EXCERPT FROM Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism: The Clamshell Alliance and Developing the Prefigurative Direct-Action Model
Written by L.A. Kauffman
The Seabrook campaign was a historical watershed in several respects. As its organizers hoped, it inspired people throughout the country to form their own groups and engage in direct action against nuclear power plants in their area. This wave of protest, which swelled still further after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, contributed greatly to curtailing the spread of nuclear power in the United States for decades to come; over 100 planned projects were canceled over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. The Seabrook activists ultimately lost their fight—the Seabrook Nuclear Plant did eventually begin operation, although not until 1990—but ground was not broken on another new nuclear reactor in the United States until 2013.
As important as the Clamshell Alliance was in helping forestall nuclear plant construction in the United States, its most striking legacy was in consolidating and promoting what became the dominant model for large-scale direct-action organizing for the next forty years, used to powerful effect time and time again. From Seabrook, the prefigurative direct-action model first spread to other anti-nuclear groups around the country, including the Abalone Alliance, which organized a series of large actions against the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. It was picked up by the Livermore Action Group, a California group working against nuclear weapons in the early 1980s, and by the Pledge of Resistance, a nationwide network of groups organizing against US policy in Central America throughout the decade. Some 1,500 protesters used the
Clamshell model in an effort to shut down the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in the spring of 1987, in protest against US policy in both Central America and South Africa; hundreds more employed it that fall in a civil disobedience action to protest the Supreme Court’s anti-gay Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy decision. The AIDS activist group ACT UP used a version of this model for the bold takeovers it organized of the headquarters of the Food and
Drug Administration in 1988 and the National Institutes of Health in 1990, to pressure both institutions to take swifter action toward approving experimental AIDS medications. The radical environmental group Earth First! used it for its 1990 Redwood Summer, a Northern California mobilization to protect old-growth forests from logging. The model was carried forward by the global justice movement to blockade the meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, and for a series of subsequent trade summit protests. Having been used by anti-nuclear activists seeking to shut down the
Stock Exchange in 1979 and radical environmentalists seeking to reclaim Earth Day in 1990, a version of the model was also adopted by Occupy Wall Street and the many Occupy groups that sprang up around the country in 2011.
It’s worth pausing a moment to consider the cultural context in which this influential blueprint for action arose, for it would shape the ways it was adopted, modified, and critiqued over the decades to come. The Clamshell Alliance was about as white as it was possible for an American movement to be, bringing together white rural New Hampshire Seacoast residents with white radicals from around New England, advised by white Quakers. The AFSC of course had a longstanding commitment to racial justice and many within the organization had significant direct experience with multiracial organizing; the same was true of some other seasoned activists within the Clam. But many, maybe most, of the people who participated in the direct actions at Seabrook were white people with little or no background in dealing with race, and the Clamshell Alliance devoted little time or energy to addressing the question. The group’s manuals and other organizing materials made little or no mention of race, racism, or people of color. “In principle, the common denominator of nuclear protest should attract support from diverse groups of people,” wrote longtime activist Marty Jezer in the midst of the Seabrook fight, “for the dangers of nuclear power cut across class, race, sex and ethnic lines, but in practice Clamshell politics and style of organizing excludes people.”
By 1979, when anti-nuclear activists including many Clamshell veterans organized a direct action on Wall Street to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the stock market crash and highlight the role of corporate power in the nuclear industry, the movement, though no less white than it had been before, had begun taking some first halting steps toward addressing race directly. After considerable internal debate, the mobilizing materials for Wall Street cited the exploitation of Native Americans and black South Africans as key reasons for the protest and the action manual included a section on racism, sexism, and heterosexism. The text dedicated to questions of race, though, seemed to criticize African Americans rather than the anti-nuclear movement for the movement’s whiteness: “Despite the growing awareness in this country of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, blacks are largely silent on this issue. Perhaps it is because nuclear power and weapons seem such a remote idea, far removed from the everyday lives of blacks in this nation,” the manual suggested. “There is no issue more overwhelming and all-embracing than nuclear militarism and power,” the section continued. “All issues are encompassed in the struggle against those who have pushed and continue to push for nuclear weapons and power.” It was an awfully weak beginning—condescending and dismissive, for starters. Though the movements that embraced the direct-action model created at Seabrook would do a significantly better job at addressing race over time, it was a slow process. By the mid 1980s, explicit anti-racism began to be a regular part of direct-action manuals and action trainings, even if the movements themselves remained preponderantly white. But there would be lasting consequences to the fact that the particular model of direct action used in so many large mobilizations from the 1970s onward came out of a cultural context that was at once so white and so lacking in self-awareness about that fact.
L.A. Kauffman has spent more than thirty years immersed in radical movements, as a participant, strategist, journalist and observer. Direct Action is available through www.versobooks.com
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