Strident Against Trident
Anti-nuclear campaigners Trident Ploughshares 2000
Two decades ago, the campaign against nuclear weapons in the UK attracted a lot of mainstream attention. Then, with the end of the cold war, the issue slipped down the priority list into relative obscurity. But with the United States poised to introduce a new star wars programme, and with more world states acquiring nuclear capabilities, issues surrounding nuclear arsenals are once again an urgent issue.
And no group has done more to highlight this fact than the stridently active Trident Ploughshares 2000. Populated mainly by female activists, TP 2000's brazen approach to non-violent direct actions has landed many activists with short jail sentences but has also established significant court precedents justifying their tactics. Previous TP 2000 direct actions have ranged from gratifying a nuclear submarine to dismantling nuclear laboratories. Beginning her report from a recent direct action outside Faslane nuclear missile base in Scotland, Margaret Jones takes a look at the passion, commitment and practical application of one of the UK's most formidable activist groups.
A hundred and twenty anti-nuclear activists managed to block the main gates of the Faslane submarine base on August 1 in a direct action co-ordinated by Trident Ploughshares 2000. Within two hours, police had made eighty arrests at the north gate, but still could not unblock a southern gate held shut by two tenacious activists perched on a tripod. The TP 2000 campaigners were drawn from a broad coalition of greens, socialists, anarchists, Quakers, teenagers, pensioners, Fast Lane peace camp residents and CND members. Leeds MP Harold Best was there, as were monks, nuns and devotees from a Japanese-based Buddhist order who walked a staggering 500 miles from Aldermaston to attend the action. The one thing they all had in common: an implacable opposition to Britain's continued possession of nuclear weapons, and a determination to raise the issue in the public imagination as it has not been raised since the early days of the Cold War.
At Coulport, a few miles up the road where Trident weaponry is stored, it was a like scene from The Great Escape in reverse, as activists from the TP2000 two-week summer camp did their best to get into the base. They climbed and crawled their way through the perimeter trying out their new pairs of bolt cutters on a daunting jungle of fences and coiled razor wire. Three young Finnish women sat for six hours on top of a gate, till police figured out a way of getting them down. Other protesters took to the water in boats or wet suits. Marcus Armstrong clocked up his fifth arrest in three days, as he and Ulla Roder swam two miles down the loch, to within a few metres of Trident. By the end of the first week, the arrest total had risen to 131.
The purpose of all this seemingly lemming-like activity? To raise public awareness, obliging the British government to enter into dialogue with its citizens on implementing nuclear disarmament. TP2000 has formed a Dialogue and Negotiation team, which has repeatedly approached the government with practical proposals for initiating and carrying through disarmament: "We are making it clear that we would prefer the authorities to disarm Trident and that we are only making our own attempt because they continue to prevaricate."
"I WOKE UP AND I THOUGHT, I MUST TAKE THIS JUMP. ONE WAY OR THE OTHER, IT'S NOW OR NEVER. AT A CERTAIN POINT I HAVE TO PUT MY BODY WHERE MY MIND IS - WHERE MY THOUGHTS ARE."
TP2000 has been campaigning to "beat nuclear swords into ploughshares" since 1998. For its well executed actions, non-violent stance and unusual full frontal accountability it has won respect from direct activists, legal professionals and even representatives of the British state. According to Naval spokesperson from the Faslane area, Rupert Nichol: "They certainly make us aware of their presence One of the surprises for TP2000 activists coming from England to Scotland was the greeting given the protestors by local councils. As the peace marchers from Aldermaston arrived in Clydebank en route to the Faslane blockade, the Provost (mayor) Alistair Macintosh invited them to a formal civic reception, presenting them with a silver 'loving' cup in memory of their visit. Mackintosh joked with the marchers about his past role as a Strathclyde police officer engaged in keeping peace activists out of the base at Faslane where he was now encouraging them to demonstrate. Bemused English people found it hard to imagine the possibility that their own local councils back home would present this kind of welcome to such crew of travel worn protesters.
