Nelia's Story - and Yours - in an Oral History of the No Nukes Movement
Posted by Al Giordano - July 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm
By Al Giordano
Nelia Sargent and Al Giordano, June 2013, Claremont, New Hampshire. Photo D.R. 2013 by Laura García Rodríguez Blancas.
In 1976, Nelia Sargent was 20 years old, recently blind, and wanted to participate in the first nonviolent occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power plant construction site in her native state of New Hampshire. An organizer told her that a blind woman would be a burden on the other occupiers and therefore could not participate.
Three years later, as the 400 ton nuclear reactor pressure vessel rolled slowly on 96 wheels toward the construction site, and hundreds of opponents sat in its way, Nelia walked directly in front of the truck. Seacoast community organizer Renny Cushing came up to her, and hooked her white cane to the vehicle's grill. It took numerous police officers 20 minutes to peel Nelia's ten fingers off her cane, and at that moment she was the most important person in the entire movement, the one who physically stopped construction.
Nelia's coming-of-age story is just one of many about real people who came together to change American history in the movement that brought a then-thriving nuclear industry to a grinding halt. She told that story last month in a half-day interview at her farm in Claremont, New Hampshire. Ninety-two more people have so far, like Nelia, generously given us their time and allowed us to record their stories.
There are hundreds of books about the Civil Rights and other movements, but very few historic works on the American anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. The No Nukes Oral History Project is now resurrecting that story.
When the movement began, then-president Richard Nixon had promised 1,000 new nuclear plants in the United States by the year 2000. By the early 1980s, all new nuclear power plants were cancelled, and some existing ones have since been decommissioned. The anti-nuclear power movement also had a profound effect on revitalizing a nuclear disarmament movement, and the US-Soviet nuclear arms race also ended in the 1980s. This project draws an arc from the first small resistances to the Montague nuke in Massachusetts through the mass civil resistance against the Seabrook nuke in New Hampshire, the Clamshell Alliance, all the many organizations and campaigns that came out of it in New England and nationwide, to the massive 1982 march in New York City for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze.
This oral history covers the years 1973 to 1982. Memories from before or after those years are welcome but will only be used if they are relevant to explaining what happened in those nine years.
If you (or someone you know, make sure to send them a link to this page) were part of, or witness to, any of those events, we'd like to hear your story, too. Here's how you can be part of it. We provide 45 questions below, some of which may be relevant to your story. You may interview yourself, or have someone else ask you the questions, and send us the digital audio file or transcript. Or you may write your answers and send them to me at email@example.com.
Please keep in mind that we are not looking for arguments against (or for) nuclear power. Those are already widely published and for this project will be left on the cutting room floor. What we seek are stories of what you saw, heard and lived with your own eyes, ears and actions during the first years of the No Nukes movement. Speak please from your lived experience. Also, when answering (or asking) the interview questions, try to stick to the chronological timeline order below. Important dates are already remembered for you in the questions! Don't worry if your memories are partial or fuzzy: the collective memory of all your colleages also giving their testimony will fill in the details and we'll correct the dates of the timeline.
These questions of course do not encompass all the events that happened. Feel free to add important stories that might not be directly asked by the questions. Also feel free to skip over questions about events that you were not aware of at the time. Stick with what you directly lived or thought about as it was happening.
Between December 2012 and July 2013, we have conducted 93 extensive interviews, and also have received 38 interviews recorded from 2005 to 2009 (including with the late Seacoast New Hampshire organizers Guy Chichester and Diane Garrand) by veterans of the Clamshell Alliance, but every interview mentions somebody else that we have yet to interview. To facilitate the most inclusive project and cast the widest net, we invite all who were involved in or witness to the No Nukes movement from 1973 to 1982 to record (or write) your own stories of what you saw, heard and did in it. We also invite you to ask these questions to others who were involved. Please follow the precise instructions at the bottom of these questions to ensure that we can use your stories in this work of oral history.
Thank you. We hope you enjoy this walk down memory lane as much as we have been enjoying it!
45 Questions for The No Nukes Oral History Project
1. Please tell us your name, what year you were born, and where.
2. How and when did you first hear there was a conflict over nuclear power?
3. Do you have any memories of Sam Lovejoy toppling a tower in Montague in 1974 or the struggle in Western Mass. in the early to mid 1970s against a nuclear plant? (If you were involved at all in that struggle, we’re especially interested in organizing stories, about how things got done. The same goes for the next series of historic events in the following questions: not just the stuff that was covered by the media, but the behind the scenes grassroots work. Even for people not directly involved, their memories of hearing about things from a distance are valuable and provide important context.)
