It was September 14, 1981. I had just been released from the Berkeley jail after being arrested in front of a Grateful Dead concert the day before. Returning to the place I shared with a group of friends, I got ready to head off to San Luis Obispo where an attempted occupation and blockade of the Diablo nuclear power plant was underway.
This protest was organized by the Abalone Alliance-a coalition of hardcore pacifists, left Democrats and non-affiliated left liberals who seemed to believe that if they flew the US flag and convinced enough people to ask politely without yelling at the cops or the officials of the utility company, the plant would never go online. Their ploy did not work. Nonetheless, I wanted to take part in their attempt. After meeting up with my friend Joe at the Earth People’s Park house in West Berkeley, he and I headed out to the foot of University Avenue to hitch down Route 101 to the protest. Eight hours later we were in a camp set up on a few acres of land that a sympathetic farmer had provided. Our friends and fellow affinity group members-Southwester and Ross-were already there.
The camp itself was a model of alternative forms of energy. The showers were constructed from sanitized fifty gallon drums painted a flat back to absorb and store heat, which in turn heated the water. These drums were set on wooden racks about nine feet high. Pieces of recycled hose were attached with spigots which, when opened, allowed the water to flow. Several ovens powered by wooden and solar heat had been built from rocks and recycled aluminum and semi-private outhouses were also provided. At the end of each day, there would be a meeting of spokespeople from each of the affinity groups in the camp. Most of these meetings had to do with logistics and strategy around the blockade. However, one evening it seemed like all we talked about was the US flag that flew in the center of the camp. Some of the more radical campers had tried to remove it earlier and were met with considerable resistance by the flag’s supporters. As it turned out, most of those who had attempted to pull down the flag were members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB)-the RCP’s youth wing. The next thing I knew, the argument was no longer about the flag but about whether or not communists should be allowed to participate in the plant blockade. This is when Southwester and I jumped into the argument. We weren’t RCP members, but we weren’t Democrats or pacifists, either. Plus, we didn’t care much for flags, black, red or red, white and blue. It looked like the flag argument was going to split the camp in two when someone proposed a compromise: fly the flag but fly it upside down. This compromise worked and the camp held together.
To me the most telling part of the whole Diablo Canyon action occurred on the morning our network of affinity groups was set to block the plant and prevent workers and police from gaining entrance. Although I had qualms about intervening in the construction workers’ livelihood, those concerns were dropped when one of their union representatives told us that the construction workers were paid whether they made it into the plant site or not. That concern resolved, our group of six, which included three of my buddies from the streets of Berkeley–Joe, Southwester, and Ross– decided that we should block the road a mile or so away from the plant, since this was not an area where demonstrators were officially allowed according to an agreement reached between the protest organizers and the police. Since it wasn’t an approved protest area, we figured our actions might actually prevent people from entering the plant since the police would be stationed elsewhere. So, about 5:00 in the morning we headed out, ready to lay nails, tacks and whatever other sharp objects across the road we could find. As we were placing two by fours spiked with large nails on the road, an Abalone organizer came over and started yelling at us for doing so. We were violating the agreement, she said. We told her we didn’t give a fuck about the agreement but truly wanted to slow down the process in the hope that the reactor would not go online. As our argument attracted more attention, we decided to drop it since we weren’t sure who was listening-police or protesters. The organizer removed our nail-laden boards from the road and gave them to one of the cops. Later in the morning, as we stood with our arms linked blocking the road and attempting to prevent buses and trucks carrying workers and materials for the plant from getting in, we were told not to fight back when the police attacked us. Southwester and I did anyhow and were scolded by other protesters for hurting our “brothers”-the police. Weird. The whole lot of us ended up in a makeshift jail for a few days while the demonstration continued at the plant.
The men’s jail was really an unused military training camp that the state had cleaned up for the protest. We slept on mattresses on the floor and were guarded by National Guard reservists who had been called up for the duration of the action. I was allowed one shower during the four days I was there. The food consisted of sandwiches, raw vegetables, and some kind of powdered drink. Many of the detainees had never been in any kind of confinement before and did a hell of a lot of complaining about their rights. While I agreed with their arguments, I knew that the cops didn’t really give a shit, so I thought it was wiser just to keep my mouth shut. It was better than a regular jailhouse, but it was still jail. While there, Wavy Gravy and the singer Jackson Browne gave an impromptu concert and talent show after one of the National Guard members called in to act as a jailer smuggled in his guitar from home. (The National Guard was mobilized for this action despite the promise made by then-Governor Jerry Brown at a rally the year before that he would only call out the Guard to keep the plant closed and never use them to lock up protestors).
Whenever a busload of protesters was brought in, we would greet them with a song or two-usually John Lennon’s “Power to the People” or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” Cecil Williams, who was the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and had a history of social protest and service, ran an ongoing seminar on social justice, nonviolent protest, violence and revolution. Nights were restless and, by the fourth day, quite rank smelling, thanks to the lack of showers, close quarters and daytime heat. When we finally went to court, everyone in our affinity group copped a plea just to get out of the detention center and back to Berkeley. The plant failed to go online on schedule. The delay was indirectly related to the protests and blockades: a group of scientists from a nearby university had discovered that the builders had read the blueprints incorrectly and had laid out parts of the plant the opposite of how it should have been. So the courts issued a delay while the plant was rebuilt.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org