Monday, June 7, 2010

TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now

The west entrance to the UC Berkeley campus has been a site for quiet political vigils for almost as long as Sproul Plaza has been a nexus of boisterous student activism. I ride my bike past the West Lawn pretty much every day on my way to work. For ten years I held a job in an office on the sixth floor of University Hall, just across the street.

I don't remember a time before a group of men and women -- older than students, generally, and nowadays downright elderly -- gathered regularly (often weekly) on the lawn to hold signs, meditate, and otherwise express opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They bring any of several banners to these vigils, but the one they never fail to unfurl reads "TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now." They've been holding that very same banner in the very same spot for years and years.

So why would a peace group hold long-running anti-nuke vigils on the West Lawn?

The University of California manages the two national laboratories that perform classified research for the U.S. nuclear weapons program, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL). UC exclusively managed the labs from LANL's formal inception in 1943; until just a few years ago, when management was contracted to a Limited Liability Corporation made up of UC, Bechtel National, Inc., The Babcock & Wilcox Company, the Washington Group International, Inc. and Battelle.

Opposition to UC management of the labs germinated through the 1960s, and came into full flower by the early 1970s. By the time I arrived on campus as a freshman, in 1978, faculty and student protest was vociferous and highly visible. My first-quarter physics professor, Charlie Schwartz, was a prominent faculty critic of UC's ties to the weapons labs (and he delivered a mean lecture in introductory physics besides). The core argument: university oversight provides a deceptive veneer of legitimacy to military development that poses harrowing danger to the future of humanity and the planet.

The (then) nine-campus University of California system used to be administered from the top floor of University Hall (UC's Office of the President moved to Oakland in spring 1998). That is, the head office of the organization that managed the labs -- whose work drove the nation's nuclear weapons complex -- was directly across the street from the West Lawn where those anti-nuke vigils are still taking place.

I stopped by last week to spend a few minutes chatting with the three women holding the banners in the photo shown on this page. They told me that they'd started bringing the "TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now" banner to vigils in 1979, which explains why I had the impression they'd been coming around just about forever.

If I hadn't stopped to talk I might have written a more snarky post than this one. The truth is, I find it depressing and distressing how hopelessly out-of-date their banner's message reads to twenty-first century passers-by, even sympathetic passers-by like yours truly. After thirty years of seeing it decorate the West Lawn anti-nuke vigils, riding my bike by this banner leaves me feeling numb and hopeless. Its recurring presence seems to imply that activism is something practiced by people who are dogged, stuck-in-a-rut, irrelevant buffoons; and that activism's effect is, essentially, nil.

I mean, really ... a debate? On TV? Now? That's going to turn the tide?

But it wouldn't have been fair to write all that out unless I engaged with the banner-holders. So I asked the tenacious women whether they thought their message was on-point, and they convinced me, in a meandering sort of way, at least that they meant well.

These activist elders have roots in the campaign for World Government a movement established between the world wars of the 20th century that continues today to call for some form of supranational government as a means of fostering peace. The woman pictured in the middle of the photo told me she attended a lecture at Berkeley High School in which the speaker touched her deeply with his passion for peace through world government; and that she had a transformative experience at a Friends meeting not long after. She expressed a politics that seeks change through transformation of individuals. From the website of the American Friends Service Committee:
Our work is based on the principles of the Religious Society of Friends, the belief in the worth of every person, and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.
As she spoke, I began to understand that these activists' intention in standing on the West Lawn with the same banner for more than thirty years is not so much about pressing particular bureaucrats (who left the building a dozen years ago) for specific political demands (a TV debate isn't the goal, after all). It's about planting seeds of awareness, urgency, and commitment in the minds and hearts of the thousands upon thousands of students, faculty, staff, visitors, and citizens who pass by or through the west entrance to the campus over the course of decades.

It's not a path I would choose, I thought as I pedaled to my office after our chat, though you'll see in a few lines that I probably wasn't thinking very clearly.

In any case, I felt a little less snarky. It was one of those "how can we lose when we're so sincere?" moments.

Later I was mulling over Abu Ghraib, and orange jump suits, and the years I spent demanding an end to torture and extralegal detention inflicted by the U.S. government. How? Well, largely by standing and marching and leafleting in an orange jump suit. I did this on street corners and plazas, atop freeway overpasses, in shopping malls, alongside Fourth of July parades, outside Senators' offices, in airports, and on ice skating rinks, with fellow-activists in a group called Act Against Torture. AAT took up much of my political bandwidth for several years beginning in late 2005. If you want to see a lot of pictures of Bay Area lefties in orange jump suits, visit the group's photo gallery.

Were our exploits in orange jump suits really so different from the women standing with their trusty banner on the West Lawn? Wasn't it really the exact same thing, only our mode and message were a little bit more of-the-moment as the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo first came to light in the mainstream print and television media?

Let's be real: it's not like the Hope & Change presidency has ended indefinite detention. From the LA Times just last month:
The Obama administration has won the legal right to hold its terrorism suspects indefinitely and without oversight by judges — not at Guantanamo or in Illinois, but rather at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, from CBS News on 8 April 2010:
Reaching anew for peace, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday signed a treaty to shrink their nations' nuclear arsenals, the biggest such pact between the former Cold War foes in a generation. Tenaciously negotiated by even the leaders themselves, the treaty commits their nations to slash the number of strategic nuclear warheads by one-third and more than halve the number of missiles, submarines and bombers carrying them.

So is it just that change takes time, and the women on the West Lawn stuck with it longer than I did?

All this musing brought me back to my friend Kate, the woman who called together a group of activist friends to launch Act Against Torture, and about whom I've blogged before in several different contexts. The last time I mentioned Kate it was to plug one of her recent blog posts, Ordinary People Can Change the World. If you didn't read it then you might want to have a look now. She followed up with a post that I thought even better: Is Failure the Chicken and Success the Egg? Her thesis (though really you should read that one too, start to finish) is that you never know which attempts to make the world better are going to succeed, and which are going to come to naught. You think you can see the difference in hindsight, but in the moment a person acts, s/he hasn't got a clue whether her actions will turn out to be futile ... or whether it's the very thing that's going to catalyze real and meaningful change for good. This truth might be pretty good grounds for biting one's tongue when tempted to be snarky about somebody else's impotent political tactics.

I don't think I'll change my dim view of the transformative potential of TV debate on nuclear weapons. Still, perhaps the women and men who have been holding that sign on the West Lawn since shortly after I showed up for freshman physics are teaching a lesson worth learning.

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