Today is Earth Day. First celebrated in 1970, it is now commorated in more than 192 countries each year.Although it now focusses on ecology, it originated in a 1969 proposal by peace activist John McConnell for a day to honor the Earth and the concept of peace at the UNESCO Conference in San Francisco
The longest continuous peace protest in history was Greenham Common
What does Greenham Common mean to those of us who weren’t born 30 years ago, or were too young, too busy with other things or just not interested?
Vague memories of dirty women camping in the woods – for years and years and years, until suddenly it was all over. And we occasionally wonder
What was all that about?
5th September 1981: a group of 36 Welsh women marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common, Berkshire, England. They were ‘poor, had no powerful connections, were burdened by the care of very young children in rural isolation’. But they were well versed on the nuclear arms race and the effects of a nuclear explosion.
They wanted to debate the decision to site 96 Cruise nuclear missiles there. They called themselves
They delivered a letter to the Base Commander which stated ‘We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world which is the basis of all life’.
When their request for a debate was ignored they set up a Peace Camp just outside the fence surrounding RAF Greenham Common Airbase.
They stayed there for 19 years from 1981 until 2000
It was a groundbreaking protest because it differed radically from the march, listen to speeches and go home scenario that was the norm for protests at the time.
Sunday 12 December 1982 ‘Embrace the Base’.
Chain-letter: Several thousand women received a letter urging them to join a mass action on at an American military base deep in the British countryside.
‘We have one year left in which to reverse the government’s decision about Cruise missiles. There is still time to stop them,’ ‘If every woman copies this letter and sends it to 10 friends and they each send it to 10 others, then we shall be THOUSANDS. Each woman is like a spring who together with others becomes a stream, a river, an ocean.’
The idea was to encircle the base, to embrace it.
Several hundred coaches trundled along the M4 motorway linking London and South Wales. The coaches, converging from every corner of the British Isles and beyond, carried thousands of apprehensive women.
30,000 women formed a human chain, encircling the monstrous silos; enclosing the symbol of everything they opposed. For many, it was a moment of physical power and joy. Some women began to shout; the exhilaration rippled along the chain and a wave of howls and shrieks echoed across the base.
Pat Richards, a retired schoolteacher from Aberystwyth
‘I thought the thing would disappear. I felt like Ginsberg at the Pentagon … I really thought it was just going to go. We were making all this noise towards this terrible thing.’
“I drove there with my 12 year old daughter We just decided the night before.
“We tied our wool webs to the fence and I put a picture of her in the center of mine. Just before the moment of holding hands around the base we went up to the camp fire and sat on the hay bales with the women who lived there. They looked so ‘other’ and had got used to using carrier bags tied at their ankles as galoshers against the mud. I felt like I had brought my daughter to the wise women. I bought all the newspapers the next day for my daughter to see how different reports would be a) from each other and b) from what we had seen. A very special day together”.
“My mum had never really been engaged in politics until then – and even then it wasn’t really politics she became interested in. As she saw it she was simply fighting for the lives of her children doing the only thing she could do. Standing up. Making herself heard. Even standing by a fence singing was better than nothing. I was so proud of her then and I still am. Her grandchildren are astounded when I talk about what nana did. Even if she didn’t change the world, she changed me”.
29 October 1983: Operation ‘Black Cardigan’
It took months to plan. Women living permanently at the camp travelled across the country to recruit other women for a ‘Halloween Party’ at Greenham Common. Protestors were told to bring their ‘black cardigans’, a code name for
They clipped the strip of holding wire at the top of the perimeter fence. As the day faded on, around 2,000 women, two or three deep along the grassy verge outside the barrier, quietly began cutting the 9-mile fence. Women without cutters gripped the wire and began to rock the fence till it loosened. The Ministry of Defence guards stood inside the fence watching the women, impotent and horrified as half the fence collapsed at their feet.
Reaction: Public hatred of the peace women intensified. They became used to people shouting ‘fucking lesbians’ and gifting them broken bottles and bags of faeces. The women were barred from local shops, cafés, and Little Chef. One greasy spoon in Newbury hung up a sign: ‘No peace camp women here’.
Next stage in the protest: Stopping secret nuclear convoys
The women’s key aims were to bear witness, make known their opposition, and hinder the convoy’s procession. Slow it down, get in front of vehicles, and if they dared, get on top. Anything, to say, you are not going to rehearse nuclear war smoothly.
What did the women achieve by throwing fuschia flour bombs and paint at nuclear convoys?
‘It made an absolute nonsense of the whole thing of secrecy and being hidden,’ says Nuala.
‘They never got one out secretly, everyone was protested or witnessed. They realized there was nothing they could do to make these things secret,’ says one Cruise watcher and Greenham woman.
If they managed to interrupt the convoy, lighting fires in the road or climbing up trucks, the women were often arrested, but never charged. Sometimes they were held for hours and then deposited somewhere random,
miles from Greenham or a railway station.
Once a group of women were put into a deep, dark pit for hours. Soldiers silently paraded around the top, guns strapped across their chests, impervious to the women crying out to be released.
‘It was dark, you couldn’t see out. It was muddy at the bottom. It was a terrifying experience”.
A decade later the Ministry of Defence paid the women £10,000 in damages for wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
Did they do any lasting good?
Most ordinary people never felt truly threatened by the missiles. It was the warming up of the so called Cold War that was the only influence on the public’s perception than any missile threat.
What was their lasting legacy?
The women’s camp was just a hiccup in the post WW2 history of those acres of RAF concrete. Greenham Common has been given back to the local community.
What did the protesters gain?
No money and little kudos. They were heroines to a few but derided by many.
What did they achieve?
1) The protest was instrumental in the decision to remove the Cruise Missiles from Greenham Common. Under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the missiles were flown back to the USA along with the USAF personnel in 91/92.
The Treaty signed by the USA and the USSR in 1987, is in accord with the stated position held by women, in defence of their actions on arrest, when it states :
“Conscious that nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences for all mankind”
2) Women who were brought up in Court tested the legality of nuclear weapons and challenged the conduct and stewardship of the Ministry of Defence as landlords of Greenham Common. Five Law Lords held that the Minister had exceeded his powers in framing the byelaws so as to prevent access to common land’
3) Greenham Common changed the nature of protest and identified earlier than most that we had been let down by a political class, that the interests of ordinary people had been ignored in favor of warmongers and international business interests.
Greenham and women
1)Nearly all questioned the laws they were regularly accused of breaking, learnt how to organise and protest, how to use the law and the media, and how to forget the fear of speaking out.
2)Many women were empowered by Greenham to lead stronger lives – inspiring their families and children. Transforming lives is a political act.
3)It was a women’s initiative and its major crime seemed to be the absence of men
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