The Road Not Taken

POLITICS

ROCKS ROAD is a quiet residential street running off Route 1, the main road through the small New Hampshire coastal town. On a balmy May afternoon a group of mostly young people sat on the road joking and singing songs and talking politics, until a platoon of National Guardsmen arrived and ordered them off. You see, the other end of the road leads into the Seabrook nuclear power plant, which was then under siege by about 1500 antinuke activists, and the Guardsmen were in no mood to discuss the issue.

All around that island of relative calm the battle surged. Would-be occupiers tramped through marshes on the sourth side of the plant and sidestepped family gardens on the western edge, while blockaders piled up trees and parts of old cars in front of the North and South Gates on Route One. But the members of the Caterpillar and New Wave clusters sat all day in rows 15 yards apart down a quarter mile of road and waited, unsure of quite what they were waiting for.

They found out at 4:30 when the troopers came marching down the road, free from fending off more serious threats when occupiers and blockaders regrouped or returned to staging areas.

Two people ran ahead to talk to the guardsmen, explaining that no one in the group had helmets or gas masks, shields or boltcutters, grappling hooks or football pads, unlike the more militant, quasimilitary members of the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook (CDAS). The "negotiators" also noted that blockaders were moving aside to let Rocks Road residents and Seabrook local cops pass. The argument fell on deaf ears. "One way or another, you're getting off the road." The protestors sat quietly, preparing for the imminent debacle. The reporters snapped photos. The locals held their breath. The Commanding Officer gave the order and the Guard started marching--back to the plant, leaving the blockaders where they were. Not until they were 100 yards away and still retreating did the protesters leap into the air and embrace, daring to believe that by the power of their nonviolent determination, they had won.

But what sort of a victory was it? Only the most deluded protestors could believe that temporarily holding onto a meaningless piece of of concrete was in any sense a victory over nuclear power. In its official literature, CDAS was saying that it would physically take over the plant and stop construction, but most of us making the trek to Seabrook that weekend recognized this as fantasy. True, there had been successful occupations in Germany and France, but those built on massive community support, and CDAS could only mobilize 1500 people, mostly "outside agitators," significantly fewer than in the October 6 attempt, and far too few for anything but nuisance value. Since it grew out of Boston Clamshell in 1979, CDAS was promoting a nonviolent direct action strategy--and the direct action part was clearly a bust.

NOW THERE WERE even questions about the nonviolence part. How far could the term be stretched before it became Orwellian doublespeak? Milling about in the Dunkin' Donuts Parking Lot before the action began Saturday, we chuckled over William Loeb's propaganda in the Manchester Union Leader in which he denounced the protestors as violent anarchists. Anarchists maybe, but didn't the whole anti-nuke movement spring from civil disobedience and peaceful resistance in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King? Of course it did.

Later in the day we stopped chuckling, after we saw the tightly-organized members of Mass Shutdown-NLF playacting police attacks. With half the group slamming clubs over the shields and helmets of the other half, they looked like football players in a Big Game warmup, or perhaps--nightmare visions--like the warrior gorillas cheering on their demagogue leader in Planet of the Apes.

In one fence assault an errant grappling hook caught an officer in the back of the neck, knocking him out. That incident, distorted to appear almost planned, appeared in virtually every press report, as did unsubstantiated rumors of protestors throwing bricks and stones and pieces of glass. "For months they claimed to be nonviolent," quipped the Governor's press secretary. "Now we see what they mean by that."

But at least the action at Rocks Road, where the Harvard/Radcliffe affinity groups had all wound up along with some "old-style Clams from the Seacoast," was nonviolent. We had even patterned our blockade on an antiwar protest by Vietnamese Buddhists. We grumbled about CDAS, and how they were alienating people rather than reaching out to them. They were making the issue our violence and not the violence of the nuclear industry, and the concern for consensus and fair process and sensitivity was getting lost in the need for efficiency and tactical coordination. It was a clear case of nonviolenter-than-thou. And while CDAS was getting turned back everywhere, we had won. The bottom line.

