That was the name of my “affinity group” in my first civil disobedience action. An affinity group is loosely, and perhaps pretentiously, modeled after the anarchist cells (“grupos de afinidad”) in Spain during the Spanish Civil War who organized in a fairly non-hierarchal manner and found themselves shot at by communists as well as fascists. It operates on a decision making process known as “consensus,” which is in theory a non-hierarchical alternative to majority rule, though I often found that it was more authoritarian in the lack of formal process checks on the more dynamic members of the group to manipulate the discussion. That may be a topic for another thread some day.
Meanwhile, this post is for posterity. My political experiences weren’t particularly unusual or more dramatic than those of any young activist during the 1980s. There’s a popular perception that the activism of the 60s ended with the “me generation,” when in fact in terms of numbers there were far more students socially involved in the 1980s. We may not have had the flair for street theater of the generation before us, and most of us chose quieter approaches: soup kitchen volunteerism, PIRG organizing, blending science and politics into environmental studies majors, and electoral work most prominently expressed in the Jesse Jackson campaigns. But we also organized and attended demonstrations. I’ve already posted some reflections on them. We also had the “direct action movement” out of which some of the local brands of activism would evolve. There’s a history being lost. The Baby Boomer activists have plenty of outlets for their history. The Gen X activists also have some stories. This is one of them. (although technically speaking, my year of birth was the last official “baby boom” year).
Anyway, for those unfamiliar, the affinity group has been a chief mode of organization in the “anarchist” wing of the environmental and anti-war movement. In my freshman year of college, I joined up with a group of fellow UCSC students to attend a protest of MX missile testing at Vandenberg Airforce Base down near Santa Barbara. The MX, later named by Reagan the “Peacemaker” in an Orwellian irony appropriate for 1984, two years before the things were actually installed and activated (they’ve recently been decommissioned). They were high powered MIRV missiles which were ostensibly intended to survive a Soviet first strike in order to take out Soviet cities even if most of us were already dead. However, a number of strategic experts felt that the missile’s first strike capabilities would put the Soviets on edge and bring us closer to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. There was extensive opposition to the testing and a protest was organized for the Spring of 2003.
That’s the backdrop. This is an account of my first civil disobedience action. I don’t think it’s remarkable. Plenty of people who will read this have much more experience than I, and probably have much more fascinating tales to tell. But it’s a small part of history which shouldn’t get lost. And I have a few reflections. Food for thought.
The protest was timed for spring break. We held attended “nonviolence trainings” run by the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence which were good for building morale in the face of what was to be the first time most of us had been arrested, but I don’t think it really prepared us for the experience. Being restrained, the situation in which we were to be placed in an area and physically prevented from leaving, is not an experience most middle class kids are ready for. It’s an odd feeling. But anyway, we were well-versed in the Code of Nonviolence and all of its parameters. We role played, and discussed our particular goal – to trespass on the base and reach the silos, and to positively engage the soldiers assigned to arrest and process us. All very exhilarating to an 18-year-old absolutely certain of the righteousness of his cause.
My parents weren’t to enthralled with the plan. Among the obvious concerns for my safety and well-being, they were concerned that I might find myself confined long enough to encroach on the academic quarter, and lose my work-study job which I really needed to afford college at all. But they had been active enough over the years to respect what I was doing and they saw it as something of a rite of passage. They let me drive part of my group down in their station wagon (an old lime-green AMC Rebel which got about five blocks to the gallon) and they even lent the “base camp” a generator for the kitchen, brought down by family friends whom I suspect had promised to keep an eye on me.
The base camp was set up on a vacant lot lent by a sympathetic land owner just outside the town of Santa Maria and several miles from the base. The organizers had rented portable toilets and showers, and I could hear the familiar sound of the generator going in the food tent (my parents had actually lent the generator, a small gas-powered Homelight we’d often used at our cabin outside of Willits and never saw it again). We were expecting to be put to work setting things up, but it was all put together by the time we arrived.
