Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A SOMBER OCCUPATION - Maine’s anti-war activists have come up with a plan to make our congressional delegates listen


Portland Phoenix
December 14, 2005

By Sara Donnelly

Last December, 13 anti-war activists gathered in Senator Susan Collins's office in Portland. They read the names of the American soldiers who had died to date in the Iraq War, as well as an equal number of Iraqi civilians who died. They occupied Collins's office for roughly four hours and, before they left, asked the senator to hold a "town meeting" to discuss the war with her constituents.

On February 4, 17 Maine peace activists gathered in the Portland offices of Senator Olympia Snowe. Again, they read the names of the American soldiers who had died in the Iraq War and an equal number of Iraqi names — over 2000 total by that date. This time, after someone read the name of each war-dead, they marked an X, in red or black marker, on a giant sheet of cloth to demonstrate the enormity of the loss. They then asked Snowe to meet with her constituents in a town meeting on the war.

On March 18, 35 people gathered in Representative Tom Allen's Portland office. They repeated the February action's format.

The names of the war dead were read, X marks were drawn on a white sheet, and, at the end, the request for a town meeting.

On June 23, 100 people gathered to protest the war in front of Collins's Bangor office.

About a month later, on August 26, another occupation occurred in Collins's Lewiston office. Someone brought a bell, which rang after each name was read.

Then again on October 14, at Snowe's office in Biddeford. The names, the sheet, the bell, the request for a town meeting.

All told, there have been six nearly identical occupations of Maine's congressional delegates' offices (as well as several informal meetings with US Representative Mike Michaud), each lasting between four and six hours, each designed to slowly and somberly disrupt business as usual. It's all part of a statewide, coordinated action called the "Frequent Visit Program," founded a year ago by some of the state's most fervent anti-war activists.

Since the start of this anti-war occupation effort, Allen and Michaud have agreed to the activists' request to hold a town meeting on the Iraq War. Maine's FVP activists are well aware the time is ripe to use congressional leaders to get the anti-war message to the Prez, thanks to plummeting public support for the war and anti-war lightning rods like Cindy Sheehan and US representative John Murtha. So FVP creators are marketing their model nationwide.

The ready-to-wear war-resistance model — an office occupation, a roll-call of the dead, a request for public dialogue — has already been used in a handful of other states thanks to FVP outreach through correspondence, training brochures, and a DVD. Forget moose and blueberries — Maine now has its own little peace action franchise.

Frequent Visit is founded on a premise so basic it seems like common sense: To get things done, you need to sway your local legislator. Visitors focus on national legislators exclusively and leave the vigils and massive marches for another day.

The plan is simple. First, Visitors call or visit the offices of Maine's congressional delegates in small groups of three or four. They request private meetings to discuss their concerns about the war. If they haven't gotten a meeting after several attempts, they stage a sit-in, referred to most often as an "occupation," in which they eulogize the Iraq War dead. They ask for a town meeting, open to the public, in which the congressional delegate can discuss his or her policies on the war with constituents. If they don't get a commitment, or a reasonable promise of one, they make phone calls, send letters, write e-mails, several times a month, over and over and over, asking for a town meeting. It's frequent, pointed pressure. Visitors are the guests who won't leave.

Now, within this model, there's room for variation. Since the activist movement in-state and beyond is chronically non-hierarchical and as dynamic as sand in a windstorm, Visit actions can vary. Sometimes they're outside the office. Sometimes, they're inside. The core group of organizers changes according to which peace group is based closest to the action. The next action, on December 15, the day of parliamentary elections in Iraq, at Senator Snowe's office in Bangor, will break with FVP tradition and include a press conference and forgo the reading of the names. FVP activists, also, for the first time in the program's history, plan to occupy the office that day until they receive a response from the senator to their concerns about the war. FVP co-founder and longtime activist Bruce Gagnon thinks it might be the first time he gets arrested on an FVP mission.

Despite the December variation, FVP's strength lies in its relative consistency.

Gagnon and the handful of Maine activists who created FVP watched Allen hold a town meeting on the war in Portland last July and this month received the promise of one in Bangor from Michaud. But the senators have been a tougher sell. Kevin Kelley, a press secretary for Senator Susan Collins, says the senator "welcomes the communications from constituents" but prefers to meet one-on-one rather than in large, town hall meetings.

Antonia Ferrier, press secretary for Senator Olympia Snowe, says the senator has not "ruled out" a town meeting but no plans have been made to hold one.

"[Senator Snowe] wants to be able to hear from [the Visitors] as well as any Mainer about how they feel on any issue," says Ferrier. "That helps her formulate her policy and explain to her colleagues in Washington what she’s hearing at home and what the political will is of her constituents."

