Though I participated in national marches against the Vietnam War in 1969, 1970 and 1971, was tear-gassed in DC and filmed for network news on my fluorescent pink Triumph motorcycle at the head an illegal Yippie march in Detroit against the Kent State massacre, and volunteered as a peacekeeper for the ’71 Out Now march and rally in DC in which half a million people participated – my real immersion in the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience came in 1978.
I was studying philosophy and religion at Amherst College in western Massachusetts, after working as one of the nation’s first fully-certified and licensed master auto mechanics, searching for a more socially-constructive venue for my mechanical skills, when I discovered the Appropriate Technology movement.
In the little village of Amherst, the local Appropriate Technology group shared a small storefront with the regional office of the Clamshell Alliance, a grass-roots network of local affinity groups dedicated to stopping the proliferation of nuclear energy. Clamshell was in the process of organizing what was to be the largest act of civil disobedience of its kind at Seabrook NH, where a twin nuclear power plant was beginning construction.
At 22 years old, I felt sufficiently grounded in the philosophical and spiritual realms (which was my purpose for returning to academia after living on my own since age 17) to engage the world responsibly and positively. So I leapt headlong into the Clamshell, quickly becoming the regional support organizer and then the backup regional representative to the Coordinating Committee from western Massachusetts.
After traveling to Portsmouth NH for coordinating meetings, at which regional spokespeople, representing the consensus of affinity group spokespeople, who in turn represented the consensus of their local affinity groups of from 5 to 20 activists, I was accepted as the media staffperson for the Clamshell Alliance, and became for a while the spokesperson for what was fast becoming a national movement.
By the next year, I joined two women activists in Washington DC to organize the First National No Nukes Strategy Conference, held at the University of Kentucky in Louisville, and helped forge a truly national movement.
Clamshell History (adapted from To The Village Square)
On a cold January day in 1976, Ron Rieck climbed up the weather tower at the proposed construction site for the Seabrook NH nuke and spent three days aloft before being arrested. The police chief urged Ron to come down, saying he was concerned about his health. Ron said he had to stay up there because he was concerned about the policeman’s health if the nuke got built.
The Clamshell Alliance was formed in July 1976 by several dozen New Hampshire energy activists, who adopted a Declaration of Nuclear Resistance as a guiding set of principles, shortly after a construction permit was issued for twin 1150-megawatt reactors on the marshes of Seabrook NH and within sight of the heavily-populated beach resort community of Hampton NH.
Inspired by successful antinuclear citizen protests in Germany and Western Massachusetts (where Sam Lovejoy knocked down a nuclear site weather tower), the Clamshell was grounded in the belief that nuclear energy is too important an issue to be left to the scientists, utilities, lawyers and government. Through public education and nonviolent civil disobedience, petitions and picket lines, rallies and site occupations, the Clamshell Alliance put a spotlight on the issue of nuclear power.
On August 1, 1976, 18 New Hampshire residents were arrested for criminal trespass and disorderly conduct in Clamshell’s first civil disobedience action on the Seabrook site. Three weeks later, a second occupation involved 180 New England residents who were arrested and held in a local armory overnight.
Two Clamshell occupations of the Seabrook NH site in August 1976 resulted in almost 200 arrests and generated headlines. Hundreds of people around New England organized local, autonomous groups. They carried out local events, but also helped plan Clamshell actions, making decisions through a finely-orchestrated multi-tiered truly democratic process.
The Clamshell defended local democracy (repeated votes of Seabrook residents against construction of the plant had been ignored). It renewed a commitment to non-violent tactics of the 1960s civil rights movement. It pulled strength (and members) from feminist, anti-Vietnam war, Native American rights, labor, environmental and back-to-the-land movements, while deftly side-stepping the sectarian tendencies of the ‘hard left’.
Structurally, the Clamshell promoted inclusiveness and equality, giving equal weight to every voice and eschewing appointed or elected leaders. It adopted – and eventually struggled with – consensus decision-making. It adopted a stance of complete openness with government and law enforcement officials as well as all its supporters.
Perhaps most important, the Clamshell Alliance served as an example that ordinary people had the right, the ability, and the responsibility to challenge and change the direction of energy policy in the United States.
On April 30, 1977, more than 1800 people from 30 states walked onto the site; 1414 were arrested and held for 13 days in six New Hampshire National Guard armories after refusing bail. Clamshell activists used this detention for training and networking within the armories. One of my key mentors, the late Chuck Matthei, became famous for going without either food or water, while still actively organizing within the armory, for the entire two weeks. The incarceration garnered international media attention and energized the occupiers to go home and work harder.
