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High Tension in the Energy Debate: The Clamshell Reaction | The Nation

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High Tension in the Energy Debate: The Clamshell Reaction

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This article appeared in the June 18, 1977 edition of The Nation.

About the Author

Harvey Wasserman
Harvey Wasserman is senior editor of FreePress.org and co-author, with Bob Fitrakis of As Goes Ohio.

Also by the Author

The nuclear power industry has dropped a $50 billion bomb into the Senate version of Obama's stimulus package for projects Wall Street wouldn't finance when it was flush.

The only one way Tuesday's vote will be protected is if citizens show up at the polls with cameras, note pads, cell phones and lawyers.

Seabrook, N.H.

On April 30, more than 2,000 marchers descended on the nuclear construction site here. Thanks to their numbers, their discipline, coolness and determination--but thanks also to the ill-considered response of the state's highest authorities--this demonstration by aroused citizens will almost certainly be remembered as a watershed event in the direct-action politics of the 1970s. It was the third organizied occupation of the site of the $2 billion, 2,300-megawatt atomic plant proposed by the Public Service Company (PSC) of New Hampshire, and it received worldwide attention.

The first march was on August 1, last year, when the Clamshell Alliance, a loose coalition of anti-nuclear groups from around New England, staged a rally less than a mile from the site (see Wasserman: The Nation, September 11, 1976). Six hundred braved a rainstorm to attend; eighteen occupiers, all natives of New Hampshire, marched onto the site, carrying seedlings and saplings, and were arrested by local police.

Three weeks later, the alliance staged a second occupation in blazing summer heat. Fifteen hundred came to that rally, and this time 180 marched onto the site. The occupiers--who included representatives from all six New England states--had been specially trained in the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience, and were organized into "affinity groups" of eight to twenty members.

They marched onto the site without violence, were quickly arrested by New Hampshire State Troopers and held overnight at the nearby Portsmouth National Guard Armory. The following morning, the occupiers were released on personal recognizance bond.

By then, the Clamshell Alliance, though barely a month old, had become the most controversial anti-nuclear group on the American scene. It served public notice that patience with the days of lobbying and legal intervention had come to an end.

A third occupation of the Seabrook site was scheduled for the fall, but for complex reasons, the organization shifted gears and chose instead an energy fair and mass bike ride which, on the weekend of October 23, attracted more than 3,000 participants to the Hampton Beach State Park, 2 miles across the marsh from the plant site. At the fair, the alliance set April 30, 1977, as the date for the third occupation, and then settled in for a long winter of organizing.

In the spring the anti-nuclear forces were given a strong boost by town meeting victories in Seabrook and six other towns along the New Hampshire seacoast. Seabrook had voted in January 1976 to oppose construction of the plant; at its 1977 town meeting, it voted to ban transportation of radioactive materials through its streets. It was joined by all its contiguous New Hampshire neighbors and, in early May, Salisbury, Mass., which has a common border with Seabrook on the south, also voted against the plant, thus closing the circle.

Meanwhile, the local Clamshell groups worked toward the April 30th occupation. Each chapter conducted training sessions aimed it improving relationships within the group, as well as instruction in role-playing and legal background to prepare people for the occupation itself.

But the training was designed also to educate people on the issues of nonviolence and nuclear power, in the expectation that the groups would continue to operate after the occupation. The sessions were apparently so attractive that scores of people joined local groups without actually intending to occupy at Seabrook.

By the middle of the week of April 23, the alliance announced that it could count on at least 1,000 occupiers, and that it had trained at least 1,800. While the organization raced to solidify last-minute arrangements, the realization that something big was about to happen mobilized the media and began attracting scores of additional occupiers.

The news also, attracted the frustration and wrath of the nuclear plant's chief backers, New Hampshire's archconservative Gov. Meldrim Thomson, and his patron, William Loeb, publisher of the strident Manchester Union-Leader.

Together, Thomson and Loeb used the week before the occupation to create an atmosphere, absent from this country since the days of Vietnam. Labeling alliance members "Communists" and "perverts," the Governor and the newspaper charged that, despite the group's public commitment to nonviolence, the occupation was being used as a "cover for terrorism." The real intent of the action, they said, was to bring on bloodshed, and they soon produced an "inside report" from the ultra-rightist U.S. Labor Party to "prove" their case.

Meanwhile, a crucial behind-the-scenes struggle was going on between Thomson and State Police Commander Col. Paul Doyon. Doyon, who had handled the August 22nd arrests, was given a full account of the plans for April 30 from the Clamshell Alliance. Much to Loeb and Thomson's chagrin, he apparently decided it would be wiser to allow the occupiers onto the site and arrest them there than to try blocking them at the edge of the property. A confrontation at the plant's border would have snarled traffic on Route 1 for hours, if not days, and might have degenerated into real ugliness.