Despite our reluctant senators, as Gagnon says, "two of the four pillars have fallen." The Visit program, only one year old, has fostered some real discussion on the war with the state's DC delegates.

"We've been getting more and more people coming out of the woodwork wanting to be a part of this," says Gagnon, of Brunswick (see "Becoming a Visitor"). "That really says something about the state of activism. People are desperate; they just want to become a part of something."

Gagnon based Visit on the 1930s General Motors plant sit-down strikes conducted by the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan. That movement is recognized in activist circles as one of the most important labor-rights strikes in American history. The FVP model has been used in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Some of the occupations have resulted in a town meeting on the war. Others have ended with activists spending a few days in jail, though the Maine Visitors have never been arrested during an occupation.

Maureen Block, an activist from Swanville, became hooked on the Visit program from the first meeting she attended in March. Block heard about plans for the March occupation of Allen's office from friends, the same way most Maine activists learn about demonstrations, and was struck by how organized the sit-in was.

"The Frequent Visit Program was the first thing that was presented to me that would produce tangible results," Block says. "It was direct action in the offices, making statements with a clear purpose. It was a way to really get directly involved in something that made sense to me."

Gagnon and others who founded the program — including Karen Wainberg of Peace Action Maine, Dud Hendrick of Maine Veterans for Peace, and Pat Wheeler, an artist and activist from Deer Isle — hope activists in other states will adopt the format to put pressure on their own congressional senators and representatives. Wheeler has filmed four of the six occupations to date and edited hours of footage into 20-minute montages set to folk music which she sends to activists in the state and around the country. At an anti-war demonstration in Washington DC last September, Visitors handed out hundreds of flyers on how to recreate the program. Wheeler and other Maine activists frequently send informal e-mails to their activist buddies in other states talking about FVP. They talk about it on activist listservs. They hype it to their friends over coffee. "The good, old-fashioned, grassroots word-of-mouth network is the best way," says Gagnon.

"We felt that we created a model which could be recreated across the country," says Wheeler of Visit. "We try to encourage [other states' activists] to organize a new group of people that haven't done this before to teach them to do an effective office visit. We wanted more people to repeatedly visit the offices [of congressional representatives] because we've sent countless petitions their way, we've made phone calls and sent e-mails and it seemed too easy to ignore. We thought visiting their office in person would make a difference."

Francis Crowe, an 86-year-old peace activist from Northampton, Massachusetts, received one of Wheeler's DVDs and an e-mail from Gagnon about Frequent Visit. She conducted an office occupation with her group, the Quaker organization the American Friends Service Committee, in May 2005. Crowe and eight others sat in the Springfield office of Democratic congressional representative Richard Neal and read the names of the American soldiers killed in Iraq and an equal number of Iraqis killed. For each name, one of the activists stamped a stick figure on a white sheet. Crowe says by the end of the meeting, Neal had personally committed to a town meeting with district constituents.

"[Neal] had been absolutely unreachable about the war in Iraq," says Crowe. "That day [his staff] said he wasn't reachable. But eventually, after the local newspaper called his office [about the demonstration], someone from the office came out to the reception room to say that Neal would be out to see us. In the dialogue with him we were able to get what we wanted which was for him to come to Northampton and hold a community meeting on the war and to spend an hour and a half answering questions and explaining his policy. But he hasn't signed on with [US representative] John Murtha or the [US representative James] McGovern bill, so I think we need to go back."

Pennsylvania Democratic congressman and notorious war hawk John Murtha sparked debate on Capitol Hill in November when he called for US withdrawal from Iraq in six months. Massachusetts Democratic congressman James McGovern's bill cuts off US money for the war.

On December 5, Anne Miller, director of New Hampshire Peace Action in Concord, was arrested along with eight other Peace Action activists while conducting a Frequent Visit-style occupation in the Concord office of Senator Judd Gregg. Miller, who did not know that the Maine program has a name, spoke with Gagnon in February and adopted most of the program's details for the occupation earlier this month.

"The call has come from all over the country for direct action," says Miller. "But I would say that Maine has provided a really wonderful model."

Bill Dobbs is the Media Coordinator for the United for Peace and Justice Coalition, based in New York City. Founded during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2002, the coalition is now the largest anti-war collective in the country, with some 1200 member groups in all 50 states and around the world. Member groups include small grassroots organizations with 10 or fewer activists to established anti-war groups like Peace Action and Veterans for Peace, each with thousands of members. Dobbs says this summer activists nationwide seemed to shift their focus to their congressional representatives. Dobbs believes the shift is the result of a number of factors, including the emergence of prominent anti-war voices in activist circles and in Congress.

"Congress is a great pressure point," says Dobbs. "There's a big gap between what the will of the American public wants and Congress and the Bush administration."