4.Do you have any memories of Seabrook ’76, from Ron Rieck climbing the construction site tower to the August 1 action with 18 arrests to the August 22 action with 180? Did you go door to door canvassing – and if you did, tell us some stories about it – for the Granite State Alliance?
5. Were you part of or witness to the Continental Walk for Nuclear Disarmament and Social Justice in the summer of 1976? If so, tell us your memories of that.
6. Were you involved or witness to any of the organizing and planning for the April 30, 1977 Seabrook occupation? If so, please tell us your stories from that.
7. Whether for actions at Seabrook or anywhere else, did you ever attend a nonviolence training session? What do you remember about it? Who conducted it? What did you do there? Did you become a trainer yourself? Tell us all about that experience in as much detail as you can.
8. Were you at the Seabrook ’77 action? Before you speak what happened in the armories where more than a thousand people spent two weeks incarcerated, let’s focus on that event: arriving at campgrounds the night before, the walk to the site… How did you feel when you and so many others entered the site? What did you see and hear at that moment? What did you do while camping overnight on the construction site?
9. If you were arrested the next day, tell us what happened. If you were a support person for the occupiers, please explain to our readers what that job entailed. If you went to jail, tell us all your armory stories. Who did you meet in the armory? What workshops did you attend and what did you learn? Do you remember the armory visits by attorneys Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein? If you were in the Manchester Armory, did you attend any workshops by Bill Moyer? What happened there?
10. After the Seabrook ’77 actions and the two weeks in the armories, how had the world changed? How did your life change? Do you remember any of the press coverage? How did people receive you back home?
11. The fight went national after Seabrook ’77. Were you involved or witness to the start up of any alliances in other regions against nuclear power? What happened there?
12. In the summer of ’77 national nuclear disarmament organizations founded the Mobilization for Survival in Philadelphia. Do you have any memories from that? If you were already part of a peace organization, do you remember any of the debates about merging the nukes and bombs issues? Who said what about that? If you were strictly part of the anti-nuclear power cause, what did you think about the attempt to merge the two issues at the time? Do you remember any of the tensions or conflicts between grassroots No Nukes people and those from national peace organizations? Again, tell us stories.
13. Were you at the November 1977 Clamshell Congress in Vermont? What do you remember about the debates over a next action at Seabrook? Do you remember any discussion about property destruction (fence cutting) or violence? If so, what did you think about that? Again, we want stories.
14. Were you at any of the following Spring 1978 actions in Barnwell, South Carolina, Rocky Flats Colorado or at the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in New York? How about any actions at nuclear facilities in other regions? Tell us your stories!
15. On May 11, 1978, NH Attorney General Tom Rath announced to the media that he would offer the Clamshell Alliance a “deal” to have a three-day legal occupation of the nuke site instead of the planned mass civil disobedience scheduled for June 24. What did you think of that? Were you at any meetings that discussed it? Who said what?
16. Where were you when you heard the deal had been accepted? What did you think about that? Were you on the Solar Rollers bicycle caravan to Seabrook? Were you in contact with Seacoast New Hampshire people – particularly those who were providing their land as occupier campgrounds – and what were they saying? If so, tell us stories about that or whatever else you were doing that week.
17. What memories do you have from the Seabrook ’78 legal occupation? Were you witness to the Clearwater Sloop and boat armada that came? What did you see on stage and what did you see off stage? Do you have any memories of Jonathan Richman there? Do you remember a group named “Clams for Democracy” and the long meetings they held there on the site? Were you part of witness to the attempt by some there to convince people to stay beyond the three days? What did you see and hear? Why did you think that in the end everybody left after three days?
18. In the Summer of ’78 “Clams for Democracy” held its first congress at Hampshire College. If you were there, please tell us your memories. Do you have any memories of Murray Bookchin there or elsewhere?
19. Were you part of or witness to “the Wave Actions” of summer and fall 1978 at Seabrook, including the occupation of the construction crane? Did you go to jail? Do you have any memories of Dr. Benjamin Spock at one of those actions? Tell us your memories from those events.
20. In 1978, NH governor Meldrim Thomson was defeated by challenger Hugh Gallen, largely because of Seabrook-related issues. Do you remember any of that? What about the "CWIP" ("Construction Work in Progress") rate hike and the organizing against it? Please tell us your stories.
21. Were you involved in or witness to the blockade of the reactor pressure vessel as it was transported to the Seabrook nuke site? Tell us your memories from that. Do you remember what Nelia Sargent did on that day? Tell us about it in your words.
22. Where were you on March 28, 1979 and how did you hear about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island? What did you do in response to that? Did you leaflet the cinemas that showed the movie, The China Syndrome? How did that change the movement? Did you attend the national rally in Washington with Ralph Nader? What memories do you have from that?
