The Grapes of Rath by Cindy Girvani Leerer

The Grapes of Rath: the decision to cancel the 1978 planned civil disobedience “occupation” of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant site

 By Cindy Girvani Leerer

             By the end of 1979, The Clamshell Alliance seemed to have passed its zenith. Many activists within the Clamshell date the decline to the decision to accept the “Rath Proposal” ending the large scale civil disobedience “occupations” of the proposed Seabrook Nuclear Power plant site. Then-NH Attorney General Thomas Rath, who later directed the public and government relations efforts for Northeast Utilities in its successful acquisition of Public Service Company of New Hampshire, proposed a deal to give the Clamshell Alliance access to the plant site for a legal rally in exchange for calling off a planned June 24, 1978 civil disobedience action.

            As a “Seacoast Clam,” living in Seacoast, NH and a member of the Coordinating Committee, I was closely involved in many of the meetings that occurred around that time. Here are my remembrances, aided by other Clams who supported and opposed the decision, and my analysis.          

            Rath first made his proposal to the media. He was well aware, from state police spying on the Clamshell, of the dissension and the difficulty, philosophically and practically, of the organization reaching consensus decisions. This dissension coalesced around the contentious debate about cutting fences to occupy the site. This information was fed to the media and exploited to stir up fears of violence by out of state “terrorists” who planned to invade the small NH community of Seabrook. In this context, the Rath Proposal was advanced as a reasonable alternative to a potentially violent invasion.

            The contentious debate about cutting fences could be boiled down to two main factions, each comprised of two subgroups, both of whom used the Founding Statement of the Clamshell Alliance (Adopted July, 1976 and reaffirmed November, 1977) to defend their views. This statement articulated that Clamshell would achieve the goal of stopping the Seabrook Nuclear Power plant

through direct, non-violent action, such an one-to-one dialogue, public prayer and fasting, public demonstrations, site occupations and other means which put life before property.

            On one side were those who embraced physical occupations of the site to stop construction, and believed fence cutting placed life before property and was necessary to achieve the goal of physical occupation. They were joined by those who believed property destruction was necessary to challenge the greater destruction being wrought by nuclear power and the state against people.

            On the other side were those who emphasized direct, non-violent action, and philosophically opposed fence cutting and property destruction as a form of violence.  They were joined by those who strategically opposed property destruction as damaging to our credibility and ability build an antinuclear and larger social change movement through symbolic occupations of the plant site and other means (auth. note: I considered myself to be part of this group). The decentralized democratic and consensus decision-making structure of the Clamshell, which had been one of its strengths, was unequal to the task of forging consensus between such widely divergent views.

            The Rath Proposal was initially turned down by the Coordinating Committee (CC) of the Clamshell Alliance, the decision-making body which represented all areas of New England with enough activists to muster sending a representative. This initial decision occurred within the structure of Clamshell decision making, i.e. CC representatives returned home, consulted with activists in their community, many of whom were ready to join the 1978 action and had spent months organizing small support “affinity” groups, participating in nonviolence training, and preparing for the action, and returned with a grassroots decision feeding to the center like spokes moving toward the hub of the wheel (CC representatives were referred to as “spokes”).

            What followed was an increased media frenzy about a violent occupation.            Local seacoast NH supporters of Clamshell then called for an emergency “town meeting” with Seacoast Clamshell activists and asked us to cancel the civil disobedience action in favor of a legal rally. They expressed fear of violent protesters taking over the action and repercussions from allowing their land to be used for staging an action. On a more positive side, many expressed their wish to participate in a legal rally on the power plant site. All but one local landowner withdrew the use of their land to provide staging for a civil disobedience action. The base of support on the Seacoast of NH was crumbling.

This meant an occupation would begin from outside the community, giving credence to the media portrayal of an invasion in opposition to the wishes of the local community, rather than an action in support local opposition to the power plant. Without staging areas to manage the influx of activists to the site, the Clamshell’s ability to hold a well-organized, disciplined, and non-violent action with activists who had undergone non-violence training and were part of an “affinity” group, was at risk.

            An emergency meeting of the CC was convened. Seacoast Clams stated that we could not go forward with the civil disobedience action because we could not support an invasion of the community in disregard of the wishes of local residents. Such an action would fundamentally undermine the home rule principle upon which the Clamshell was founded, articulated in the Founding Statement of the Clamshell, “to re-assert the right of citizens to be fully informed and then to decide the nature and destiny of their own communities.”  In a marathon meeting of the CC, “spokes” reluctantly reached consensus to support the Seacoast. This was done without extensive consultation with the community activists that “spokes” represented, although I recall some attempts to activate phone trees at a time when cell phones did not exist. The lack of consultation WAS non-democratic in that the grassroots were not fully consulted, a process which had been a hallmark of Clamshell organizing. However, there was a sense of immediacy as our local landowner based crumbled, we were under a deadline for acceptance of the Rath proposal, and the June 24 date approached.