It soon became apparent that the shouting by Thomson and Loeb was aimed as much at Doyon as at the Clamshell Alliance. Then on Thursday, two days before the occupation, Thomson met with alliance members Cathy Wolff and Robin Read. "I think the meeting blew the Governor's mind," said Read afterward. "He suddenly had to confront the fact that we are also human beings, and that we were, in fact, committed to nonviolence."

By the clear, pleasant morning of April 30, there remained hardly a trace of the hysteria that had dominated the state's headlines for a week. Several hundred new Clamshell recruits arrived for final training sessions, and there was no counter-demonstration or police resistance in sight.

Occupiers had been arriving from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast, many of them camping overnight. The bulk of them were in three camp grounds to the west of the plant, and they came together at the main access road, used each morning by the site's laborers. By 3 PM this "western route" contingent numbered more than 1,300; accompanied by some 200 members of the press, they marched without incident down the half-mile asphalt road and onto the site.

When all the groups had converged on the hot, dusty parking lot at the belly of the site, the occupation force numbered well over 2,000. Singing, chanting and in the best of spirits, the occupiers unpacked their knapsacks and tents, organized themselves into neighborhoods, dug latrines, and settled in for the night.

While most of the occupiers went about the business of living, a more or less permanent conclave of elected representatives took root at the southwest corner of the campsite. Among other things, this decision-making body passed ordinances against the construction of nuclear power plants or the transportation of radioactive materials within "town" limits. It also sent messages of solidarity to the workers and environmentalists of the world, and to the 3,000-person rally being held across the marsh at the Hampton Beach State Park by the Concerned Citizens of Seabrook and Hampton Falls, an organization of local people opposed to the plant.

At about 2 PM on May 1, Colonel Doyon and Governor Thomson appeared at the east side of the parking lot to meet with six chosen representatives of Occupation City and ask that they vacate the premises. Colonel Doyon offered the use of school buses chartered by the state to facilitate the departure.

Elizabeth Boardman, a long-time associate of the American Friends Service Committee, which has played a crucial role in the growth of the Clamshell, told the Colonel, "We are all mutually sorry. But our purpose was not simply to draw attention to the occupation and capture media attention but to stop all construction of the proposed nuclear power plant."

Doyon replied that he, too, was "very sorry," and at 3:09 read a notice over a series of police loudspeakers that everyone who did not leave the site would be arrested. A body of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island State Troopers then emerged from nearby warehouses to begin the arrests. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was the only New England chief executive to refuse Thomson's request for police aid. He was, he explained, "unconvinced" that the Seabrook occupation posed a significant threat to the security of the region.

The arrests proceeded smoothly, if slowly. Piling people onto chartered school buses and into National Guard troop carriers, the patrolmen took more than twelve hours to haul everyone away. Some of the occupiers who had packed up their gear in the afternoon unpacked it again and reopened their tents to wait through the long hours of the night. Many were not arrested until dawn.

Meanwhile, a major bottleneck had been created at the Portsmouth Armory, where those arrested were being processed. The first batch was booked and released on personal recognizance.

But suddenly, late in the afternoon, Thomson swooped in by helicopter. Hampton District Court clerk Mac Hamilton later testified that he had come to the armory with a box full of personal recognizance forms, but that a change of procedure went into effect with the arrival of the Governor. Now the rule was $1,500 bail, which nearly all the prisoners were unwilling or unable to meet.

Three District Court judges soon arrived at the armory, and a number of "guilty" pleas resulted in some occupiers being hauled off to prison. At least two contempt charges were leveled in the course of the night. "It was a travesty," said Attorney Emmanuel Krasner of Rochester, N.H., who had been engaged by the Clamshell to represent those occupying the site, and who had been present most of the night. "The state violated just about every basic right in the Constitution."

When the sun finally set on May 2, some 1,400 detainees were being held under makeshift conditions in four National Guard armories around the state. Some had spent up to fifteen hours in buses and in the backs of the National Guard troop carriers, as well as in closed, stuffy semi-trailers while awaiting arraignment.

Many of the prisoners were held for three days and more, without beds, telephone access, or more then perfunctory legal counsel. Friends, family and the external Clamshell support system were unable to learn who had been arrested, where they were being held, or what the conditions of confinement were like. "It was a classic police-state situation," said Anna Gyorgy, a Clamshell support worker. "It was like 1,400 people had been 'disappeared' by the state."

Conflicting reports soon trickled out as to conditions in the armories. Nearly 700 occupiers were being held in the Manchester Armory alone, and overcrowding seemed a problem at all four. There were reports of communicable disease; of one outbreak of food poisoning, of difficult, if not impossible, access to telephones, and of irregular access to outsiders. The state remained uncooperative throughout the entire two-week detainment, and a complete accounting of who was being held where was finally obtained only after great difficulty.