23. On April 7, 1979 – right after the Three Mile Island accident – there was a mass civil disobedience at the Trident nuclear submarine factory near New London, Connecticut. Do you have any memories from that?
24. On June 2nd and 3rd 1979, the International Days of Resistance Against Nuclear Power brought many actions at nuclear facilities throughout the nation, including a mass action at the Shoreham nuke construction site on Long Island, New York. Did you participate in any of those events? What happened?
25. Did you attend the Clamshell Alliance Congress in January 1979 at Hampshire College? Or the Clam Congress in June 1979 at the Marigold Ballroom in Amesbury, MA? Both events were greatly affected by debates over the nature of future Seabrook occupations and particularly the proposal by some to cut fences or otherwise destroy property. Who said what about that? And what did you think about it at the time? The June gathering was the last Clam Congress ever. Why do you think that happened? The big debate was over a proposal for the Clamshell to endorse an action that would involve fence cutting by the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook. Chuck Matthei and a small group blocked consensus for a while but eventually stood aside. What memories do you have from that meeting? (You get bonus points if you attended the January congress at Hampshire College and have any memories to share of the small polemic that ensued when Al Giordano entered wearing an American flag lapel pin.)
26. Do you have any memories of the MUSE concerts for No Nukes in New York or elsewhere? Did you work anti-nuclear tables at any Jackson Browne concerts? Tell us your stories!
27. The Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook held its first action on October 6, 1979, and another one on May 24, 1980. Did you attend either of them? Why or why not? What memories do you have either from being there or observing from afar? What lessons can be learned from those events?
28. Two weeks prior, on September 23, 1979, the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance held a mass civil disobedience in Vernon, Vermont. Do you have any memories of that? How about subsequent Vermont Yankee shutdown activities? In particular, the Spring 1980 seven-day occupation, the December 1981 occupation of the governor’s office in Montpelier, and the large door to door canvassing effort in the tri-state region collecting signatures for newspaper ads against the nuke. One polemic decision made by VYDA members in 1980 was that only people who had done door to door canvassing could participate in its decision-making meetings. Do you have any memories of those campaigns?
29. Three weeks after the direct action at Seabrook, on October 28 and 29, 1979, on the 50th anniversary of the crash of the NY Stock Exchange, were two actions to take it to Wall Street. They were preceded by a sit-in at the Bank of Boston boardroom, and actions at other financial institutions. What memories do you have from those events? Do you remember the legal rally in Manhattan on October 28? What was different about that rally from previous No Nukes rallies? Do you remember a speaker named Jim Haughton of an organization called Fight Back of Harlem and what he said? Do you remember any other speakers? The next day, more than 1,000 people did civil disobedience. Do you have any memories from that? Did the language of the No Nukes movement change as a result of those actions, particularly regarding the economic problems of nuclear power? Were you involved in efforts to divest the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Companies (MMWEC) or other power companies from Seabrook? Soon after that, the financial industry began divesting from nuclear power. What impact do you think the movement had or did not have on that?
30. In early 1980 there was a first-in-the-nation presidential primary in New Hampshire. Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown challenged president Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan won the GOP primary. There were efforts to use that national spotlight to organize against nuclear power. Do you have any memories from those events? (You get bonus points if you attended or demonstrated at a concert in Concord for Carter’s reelection campaign featuring musician Stephen Stills.) Also, speaking of elections, if you have any memories of Randy Kehler’s 1976 campaign for Franklin County Commissioner or Bill Benson’s 1978 campaign for state representative in the Greenfield, Massachusetts area, please share them.
31. Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, the Traprock Peace Center was formed at Woolman Hill and made a nonbinding referendum on a nuclear weapons moratorium (later called the Nuclear Freeze) its first project. Were you involved in or witness to any of that organizing? What did you see and hear? How did you feel on election night in November when the nuclear freeze won, giving birth to a nationwide movement, but so did Ronald Reagan?
32. Also in 1980, the Rowe Nuclear Conversion Campaign formed in western Franklin County to shut down the Yankee Atomic nuke. Do you have any memories from that? The RNCC decided to make a “home rule” policy that only residents of ten west county towns could participate in its decision-making. Did you have an opinion on that? In the fall of 1980 the RNCC held its first public event, a march in Greenfield, MA, at which marchers carried 300 American flags and photographs appeared in the news media. Did you have an opinion on that or do you remember any of the polemic surrounding it?
33. Also in 1980, Maine voters cast ballots on a referendum to shut down the Maine Yankee nuke. It began right after Three Mile Island at a mass meeting in North Edgecomb, Maine, and Ray Shadis emerged as its main spokesman. The referendum was defeated by a massive industry spending campaign, but had also involved a much wider spectrum of people than the anti-nuclear movement had ever had before. Were you involved in that campaign? What memories do you have from it?
