Took it to Wall Street

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

Pete Seeger singing at Barack Obama's inauguration

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.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Took it to Wall Street

  1. Ellen S. Sturgis says:

    You got it right, David–as I was there with you and many others. You mentioned one of my two vivid memories: being in a much more limited, dark, somewhat ominous space than the anti-nuke demonstrations usually were; my other was of Grace Paley, another long time, small, feisty, New York-born poet who was there in some pre-workshop with her enthusiasm, curt words and commitment. As for Al Giordano, yes, I believe he was the one, and I wondered where he’s gotten to now–

    Since you mentioned the many small anti-nuclear power actions of the 70s, I wanted to add a recent news item that tied in. While on leave from college, I joined the Potomac Alliance which was fighting the development of the North Anna nuclear plants in the heart of central Virginia; some 50 people were arrested and about a dozen of us spent a month in jail rather than paying fines: this being 1979 if I recall correctly, and the height of the national movement. In the recent earthquake that centered in Virginia, I shuttered to read that North Anna was only a few miles from the epicenter and had to be shut down. Makes me wonder if it all was as innocuous as the lack of press coverage made it.


    • Thanks, Ellen.
      Grace Paley was a stalwart. I spent some time with her a few years later on antinuclear weapons stuff.

      Al Giordano is a journalist/activist. Here’s the Wikipedia entry, which includes links to his sites.
      There’s nothing about music anywhere.

      On noncooperation: it’s a pretty tough route, as you know, and–with large numbers–very disruptive.

      About North Anna: out here, we were very surprised to see the East Coast earthquake. We all knew that it was possible, just not very likely and not very often. This was one of the real nuclear power stories that was hard to get serious discussion of: large disruptions were extremely unlikely, but you really couldn’t do sufficient planning in the event they actually took place. And the consequences, as Fukushima shows, are devastating. A cost benefit analysis, with decision tree and all, is less helpful here than a master’s in planning would have you believe.

  2. Los Detonadores says:

    Take It to Wall Street
    © 1979 Al Giordano

    I’ll tell you the story of Western Massachusetts
    It’s a wonderful place, we never want to lose it
    But 20 years ago in the mountains of Rowe
    They built a nuclear power plant in haste
    They didn’t wait, they didn’t worry
    They were in too big a hurry
    To think of what to do with all the waste
    Now tell me, what will we do with the nuclear waste?

    Take it to Wall Street
    In New York Town
    Just pull up in your limosine
    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

    I’ll tell you the story of the place my family works
    It’s a wonderful place in the city of New York
    Yes, I was born in the Bronx, ‘midst the horns and the honks
    Of New Year’s Eve, 1959
    But while we were celebratin’, the bank was speculatin’
    And our neighborhood was soon to be redlined
    And our neighborhood would soon be on the decline

    Take it to Wall Street
    In New York Town
    Just pull up in your limosine
    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

    I’ll tell you the story of 50 years ago
    The market went bust then did break and then did blow
    My grandma and granddad lost everything they had
    It’s a story I’ve heard time and time again
    But did we learn our lesson from that Great Depression
    Well it’s time we learned that lesson again

    Now tell me, where do we draw the line?
    Where do we draw the line?
    Oh tell me, please, where do we draw the line?
    Where do we draw the line
    Against this kind of violence?
    It’s where the Berkshires and the Bronx
    Draw our alliance

    Take it to Wall Street
    In New York Town
    Just pull up in your limosine
    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’s the capitol of capital
    The worm in the Big Apple
    It’ll squeeze you ‘til you’re poor
    And then it’ll take some more
    So if your life you want to protect
    Then join the new Manhattan Project
    And we’ll tell ‘em where we draw the line

    Take it to Wall Street
    In New York Town
    Just pull up in your limosine
    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

  3. Thanks so much for posting this. It’s great!

  4. Pingback: Traité du Savoir-Vivre for the Occupy Wall Street Generations | Invisible Insurrection

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