Dobbs says local work like FVP is as important to the anti-war movement as massive demonstrations in Washington DC and New York City. He believes local and national demonstrations fuel discussion on the war together — not only by showing growing numbers of voters oppose the war but by demonstrating the emotional toll on average Americans through vigils, word-of-mouth, and local actions like occupations.

"The national work and the local work are dove-tailing," says Dobbs. "There is a surge of interest in the last number of months in holding Congress accountable. Congress gave Bush the authority to wage this war and has continued to give him the money to wage it."

Gagnon, who worked as an activist in Florida before moving to Maine three years ago, says the number of activists here is unusually high, which helps regular actions like FVP. And, for an undefined war in which more than 2100 American soldiers have died and tens of thousands more Iraqis, Gagnon believes activists — or just concerned Americans — have to commit to more than the occasional demonstration or coffee-shop argument.

"Democracy is a participatory sport," he says. "If you don't exercise the muscles, they grow flaccid and weak."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

PLUTONIUM LAUNCH ACCIDENT COULD HAVE GLOBAL IMPLICATIONS


By Karl Grossman

NASA is again threatening the lives of people on Earth.

On January 11, the window opens for a launch from Cape Canaveral of a rocket lofting a space probe with 24 pounds of plutonium fuel on board. Plutonium is considered the most deadly radioactive substance.

Once it separates from the Atlas rocket, the probe, on what NASA calls its New Horizons mission, would move through space powered by conventional chemical fuel.

The plutonium is in a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) that is to provide on-board electricity for the probe’s instruments—a mere 180 watts when it gets to its destination of Pluto.

Until after the probe leaves the rocket and breaks from the Earth’s gravitational pull, the plutonium endangers life on Earth.

Because a fatal dose of plutonium is just a millionth of a gram, anyone breathing just the tiniest particle of plutonium dispersed in an accident could die.

NASA has divided the sequence into four phases before what it calls “escape” of the probe from the Earth’s gravity. It is most concerned about the launch phase.

NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the New Horizons Mission (EIS) says there is “about 6 percent probability” of an accident during launch.

If plutonium is released in a launch accident—and NASA says there is a 1-in-620 chance of that—it could spread far and wide. Some could drift up to 62 miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, says the EIS. And “a portion” of the plutonium could go well beyond that, says NASA, and “two-thirds of the estimated radiological consequences would occur within the global population.”

That’s because “fine particles less than a micron in diameter” of the plutonium “could be transported beyond 62 miles and become well mixed in the troposphere, and have been assumed to potentially affect persons living within a latitude band from approximately 20-degrees North to 30-degrees North,” says NASA.

The troposphere is the atmosphere five to nine miles overhead. The 20- to 30-degree band goes through parts of the Caribbean, across North Africa and the Mideast and then India and China and Hawaii and other Pacific Islands and then Mexico and southern Texas.

But life elsewhere on Earth could be impacted if the plutonium-fueled probe falls back to Earth before its “escape” and flight on to Pluto.

NASA says the “probability of an accident” releasing plutonium “for the overall mission is estimated to be approximately 1 in 300.”

An “enormous disaster” could result with the spread of the plutonium, says Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The issue is how much plutonium is released in respirable particles, he explains.

“The problem is it takes so little plutonium,” says Dr. Sternglass.

The NASA EIS acknowledges that in the event of plutonium release “costs may include: temporary or longer term relocation of residents; temporary or longer term loss of employment; destruction or quarantine of agricultural products…land use restrictions which could affect real estate values, tourism and recreational activities; restrictions or bans on commercial fishing; and public health effects and medical care.”

The EIS says the cost to decontaminate land on which the plutonium falls would range from “about $241 million to $1.3 billion per square mile.”

But, it notes, compensation would be subject to the Price-Anderson Act, a U.S. law first enacted in 1957. It sets a cap on how much people can collect for property damage, illnesses and death resulting from a “nuclear incident.” Under the Energy Bill passed this year, the cap in the United States was increased to $10 billion.

But the cap for damage from a “nuclear incident occurring outside the United States shall not exceed $100 million,” the law stipulates. This is the limit in the original Price-Anderson Act. It has never been raised.

And it is in violation of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the basic international law on space—which the U.S. has signed and was central in drafting—which declares that “states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.”

Demanding that the New Horizons mission be cancelled is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). Bruce Gagnon, its coordinator, says “one thing we know is that space technology can and does fail and when you mix deadly plutonium into the equation, you are asking for catastrophe.”

NASA, he charges, is “playing nuclear Russian roulette with the public.”

Indeed, NASA is planning a series of additional launches of plutonium-fueled space probes and other shots involving nuclear material. And under its $3 billion Project Prometheus program, the agency is working on nuclear reactors to be carried up by rockets for placement on the moon and the building and launching of actual atomic-propelled rockets.

