Sunday, June 12, 2005

June 12

Specifically, June 12, 1982. It's a day worth remembering. For some reason, it seems to have been stuffed down the memory hole. Admittedly, the events of that day took place before the general availability of the web; still, you might have thought there would be some account of the particular event of which I'm thinking somewhere in its vast confines. But there seems to be precious little. I did find a documentary for sale about it, a couple of pictures someone put up, a very brief mention of it in a description of the movement of which it was part - and that was pretty much it.

Which seems a genuine shame to me.

What was it, what was this event that deserves to be better remembered? Just the biggest damn peace demonstration in US history.
[O]n June 12, 1982, more than one million people poured into New York City's Central Park to call for nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition. They came from every state in the union: 3,000 from the tiny state of Vermont, eight busloads from Youngstown, Ohio. When rally organizers quoted crowd estimates based on buses coming into New York City to the police, the police shook their heads, and said "too low." Their kids and their neighbors' kids were all coming, too, in private cars.

Seventeen years before Seattle, the turtles and the teamsters marched arms in arm. The AFL-CIO, the National Union of Hospitals and Healthcare Employees, United Auto Workers and countless other union groups were there. Contingents from Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Australia all made the trip.

Bruce Springsteen was there and Jackson Browne. Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug and Susan Sarandon. Carl McCall, Linda Ronstadt, Orson Welles, and Winona LaDuke all spoke from the podium.
Which actually didn't matter: Sheep Meadow was jammed so full of people that very few of us could hear a thing from the stage, anyway. We were just too far away.

My clearest recollection of the day was walking along one of the entry roads into Central Park, shaking my head in wonderment at the number of labor unions I saw represented and realizing for the first time just how massive this thing was, because despite walking considerably faster than the average and passing people all the while, I seemed no closer to the front that I had been when I started some good number of blocks back. It was a stunning, stunning day.

June 12 was called by the nuclear freeze movement in support of the UN's Second Special Session on Disarmament, or SSDII. The freeze at that time had proved itself a potent political force, strong enough to face down Ronald Reagan's attempts to Red-bait the movement and to shift the entire question of nuclear weapons from "should we get rid of them" to "how should we go about getting rid of them." That fall, state and local questions favoring a freeze passed overwhelmingly almost everywhere they were on the ballot.

So, you might well ask, what the hey happened? Where did it go? One place was incompetent politics, another was a willingness on the part of too many "leaders" to be bought off with promises and symbols and the trappings of supposed "influence." In June, 1988, another large-scale demonstration in favor of nuclear disarmament was held in connection with a UN session. I wrote this to a friend that August; while it's a little long I think it worth noting because despite the hope expressed, it seems I could already see what was coming.
Linda and I were in New Jersey the weekend of June 11, so we didn't have to make a second trip to go to the New York City demonstration....

That turned out so much better than many people had feared. Less than a week before the date, sources in the national peace movement told me that the expected attendance was 10,000 - and some estimates were running as low as 5,000, a figure that would label the action a total failure. Linda and I made our own way into the city, not hooking up with any group, and because we got there a little late we went directly to 6th Ave. and Central Park South and stood waiting for the march to pass. While we were waiting, we overheard a cop telling someone that the crowd estimate at the UN (where the march started) was 5,000.

We were depressed.

It wasn't the size of the march per se, mind you, but rather the conviction that a small turnout (which 5,000 would be considered to be) would be compared loudly and unfavorably to the 800,000 who turned out in June, 1982 for SSD II. I was convinced much would be made of "the disappearance of the nuclear arms race as an issue" and "the failure of the peace movement to maintain the public's attention" and so on. Linda, trying to look on the dim (which was about as bright as things could get right then) side, said there were probably people already in Central Park at the rally site and noted that several other people were hanging around the corner, obviously waiting for the march, just like us. She decided they weren't just looking, that they were going to join the march when it arrived. "At least that'll make 10 more people," she said. Yeah, right. Big deal. (grump)

Finally, the march came into view, several blocks down 6th Ave. As it approached, we could see the large puppets of the Bread & Puppet Theater in the lead. Finally, the march got to where we were and started to go by us.

And go by us.

And by us.

And by us.

And by us.

Wave after wave of people went by us. Old and young. Male and female. Black, Hispanic, oriental, and white. From a dozen states that we counted. From five foreign nations that we saw. Dancers. Guerrilla theater. Puppets. Floats. People.

60,000 people.

It was wonderful.

The rally in the park was energetic, spirited, alive. Although we ignored the speakers (as we always do), we did note the crowd, and there was a sparkle and zest that runs contrary to the increasingly-jacketed-and-tied mien of some peace movement "leaders" who think that the cause is best advanced by prowling the halls of power and seem to regard their new-found (and marginal) access there as proof of their importance and now find boisterous, blustering, disheveled, and ("Still Crazy After All These Years") sometimes hairy demonstrations - that is, the very kinds of actions that pried open the gates of power through which they've passed - vaguely distasteful. But no matter: If we just keep on keepin' on, sooner or later our "leaders" will catch on and fall in line.
That last line proved to be unrealistic even as what preceded it proved to be both accurate and prophetic. Our "leaders" - both politicians and political - failed us and for whatever reason we were unable to maintain the energy on our own.