34. Also in 1980, labor unions marched in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania against nuclear power on the anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident. If you attended that march, or any labor conventions or union events where nuclear power was addressed, please share those stories. Likewise, if you leafleted workers at Seabrook or other nuclear facilities, tell us those stories.
35. In the Spring of 1981, the Massachusetts government began a search for a low level nuclear waste dump site. An organization named MassAlert formed and organized at 106 Town Meetings to pass zoning and health bylaws against nuclear waste dumps. It also collected signatures for a statewide referendum demanding voter control over future nuclear plants and waste dumps. Along with other organizations, they collected 110,000 certified voter signatures. Were you part of any of that? What do you remember.
36. In June 1982, 1.4 million people (according to police estimates) marched in New York City for a nuclear freeze, and there were civil disobedience actions two days later at nuclear nation embassies. Please tell us your memories from that day. What kind of people did you see there? How had a movement become this big in so few years? What do you think that the Russian people felt when they saw images in state sponsored media of this massive march against the nuclear arms race championed by then President Reagan?
37. In November 1982, the Massachusetts Nuclear Referendum Campaign was victorious. The campaign included cylindrical lawn signs that looked like nuclear waste canisters, and a TV ad with a talking nuclear waste barrel. Were you involved or do you remember voting on that? Tell us about it.
38. In subsequent years, all new nuclear power plants that had been planned were cancelled, and the nuclear arms race ground to a halt when the Soviet bloc fell. Do you feel your actions in the anti-nuclear movement contributed to either or both of these? How so? Or how not?
39. How about the music and art of the movement? Do you remember any songs in particular? Can you sing us a verse or a chorus? Do you have specific memories of Bright Morning Star or its members? Of Dean Morgan? Of Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips at Seabrook? Do you have any audio or video recordings you can share for us to publish?
40. Likewise, do you have photographs, images, posters, news clippings, minutes of local anti-nuclear organization meetings, or other archives we can share with the public?
41. There were many colorful personalities in the No Nukes movement. Which ones do you remember most? Tell us some stories about them.
42. The 1970s included a lot of extreme postures, both in the political and the personal. There were many internal conflicts in the movement and in people’s lives. Relations between men and women changed dramatically during that era. The sexual revolution was still in full bloom. Please tell us any stories of extreme moments – good or bad – that you experienced, and the lessons you learned from them.
43. Although this work focuses on the years 1973-1982 there were subsequent events that will be included in an epilogue. We’re particularly interested in any stories you have of the following: The Maine nuclear referenda of 1982, 1985 and 1987 and the eventual shutdown of Maine Yankee. The Massachusetts referenda of 1986 and 1988 and the eventual shutdown of Yankee Rowe. The resistance in Hillsborough NH and Sebago Lake Maine to the Department of Energy choice of those areas as finalists for a high level nuclear waste dump. The continued nuclear freeze campaigns. The Whistleblowers Campaign at Seabrook.
44.In addition to this work of oral history, Al Giordano is writing his personal memoir of the same years. That memoir will include events within the No Nukes movement, but also his early work with Abbie Hoffman, with John Kerry, his experience when some of his friends went underground in an armed revolutionary cell group (which guided his own tactical commitment to nonviolence), as well as his high school years, his work as a musician, and the experience he and other teens had at the New York punk rock club CBGB. Do you have any “Al stories” to help refresh his memory?
45. Finally, were you changed by your involvement in this movement? How so? What did you learn from the experience? What were the most effective tactics and strategies? Tell us as much as you can about how you or others implemented those tactics, explaining it for people not experienced in such activities (i.e. if you knocked on doors, what did that involve?) Which tactics were counterproductive? Was your involvement worth it? Why or why not? Also, please briefly tell us what you went on to do after your involvement in these stories.
NOTE: You may answer these questions via audio recording or in writing, but if you choose to write, please do so in storytelling manner, as if you are speaking to a friend. Academic treatises will not be part of this work. You must sign the projects release form to have your stories included in the oral history. If you do not have a copy of the release form, write to Al Giordano at firstname.lastname@example.org and he will send you one. You may also interview yourself or others. If you do that, please audio record the interview in digital format and send it to the same email address via a Dropbox account, along with your stated agreement (and that of the interviewee) to the release form. And send us a current photo of yourself, as well as any you have from your involvement in No Nukes activities in the years 1973-1982.
Thank you so much for helping to tell this story, the story of how many people came together at a key moment in history to change the world. It is a story that will now be told.