We consumed an excellent meal of tofu with gravy and onions, a vegetarian play on liver and onions. Afterwards a few of us wandered the campsite which presented an engrossing menagerie of left wing political species. At one point we wandered into a “woman’s only” section. We didn’t realize it until we were well into the space. We were kind of embarrassed and started to walk out. A couple of women looked up from their books and smiled, apparently unconcerned with the breach of protocol. Ironically, only the female member of our small group took offense and once we’d left the area she went off to find somebody with whom to argue about it. It was all new to us and we were just trying not to draw too much attention to ourselves, probably in a manner similar to would-be pledgees in a fraternity showing up to the initiation. We were there to protest the MX and we didn’t want to get caught up in whatever internal politics might distract.
On the way back to our tent area we passed by the Revolutionary Communist Party tent. I’d already encountered them at protests in San Francisco, and their presence here didn’t make me feel comfortable. The SWP had been wrong on many points, but their view of the RCP as perhaps infiltrated by agent-provocateurs was supported by a number of their actions. They had their red sign out and a big stack of Revolutionary Worker which they attempted to sell to us. Later we discussed their presence with a neighboring affinity group and debated whether the RCP would put the rest of us into camps given the power and opportunity. Personally, I wondered why they were there in the first place, the whole affair being something most Marxists reject as bourgeois and pointless.
The rest of our group arrived late and I and another unlucky soul were selected to attend the “briefing and orientation.” The useful portion came first. Some activists had spent the past several days scoping out the base and surrounding lands and had prepared maps which looked more like the Mirkwood diagram in the appendix of The Hobbit than anything useful, but their stories were fun to listen too. They warned us that the base and the surrounding private lands were littered with black bereted federal marshals and some locals had organized posses of sorts to deal with trespasses on their own lands. There were two types of actions being planned. Some groups were going to the front gate for sit-in civil disobedience. Other groups, like ours, were planning to trek the back hills to get to the silos down by the water. The problem was that we would be without benefit of crowds and cameras, and the chances of soldiers treating us in a manner which would violate our middle class sensibilities of appropriarity increased considerably. There was also the problem of getting down there. There were occassional groves of trees, but mostly it was bare sage, particularly on the ridges were we’d be spotted by helicopters and even the soldiers below.
We were told that the soldiers were instructed to keep us from reaching the silos. I’m not even sure what they contained, but we were pretty sure that there was very little we could do to sabotage anything and there would be nothing we could see which couldn’t be seen from a plane or a satellite. But the marshals had pledged to let nobody reach the shoreline, for whatever reason.
They handed out the exquisitely drawn maps and then the agenda turned to a proposal to revise the Code of Nonviolence. A presentation was made to change the emphasis of warm embracing of those who were arresting us with a provision in which we would merely pledge courtesy. This was perceived as important because adherence to the Code was mandatory if anyone wanted solidarity from the rest of the group if they were to be separated from the group (meaning we would refuse to cooperate until they were returned to the group – probably in some cases offering solidarity to those who plants and separated in order to inform our detainers, but nevertheless, we would do what we could to get them back).
The Code, established by the Livermore Action Group (no Wikipedia entry, which underscores my point about the lost history), reads, or used to read, as follows:
1. Our attitude will be one of openness, friendliness, and respect towards all people we encounter.
2. We will use no violence, verbal or physical, toward any person.
3. We will not damage any property.
4. We will not bring or use any drugs or alcohol other than for medical purposes.
5. We will not run.
6. We will carry no weapons.
A faction of the gathering believed that it was oppressive to demand of members of oppressed groups that they offer “openness,” “friendliness” or “respect” to police when their life experiences with police and authorities would render such an attitude problematic. They wanted to substitute instead mere “courtesy” In truth, there were maybe three black participants in the demonstration and none of them had expressed any problem with the code, but one affinity group had discussed the matter with students of color in one of their seminars back in college, and it was a matter of principle.