Both the alliance organization and the body of occupiers were caught unprepared for the extended detention, the group expectation having been for immediate release on personal recognizance. But while a steady stream of occupiers bailed out, it rapidly became clear that a very large core was more than willing to remain "indefinitely." "Many of us felt that the bail system is unjust to begin with," said Cathy Wolf, who was held in Somersworth. "The process favors those with money. We also felt bail was unjust in this case because it was being used as a punishment instead of insurance that we would appear for trial. We weren't happy about costing the taxpayers all that money, but we figured we'd be saving everybody money if what we did helped stop the nuke."

The detention hit a legal low point on Thursday, May 5, when the first of the prisoners were brought out for their District Court trials. Murray Rosenblith, 26, a Brooklynite and staff member of the radical pacifist WIN magazine, was brought along with sixteen other defendants from Somersworth to stand trial before Judge Alfred Casassa at Hampton District Court.

As expected, Casassa found Rosenblith guilty of criminal trespass, and then sentenced him to fifteen days at hard labor and a $200 fine, with the jail sentence suspended pending appeal on $200 bond.

The verdict and sentence both seemed routine. Therefore it was a shock when, after the lunch break, state Atty. Gen. David Souter, swooped up to the court in a limousine and appealed to Casassa to raise the ante. Speaking for half an hour, Souter told Casassa that "giving the defendants a suspended sentence is tantamount to no punishment at all." The Superior Court, where the cases would be appealed, was already running behind schedule. "Most likely," Souter complained, "these cases will never clear the docket there." As a result, "justice can only be done by imposing sentence right now." As a guarantee, he added, no appeal bail should be allowed; sentences should begin to be served immediately.

Defense Attorney Krasner responded by pointing out that not one of the August 22nd defendants had defaulted on his or her personal recognizance bond, that the occupiers clearly intended to stand trial, and that the, refusal of bail or imposition of high bail was tantamount to punitive detention. Most of the Superior Court trials would be scheduled weeks--even months--in the future, far beyond the fifteen-day period set out in the sentences. To impose the penalties now, or to set high or no bail, Krassner argued, was to deny the defendants their right to appeal.

Casassa, apparently, persuaded by Souter, imposed unsuspended sentences on the next sixteen defendants, and demanded a $500 bond. He then called Rosenblith back into the courtroom, lifted the suspension on his sentence and upped his bail. "It was quite amazing," said the pacifist writer. "At Portsmouth we were told we would be released on personal recognizance. Then it turned into $100. This morning it was $200, and this afternoon it $500. What next?"

***

By Sunday, May 8, the number of occupiers remaining in the armories had dropped below 1,000, as several hundred who had not yet been called to trial availed themselves of the chance to bail out at the original $100 mark. The Governor announced, "We are winning the battle of Seabrook." His optimism was premature. For one thing, it had become clear, that the prolonged detention gave the Seabrook occupation moral weight and dramatic impact it would never have carried as a mere weekend confrontation. For another, blame for the arraignment foul-up and the expense of imprisonment (it was costing up to $50,000 per day) was being laid at the Governor's doorstep. Local newspapers, as well as the Boston Globe and the New York Times, noting the implications of Souter's appearance at the Hampton court, editorialized for the prisoners' release.

By Monday, May 9, ACLU lawyers Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein were in Federal District Courts at Concord, in front of Justice Hugh Bownes, demanding immediate emptying of the armories because of the physical conditions there. The suit challenged the use of bail for punitive purposes, and included a class-action damage suit demanding $5,000 per arrest and $5,000 per detainee per day. Based on the irregularities of the detentions, the suit drew heavily on precedent set by actions following the May 1, 1970 arrests of more than 13,000 anti-war demonstrators in Washington D.C. A preliminary ruling (now on appeal) granted more than $1 million in awards in that case. The 1977 Seabrook suit, which grew by as much as $5 million per day, would soon rise well above $50 million.

As the second week of detention dragged on, a nerve-racking chess game developed between the Clamshell and the State House, with the National Guard, the court system and the taxpayers holding decisive sway. Inside the armories, the occupiers established a cordial and fruitful relationship with the Guard. "We treated them like fellow human beings," said Rennie Cushing, a Clamshell organizer detained in the Manchester Armory. "A lot of the Guard were against the nuke to begin with, and a lot more were against it by the time the occupation was over. I think we broke new ground, and if I were Governor Thomson I'd think twice about relying on them to keep us off that site next time." Personal relationships reached a point, in fact, where Gertner and Reinstein subpoenaed two Guardsmen to federal court to serve as character witnesses for the occupiers.