Around the nation anti-nuclear alliances organized, naming themselves the Palmetto in South Carolina, the Oystershell in Maryland, the Abalone in California, the Sunflower in Kansas, and so on. All of these groups were rooted in the same non-violent direct action discipline, affinity group organization and consensus decision-making process as the Clamshell. Without them, the nuclear industry would not have been stopped.
In a complicated and controversial move, plans for a 6,000-strong citizens’ occupation of Seabrook were changed to an on-site anti-nuclear and solar energy rally, attended by 20,000 people on June 24, 1978, because of threats of official violence and tensions between Clamshell and its local support base. An emergency decision had to be made to accept the outcome of a time-limited negotiation with the state of NH and the Public Service Company of NH, both of which wanted to avoid a confrontation, thousands of arrests and the associated costs. That sidestepping of the Clamshell consensus decision-making process (though the emergency process had previously been approved) created an indelible rift in the Alliance which eventually led to its dissolution. (See below for my “Food for Thought” letter to all Clams.)
The well-attended event included speeches by Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Barry Commoner, Dick Gregory, Dr. John Gofman, Physicist Amory Lovins, Sarah Nelson of NOW, and performances by Jackson Browne, John Hall, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.
Several hundred participants continued on to Washington DC, where they occupied the sidewalks in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was considering (and approved) a temporary withdrawal of the construction permit. (See below for my Sermon on the Sidewalk at the DC civil disobedience action.)
That was the last large Clamshell action, but the organization continued into the late 1980s. It attempted to block delivery of the Seabrook reactor’s core vessel, supported acts of civil disobedience by small groups of people, and developed creative and grassroots strategies for blocking a state-funded Seabrook bailout. A national non-violent civil disobedience action on Wall Street in 1979 was organized by former Clamshell members and led to the arrest of more than 1,000 people.
The nuclear industry subsequently shelved its US nuclear plans indefinitely. No new construction permits were issued for 40 years after 1978, and many of the projects underway in the mid-1970s were abandoned or blocked from opening. The nuclear power plant at Seabrook finally went online in 1990, half the size originally proposed. Even so, the Clamshell’s impact, both on the nuclear industry and those who participated, still resonates today.
Food for Thought
[This was my open letter to all Clams to encourage a spirit of openness, flexibility and resilience in the face of change, when affinity groups at the Seabrook nuke/rally site were debating whether to accept the already-made emergency decision to abandon civil disobedience for the opportunity to educate and involve the public in a way never previously accomplished.]
I feel obliged by my commitment to the Seabrook action, to Clamshell, and to the movement to communicate some of my concerns. This is not to persuade or to preach but to share. I ask that they be received in the spirit in which they are offered.
The movement in which we are engaged is just that: a flow, a process, a growth. It is possible to take a stand in the midst of movement – a sort of dynamic equilibrium – which centers on principle, flows with the current, and continuously recreates itself through time. The movement has gone through phases and we’ve gone through changes. We must learn from the past without considering it gospel; we must be sensitive to the present and resilient to its demands; and we must anticipate the future without binding ourselves to it.
Clamshell Alliance has a fundamental place in today’s movement. It is a vanguard and a model. Clamshell was formed for, and has now committed itself to, halting the proliferation of nuclear power in New England. Its specific target now is Seabrook. It was decided at the last Clam Conference in November ’77 that again this year the best tactic was civil disobedience. Clamshell folks felt a strong need to demonstrate the sincerity of their commitment by risking arrest in the name of the cause. Lesser actions had been tried and had failed.
Believing that means create ends in their own image, Clamshell had long ago committed itself to a strategy of non-violent direct action – the only means which was consistent with the sort of future we are trying to build. Non-violent meaning opposed to any type of violence, even the subtle socio-psychological types which we use to assert our wills or force compliance with our opinions; meaning also being open and honest and creative and flexible and willing to speak with and listen to even those who oppose our goals. Direct action, meaning opposed to non-resistance or passive resistance; meaning affirmative and aggressive action which both serves our goals and is consistent with them.