For those of you who have never attended a large “nonhierarchical” political meeting, I cite it as evidence of original sin and the application of the story of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel as metaphor for the human condition. There is no listening, but there is plenty of expounding. In such meetings you raise one hand if you have a comment on the discussion at hand, and two hands if you had a point of process. After two or three minutes, there were no one-hand comments. Everyone had a point of process, which was of course to argue the merits of one side of the controversy or another. Arguments: The Code was long established and worked to prevent the violence of the demonstrations associated with the 60s. The violence of the 60s took place because the students were in solidarity with people of color and we should be willing to risk violence in solidarity with oppressed peoples. This was a protest against the MX missile and not a plenary discussion of racism. That was a racist statement. It was not. It was too. It’s racist to assume black people can’t adhere to a code of nonviolence. It’s racist to demand that they do. You’re the racist. No you are. You. You. I’m black and I don’t see the position as racist. You’re not a real black person, you were raised in Corte Madera. You’re an idiot. Process! You need two hands up. I had my two hands up before you had yours.
Okay, those aren’t all exact quotes. Just the gist.
I was fascinated, by my fellow affinato wasn’t. We left the tent to a more serene and festive atmosphere outside. Lots of guitars and some drums (fortunately not too many residences close by) with dancing, lots of philosophical discussions, kids in love, and even someone sharing his poetry with a small group who were at least feigning interest. It was the kind of “good vibe” atmosphere that makes you feel part of something bigger than yourself, and reinforces your resolve about the cause at hand. Your surroundings are beautiful, so your thoughts are beautiful too. I’m not trying to be cynical. Our thoughts were beautiful, and I think the world was a better place for our efforts. But I think sometimes the pack mentality is reinforced by microculture which gives us a grandiose sense of our actions which may be just a little inflated. We were there to make a better world. We had good intentions. But we assumed God, or whatever stood in for God, was on our side. Exhilaration is not spirituality, and that “oceanic feeling” is not wisdom. But it was a nice place to be in preparation for the storm ahead of us.
We got back to our campsite to join a discussion in progress. Some of the women in our group had some last minute objection to the name of our group, the Vandenberg Concertos. In retrospect, I don’t think they got the joke. They protested that it was “too institutional and too European sounding.” They proposed instead “the Everlasting Bomb Stoppers,” which they carefully explained was a play on a theme in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (apparently Roald Dahl wasn’t “too European”). They also proposed that each of us take on the name of a character as a “code name” (we never used them) and one of the women looked at me with genuine warmth and said “I nominate Eric to be Charlie.” I thought about joking that if they were going to woo me with a major character, it might as well be Wonka, but she probably had that one in mind for herself. Anyway, we let it go, but later when we identified ourselves to the other groups being held in custody another woman in our group IDed us as the Concertos then pretended to have “forgotten” that we’d changed the name. We also accepted their proposals for code names with the only one of us insulted being the oldest of the group, a 27-year-old, who was named “Grandpa Joe.”
Shortly before sunset the military buzzed us with a helicopter and hovered long enough to take a count. What they didn’t anticipate was that the bulk of the protesters would arrive after dark. We later learned that they had anticipated about 300 arrests. They ended up with over 800 of us. This would lead to a little bit of confusion on their part as they had not brought in enough professional guards to watch us so our guards were refrigerator technicians. More on that later.
It rained that night. Hard. I wasn’t looking forward to climbing muddy hills in a downpour. Sometime very early in the morning, before light, I heard a flurry of activity. It was something of a contest to see which groups could actually make it to the silos and some hearty groups wanted to get a head start. By the time it was light the sun was out. More evidence of favor from God (Reinforced by the fact that none of the early risers would make it to the silos. That’s foreshadowing you see, because we would be one of only two groups which did. God may or may not have been on our side, but we rocked!). We were content to sleep in, enjoy a great breakfast with eggs and other food donated by local admirers (adding even more to our righteous euphoria), and head out to our assigned drop-off. Some “non-hierarchical” organizers had decided it was best to spread us out and therefor “coordinated” us without telling us what to do. We accepted the “suggestion” and the support members of our group (those not getting arrested) drove us to our drop-off point, with our exquisite maps with multiple color felt tip markings. I’m giving the organizers a hard time. They really did put something together under very difficult circumstances. About ten of us loaded up with the donated granola bars and oranges, climbed over a private fence and headed up a hill.
