The financial capital of the United States is an attractive and difficult target for activists. Nearly 32 years ago, on Sunday, October 28, 1979 (the anniversary of the great stock market crash), the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance staged a legal demonstration. On Monday, activists staged a large civil disobedience action. I was there.
To my surprise, I found little on the web about the demonstration and civil disobedience event (blog posts, archives, The Harvard Crimson, which was part of an antinuclear campaign which enjoyed significant successes (no nuclear plants licensed in the United States since that time.) What follows are some recollections. I welcome corrections from veterans and people who have better files.
Protests at nuclear plants and construction sites became common in the 1970s and, partly as a result, became less visible. The movement against nuclear power was coordinated largely by regional coalitions, and was based around small local affinity groups of 10-30 people, who trained together and came to trust each other. There was a radical democratic ethos that prized consensus, which made it very difficult for the movement as a whole to innovate.
The Wall Street campaign, coordinated by a “Manhattan Project” group, was an attempt to do so. Cindy Girvani Leerer explains the thinking underneath the effort:
The time had come to move toward more decentralized actions that would target the economics of nuclear power and the funding of the Seabrook nuke in order to make the building of nukes less profitable and attractive, to make explicit connections with other movements to combat the “divide and conquer” strategy of corporate capitalism, and to promote conversations about building a nuclear free future and a better society. If money swears, we would swear back. This economic focus occurred on several fronts, including legislative challenges to passing “construction work in progress” charges onto consumers (see article on CWIP) and direct action educational campaigns.
This was the rationale behind the Wall Street Action, a direct action campaign focusing on both nuclear power and weapons as a symptom of an economic and energy system that exploited people for profit. A group of Seacoast, NH Clamshell activists joined with activists from the War Resisters League in NY to develop the campaign which emphasized educating participants and the public about the economics of the nuclear industry and connections with other struggles. Organizers met with diverse groups to build a coalition for the campaign, eventually receiving endorsements from women’s, labor, Native American, African American, socialist, nonviolent, and anti-nuclear and environmental groups.
The Sunday demonstration (I recall a quote of 20,000 attendees) was much like other large events, with a stage, entertainment, and speeches. The tight space made it feel more
intimate and intense. Pete Seeger was there, as he often was, playing banjo and singing songs from the labor, peace, and civil rights movements. (He was an old-timer then, with more than thirty years in cultural activism. At right, he’s still doing the same thing.) I remember somewhat better a younger singer, who wrote a song for the Wall Street event. Here’s the chorus:
Take it to Wall Street, New York Town
Just ride right up in your limousine and sit yourself right down.
Grab a seat on the exchange with the Bulls and the Bears
It’s the Capitol of Capital, the Buck Stops there.
(It was a catchy, easy tune as well; readers will be glad that my technical ignorance will spare them my rendition of it. I can find absolutely no trace of this clever song on the web. I think the singer/writer’s name was Al Giordano. If this is right, he’s been an activist journalist for decades now.)
The protesters had all engaged in nonviolence training exercises, but the police were better prepared. They closed off most access points, but allowed people who looked like they belonged walk through to work. They filtered most of us out easily, but a few people in suits walked through and sat down on the street, awaiting arrest. Daniel Ellsberg was one.
Some groups had come with chains and locks. The police came with bolt cutters and buses. They carried demonstrators who wouldn’t walk away on stretchers, and put them on buses to arraignment. Most of the police were focused, purposeful, and polite. On the buses, some even put on antinuclear buttons. Over 1,000 people were arrested, and those who cooperated, providing names and contact information, were out of jail by nightfall. Those who refused to cooperate spent several days in jail. I believe most charges were dismissed.
The presidential campaign was already taking off, and both candidates announced their support for nuclear power. Ronald Reagan won in a landslide, and the movement shifted most of its efforts to campaigns against nuclear weapons.
Remember, no nuclear plant has been licensed since.