Meanwhile, as it became evident that a large segment of the occupiers had no intention of bailing out, the cost of detaining them became a political hot potato. The Rockingham County Commissioners announced in midweek that they would refuse to pay costs of imprisoning convicted occupiers, and that they would sue the Governor if the county were ordered to pay for the armory detentions.

Finally, negotiations began between Rockingham County Prosecutor Carlton Eldridge and the alliance. After a series of meetings, an agreement was reached whereby Eldridge undertook to ask the judges in his district to grant personal recognizance if the occupiers would accept mass trials in return. It would, after all, be the Rockingham system that would bear the burden of trying the Seabrook 1,414. And with public outcry mounting, Eldridge seemed eager to settle.

On Thursday, May 12, he and alliance negotiators signed an accord that was quickly approved by the detainees at the Somersworth and Dover Armories, as well as by the inmates at Portsmouth, which had been reopened for prisoners earlier in the week.

At Manchester and Concord, however, serious objections arose, and at their insistence negotiations were reopened. Finally, at 5:30 AM on Friday, an elaborate compromise was reached which included provisions for a few individual trials, at least one public jury trial, refund arrangements for those who had already bailed out, and special conditions for noncooperators. "It was a nerveracking head-to-head," says Charles Light, one of the key negotiators, "but I guess the weight of all those people was just too much for the state to carry."

Thus at 9:30 AM the first busload of occupiers arrived at the Hampton District Court, and a process began that would carry well into the night and would ultimately result in the release on personal recognizance of the remaining 541 detainees.

***

As the third Seabrook occupation thus drew to a media-saturated close, nuclear opponents found they had made a stunning impression on the world environmental scene. The occupation and prolonged detention had focused international attention on the nuclear issue as perhaps nothing else could have done, and had driven home the point that thousands of citizens were now willing to face arrest and imprisonment in order to call a halt to atomic reactor construction.

If the occupation proved the anti-nuclear movement had reached a new level of maturity and mass appeal, it also seemed a powerful testament to the tactics of nonviolence. For the third time the Clamshell Alliance had staged a mass civil disobedience action without a single incidence of violence or serious bodily harm. The tactics of peaceful action had opened the gates to the site when any other approach seemed certain to have kept them closed. It also maintained for the occupation an overwhelming base of credibility and popular support against which the Thomson administration was simply unable to respond.

Now, in the wake of its third tenfold increase in size, the alliance faces a critical period. Direct-action environmentalism has clearly accelerated from a small assembly of local groups to a full-scale movement, and with that must inevitably come all the growing pains of factionalism and organizational strain.

Meanwhile, the Seabrook plant continues to stagger along under regulatory, financial and political difficulties. The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet decided whether it will approve the cooling system for the plant (which could be disastrous for the shellfish of the area); and until it does the banks will not advance the money needed to go forward with construction. More and more it appears a project doomed to an early death. If somehow it survives, Clamshell and the growing direct-action anti-nuclear movement around the country are almost certain to make Seabrook the critical battleground of nuclear energy. The April 30th occupation was, after all, accompanied by anti-nuclear actions at Browns Ferry, Ala., San Luis Obispo, Calif., Portland, Ore., Rocky Flats, Colo., Wintersburg, Ariz., Zion, Ill., Fulton, Mo., Pittsburgh and Three Mile Island, Pa., and at Montpelier, Vt. In their wake has come the Abalone Alliance, a statewide anti-nuclear group in California; and the Oyster Shell Alliance, aimed at a nuke under construction and another planned in the Mississippi Delta region of Louisiana. A Great Plains Alliance has been active in Missouri for some time, and it seems probable that other groups dedicated to direct action against nuclear power will be popping up throughout the summer and fall.

If there should be a fourth occupation at Seabrook, it might well become a mass civil disobedience action the like of which this country has not seen for quite some time. Full-scale occupations have already occurred in Europe, where 28,000 Swiss, French and West German citizens occupied a nuclear construction site at Wyhl, West Germany, and where more than 20,000 French nuclear opponents tried the same thing at Malville, near Lyons. The former resulted in an on-site occupation lasting more than a year, and was ended only by cancellation of the plant; the latter presaged a widespread upheaval that has raised questions about the future of nuclear energy in France. Mass anti-nuclear opposition has also moved to civil disobedience in Italy, Switzerland and Japan; it is threatening in Sweden, Spain and Australia.

What comes next in the United States will depend in large part on the Carter administration, and the depth of its commitment to what it has termed "the last resort" in the energy crisis.

But what is now clear from the grass roots of New England is that the social movement which has developed on the issue has chosen a "last resort" of its own, and that movement is unlikely to slow down until nuclear power plants become no more than a bad memory.

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