Such action includes endless creative possibilities, some of which we have planned to use at the Seabrook ’78 action: all forms of outreach and education, dialogue with our adversaries (being not those who oppose us but those whose goals oppose ours), development and display of constructive alternatives to destructive technologies, and using our bodies to assert the urgency of our convictions. While civil disobedience is a powerful tool to express commitment, it is only a tactic, not a strategy or goal, and our attachment to it should be flexible.
Clamshell, which means the people that form it, has not yet perfected the tactical means to stop nuclear power – we are growing and learning. We must be honest enough to admit our shortcomings and our failures, and open enough to seize the opportunity to overcome our mistakes and maintain a positive spirit and movement toward our goals.
Clamshell also has not yet perfected the means to arrive at a clear and timely consensus in a group the size of the present alliance. Decision-making process has not been strictly formalized because Clamshell is normally small and tight enough to use its folk wisdom to address and overcome the concerns of dissenting members. We are now, whether for better or worse, past the point of friendly town-meeting-style process. The Clamshell can’t meet as a unit, discuss and decide an issue without a system to avoid the chaos of numbers and the tyranny of the few.
A solution that evolved but was not fully developed or clarified was the system of affinity groups within clusters (or regions) within Clamshell. It was the purpose of this solution to maintain the camaraderie and solidarity of small group relations without giving in to the repression of hierarchy. In such a system, each individual has (within reason) an equal say in every decision. Any person’s concerns, if they were deep moral or philosophical ones and could not be answered in the supportive forum of group discussion, could act as a block to the group’s consensus. If the person stood alone or nearly so on the issue, his/her responsibility to the others in the group might require that he/she withdraw. If the concerns were not profound enough to constitute a block, they should be expressed as reservations, incorporated into the consensus as a friendly amendment, or used as a motive for standing aside and allowing the group to move on. If a person is split on an issue and can’t take a stand on it, he/she stands aside.
Once an affinity group arrives at consensus, it can move on to a larger forum by sending a spoke to a cluster or regional meeting to incorporate all individual decisions into a larger one. In such a forum, in order to retain the simplicity and equality of the smaller one, each affinity group acts as an individual with the spoke as its voice. In that way, a person does not have equal status with an affinity group. Any group can block consensus in a cluster/region if the objections are profound, or can stand aside, express its reservations, suggest an amendment, or withdraw. As with an individual, an individual group, if it is split on the issue and can’t take a stand, must stand aside.
The same process continues when the regional representatives meet in the coordinating committee where each region acts as an individual, In this way, each person has an equal standing and no one person, whethyer he/she is a clam or a provocateur, can block a region or the Clamshell as a whole, and each circle of consensus is small enough to carry on a reasonable and friendly discussion. The atmosphere of mutual support and concern is just as vital at the level of the coordinating committee as it is at the level of the affinity group, and if there are several individuals (be they persons or regions) who are sincerely split on an issue and must stand aside, the group must attempt to deal with that ambivalence rather than hastily move on.
It’s a good and fair system, but it’s not perfect. It requires not only the consideration and good faith of each individual but a lot of time. Though it’s difficult to judge what is or isn’t sufficient time, there are situations in which proposals appear to need a quick or immediate decision and enactment. When that occurs, some provision needs to be made for a circumvention of the usual process. In light of this, it was deemed necessary to empower the regional spokespersons to be more than just voices of their constituents. They were given the authority to represent their regions as best they could by anticipating the responses of their constituency in the face of new information and to take the initiative to act on that basis. It’s a heavy burden and a difficult task to adequately represent a large number of people and it can never be done to everyone’s satisfaction; but it’s necessary to work the best we can within our limitations and it’s necessary that representatives receive feedback, constructive criticism, occasional support, and a lot of trust if the system is going to keep functioning.
And function it must if we are truly committed to our goals. The goal of the movement of which Clamshell is a part is to build a better future for the world – a future which includes positive and creative ways to make community decisions. The specific goal of Clamshell within that larger framework is to prevent nuclear power from clouding or destroying that future. To move in that direction, we must develop and use our decision-making process clearly and responsibly.
If it becomes necessary to chose between developing an efficient and just polity and stopping nukes (though we must never abandon either struggle), I would suggest that the nuclear issue is the more urgent. We must not let our procedural inadequacies get in the way of the procurement of our goals. We must stop the nukes, using any means which are consistent with our values. We must not let our investment in any one scenario override our flexibility in developing others. We must not give in to our frustrations and disappointments if plans must be scrapped or altered. We must not avoid accepting risks in trying out different tactics. And we must not relinquish the strength of our convictions by falling back to a weaker stance. We have more power than we know.