The warm civic response seems less surprising if one recalls that eighty per cent of the Scottish population supports the abolition of Trident. Amongst a myriad of high profile Scottish anti-nuclear campaigners are the novelist A.L.Kennedy and the Scottish Socialist MP Tommy Sheridan. Sheridan was arrested in February for breach of the peace after sitting down outside the gates at Faslane. The TP2000 protests are also very much an international affair. As the three young Finnish women arrested for perching on the Coulport gate commented in a statement to the media: "The Trident system is not just a problem for the United Kingdom but is a threat to the whole world. That is why people from across the globe are taking part in this campaign." As Ulla Roder, originally from Denmark but fresh over from Holland to join the protest told SQUALL: "Friday morning, I woke up and I thought, I must take this jump. One way or the other, it's now or never. At a certain point I have to put my body where my mind is - where my thoughts are."
"WE HAVE TO DO THESE ACTIONS TO GET THE DIALOGUE GOING AGAIN WITH THIS GOVERNMENT. IF THE INFORMATION LEVEL IS KEPT AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE, PEOPLE WILL BE AWARE THAT SOMETHING IS WRONG."
All TP2000 activists understand that for the more serious direct actions that are occasionally undertaken - destroying parts of Trident-related facilities or damaging Trident equipment - they risk spending five or ten years in prison. Ulla conveys vividly the sense of urgency that motivates her to run such risks. It is hard not to find compelling her combination of fervour and incisive - possibly prophetic - analysis: "[Trident] is an important link in the NATO system for that new kind of wars they are planning to have in the future - maybe in space too. They say they will use them against rogue states, and then talk a lot about the national missile defence. That's a part of it, but it's only a part of the truth. We know they are sending up a lot of space probes with plutonium on board. British defence scientists have joined those experiments. I find the situation really scary." It is within this context that Ulla finds it not only useful but imperative to engage repeatedly in non-violent direct action: "We have to do these actions to get the dialogue going again with this government. If the information level is kept as high as possible, people will be aware that something is wrong."
When SQUALL approached Ben White, public relations spokesperson at the Ministry of Defence in London, he remained unfazed by the contradictions between what he called Britain's "unequivocal undertaking" to carry out nuclear disarmament in the fullness of time and the complete lack of action in this direction (government promises to honour the commitment to disarmament contained in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1969 were made as recently as May this year.) The British government is, he said, committed to "dialogue with everyone who has a nuclear capability" on a "government to government" basis and that it was "very much an international issue." But what if UK citizens should wish to raise the matter with their government? "Politics isn't my remit. There are structures for people to have access to Parliament."
THE IMPRISONMENT SHE CONSIDERED "A SMALL PRICE TO PAY" FOR THE SUCCESS OF SO SPECTACULAR A DIRECT ACTION.
Veteran activist Angie Zelter believes the British public "are ready for nuclear disarmament now. It's a pity that we don't have a government that can recognise that." Meanwhile TP2000 activists continue to use high-profile court cases to publicise the dangers of nuclear weapons. One such case was heard in Manchester Crown Court beginning in early September 2000. Back in February 1999, Rachel Wenham and Rosie James, both in their twenties and already veteran protesters with a background environmental activism, boarded the nuclear submarine HMS Vengeance while it was moored at Barrow-in-Furness. They had swum 150 metres in wet suits and were supported by an affinity group of nine other people, four of them "arrestable," plus a vital backup team who contributed transport, planning and equipment. Once aboard, they destroyed testing equipment on the submarine's conning tower with a lump hammer and then sprayed "Death machine" and "illegal" on the side of the sub. In court they put forward a "lawful excuse" defence - that they broke the law in the attempt to prevent a greater crime. The jury found them not guilty of criminal damage in using the spray paint and then on September 20 failed to reach a majority verdict of whether the pair should be found guilty of criminal damage in breaking equipment. The Crown Prosecution Service are currently deciding whether to seek a retrial.
"I DON'T THINK WE CAN CREATE CHANGE IN SOCIETY UNLESS YOU ACTUALLY ENGAGE IN A PUBLIC DEBATE WITH THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE AND THEY SUPPORT YOU IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. YOU CAN'T ACTUALLY CREATE LONG-LASTING CHANGE UNLESS THEY COME WITH YOU."