After about an hour of singing (I got pretty tired of She’s Like a Mountain – sort of the activist’s Bottles of Beer on the Wall), politics, and oohing over the plants and wildlife we reached the crest of the hill. We could see the water and I caught my first view ever of an ocean based oil derrick. We booed and hissed appropriately and headed down into the next valley to the south.
We never had any run-ins with the owners of the land we passed over. We later heard one account however of a horse bound owner who actually lassoed a protester and started to drag him before his group took hold of the rope and pulled the guy off his horse. Nobody was hurt and fortunately some quick talking deescalated, as the group agreed to take the quickest route off the property, ending the confrontation. In the closing evaluation it was agreed that in future protests (none of which even approached the scale of this one) the property owners would be respected even if it made it easier for the military to catch up with them. That was one really poorly thought out aspect of the action. We heard that some landowners didn’t mind and were even somewhat sympathetic, or at least pissed off with the military for various bad-neighbor reasons. But the overriding admonition spoken from the circumstances – “ask first.”
It was a long-ass haul. We’d thought we’d reach the base long before we did, and I think part of the problem was that we took a left at Rivendale while we should have headed through Mirkwood. The woman in charge of the map (I won’t name anybody lest they’re reading, and a few of them might) was “confused” at several points and either we were given the wrong map or it was inadequate. But we knew that the base was southwest of us, huge, and impossible to miss. The the helicopter which circled us periodically let us know we were getting closer.
Finally we were in a valley and the map bearer swore that the ocean was on the other side of the hill to the west. We took a break and shortly saw a helicopter pass over us, but taking no interest in us started circling what appeared to be a group just over the hill to our north west. They landed some uniforms who made their way out of our visibility. We decided to head up the hill to see what was happening, which I felt was a dumb idea strategically, but I didn’t really care if we made it to the silos so I didn’t “block consensus.” One of the arresting soldiers spotted us and waited for us to reach him. We asked what was happening and pretended to be a group just out taking a hike which made him laugh. He was a very good-natured young man, not much older than most of us, and we exhanged a few jokes with him before he asked us to “please” head back dow where we’d come from. We didn’t want to be arrested right there so we complied and he said “try not to hurt yourselves before we catch up with you” and headed down to arrest the group we recognized as the one named “Love and Rage.” We waved, they waved back, and we headed back down the path.
When we got to the bottom we decided to “caucus” to determine our next move. One of the men in our group had been timing the helicopter who had been making roughly 45 minute rounds. They obviously knew where we were and would probably be back to check on us. We found a grove of cypress trees to hide under and waited until the helicopter came around again. We saw another grove on the side of a hill maybe a mile to our southwest and so waited about 20 minutes for the helicopter to come and made a beeline for a the other grove where we would hide and wait for them to come around again. If they didn’t spot us in that grove, we had a straight shot over the hill where we were pretty certain we’d find the silos. We had one somewhat overweight woman in our group who slowed us down a bit, but we made it to each point, and skiddaddle up over the hill and were halfway down to the water by the time the helicopter came around again. They dropped a marshal at the top to follow us down and we saw a truck full of soldiers make their way from the south on a coastal road. They arrived at the bottom and started up, but we were almost to the fence (not sure whom the fence was intended to prevent entry at that point, but it was barbed wire, probably a holdover from the base’s days as a ranch). The soldiers looked up at the marshal whom had run down to us for instructions and he was clearly agitated, waving both his arms forward and yelled, “just let them down to the damned road!”
We looked at a cement thing that I guess was a silo. In some mind we were compromising national security, so I won’t describe it lest our national enemies read this blog and take notes. I don’t remember much anyway, except concrete and some sort of military logo or sign. It was really anticlimactic. But we had won the points for our team and that’s what mattered.