Actually, I have to take that back a little: It was less a failure of "leaders" than of buying into a certain concept of leadership. The peace and justice movement here - anywhere, in fact - has been strongest when it developed leaders rather than following them; when the "leaders" emerged from the movement rather than hovering over it and when those leaders were actually followers, who spoke for the movement rather than to it. That is, when they were less leaders than organizers and representatives. The nuclear freeze movement showed the strength of that concept, emerging more or less from nowhere, proposed by a few people no one beyond truly involved peaceniks had heard of, to become a powerful and genuinely mass movement in just a couple of years on the efforts of millions of unknown names who would write a letter or make a phone call or talk to a neighbor or cast a vote that said "yes, I agree."

But the tendency of any movement as it grows is to become increasingly identified with those "leaders," those names most connected to it in the public mind. And we wind up waiting for direction, forgetting that they are where they are because of us, not the other way around. And when those "leaders" of the freeze movement, impressed with their new-found ability to be "heard" in the halls of Congress, to be "seen" if only by implication in the shifting negotiating stances of the Executive, decided that "significant steps had been taken" and so let down their guard and allowed their attention to wander, so, too, did we, often gratefully.

But while the nature of the threat presented by nuclear weapons has shifted, morphed, several times in the last 20-plus years, it has not gone away. And while the focus to some extent has moved away from the threat of a Big Power confrontation (which experts - and I - always thought was the least likely, but still the most devastating, way for the first truly nuclear war to break out) to regional conflicts, there are still clear divisions and lingering definitions that echo the old ways.
United Nations, May 20 (IPS) - The U.S. administration has sought to keep a tight focus on the suspected nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea at month-long talks here on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But other countries also have highlighted the impact of Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal on efforts to establish a Middle East nuclear-free zone.

To be sure, diplomats from Arab and developing countries said they share some of U.S. President George W. Bush's concerns about Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

During open debate that has lasted for the past two weeks, however, speaker after speaker also has urged the international community to help set up a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East by urging Israel to give up its nuclear weapons programme.
Israel, now believed to be the world's third-largest nuclear power with 200-300 nuclear weapons, took up the old US Cold War argument that its nukes are only for "deterrence," they don't threaten anyone, and the real problem is anyone else having them. Israeli delegates maintained that Israel has never violated a treaty commitment - but since it hasn't signed the NPT, that likely didn't carry much throw-weight with others there.

Ultimately, the talks ended in failure:
[A]fter its three main committees failed to agree on the texts covering the so-called three pillars of the NPT - disarmament, verification of safeguards on national nuclear programmes and the peaceful use of atomic energy - a conference at the United Nations to review the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended having accomplished "very little" amid what its President said were widely diverging views tackling nuclear arms and their spread.
So we continue in a world where Israel has nuclear weapons and wants everyone to know it has them while continuing to pretend it doesn't, where India and Pakistan have joined Israel in refusing to sign the NPT, where North Korea has opted out of it, and where Iran might - might, I say - be taking steps toward developing nuclear weapons despite being a party to the treaty.

And, just in case we forget, a world where the US continues to possess over 5,000 operational nuclear weapons with another 5,000 stockpiled in either "reserve" or inactive status. It's not just a matter of maintaining an arsenal, either, as the numbers alone don't tell the whole story: Despite Congressional resistance, the Shrub team continues to push for new classes of nuclear weapons, including the so-called "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" and battlefield-scale "mini-nukes." Indeed, Bush has been "shoveling money to U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories as if the Soviet Union still existed and the Cold War still raged," as Fred Kaplan put it in Slate last year: as much money, in real terms (i.e., after allowing for inflation), as Ronald Reagan did during the height of the US-USSR standoff.

No, the issue of nuclear weapons, the threat, the risk, the danger, the insanity, of nuclear weapons has not gone away. It has merely been forgotten.

Footnote One: If you're lucky, you can find a book of photographs about the June 12 demo called You Can't Hug with Nuclear Arms.

Footnote Two: One of the bases for the charge that Iran is conducting a covert nuclear weapons program - traces of weapons-grade uranium on centrifuges - has very likely been refuted:
A preliminary analysis of Pakistani components for enrichment centrifuges identical to ones Iran purchased from Pakistan appears to back Tehran's assertion that the traces of bomb-grade uranium were the result of contamination, Vienna officials familiar with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] investigation of Iran said.
That, of course, does not completely exonerate Iran, but it does make the case for any sort of sanctions against it much weaker.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');