Thirty Years After: Lessons of the Clamshell

Act Three was great in Reinhardt's play —
Six hundred extras milling.
Listen to what the critics say!
All Berlin finds it thrilling.
But in the whole affair I see
A parable, if you ask me.
"Revolution!' the People howls and cries
'Freedom, that's what we're needing!
We've needed it for centuries —
Our arteries are bleeding.'
The stage is shaking. The audience rock.
The whole thing is over by nine o'clock.

- “Danton’s Death” by Kurt Tucholsky

Writing about the participants in the 1920s European art movement known as Dada, Greil Marcus commented:

"For the rest of their lives, they returned again and again to their few days in a Zurich bar. They tried to understand what had happened to them. They never got over it."

Thirty years ago today more than 1,400 of us awoke in the back of National Guard trucks after being scooped up off the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire...

...An arresting officer asked my age, “Eighteen,” I lied. And so I remained for a spell with the adults until someone dimed me out as a minor of age.

I was released in the custody of a group of radical lawyers (one of them, Tom Lesser, remains my attorney today). In those days began a rollercoaster ride that swept this life, evidently many others, in new and lasting directions.

Thirty years is a long time. It is hard to remember all of it, even matters that were, in their moments, of maximum importance, or so it seemed at the times. There is a discussion on The Village Square website about what came next for the Clamshell Alliance, the organization that convened so many to commit civil disobedience against a nuclear plant in 1976 and 1977, but that was fractured by its success in the years that followed.

Here’s one way to simplify the discussion: “Yes, we stopped a new generation of atomic power plants from being constructed, and one of two Seabrook reactors. But we didn’t stop the other one, and our organization imploded.”

I was young and impressionable and, to me, the Clamshell Alliance was akin to God, but perhaps for different reasons than it was to many other participants. I took its collapse as an organization very hard. But I wouldn’t trade the outcome for the inverse: as if, say, both Seabrook reactors had been stopped, the Clamshell thrived as an organization, but a new generation of nukes had nonetheless popped up across the fruited plain. And so, all in all, I look upon it as a project that succeeded much more than it failed.

Yet there are lessons I’ve taken with me over the next thirty years, ten of them in Mexico and other Latin American lands, as one of those Clams that “never got over it.”

The moment that I “left” the Clamshell was not in the wake of the 1978 “legal occupation” but, rather, after a subsequent assembly in the Marigold Ballroom somewhere on the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border; a very large meeting of hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, activists, that had tried to achieve “consensus” over what to do next. My memories of the event are hazy, but their emotional contents remain.

I do remember that the meeting was much too long and thinking, “I don’t want to be a part of a movement that makes me sit so long in one place, and especially not with these kinds of people.”

At the core of the blow-up was not, as some have penned, the 1978 decision to change an “illegal” occupation of the Seabrook construction site into a one-day “legal” one, nor how that decision was or wasn’t made. Nor was it the rift over whether to engage in “property destruction” (fence-cutting, essentially) or the differing dogmas over defining “nonviolence” and “direct action” that provided hours upon hours of futile debate.

My memory may fail me, but I think I was one of a few people that, at that meeting, first “blocked” a “consensus” over calling for an occupation that would involve fence-cutting, and then who “stepped aside” after various hours of being worn down by the “majority.” It was a strange position to be in, since in retrospect that meeting cured me of any illusions about “consensus process” as being anything positive or desirable at all in a political movement. In retrospect, I think I wasted much of my young life in meetings like that: It was in the Clamshell that occurred outside of meetings that was worth the experience. (I learned more in the Rockingham County Jail than I ever learned in any meeting!)

The Clamshell Alliance that I knew was a fulcrum for an unspoken class struggle within its own ranks. The great majority of participants were college-educated activists, and they were on both sides of the “fence-cutting” divide. And then there were the “Seacoast locals” – the people that had organized the town to vote against the nuke and whose homes and lands had been the camping grounds from which the ’76 and ’77 occupations were launched – that were not dominated by university graduates or students. They skewed more working class and less counter-cultural.

The second group – the locals – had at some point in the Clamshell history reached out to the first and invited others from other regions to participate in civil disobedience actions at the nuke. Pacifists and anti-war organizations came and charted “nonviolence training sessions” (and then “training for trainers,” during which we were indoctrinated in some very bizarre (to me) doctrines such as “co-counseling” that were way outside of my reality then and now). There were ideologues (anarchists, socialists, mainly academics). There were “identity politics” groups within certain Caucasian and academic limits. There were “sixties revivalists” and “back to the landers” and champions of communal living and farming and alternative energy, some of them steadfast hippies and others in transition to yuppie mercantilism. And there were a good number of impressionable kids like me, trying to make sense of all these freaks, sometimes abhorred by their practices, other times embracing them or at least giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Some months ago in Mexico, via the Internet, I heard some radio interviews with Clamshell veterans while a 22-year-old activist of more current struggles listened in. During one of them Kristie Conrad spoke of the endless meetings and the consensus process, and how the Clamshell occupation manual and affinity-group process had been the basis of the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. My younger colleague looked at me, aghast, pointed her finger and said, “So YOU people are to blame for activism being so fucked up today!”

“Yup,” I replied with a combination of pride and embarrassment, “that was us.” Because eight years after those Seattle actions I’ve seen the same kind of nostalgia by younger activists that organized those protests as is evident among many of us Clamshell veterans. Nostalgia (“another form of depression,” said Maslow) is residual from almost any moment in which a group of people make history: that process of “returning again and again to a few days in a Zurich bar.”