Central to the defence in recent cases has often been the argument that Trident's very existence violates international law. On October 21 1999, Ellen Moxley, Ulla Roder and Angie Zelter, appeared in Greenock Sheriff Court, accused of having "maliciously and willfully" damaged hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of Trident equipment. What they actually did - an action covered in a previous issue of SQUALL [see 'Trident Computers go overboard' in the Frontline Communique section] - was to pay a visit a barge moored on Loch Gail which monitors and tests sonar signals from Trident. On the evening of June 8 1999 the three activists boarded the boat and threw hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of other computers and other equipment into the Loch. They hung a banner reading TP2000: STOP NUCLEAR DEATH RESEARCH and then telephoned the authorities and waited to be arrested. It felt like "getting rid of the building blocks of oppression," Ellen Moxley later recalled, in an article written during her four months on remand at Cornton Vale prison. The imprisonment she considered "a small price to pay" for the success of so spectacular a direct action.
IN THE ABSENCE OF "EXPERT CONTRADICTORY EVIDENCE" FROM THE PROSECUTION, SHERIFF GIMBLETT FELT OBLIGED TO ACCEPT THE DEFENCE ARGUMENTS THAT THE "THREAT OR USE" OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS REPRESENTED BY TRIDENT VIOLATED INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESTIC LAW.
While the Greenock Three were awaiting trial, hundreds of messages of support came from all over the world. It is precisely the open approach of TP2000 that makes such public outreach possible. Angie Zelter is emphatic about open networking as the basis of any effective campaign. "I don't think we can create change in society unless you actually engage in a public debate with the majority of people and they support you in one way or another. You can't actually create long-lasting change unless they come with you."
In the Greenock case, Sheriff Margaret Gimblett having listened carefully to the testimony of distinguished international witnesses before ordering the jury to find the defendants not guilty. In the absence of "expert contradictory evidence" from the prosecution, Sheriff Gimblett felt obliged to accept the defence arguments that the "threat or use" of nuclear weapons represented by Trident violated international and domestic law. She added a warning, however: "If anyone else takes such action, they do so at their peril I may be totally wrong."
In October the Greenock judgement will be reviewed in a Lord Advocates Reference (LAR), a peculiarly Scottish process for examining points of law arising from a court's original ruling. (Although it will scrutinise the basis of the Greenock verdict, This procedure will in no way threaten the defendants' acquittal.) However, it may not bode so well for the legal principles seemingly established by the case. TP2000 themselves warily point out that in the six extant LARs, every review has gone against the legal interpretation of the original trial judge. All the same, looking on the positive side, TP2000 representatives call for an independent public inquiry into the legality of the British Trident system to result from the LAR hearing. As a recent statement vows: "Those who are committed to Peoples Disarmament will continue that work whatever the outcome." From the point of view of TP2000, another high profile discussion of Britain's continuing possession of nuclear weapons can only contribute further to public awareness.
The emphasis on major high-profile actions and court cases should not obscure the contribution of the hundreds of smaller actions, or of the thousands of people who back these actions without being arrested themselves. With the overall arrest total now nearing the 900 mark, the cumulative effort of this low-key collective work may be every bit as important as the more dramatic actions resulting in high-profile trials. According to Ulla Roder: "I feel that there has been more written than in a long time about nuclear weapons in the media. People are more aware"
Clearly direct action alone is not enough. Other consciousness raising tools are needed. Backed by TP 2000, the Aldermaston Nuclear Awareness Group take on the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment in a judicial review at the High Court in London on September 13. At issue is the right of the Environment Agency to authorise radioactive discharges at the Atomic Weapons Establishments (AWEs) at Aldermaston and nearby Burghfield. Concerns about the facilities' past record of radioactive leaks into water and sewage, including radioactive discharge through the Pangbourne pipeline into the River Thames, are heightened by the authorisation granted to British Nuclear Fuels, Lockheed Martin and Serco to operate the site from April this year. BNFL have a particularly controversial safety record, and there are concerns about the planned layoff of hundreds of AWE workers, which could further impair already questionable safety records.
For more information on the work of TP 2000 including latest news and court reports, check out their website at http://www.gn.apc.org/tp2000
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