Then the group made a dumb decision to passively resist arrest. We hadn’t agreed to it before, but before we could discuss it some of the group were grasping each other and sinking to the ground. A soldier tapped me on the shoulder as did other soldiers for the two others in our group who didn’t partake in the impromptu, and in my view pointless, sit-in. We followed and waited. I heard a scream behind me and one of the women in our group was being held with her arm behind her back. She was crying. I never got a complete account of what had happened, but apparently the soldier in charge of her had applied some sort of compliance pinch. We had a few dealings with him throughout our custody. I don’t know if he was the “bad cop” or just an asshole. I looked for the officer in charge and he didn’t say anything but glared at the soldier until he released the woman (it’s possible she will read this as I’ve had contact with her in recent years, and I’d love it if she filled us in – she didn’t want to talk about it at the time). The rest of the group yelled at the soldier for awhile and chanted “shame on you for about two minutes” as we were marched to a school bus nearby and that was that.
By this time it was evening. Already on the bus was the only other affinity group to make it to the silos. They were another UC Santa Cruz based group named “Roots and Wings.” I recognized a couple of them as Kresge (one of the 8 colleges at UCSC) students in a bluegrass band called “The Continental Drifters.” Before we could join them on the bus the soldiers applied the plastic handcuffs which I’d never seen before and which reminded me of the plastic ties to close bags. Roots and Wings had taken the front of the bus and were engaged in a long discussion with the driver, who had agreed that MX missiles had first strike capability, but disagreed that Cruise and Pershing missiles had the same capability. A woman of the R&W group argued that they were counterparts to the Soviet SS-20s (not entirely accurate) which Reagan had been arguing had first strike capability in Europe (as opposed to the parabolic trajectory ICBMs which constituted the majority of both arsenals at the time). I followed a little bit of the discussion until I got to the back, instinctively choosing the seat I’d always taken back in junior high on my way to and from school, providing some small comfort in familiarity as I was just beginning to experience that loss of feeling of self-determination described above. By then I’d learned that my groupmate had not been seriously hurt, but the possibility that something worse might happen down the road was on my mind. I was a novice.
A few minutes after the bus started moving a young woman slipped down the aisle and spoke to everyone along the way. I thought “great, more pointless scheming,” but actually she was using the needle portion of her political button to loosen everyone’s cuffs. She was very attractive and so getting very positive responses from the male portion of our group, which had one of our female members of our group rolling her eyes as she said “maybe we should nominate her for a Nobel prize.” But hey, I hadn’t thought of it and neither had my group mate. We weren’t planning a getaway or anything, it was about comfort and for the young blond probably more of a prank. She got to me and whispered that I should leave them on when I didn’t need the freedom, and set my cuffs at just enough for my hands to slip in and out easily. Good thing too, because I was planning to do some push-ups and knitting.
We stopped in several locations while the officer in charge would leave the bus to communicate with someone by radio. We learned later that they had not prepared for all of us and so they stalled us to set up accommodations in a racquetball court. He would come back on and walk down the aisle to check on us and occasionally tighten some cuffs, which probably made the men happy as it meant another visit from the stealth blond who somehow never got caught.
We were brought to a building and “booked,” but none of us gave our real names. A woman who was not much older than me, if at all, led me into a room for an interview where the soldiers asked me if I was into drugs and before I could answer he looked at my eyes and said “no.” They took our descriptions and actually weighed us. The whole time the young woman and I were flirting as teenagers do as if we were waiting in line for a concert or signing up for classes. At one point I asked her how many of us there were. She responded that she didn’t know but that our protest was “quite successful.” I asked her if that meant that we had ended the MX testing and she responded that if that’s what I wanted I should be protesting in Washington instead of on the base. Couldn’t argue with that. As I related these events to my fellow group members later we all agreed that as radical revolutionaries we were pretty wimpy. Abbie Hoffman I wasn’t.