            Following the meeting, Seacoast Clams traveled around New England to meet with activist groups along with CC spokes to talk about the dilemma and decision. Despite the full consensus of the CC, many groups and individuals felt betrayed and angry. Despite this, activists came together to support and attend the onsite legal rally of 18,000 people, the largest antinuclear rally in the history of the US which went off without a hitch, with everyone leaving the site as agreed after two days. Despite the success of the rally, it was a difficult and painful time for The Clamshell Alliance, from which the organization never recovered.

            The following year was marked by disunity.  A smaller group called for and carried out confrontational demonstrations, including fence cutting and clashes with police, at the Seabrook plant site. Local groups continued to organize public education events and smaller civil disobedience wave actions to blockade the reactor pressure vessel from being brought on site. A new focus to bring attention to the economics of nuclear power. to the funding of the Seabrook nuke, and to workers’ issues evolved, including legislative campaigns (see piece on CWIP campaign), direct actions (see piece on Wall Street Action), and outreach to workers.

            Was accepting the Rath Proposal the “right” decision? The decision may not have been “right;” however, given the conditions of the organization, I believe it was necessary. The Founding Statement of the Clamshell Alliance states that the Alliance formed in part “to re-assert the right of citizens to be fully informed and then to decide the nature and destiny of their own communities.”  In this case, fully informing the citizens of the NH Seacoast about the state’s tactics to undermine the 1978 civil disobedience demonstration was not sufficient to address their fear, and these citizens decided they did not want a civil disobedience action in their community, choosing instead to support and participate in a legal rally. The organization was unable to reconcile two of the goals set forth in the Founding Statement, to use site occupations to stop construction of the nuke AND to re-assert the right of local citizens to decide what occurs in their own communities. This contradiction was most intense for those of us who lived in the local community, the NH Seacoast Clams, who pushed through the decision to cancel the civil disobedience action out of respect for the wishes of the local community. Had we gone ahead with a civil disobedience action against the wishes of the local community, the Clamshell would have been in violation of our founding principles, and thus, would have become an entirely different organization.

            There is, of course, the question of whether fear by a local community should determine the strategy of political change movements. Many in the south opposed civil rights demonstrations in the early 1960’s out of fear; had demonstrations been stopped for this reason many of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement may have gone unrealized. But, the Civil Rights movement did not neglect or lose their local base.      

            The vulnerability of the Clamshell Alliance to the Rath Proposal was a clear indication of a failure in community organizing, educating, and “inoculating” our base against state propaganda and fear tactics. So, too, it was an indictment of the organization’s obsession with internal disagreements about tactics and philosophy, occupations as THE means to stop construction of the plant, and our belief in our own public relations sound bite mythology of increasing civil disobedience 10-fold with each subsequent occupation (as had successfully occurred in the past) to stop the nuke. (Note: The first occupation on August 1, 1976 resulted in 18 arrests; the second on August 22, 1976 in 180 arrests, and the third and final large occupation on April 30, 1977 in 1415 arrests.)

            The fixation on occupations point to a tendency to seek experiences from political activism. For those activists who had not participated in the April 30, 1977 there was, along with much sincere and committed opposition to nuclear power and to the Seabrook nuke, the promise of participating in a second Woodstock-like event. For those who were returning, it was the promise of recreating that experience. There is, after all, something fun, joy-filled, exciting, life-changing, affirming, and (dare I say it?), spiritual about a good demonstration! There is a palpable connection to others so absent in our atomized and isolated society, and a connection to the struggles for peace and justice of many who came before and will come after us. Unfortunately, the quest for the experience overshadowed the discipline and hard work of organizing and securing our base.

            Did accepting the Rath Proposal contribute to the demise of the Clamshell Alliance? Probably. At least, it brought the internal disunity of the Alliance into stark relief. However, this disunity was already there and would, I believe, have led to the demise of the organization in any case, even if there had been a civil disobedience action in 1978. Had the organization been better able to reflect on the best strategies to realize the goal of stopping nuclear power rather than automatically moving toward the next big occupation, the legal rally of 18,000 people could have become the foundation of a much more powerful antinuclear movement.  Instead, the power of this largest antinuclear rally in the history of the US was squandered in squabble about whether the decision was “right” and feelings of betrayal about the antidemocratic manner in which the decision was made.           

            But, so what?  The goal of the Clamshell Alliance was not to become an enduring organization, but rather, according to the Founding Statement, to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire and to assist efforts to halt nuclear plant development in New England, and by extension, the country. The demise of the Clamshell was not the end of the antinuclear movement, but rather a shift to decentralized local efforts including many important legislative and financial campaigns by the Clamshell in NH. Clamshell also gave rise to a national antinuclear movement, carried the legacy of non-violent civil disobedience and citizen action from previous movements including labor, anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam war into a new generation, and became a bridge to movements of the next generation.

            The grapes of Rath may be bitter; but, let’s cherish and not throw away the fine wine of the legacy of the Clamshell Alliance.

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