An Historical Novel by Luke Hauser
Reviewed by Starhawk
In Direct Action, Luke Hauser writes fiction so steeped in reality that he reproduces an era for us, with all of its excitement and frustrations.
Although the 1980s are generally thought of as a kind of dead zone for progressive activism, in the San Francisco Bay Area the early part of the decade was a time of fervent activism around nuclear issues.
Hauser's novel, set in that era, recreates the emotional and political milieu of the anti-nuclear blockades at Livermore Lab, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and the San Francisco Financial District. The nonviolent direct actions of the 70s and early 80s against nuclear power and nuclear weapons were the forerunners of a style of organizing that came to fruition in the blockade of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in '99. Many of the assumptions about nonhierachical organizations, the power of nonviolent direct action, and many of the tactics and strategies that inform the movement today were pioneered at that time.
Hauser was one of the organizers of the Livermore Action Group, which focused attention throughout the early eighties on Livermore Lab, run by the University of California - one of the two places in the U.S. where nuclear weapons were designed and developed. Livermore Action Group was born when organizing against nuclear power expanded to include nuclear weapons.
New Models of Protest
In the 1970s, as nuclear power plants began to be brought online, the dangers of nuclear power were becoming highly evident. The near melt-down at Three Mile Island in the Spring of '79 increased opposition.
On the East Coast, a group called the Clamshell Alliance pioneered a new mode of organizing in direct actions against the Seabrook Nuclear Plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire. Movement for a New Society, a Quaker-based social action group in Philadelphia, had conducted trainings in nonviolence and helped mold an organizing style. Instead of a central committee making decisions, the actions were organized by affinity groups, small groups of like-minded people that included both activists willing to risk arrest and those who would offer support. The affinity groups made decisions by consensus, and sent representatives to spokescouncils that made decisions for the whole action.
In California, Pacific Gas and Electric had begun building a nuclear plant on the ocean at a place called Diablo Canyon, just west of San Luis Obispo. Huge public opposition was aroused - especially when it came to light that the plant was being built over an earthquake fault. After a long campaign of legal challenges, the plant was finally ready to be licensed in the summer of 1981. As legal modes of opposition were exhausted, a group called the Abalone Alliance formed, modeled after the Clamshell Alliance. They held a huge rally in 1980, and a small blockade, but their major organizing effort went into a call for an emergency response, to blockade the plant and prevent the operators from loading the fuel rods, once the license for testing was granted,
The Diablo blockade took place in September 1981, and lasted about three weeks, during which over 5000 arrests were made. For everyone who took part, the blockade became a life-changing event. Three weeks of collective decision making and shared leadership gave us a strong sense of our own personal and collective power. Getting arrested, confronting authority, surviving custody, and often getting out of jail and returning to the blockade gave us ample opportunities to test our power, courage, and commitment, and come out stronger. While in jail, we used our time to hold workshops, talent shows, and meetings, and to discuss strategy. Reagan was pushing to build up our nuclear arsenal, characterizing the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire," and talking about how to make nuclear war winnable. Nuclear war seemed a real possibility in the immediate future. Our new mode of organizing, combining direct democracy and nonviolent direct action, was so empowering and powerful that some of us decided we should expand and organize in a similar way against nuclear weapons.
Questions of Hierarchy
And so the Livermore Action Group was born. LAG, as it was familiarly called, organized its first blockade in February of 1982. It was followed by a larger blockade that June, on the Summer Solstice, billed as the International Day of Nuclear Disarmament. In these days of computers and the internet, when international organizing is easy and expected, it seems quaintly archaic to remember that we organized across borders by using regular mail and occasional long-distance phone calls. We had allies in the German anti-nuclear movement, and later developed allies even further afield, in Kazhakstan and Palau, wherever weapons had been tested and toxic residues left behind.
LAG soon acquired an office in Berkeley and a small paid staff-underpaid, but paid. There was always a tension in the organization between the paid staff and those who identified with the affinity groups, between a pull toward some centralization and core leadership, and an outward push into more direct democracy. The tension was mirrored by the emergence of a new group, the Vandenberg Action Coalition, which formed to oppose missile testing at Vandenberg, in Southern California.
The Vandenberg Action Coalition was more 'pure' in its devotion to nonhierarchical organizing, with no paid staff, no coordinating council, only representatives from affinity groups and working groups. LAG and VAC planned two actions in 1983 - a fixed-date action in January, noteworthy because almost all of us contracted dysentery from the camp food, and a floating date action that was planned to interfere with the actual testing of the MX.
Arrest at a military base meant Federal, rather than state, charges. After the January action, everybody was "banned and barred" from coming back to the base, but most were not charged. Repeat trespassers, however, faced greater risks in the Spring action. We planned a jail solidarity strategy - that we all would stay in jail to keep pressure on the authorities to drop or reduce charges, or at least to insure that second-timers were not treated more harshly. Part of that strategy was to withold names, to keep them from simply releasing some protesters and singling out others.
Hauser's novel traces the tensions and conflicts, and also the creative interactions, between the groups and the different approaches to organizing. He recreates the feelings, the issues, the controversies, with great fidelity. The novel goes through arrest and jail, and the central part of the narrative takes place during the extended jail stay after the June of '83 blockade. LAG had also planned for a jail solidarity strategy, which proved vitally important when the courts attempted to give us all (in addition to jail-time) a long period of probation, which would have prevented us from civil disobedience for months or years,
We ended up staying in jail for nearly two weeks, until the authorities gave in and dropped the idea of probation. Hauser does an excellent job of recreating the experience, the frustration, the waiting, the high points of mutual support and solidarity and the low points of depression in our unexpectedly long sojourn in custody. He brought back the experience so vividly that I could smell the unwashed bodies, feel the cold and the rough wool of the blankets, and taste once again that inimitable combination of spam and fruit cocktail the guards called "The Empire Strikes Back!"
The book continues through the following Summer, with a series of San Francisco protests at the 1984 Democratic Convention that were direct precursors of today's urban protest movement. The story ends with the dissolution of LAG, but stirs embers of hope among the ashes.
Anyone interested in the history of social movements or the antecedents of the global justice movement kicked off by Seattle will find this book fascinating. Hauser tells a good story, and creates characters that live and breathe. But he does more - he brings alive a part of our history that might otherwise be forgotten, and offers its lessons and legacy to the present.
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