Greenham Common: The first Occupy?

women dance atop the Greenham missile base in 1983 protest. From

In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d give you some women’s history from a few decades back. It was 1983 and the world was closer to nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviets than it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

More than a few of my writer friends have become die-hard fans of the Showtime series Dexter. Dexter (ably brought to life by Michael C Hall) is the story of a lovable serial killer whose adoptive father was somehow able to channel his seriously damaged and sociopathic son’s urges into evening scores with other murderers. Dexter’s victims all pretty much deserve the fates they are brought to. This allows his audience the guilty pleasure of enjoying his evisceration of his victims under the patina of justice.

But the other part of Dexter–the part that I think is the part that draws writers– is the concept of Dexter’s dark passenger. This is the compulsion to kill that grows loud when it has been too long between kills. My thinking is that most writers of long form fiction (also plays, bios, etc) have a dark passenger or two. There’s a project that’s been in their brain for weeks or months or years. It’s a compelling project, with all kinds of commercial possibilities, that the writer can’t quite frame as of yet. And today I’m blogging about my ‘dark passenger’, a project that’s been on my mind for some 18 years that I haven’t been able to write down. Herewith, my dark passenger, a place and protest called Greenham Common.

The basics: Greenham Common was a piece of commonly held property in Berkshire, England. Its main military use was during the English Civil War.  During WWII, Greenham Common was taken over by the RAF and subsequently given over to the United States Army Air Corps for the purpose of basing fighters there. The land was never given back to civilian use, and with the arrival of the Cold War, it was reopened as a base for US Strategic Air Command bombers armed with nuclear weapons. The airbase did not operate without incident; however, problems at the base were covered up by authorities in the US and the UK.

Fast forward to 1981, when Reagan announces a deployment of some 96 cruise missiles to Greenham base. Unlike the US strategic fleet, cruise missiles were considered First strike weapons that can fly under defensive radar and be over Soviet targets in a matter of minutes. Placing such weapons in close proximity to the USSR was considered a destabilizing act, and Reagan’s bellicosity (do people forget his gaffe of saying ‘we begin bombing in five minutes‘?) had already alarmed many in Europe. And in 1981, there was a Women’s March for Peace through Southern England that ended at Greenham.

And that should’ve been the end of it. a group of no more than 40 protesters (mostly women but a few men and children) arrived at Greenham. And then four women (including Helen John) chained themselves to the gate. Their demand was that the commander of the base had to meet with them. The base commander refused. The women camped out in front of the gates (the protest camp became a women’s only affair early on) and began blocking access to the base. And that begins the Greenham protest.

Over the next decade there were literally hundreds of protests, including December 1982 when upwards of 30,000 women “embraced the base” and pulled the fences down. There was the January 1983 protest when women cut through the fences, ran onto the base and danced on the missile silos. While later protests never reached the intensity of these incidents, it became clear to US military command that continued basing at Greenham was untenable. In 1987, the US and the Soviets signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which did away with the cruise missiles at Greenham. The US gave the base back in 1992. The peace camp remained open until 2000.

Last September, the campaigners of Greenham commemorated the 30th anniversary of the first action at Greenham. Also last fall, a memorial was set up for Helen Thomas, a protester at Greenham who was killed in a disputed traffic accident at the base in 1989. Greenham shares a good deal in common with the Occupy movement, in that a group of protesters endured police abuse and bad weather to stake out a position in opposition to the government.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story of Greenham Common. It’s out of this raw material that Kathleen and I are trying to mold a story that can be told about a group of committed women who on this occasion at least were able to stop an empire.

PS: at age 73, Helen John is now busy working to stop the NATO/US predator drone flights. Don’t bet against her.

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