly meetings were held as a whole group. Decisions within the group were made using the consensus method. “We talked and talked and talked and talked and finally everybody, except the ones who were really interested, fell asleep,” Jim Douglass kidded in an interview for this project. Thus, decisions were not always easy, but neither Jim nor Shelley can remember any “bulldozing sessions.” “Of course,” said Jim, “the ideal is the Quaker ideal where everybody is very thoughtful and prayerful … the ideal was to try to work through everything.” The ideal was sometimes not met, but it was met often enough for PLC to stay united for nearly three years.
Building an Anti-Trident Movement
Non-violent civil disobedience replaced guns and ammunition for PLC. They executed dozens of direct actions at the base throughout the mid-70s. These actions were almost exclusively variants on a single theme: crossing the fence onto the base. They sometimes referred to it as “transcending the fence.” Sometimes they avoided the fence altogether by boating or even swimming up to the base. The usual idea was to stage an event on the base, such as a prayer, until they were removed. Most of this was done with the advanced notification of the media and the Navy. A significant element of their campaign was the constancy and the creative diversity of the actions committed through the years, much of it documented by local, national, and international news outlets (which was part of the goal).
In one of the earliest actions, on July 6, 1975, 30 people were removed from the base and handed letters “barring their reentry,” a typical first-offense penalty. They had crossed the fence with gardening supplies and proceeded to plant a vegetable garden and sow wheat along the base road before being evicted. The event was a success, as their action received press in newspapers as far away as Toronto. It was an encouraging beginning.
On May 17, 1976, Jo Maynes, Laurie Raymond, and Alice Ray-Keil were arrested for cutting the fence outside the base. According to media reports at the time, a group of fifteen people were initially removed from the grounds after a first attempt at fence-cutting. They were issued letters barring their reentry onto the grounds, and then released. Instead of returning home, the women went shopping for more bolt cutters in Silverdale, and went back to work on the fence. Again they were picked up by guards. This time, court dates were scheduled before they were released. And again, the trio went shopping for bolt cutters and returned to finish the job. On this third occasion, several guards arrived (along with a repair crew for the fence) and the three were taken away by bus. A PLC spokesperson, Betty Brantner, was quoted in the Bremerton Sun pointing out that part of the goal was to generate a trial. “A trial is the closest thing to public debate that we can get.” The additional press coverage was also a plus.
At the trial in August, all three were sentenced to thirty days in jail for damaging government property. When Ray-Keil’s young daughter asked her what the judge had said, she replied, “He said we can spend a whole week together, then Mommy has to go to jail for 30 days.” Ray-Keil and the others were rebuffed by Judge Donald Voorhees: “Your right of peaceful assembly, your right of free speech, does not extend to a right to destroy property.” An early PLC press release quotes Judge Voorhees as adding, “[This sentence is] not punishment for you. It is deterrence for those who would follow.” If subsequent actions are any indication, Judge Voorhees’ sentence was more encouragement than deterrence: in the years that followed, many people were sent to jail for similar actions.
The culmination of these tactics occurred in the summer of 1977 with Bangor Summer, a “summer of intensive resistance.” Shelley Douglass later described Bangor Summer as “an invitation to people … to come to Kitsap County for a week or two and to take part in workshops designed to explore personal violence while simultaneously taking action at the Trident base.” They staged mass actions in rapid-fire fashion, beginning on July 4 when thirty-seven people were arrested for entering the base intending to have a picnic.
July 18 marked the first of four consecutive days of arrests. It kicked off with twenty-nine trespassing arrests, including nine protesters who had rowed up to the plant. A crowd of 250 cheered them on from outside the base as they were taken into custody. Events continued on August 6, in remembrance of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when PLC held a press conference showcasing a coffin filled with origami cranes. A “swim in” was held on August 7, when four people swam onto the base with a five-foot wooden fish used as a float and were subsequently arrested. The final and largest event was a 2,000-person festival of peace on August 14, which featured much singing and dancing.
Bangor Summer helped to build the movement against Trident, and the following year’s “May 22 Campaign” used this momentum to build one of the biggest demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience yet. Live Without Trident, which had splintered off of PLC in an effort to build a mass movement around the Bangor issue, helped organize a rally at a farm near the base. The rally attracted 4,000 participants. “I know because I counted them,” says Fred Miller. “I stood there beside them with one of those little counters in my hand clicking off everybody going by.” In addition to the rally, there was action.