We were then moved to the racquetball court when soldiers took markers and wrote R’s on the back of our hands. This was for our benefit it was explained, so we would not be separated for our groups, and sure enough as we were sitting around the court we discovered an “S” in our midst. We told the guard, a very friendly African-American woman who said, “you got something against S’s?” A man, a Roots and Wings member, who went by the name “Alleycat,” responded that some of his best friend’s are S’s, but he wouldn’t want his daughter to marry one. She turned to the S and told her that she’d better behave herself. Eventually she was returned to her own group.
The soldiers brought in some water, which prompted my friend Noah to ask “there’s no acid in this, is there? The soldier, a refrigerator technician, laughed and responded, “I don’t think so.”
One of the R&W group had been briefly separated for possession of a dangerous bone. While they had been walking he found a coyote bone, about four inches long, and kept it as a souvenir. I guess one of the soldiers thought it might be used as a weapon. When he came back to us, several soldiers came in and asked to see the “dangerous bone” and each left the court laughing his head off.
An hour later we were moved to the classrooms and later learned that the kids had been given the Monday and Tuesday off. We figured that maybe we’d provided some positive association with our protests for the kids. Maybe not. Some in our group tried to leave messages for the kids, innocuous, apologizing for displacing them and wishing them well. This prompted an angry reaction from the guy who had pinched my friend who said “they’re just children. Leave them alone!” The only other interaction we had with that individual came later that day. One of their own soldiers had opened a window for us, but he thought we’d opened it and slammed it shut telling us to leave the windows alone. We were there for three days and we later noted that we didn’t see him after that second day. Probably a John Bircher.
The meals. I remember them well. For breakfast we were given a small box of Sugar Pops (the kind that opened up into its own bowl), a hard boiled egg, and very cold milk. For lunch and dinner, our choice of cheese or baloney on white bread, a bag of potato chips, and if we wanted it, Kool-Aid (Jonestown was still fresh in our minds). We were hesitant to refuse the Kool-Aid because the soldiers had dropped hints that they’d lobbied to get it for us. We didn’t want to be ungracious. Fortunately we had access to a sink.
We were able to contact the detainees in the next room, Grandmothers for Peace. They had information that several individuals had been separated from the group. We could see one alone in a room across the courtyard. We also left notes in the bathrooms to which we had to be taken upon request. On my turn I saw a man being dragged down the courtyard with a dog on a leash right behind him, too close for my comfort. He was put in the room with the other “troublemaker.” We were later told that he had fed a sandwich to the dog and the dog ate it, which probably means that whoever had trained the dog was going to be demoted. We learned that a total of four individuals had been separated. When our lawyers finally came to speak to us (they were only allowed once), we brought the issue to their attention. The base’s attorney denied anyone had been separated, and we had a bit of a verbal confrontation (the base attorney became increasingly frustrated, particularly upon learning that the local D.A. didn’t want to press charges against anyone who had not committed an act of violence).
At some point someone suggested a hunger strike, a suggestion most of the rest of us found melodramatic. I think they were starting to feel their own effects of the confinement and wanted to feel like they had the power to affect something. The lights had been left on throughout the nights (they didn’t want us having sex in their classrooms) and we were starting to get stir crazy by the third day, and we had no idea what was happening. Apparently, nobody did. The base attorney was walking around outside, barking at soldiers, and coming in to lecture us about cooperation. But we hadn’t had the opportunity to not cooperate, and we had no idea how others were not cooperating.
When we failed to come to consensus on the hunger strike, one of the R&W members, and older guy with a greying beard who had said very little, wanted to discuss the spiritual benefits of fasting. Most of the rest of us weren’t in the mood, and really, all we wanted to know was when we were going to be arraigned and what had happened to the two people now vacated from the room across the courtyard. We weren’t up for seminars on spirituality. Some of us did join his girlfriend for a session of yoga. We weren’t getting any other exercise. That seemed pertinent.