Love and No Nukes
Sermon on the Sidewalk
In front of the NRC headquarters, Washington DC, June 30, 1978
[This was my first public sermon (I was then and am now an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church) following the world’s largest no-nukes, alternative energy fair at Seabrook NH.]
There’s a lot of good people here today, more people than our numbers show. And we’ve come a long way to get here. We’ve come not only through a lot of miles, but through a lot of conditioning and indoctrination, through a lot of malevolence and hatred, through a lot of insincerity and hypocrisy, through a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.
But we’ve made it to this place because somehow we’ve seen through it, enough to catch a glimpse at least of something else, of a possibility we each feel in our hearts and read in each other’s eyes. A vital possibility of a world order based on life, built with integrity, and maintained with compassion. It’s a vague vision, perhaps, but a powerful one. And that power fuels the struggle.
We hear ourselves saying that the means always have to be consistent with the ends. And it’s not just motives and tactics we’re talking about. The physical means must also be consistent with our goals, with our metaphysical ends.
The spiritual power that fuels our struggle is as pure a power as there is. And the material power that we are trying to develop as the fuel of our daily lives and livelihood – solar and wind and wave power – is the only power that can sustain a physical world which we all recognize to be holy.
And the power that we are struggling against – the nuclear power, the unresponsive political power, the oppressive economic power – this power cannot be a part of our future, cannot fuel the kind of progress we envision.
The power that we are facing here today is perhaps not so much an evil power as a misguided and misused power. Nuclear power fires the sun, and the sun sustains life. But we have used that life-sustaining power for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways, and we have made it a force of death. On August 6th and 9th 33 years ago, we brought the sun to earth. We disturbed the delicate equilibrium of our universe and have suffered for it ever since.
Many people have died too soon because of our folly and greed and shortsightedness. Many more are dying today, this very minute, many more will continue to die – today’s children and tomorrow’s children are already poisoned by our deeds.
Yesterday, we showed the world what it’s like to witness mass death [a staged die-in on the sidewalk]. Today, we give our hearts to those precious lives we’ve lost. And we pray not for those who’ve died so much as for those who yet live. We pray for change and we pray for a future which creates rather than destroys. We pray for life.
A Path to Collective Consciousness
Written October 15, 2002, Revised April 8, 2012
[This is an overview of the consensus decision-making process, used admirably by Quakers and adapted by the Quaker-inspired non-violent social change movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which I refined from years of both contemplative study and instructing non-violence trainings.]
In Native American talking circles, they say:
“We just speak until there is nothing left but the obvious truth.”
Consensus decision-making process is a method of nurturing the spirit of a group by surrendering one’s ego or self-interest to a higher purpose. It is not a method for maximizing individual autonomy but for optimizing group solidarity and effectiveness.
What consensus is not:
- democracy as we know it – the tyranny of the majority
- a selection among alternative, competing proposals
- a method of compromise
- a forum for egotism, manipulation, or power over others
- a quick and easy way to get to a group decision
What consensus is:
- a respectful hearing of all perspectives
- a safe space to voice concerns
- an enterprise aimed at the highest good of the group
- a process by which a group mind emerges from individual input
- a way to synthesize various ideas or perspectives into a uniquely new outcome
What consensus requires:
- skillful facilitation and “vibes-watching”
- a close-knit group with a clear common purpose, vision or values
- that everyone who wishes to speak gets a chance to do so
- that everyone truly listens to those who speak (rather than rehearsing a rebuttal)
- that the facilitator (or someone else) recognizes an emerging synergy of ideas
- that each participant discerns whether the consensus is in the best interest of the group
- that only those with profound concerns voice their objections (avoid nit-picking)
- that the group try to satisfy the objections or incorporate opposing ideas
- that those with strategic objections decide whether they can stand aside (agree to disagree) for the sake of the group
- that those with deep moral or philosophical objections discern whether they should leave the group
- that a proposal gets “blocked” (not “is blocked” – no one has veto power) only when someone believes that it violates the foundational values of the group, and the facilitator recognizes the violation or the group is inclined to agree.
- that a group consensus can be overturned or altered only by another group consensus
Note: A “fall-back” procedure to majority, or super-majority vote, may be required as a stepping-stone while a group develops the ability to work through to consensus, but should be recognized as a violation of the goals of consensus decision-making and harmonious group process.
copyleft by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page