Ground Zero drew on the non-violent civil disobedience strategies of Gandhi and Thoreau to protest nuclear weapons. Click to enlarge. (Drawn by William Livermore. Courtesy Ground Zero Records, Special Collections Library, Univ. of Washington.)
This page is part of a special section. Click below to go tour:
Click the picture above to go to watch a streaming video interview with Kim Wahl, one of the participants in the peace blockade.
Poster, by William Livermore, portraying Ground Zero's hopes--sometimes realized--that naval base workers would refuse to make nuclear weapons. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy Ground Zero Records, Special Collection library, Univ. of Washington.)
Ground Zero distributed surveys to workers at Bangor Naval Base to see what workers thought of their anti-nuclear pamphlets. Click image to enlarge. (Courtesy Ground Zero Records, Special Collections Library, Univ. of Washington.)
Letter from a worker at Bangor Naval Base, and Ground Zero's response. Click to read document as a pdf. (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 first part of this essay, click here.
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During the height of PLC and Ground Zero’s campaign, other campaigns around the country were gaining steam as well. They had a tactic in common with PLC and Ground Zero: non-violent direct action. A prime example was the Clamshell Alliance, founded in 1976 in response to the planned nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, in a campaign that saw the arrests of more than 1,400 people during its biggest action. Historian Barbara Epstein wrote, “The Clamshell Alliance combined small-group structure and consensus process with non-violent civil disobedience.” Indeed, PLC and the Clamshell Alliance were building on similar ideals, joined by other campaigns such as the Abalone Alliance in San Luis Obispo, California, which had 1,900 arrested at a local nuclear power plant; and the Livermore Action Group, near San Francisco, where 777 were arrested for entering a nuclear test site. Non-violent direct action had become the dominant tactic in American activism.
The Clamshell Alliance and Ground Zero shared an additional trait: they knew how to use their jail time. “We turned the armory/jails into workshops for no-nuke organizing,” wrote participant Marty Jezer of a Clamshell event. According to Bix Bichsel, the extensive jail time resulting from Ground Zero’s October 1979 action was also well used. Indeed, Bix remembers it as the time when Jim Douglass first hatched the plan for the Peace Blockade.
The blockade of the arrival of the USS Ohio on August 12, 1982 represented several levels of success of the long-term campaign of direct action at Bangor. Forty-six people conducting civil disobedience in moving boats in an attempt to divert or otherwise thwart the movement of a nuclear submarine would be the apex of the tactical repertoire PLC and Ground Zero had perfected over seven years. The blockade also revealed Ground Zero’s success in building relationships with and garnering support from religious leaders, as twelve bishops and church executives from six denominations held a vigil on a prayer boat in a nearby cove (not to mention the multi-denominational passengers in the boats). And, of course, it was an unprecedented opportunity to bring media attention to their message.
By the summer of 1982, anti-Trident activists had spent nine years working to prevent the first submarine from arriving at Bangor, and it was clear to most of them that they were about to fail. Word came that the USS Ohio, the first Trident submarine to seek shelter in Hood Canal, was on its way from its birthplace at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. “We didn’t know exactly when the submarine was going to come, and that required a lot of work to get good preparations,” Jim Douglass recalled. “We actually had people in the Panama Canal helping us, because the submarine had to go through there.” It would take several days for the Ohio to make the long journey up the west coast, and Ground Zero had little time for one last attempt to prevent their home from becoming the service station of the world’s deadliest weapons. Events were planned by every segment of the movement, including a 6,500-person protest on the S’Klallam reservation at Point Julia.
The Ground Zero plan was simple enough: get boats into the water and get them in the way of the submarine. The goal: to stop the submarine, or to “stop it in people’s minds and hearts,” as put recently by blockade participant Kim Wahl, of Seattle. In an interview for this project, Wahl added that the symbolism of the scene was a way to accomplish this. “Jim’s dream … was this Goliath [next to] these ridiculous little boats. I mean, it was ridiculous.” To do this, Ground Zero and its team of blockaders needed to get wet quickly as they tried to ready a group who had never before attempted direct action in water. The team went through a training retreat from August 1-3. Greenpeace activists helped instill water safety practices. “They did not think that we were disciplined,” remembered Wahl . “They were in a lot of ways dismayed at the dangers we were facing by being out in the open water.” By the time the Ohio arrived, the team would be able to lift and lower nine one-person rowboats out of their two larger boats in less than three minutes. Incidentally, the two large boats were both from outside the US. The 38-foot Lizard of Woz came down from Canada, and the 54-foot Pacific Peacemaker sailed 11,000 miles from Sidney, Australia over the course of seven months, only arriving days before the Ohio.