But when the Seabrook cops arrived that night at our dwindling overnight blockade, they didn't make any distinctions between types of antinukers. "You guys wounded one of us up at North Gate. Is that nonviolent? You're blocking the road. Get off. GET OFF. GROWWWWLLL." It was dark, and rainy, and we were disorganized, and so four cops in riot gear with a paddy wagon succeeded where the Guard had failed.

In all previous protests stretching back to 1976 the Clams had had an accord with Seabrook local cops. After all, the town had voted repeatedly against the plant, and the utility brought in state troopers to do the dirty work of macing and clubbing. In all previous actions it had been pretty clear the Clams were the good guys and the utility, the State, and the National Guard the villains. And now that was evaporating, dissolving back into the marshes. No matter, we'd return in the morning, and reestablish the blockade.

Sunday was almost a Xerox copy of Saturday, with police vs. occupier and police vs. blockader battles raging around the plant periphery and on the main road, while we sat and talked and bided our time. Late in the afternoon a rumor arrived on the wind that five women had been found inside the cement mixing plant inside the plant. (The first successful, if temporary, occupation) and the authorities would bring the prisoners out on a bus, perhaps through Rocks Road. When two columns of state troopers and guardsmen came tromping down in front of a big yellow bus, we knew we had to stop it, even if our numbers were smaller than the day before (my affinity group, Roundtable, had left because it felt out of place in the overall action).

We grouped in tight lines, silent, waiting, praying for and half-expecting a repeat miracle while the straggling protestors wandered in from blocking traffic on Route One and the cameras whirred. "Form two wedges," came the command, and the marching step turned into a curious shuffling advance, as the boots came closer and the cries of "Hup, Hup, Hup," meant to intimidate us (they worked) rose to fever pitch. The troops drew up to the first row, hesitating for an instant that was an eternity, and suddenly they were upon us, stomping and shoving and kicking and dragging demonstrators. In a moment the dust cleared and the road was theirs once more.

But the protestors did not retreat, hanging on the shoulders of the road and creeping back onto it only to be dragged off again, while dozens ran down to block the bus which held the prisoners. Isolated individuals began singing and soon the air was filled by the old church hymn, "Love, love, love, love, People we are made for love, love each other as ourselves for we are one." The police looked confused, having taken the territory suddenly confronted with the need to occupy it. The protestors were equally confused--the decisionmaking structure had totally broken down, the arrested people turned out not to be on the bus, and meanwhile the road was not clear, filled by the scurrying TV cameramen and radio journalists covering the event. It was all a game, a deadly serious game, for authority over a meaningless road. We were not confronting the utilities, the State, capitalism, only some hired cops who didn't really want to be there in the first place. In the end, the police with protestors gleefully following with shouts of "Hup, Hup, Hup" and "OK, march 'em to the plant and leave them there."

But what was the point? We dispersed at dusk rather than face another eviction, and spent the next day in meetings, too small now to even attempt a blockade. Statement about retaking the antinuclear movement from CDAS and suggestions to put out a press release stressing the success of our true nonviolence could only further split the tiny splinter of the movement that had come to Seabrook. Handbooks might state that we would stay and make repreated attempts until we occupied, but we knew that we were leaving after the weekend. Even if we had taken over, we would have turned it right back in three days. And construction continues. The senationalist focus on heroics obscures crucial public information like the New England utilities' own report that due to slower growth in demand, the region has enough excess electrical generating capacity to make Seabrook completely unnecessary. Most sinister of all, CDAS's failure seemed only to harden their resolve and make them talk of sabotage and industrial violence. The way things were going "it's only a matter of time before someone gets killed," as one observer put it.

THE TIME HAS COME for re-evaluation for regeneration of the positive peaceful, rather than narrowly-defined nonviolent, spirit of the antinuke movement.

The dangers of nuclear power and the arms race are immediate and frightening but frustration and impatience are a poor response. If Seabrook II, especially the drama at Rocks Road, serves as a watershed for the movement, and we learn from our failure, perhaps the stompings and draggings and macings will be worth it. Right now, they're nothing more than anti-hero medals for a selfstyled revolutionary vanguard and good copy for right-wing newspapers. We are marching down a dangerous road with few people following, and we may not want to reach our destination. Perhaps it is time to just sit down in place and think about it.