Hundreds of people crossed onto the base, resulting in the arrest of 292. According to Miller, they were all carted off to jail in Tacoma, where, at 10pm, those who were first-time Bangor offenders were released and given letters barring their reentry to the base. The dozen or so who had already received such letters were held in jail. The vast majority of those released, 260 people, came to the aid of those left in jail by crossing onto the base again the next day: as Miller said, “If they’re only keeping the hard core, they can give those people long sentences and cut off the leadership … So to protect [those people], we decided to go back onto the base.” The maneuver worked, in its way, in that everyone got arrested and convicted, with minor penalties.Despite the awe-inspiring stories of courage and bravado, there was more to PLC than direct action. Indeed, what PLC did more of than anything else, perhaps, was leaflet. Once a week, PLCers would stand at base entrances, handing leaflets to any of the workers who would take them. Many did. This approach was part of PLC’s overall goal to break on to the base, not merely physically but also mentally: to speak to the workers. To “love their enemy,” as Shelley Douglass explained: “The tactics that we chose were not so much to convince the US Navy to not deploy the Trident as they were to convince ourselves and people in the Kitsap area, the Seattle area, to disarm, starting with our own hearts.”
This approach reflected the dual nature of the effort, and was effective in getting some military workers to listen. According to the Douglasses, over the years, a handful of people have quit their jobs at the Bangor base in protest because of the work of PLC and Ground Zero.
Yet another element of the work of PLC was their efforts at coalition building. Many of the most exciting and successful actions carried out at Bangor were the result of coordinated action between two or more groups. Ground Zero veteran Bill “Bix” Bichsel pointed out that “there were lots of different things going on with lots of different groups.” Indeed, religiously affiliated leaders from throughout the region joined with the campaign, including the vocal Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle. Of the organizations PLC worked with, some were local, such as Concerned About Trident (also known as CAT, a group who fought early and vigorously to shut down the planned base due to environmental considerations). Others, like PLC, had branches in British Columbia. Some were national, such as Friends of the Earth, and others, like Greenpeace, were international. The ACLU offered legal counsel during Bangor Summer in 1977. PLC also worked with governmental bodies to further their cause for peace and disarmament, even getting the mayor of Vancouver to declare a citywide “Trident Concern Week.” For an intentional community, which by definition can be hostile to outside entanglements, PLC and later Ground Zero worked effectively with numerous groups, including other direct action organizations.Community organizing played a crucial early role in PLC, and led to its transformation into Ground Zero. Winning the hearts and minds of the local residents was a pivotal ingredient of success, and in addition to leafleting, organizers held coffee meetings in people’s homes. A discussion would be held on the topic of Trident, and whenever possible, Jim and Shelley would use a slideshow to illustrate their points. In some cases, the goal was less to convert their audience and more to introduce themselves. As Shelley described, “It wasn’t so much to convince them as to let them see that we didn’t have horns and a tail.” As public perception of the group improved, it would be easier to gather public support for their controversial tactics.
Ground Zero: The Navy’s Newest Neighbors
A problem PLC faced in winning public trust was that they were from the outside: none of them lived on the Kitsap Peninsula. To remedy this flaw, PLCer John Williams went with Jim Douglass in 1977 to buy property from which to base a permanent campaign. They could hardly have happened on a more perfect parcel of land: 3.8 acres sitting right next door to the Bangor base, sharing 330 feet of fence with their campaign target. Thus was born the Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action. They became the Navy’s newest neighbors.
To purchase the property, the nine founders of Ground Zero each put in $100, then collectively raised $14,000 in six weeks to secure the down payment. The staff at the base made no known effort to block the sale. A handful of Ground Zero activists moved out to the peninsula, including the Douglasses, who found their own place not far from the Center. Despite the planned activity at the site, the local sheriff’s office reacted with borderline indifference. “If anything,” said Sergeant Les Cline at the time, “it’s better that they’re where we can keep an eye on them.”
Ground Zero would end up taking over from PLC, as the latter disintegrated shortly after Ground Zero’s birth. The ability of those who had moved to the peninsula to organize on a full-time basis now made the weekly and monthly PLC meetings superfluous. Interestingly, PLC chapters copying the original model have since popped up in multiple locations, such as the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ground Zero, for its part, operated very much like PLC, as its founders were all PLC veterans. It was a campaign with both spiritual and material goals; it was a prayerful community; they worked by consensus; and they had an insistent habit of visiting their next-door neighbor, uninvited, again and again and again. At no point in the transition from PLC to Ground Zero was there an interruption to the anti-Trident campaign.
An action in October, 1979, resulted in another round of mass arrests. Jim Douglass was chief among them. He had twice hopped the fence and traversed the landscape into high security areas. “It meant going over the fence into the base and then it meant going over the highest security fences into the nuclear weapons compound,” Jim recalled recently. What threatening action was Jim planning once he reached his destination? Prayer. Jim was supported by people like Bill “Bix” Bichsel, a Catholic priest from Tacoma with a history of activism starting in the Civil Rights Movement. Bix was arrested with others who had crossed the fence, but recalls not seeing Jim again for a while. “We had no word of where they were or how they were for a day and a half,” he said in a recent interview for this project. The sentences for the offenders, including Jim and Bix, were far longer in length than anything previously handed down for Bangor-related crimes. Bix, who had crossed the fence but had not gone into the weapons compound, received a four-month prison sentence. Jim, who had gone into the weapons compound not once but twice, was accordingly given two six-month sentences, both of which he dutifully served.
Copyright (c) 2008 Matt Dundas