By watching the (similarly upper-class and college educated) Seattle ’99 veterans repeat every single one of our Clamshell-era errors over the past eight years, I thought a lot about what happened to the Clamshell. The anti-WTO action in Seattle had many parallels with Seabrook ’77, beyond affinity-groups, nonviolence training, manuals and consensus process. It put global capitalism and “free trade” on the public agenda much as we achieved doing to nuclear power. It inspired similar organizations and movements in other places. Then came the “copy cat” actions in which activists tried to relive or repeat old glories (or the germinal moment) but each new time with diminishing returns. The system (the State, or the neo-state of the private sector and its media) learned, then as now, ways to co-opt or marginalize that movement, too.

An important difference, though, between Seabrook and Seattle: The Clamshell began with a local base. The anti-globalization “action hoppers” that go from summit to summit, from one World Social Forum to the next, seem to have no need for one. They follow the powerful (in some cases, their literal fathers) to the places of their own summits and they protest in the streets. The actions last a long weekend and then everyone goes home; almost never is any local organization created or sustained as a result. The costs of such international travel prohibit any real working class participation (although sometimes the new generation of activists will travel to places – Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, Chiapas – where an authentic working class movement has emerged, and invited them in, much as Seacoast residents invited others in three decades ago).

There is, however, one lesson from the anti-nuke movement that has been learned, although not by the nomadic activists. It is a core principle of many of the local movements that shake the world today: the absolute primacy of local control or “home rule” or what in Latin America we call “autonomy.”

The Zapatistas of Chiapas (with whom I admittedly have spent much of the past decade and have learned the most from) don’t invite visiting activists to participate in their decision-making processes in Chiapas. What happens or doesn’t happen on Zapatista lands is exclusively the domain of the people that live on and work them. And so, for example, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) continues to thrive after 23 years, 13 of them since uncloaking in public. If anything, its processes have intensified the primacy of home rule, with the formation of local and regional “good government councils” that now determine what kind of solidarity aid and support they will accept, and which they will decline.

What they have learned from years of involvement by “activists” (again; upper class and college educated from other regions) in their struggle is that support from elsewhere is important but it must be very carefully controlled, lest the “upper classes” of the movement act in ways that splinter and destroy the base of local democracy or autonomy.

The problem with educated North Americans (and Europeans and others of privilege), even the most sincere and well meaning, comes down to three words: Sense of Entitlement.

In other words: One could only be upset by the decisions of Seacoast Clams to accept the 1978 “legal occupation” deal if one didn’t respect the primacy of home rule or local democracy. I think I was among those upset at the time: I had spent months, like many, preparing to be arrested and go to jail in June of ’78, and the 11th hour decision carried personal consequences. But in retrospect I conclude that it doesn’t matter what I or others from outside wanted if we were to be serious that the Clamshell was, among other things, a pro-democracy movement. Democracy cannot exist without home rule. That’s my conclusion after thirty years of chewing on those events.

The Seacoast bases of the Clamshell, I conclude, were in error to ever invite people from out of town to be part of a decision-making process for a movement that depended on a local base to triumph.

But in greater error were the rest of us: Those who felt a sense of entitlement to be part of that process outside of our own communities and regions.

Today, thirty years later, it is easier to notice when anti-democracy occurs in the name of “democracy” (the Iraq occupation, for example, and its garish newspeak terminology). But we were guilty of it ourselves: by exalting a consensus process or any group process that included geographical outsiders, by not realizing that local autonomy should have, and should always, come first. At various points, I was a culpable of it as anyone. But at some other point, I got off of that bus.

Because, in the end, all “group processes” turn into bureaucracy (a form of State power, even in its “alternative” hues): Attending anti-nuke meetings that lasted hours (or days) on end was and is a luxury for the privileged classes. It is inherently alienating to the working and poor majorities on every corner of this earth, and assures the crash of any political movement that falls into that vice. The process itself placed and kept the Clamshell in an upper class ghetto, increasingly alienated from the majority of people, even those with anti-nuclear sentiments. By the time we got to the Marigold Ballroom, we were a sad parody of ourselves.

I type these observations today not to re-argue a past (and moot) debate within the Clamshell, but because I have watched other movements (i.e. Seattle) repeat our mistakes and still others (i.e. Chiapas) learn from them so as not to repeat them. And I have seen which ones are succeeding in making real the values that inspired us to act on that dusty parking lot a-score-and-a-half ago. To the extent some of us have been able to more effectively work on behalf of those values from other lands than we are able to from our own, it has been precisely because we don’t attend “meetings,” we don’t participate in decision-making processes outside of our smaller organizations, collectives or as individuals, but, rather, we respect local movements, and when we agree with their actions and decisions we engage in solidarity work that does not include any sense of entitlement or belief that we are part of “governing” them.

In sum: the evident reality of successful social change movements in Latin America, with their core principal of local autonomy is at stark contrast with the apparent impossibility of such movements in the United States today. At some point in the coming years a new spark will be lit North of the Border – the public satisfaction with the current political system in the US has many evident cracks – and I predict it will solve this “process problem” in a manner that more closely borrows from the autonomous movements of Latin America than that of the current that connects Seabrook and Seattle where, in the end, the process broke down because all “processes” by definition create a self-selected “decision-making class,” then calcify and then shatter the very movements they were meant to govern.

May 2, 2007
New York City