Non-Cooperation and the Reactor Pressure Vessel by Nelia Sargent

Non-Cooperation and the Reactor Pressure Vessel

By Nelia Sargent

Shortly after 7 that March morning in 1979, the tractor driver of the gargantuan 96-wheeled, 450 ton traboza trailer fired up his engine. The trailer held the reactor pressure vessel for the Seabrook nuclear power plant. It started toward the dockside exit onto route 1A in Hampton, NH, where my affinity group, one of many, had been sitting since before sunrise.  Months of planning a land and sea blockade by hundreds of Clams were culminating with the  blockade of the GE-built stainless steel housing for the nuclear fuel rods. We knew the schedule and the transport route from dockside to the reactor site thanks to a sympathetic employee inside the NH highway department.  

As the 96-wheeler lumbered forward, spontaneously, with my heart in my mouth, I found myself walking towards this huge engine, attempting to make eye contact with the driver. (Blind, I did not know how high up the windshield was on this monstrous vehicle.)  I was nose to nose with the tractor grill when Renny Cushing came up behind me and hooked the crook of my long white mobility cane through the grill of the tractor. He said, with his hand on my shoulder, “There you go, Sarge.”

 My immediate priority became sincerely touching the common humanity of each person who approached me. With self-deprecating gentle humor I sought to bridge our opposing roles.  It took several policemen twenty minutes to peel all ten fingers off my cane.  I genuinely affirmed the dignity of each person and simultaneously was respectful in my noncooperation and tenacious defiance.

Through non-cooperation I have challenged the power of authority figures with great success. Non-cooperation can mean not walking or going limp when arrested; it can also mean, as Chuck Mathei did in the armory in 1977, refusing food and even water.  In my experience, this response either baffles or enrages the authorities.  Unity of body, mind, and spirit help bring a depth of calm confidence in these scary situations. 

Three weeks later on March 28, 1979, the power of non-violence took control of the Hampton District courtroom.  The first dozen of 183 blockade trials were scheduled. That day, the worst nuclear power accident in U.S. history began.  As thousands of other anti-nuclear defendants had been doing for years, we used the “defense of necessity” saying we acted to prevent a much greater imminent harm than we caused by trespassing on private property.  

As he entered the court, Judge Cassasa, my friends said, was beet red under his black robe.  He was absolutely intolerant of any information or questions about the serious nuclear accident still worsening in Harrisburg, PA.  He sentenced all of us on contempt of court that day regardless of what we did or did not say and do.  As he sentenced me to indefinite jail time, I reminded him that by law he had to bring me before a jury if he wanted to jail me for more than six months. I will never forget how I overcame my fear of jail to uphold my deep convictions.  Speaking truth to power, knowing there may be serious consequences, is a deep tradition with a long history.  Much to my surprise, I was released after only three days of fasting, singing, and organizing inside the county jail.

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