People involved in the Peace Blockade were so strongly motivated by moral convictions that they felt that they could not, in good conscience, act otherwise. “It wasn’t like I had a choice,” said participant Kim Wahl. Ruth Youngdahl Nelson, the subject of the documentary Mother of the Year and at 78, the oldest participant in the blockade, remarked soon afterward, “Whether I was thrown into those cold waters, whether it would have meant my life. I had to put my life on the line.” As the time grew nearer to the Ohio’s arrival, said Wahl, “It became clear that the penalties were greater than we had initially thought.” Despite threats of ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, none of the protesters backed out. Wahl added, “I just knew in my heart that I had to do it.” Looking back later, she asked her friend and fellow blockader Renee Krisco why they hadn’t thought much about the potential repercussions. “Because we thought we’d die in the water,” said Krisco.
After the training, the team was dispersed to their homes to take care of personal business before returning on August 6. Then the waiting began. For six long days and nights they watched and listened for the Ohio.
On Thursday August 12, between 2 and 3 a.m., night watchers spotted large numbers of Coast Guard cutters stirring in the canal, and the activists were awakened. The group sprung into action, saying prayers, donning wetsuits, and boarding their meager vessels. But their publicity had preceded them. In a surprise move, the Coast Guard staged a preliminary seizure of several boats and protesters. Guardsmen carrying M-16s and handguns met them at their docks and made many arrests before the Ohio was even in sight. In the ensuing confusion, a handful of boats got away, while others were overturned and flooded by the Coast Guard. Video footage taken at the time shows protesters getting washed overboard by high-powered Coast Guard hoses.. Like the Civil Rights activists before them, the Bangor activists now knew the experience of non-violence being met with violence.
The boats that got away from the initial Coast Guard onslaught tore toward the “National Security Zone,” a 1000-yard perimeter around the submarine, a boundary that once crossed meant risking the ten-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine. Undeterred by the consequences, Ruth Youngdahl Nelson rode in her son Jon’s 16-foot motorized rubber boat as it raced from the law. A Coast Guard boat caught up with them and brought them to a halt. As a Guardsman on the cutter was about to hose the team into the sound, the 78-year-old Ms. Nelson declared boldly, “Young man, not in my America.” The Guardsman hesitated, and then lowered his hose as the group escaped for another run at the Ohio before finally being stopped and arrested.
With almost every Ground Zero boat at a halt, there was only one which succeeded in advancing all the way to the Ohio. A speedboat carrying Renee Krisco, Ed Turtle, and Sunshine Appleby circled the colossal beast while outrunning multiple Coast Guard boats and a helicopter. Surrounded by law enforcement, the boat got right up next to the Ohio before their gas line was cut by a Coast Guard diver. According to Kim Wahl, “Sunshine held the gas line together and [Ed] started the motor. And they circled back around [the Ohio].” Amazingly, the trio escaped without arrest.
All told, the Peace Blockade was a rousing success. For those who participated, it drew emotions ranging from anger to excitement to fear. For American activism, it was emblematic of its time. Fourteen of the forty-six protesters were arrested. “A number of others were held” without charge. The Pacific Peacemaker was impounded due to a “suspicious substance” found on board, which later turned out to be tea. Despite activists’ efforts, the USS Ohio glided through the confusion into Bangor without slowing down. But the message was sent. Seattle headlines were dominated by the Peace Blockade for days. Better still, the New York Times picked up the story on two occasions. In addition, at least one base worker resigned in protest the day the Ohio arrived. Those arrested were greeted by a cheering crowd as they arrived at the courthouse in Seattle later in the day. They were escorted by a Federal Marshall who had pinned a peace button over his badge during the journey. They were released on their own recognizance, and eight days later, all the charges were dropped. Public support and fear of continued publicity led authorities to drop the charges, according to Wahl. “It was getting way too much attention,” she said. The Pacific Peacemaker’s ten-day impoundment was the longest time served for the Peace Blockade.
The direct action campaign staged by PLC, Ground Zero, and others in the 1970s and 80s at the Bangor base was astounding in its longevity. Indeed, Ground Zero continued in its campaign for several more years, with events equal to the Peace Blockade in complexity and bravery. Eventually, Jim and Shelley Douglass moved to Alabama to work on a related campaign, and Ground Zero has undergone a few transitions since then. The Ground Zero Center for Non-Violent Action remains an activist community on the Kitsap Peninsula, and civil disobedience still occurs (Bix recently celebrated his 80th birthday by getting arrested at Bangor).
More than anything, the early Trident campaign was representative of the wave of non-violent civil disobedience transforming American activism. Its use of creative direct action was illustrative of the tactics used by anti-nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear power activists nationwide throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. For those participating, this often meant risking their freedom and their safety for a cause they deeply believed in. While the efforts at Bangor may not have galvanized a mass movement to stop the Trident missile, they attracted hundreds of followers who were committed enough to risk their lives. Such was activism in the days after Vietnam.
Copyright (c) 2008 Matt Dundas
Copyright (c) 2008 Matt Dundas