When the base attorney left our room for a final time in a huff, telling us that we wouldn’t be talking to our attorneys again until we were arraigned, somebody referred to him as a “poisonous snake.” My friend, the woman who had been pinched, said we should give him a break because it was his job to be an asshole. Someone else “complimented” him for doing his work well.
Out of the blue on the third day some soldiers came into the room and told us to pack up. We were hesitant to cooperate. Again we asked about the separated individuals. The sergeant told us that the individuals who had been separated had not followed our Code of Nonviolence and therefor did not deserve our solidarity. He had been well briefed, but of course we wanted more details. He then told us, “look, it’ll be harder for us to get you off the bus than out of this room, so you can always passively resist later.” We asked for a minute to “caucus” and someone suggested that we couldn’t do much in that classroom and that we were better off going to the arraignment so we could inform the attorneys of what was happening. Most of us accepted that we were acting in the dark. The Grandmothers for Peace had already been moved out, and we hadn’t seen any sign of other protesters in hours nor had our trips to the bathroom resulted in more messages. For all we knew we were the last group to be hauled off to court. So we opted to get onto the bus.
On the way we noted that they weren’t tying out hands, which we were pretty sure would be the protocol for a court appearance. Sure enough, we were right. There were too many of us to prosecute. They took us to a remote gate and told us to get off the bus and not come back onto the base. We all complied and discussed whether we should get back onto the base, but a few minutes later a woman drove by and rolled down her window telling us that she could take a few people but she would have to come back with more vehicles. Someone had made a decision to just get rid of us and word had gotten back to camp. They sent people to all of the entrances to watch for releases of protesters. Within an hour we were back at camp. It was nighttime and most of us went to our tents for a good night’s sleep. Waking up the next morning, free, and walking out into the sun, it’s hard to describe the sense of euphoria, basking in the purity of our cause and having been christened revolutionaries. All that stuff.
I don’t want to put the experience down. It was a good moment. We were surrounded by mostly good people, and in retrospect I believe we were right about the MX. Fortunately, Gorbachev was in power and pulled us all from the brink and even the more reactionary forces in the world would prove they weren’t suicidal.
It was the first of three civil disobedience actions in which I was arrested. Eventually I determined that the effort put into the actions was far in excess the benefit gained in most cases. We weren’t convincing anybody of anything, and nobody with any real power ever felt the pressure of the actions. We would all go back to school and write our “what I did over spring break” papers for whatever poli sci class we were taking. I went to my parents for the duration of the break. Many of the protesters went on to a Grateful Dead concert which was either in Southern California or Arizona as I remember. When I caught up on the news I learned that the Contra War in Nicaragua had escalated; the recession was coming to an end as the stock market broke records; Reagan was as popular as ever and Gary Hart was favored to be his opponent. And the MX tests were to go forward unabated.
I’m not saying civil disobedience actions are always pointless. There are moments where they’re very much effective and necessary. But I think we risk the decline of value through a sort of inflation when they happen all the time. Julia Butterfly made headlines. It was new and fresh. Then others followed because if it drew attention once, well, more is always better. After awhile such actions get reported along with the weather and traffic reports. They don’t raise anybody’s consciousness. They consist of a dance between protesters and law enforcement, with some exposure to court personnel who respond to any filing with: “Oh. Another treehugger case.”
On the other hand, I’m glad for the experience. But it was the community of optimism, and the feeling that we could make a difference. If only it was easy to reproduce that community and feeling with more mundane political activities, the ones which actually make a difference. Maybe this action made some difference though the MX program went forward as by this time the recession was on the wane and Reagan was walking on water. This is why the Obama win is so phenomenal to me. From my first political awakening (sometime between Carter’s win and Reagan’s) I was pretty much used to losing and politics to me was about fighting windmills. Meanwhile, Vandenberg does earn itself protest efforts even in recent years. And the MX program was scrapped a couple of years ago.
There were probably about 2000 people directly involved in that situation. I don’t have any specific memory of Humboldt County affinity groups present. Anybody out there?