Peace camps were common in North America and across Europe in the early to mid 1980’s, and lately I’ve been wondering whether what we did back then would be possible in these times?
Those were the days when Mike Duffy was cool, Reagan and Andropov were facing off, and NATO was deploying short range nuclear missiles (the pershing and cruise) in England, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
In April 18, 1983, staid Ottawa was taken aback when the Peace Camp on Parliament Hill popped up to protest the testing of the cruise guidance system in Cold Lake, Alberta. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau got a kick out of us, a bunch of dedicated No Cruisers, and he let us stay. We would write NO CRUISE in the snow on the lawn of the Hill in big letters so when he looked out of his office window he was reminded. We slept under a tarp that covered a cardboard cruise Greenpeace Bob named Bruce. I wonder whatever happened to Bruce the cruise. I have tons of stories about those days and the people we met.
My mother and grandmother figured I would benefit from getting away so they offered me a one way ticket to England, their home country. The same day Pierre took his long walk in the blizzard, February 29th, 1984, I flew to England.
Peace camps became my centre of gravity and I traveled to most of them. In England it was the Trident submarine camps and the cruise missile base at Greenham Common, the most famous and longest lasting peace camp.
In the Netherlands I traveled to Woendsdrecht, another cruise missile base. I happened to arrive at the time there was a big weekend action at the base with probably 16,000 people who divided themselves into two groups to camp out at the main gates. It was the first time I witnessed state violence and blood when one afternoon the mounted police charged protestors through the barley fields as if they were playing polo. I felt bad for the farmers.
I was walking alone around the base one day when suddenly a grey van drove up and soldiers dressed in grey with red berets jumped out and surrounded me, I suppose I looked Dutch with my blond braids. The first thing I thought of to say was , “Hi, how’s it going?”. Too funny. They stopped and looked at me, then jumped back in the van and drove away. Bizarre. Maybe they thought I was American and didn’t want a diplomatic incident?
My next stop was Mutlangen (near Schwabish Gmund) in Germany. This peace camp was called the Pressehutte and was in a renovated barn just up the road from a pershing missile base. It was a well organized cell, part of the German resistance against short range deployment and the American military presence generally. They also researched and published material.
The American army regularly took their pershing missiles on practice missions, 8-12 at a time. With or without warheads they neither confirmed nor denied.
One day Ronald Reagan was doing a radio show and during the check unbeknownst to him and the others in the room the mic was hot; he was on the air, “We start bombing in 5 minutes”, he joked. Only no one else knew he was joking.
American Command went on red alert. Nobody knew what to think or do. Afterwards the soldiers told me everybody was absolutely freaked out. Apparently that was the closest we came, at that point in time, to a nuclear exchange since the Bay of Pigs.
From Mutlangen I took a side trip to Comiso, Sicily, where there was another cruise missile base. I wonder now what the target from there was, maybe Libya? What’s interesting about Comiso is that the mafia gained position in the town because they were the contractors who built the American base.
Fortunately for me there were no computers in those days and I got nothing more than a warning letter to stay away from the areas of American military command (and a red flag by my name for a few years, I heard). When I got a second warning from my boyfriend, a soldier whose superior said that I should leave, or else, I called my mum for a ticket home.
After 10 months, there ended my Peace Camp adventures. Would the peace camp movement be allowed to exist today? I suppose the Occupy movement was comparable. Would young people be able to do what we did, to assemble freely, to watch, record and disseminate information about military maneuvers for public knowledge?
Did our presence make a difference? I know it did on a personal level. As far as the bigger picture, a soldier once told me it was like kicking a steel boot.