As the ICAN anti-nuclear weapons campaign is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - and marking the 25th anniversary of the American withdrawal from the Greenham Common missile base - activist DR REBECCA JOHNSON reflects on life around the Greenham campfire, and why she will never stop fighting for universal disarmament.
I only meant to protest at Greenham nuclear base for a week, but ended up living at the Women’s Peace Camp for five years. In that time I met some amazing women from all over the world, danced on the nuclear silos, occupied the US air traffic control tower, locked myself in the cab of one of the massive “transporter erector launchers” just as it was about to be loaded with cruise missiles for a nuclear exercise, got beaten up by American soldiers and a police sergeant, and was imprisoned in Holloway maybe a dozen times. Campaigning against global annihilation wasn’t what I’d planned to do with my life. But being at Greenham made me feel incredibly alive, and what I learnt in those years has compelled me to devote my life to working against the justifications and weapons that fuel patriarchal violence and war.
The early 1980s was one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War, with some 50,000 nuclear warheads just poised for someone to make a mistake. We respond to nuclear fears in different ways. It was 1981when I returned to London after a few years travelling and teaching. American generals and politicians were talking about winning a nuclear war in Europe with a different kind of nuclear weapon that could “melt into the countryside”. Images from the museum in Hiroshima seeped into my dreams, a recurring nightmare of waking up and seeing the broken dome of St Paul’s cathedral across a wasteland of bones and dust.
Going to Greenham was my way to stop the nightmares. What I discovered was how to make a dream I could live with. The Greenham that so many women created was populated with waves of feminist, non-violently committed, punky/dykey/witchy/anarcho revolutionaries loving life, loving each other, and stopping the machines of war. Which we did, time and time again. Till we banned the ones in Greenham and sent them back to America, where they were dismantled in accordance with the 1987 US-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The Women’s Peace Camp developed out of a walk from Cardiff to the Greenham US base, 120 miles away, to raise awareness of the new generation of cruise, Pershing and SS20 missiles being deployed by America and Russia. When threatened with eviction, we occupied part of the base. When sent to prison for “breach of the peace” we mobilised over 30,000 women to Embrace the Base, circling it with linked hands and decorating the nine-mile perimeter with symbols of why we wanted to prevent war. Then we closed the base with the bodies and songs of thousands of women who blocked all the gates for days on end. Hundreds stayed or came back, giving rise to camps all round the base, named after colours of the rainbow. At the heart of each camp was the fire, with blackened kettles and endless discussions, punctuated by evictions and nuclear exercises, when women were forcibly moved and the fires extinguished… always to return, relight and make another cup of tea.
So the protest grew into an unusual, creative crucible that challenged and changed prevailing expectations of peace activism and sexual politics. As Greenham inspired and involved more and more women from around the world, we took on the racism, colonialism and sexual violence embedded in militarism and nuclear politics, and tried out crazy (but generally effective) ways to undermine military machines and oppressors
with non-violent – but not at all passive – direct action.
As part of a feminist movement that didn’t want to have or to provide leaders, the women of Greenham insisted that everybody has the power and responsibility to connect with each other and change the world. That was the symbolism of the spiderwebs we wore as earrings and wove across the gates of the base (years before the worldwide web was born).
Today, we Greenham women are scattered. We are older and face different challenges. But many of us still feel the need to take action to tackle violence and injustice of all kinds, to confront climate destroyers and sexual predators, rapists and traffickers, violent extremists and wealthy weapons sellers, buyers and users. Look, and you will still see us, as Women in Black, anti-Trident activists or marching with Million Women Rise.
This year, 30 years after Greenham women played such a major part in bringing the US and Russia together to ban nuclear-armed missiles from Europe, we are celebrating a new milestone. In September, the United Nations formally opened the recently concluded 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons for states to sign. Once again, women played a leading role in making this happen. Together with nuclear-bomb survivors, doctors, diplomats and many more, we highlighted the humanitarian arguments for banning and abolishing all nuclear weapons, and created unstoppable momentum to bring the majority of UN governments to the negotiating table.