Disaster may or may not strike on the New Horizons mission but if these nuclear missions are allowed to proceeded, some will inevitably result in accidents dispersing radioactive material.

Indeed, accidents have already happened in the U.S. space nuclear program. Of the 25 U.S. space missions using plutonium fuel, three have undergone accidents, admits the NASA EIS on New Horizons. That’s a 1-in-8 record. The worst occurred in 1964 and involved, notes the EIS, the SNAP-9A RTG with 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel. It was to provide electricity to a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth. The RTG disintegrated in the fall, spreading plutonium widely. Release of that plutonium caused an increase in global lung cancer rates, says Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley.

After the SNAP-9A accident, NASA pioneered the development of solar energy in space. Now all satellites—and the International Space Station—are solar-powered.

But NASA keeps insisting on plutonium power for space probes—even as the Rosetta space probe, launched this year by NASA’s counterpart, the European Space Agency, with solar power providing all on-board electricity, now heads for a rendezvous with a comet near Jupiter.

Along with the U.S. military, which for decades has been planning for the deployment of nuclear-energized weapons in space, NASA seeks wider uses of atomic power above our heads.

In its New Horizons EIS, NASA maintains the risks to people from the mission are not so bad in view of a chart it presents titled “Calculated Individual Risk and Probability of Fatality by Various Causes in the United States.” The chart lists the probability of getting killed by lightning or in a flood or by a tornado as higher than someone dying of cancer because of plutonium dispersed in New Horizons.

Of course, we can’t control lightning or floods or tornadoes. These are involuntary assaults. NASA’s space nuclear gamble using tax dollars (the cost of New Horizons: $650 million) is being carried out by choice.

An additional wrinkle: the Boeing machinists who were to install the New Horizons probe on the Atlas rocket that is to carry it up are on strike—and warning that the company’s bringing in of replacement workers poses a safety risk. Because of the strike, other NASA missions at Cape Canaveral have been grounded. But NASA is continuing with the New Horizons launch. “If it’s not safe to work on all the other projects with replacement workers, it’s irresponsible to continue with New Horizons,” says Robert Wood, a spokesperson for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Gagnon says his organization is “building opposition to New Horizons and all missions that launch nuclear power in space. The public needs to know more about this issue and we need the grassroots to pressure Congress and NASA and others responsible. We say that NASA should be developing alternative, non-nuclear power sources for space travel.”

Paul Gunter of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Services comments: “The fact that both the planet Pluto and the manmade isotope plutonium are named after the god of hell lends bizarre insight into NASA’s fascination with launching this hideous stuff into the heavens at the risk of fouling the very nest of all humankind.”

New Horizons and the rest of NASA’s deadly-dangerous nuclear space operations must be stopped.

If space is to be explored, let that be done safely. To destroy a portion of life on Earth to explore space makes no sense.



- Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and narrates the TV documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo, www.envirovideo.com).

Sunday, December 11, 2005

THE ROOTS OF A WAR


This is the now famous picture of Donald Rumsfeld, at that time a special envoy of Ronald Reagan, shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein on December 20, 1983. Rumsfeld was sent to deliver chemical weapons to Saddam for his war with Iran. Rumsfeld also delivered satellite reconnaissance information that would be valuable in the war with Iran. Saddam was our boy...all the way back to the 1950's when he first went to work for the CIA in an unsuccessful assassination plot against the Iraq president who dared nationalize the oil, taking control away from British and American oil corporations.

This is an important story for me because it underscores the true intentions of U.S. policy in Iraq. We've never cared about democracy there, never cared about freedom there, never cared that Saddam was a evil dictator because he was our boy. So who can believe that today the U.S. suddenly has had a change of heart? Who could ever swallow the pill that says we are in Iraq for democracy?

This morning 50 people lined up on the corner between the Catholic church and the Episcopal church here in Brunswick. We stood there with our anti-war signs as people flocked out of the churches. It was a beautiful sunny day, snow on the ground from the big Friday storm, and we got a very good response from the public. Gretchen and Dexter Kamilewicz organized the event as they work hard to expand local anti-war efforts in hopes of bringing their son Ben home alive from Iraq. He has been there now for about four months and has nearly been killed by IED explosions several times. Gretchen and Dexter have become real leaders during this past year and they have made the war real for many of us in the peace movement here in Maine.

I've been to protests three days in a row. On Friday was our regular evening vigil downtown in Brunswick, on Saturday there was the Advent vigil at Bath Iron Works and now today. Last night our Brunswick PeaceWorks group had a holiday pot luck party at the home of one of our members and the place was packed. Many new faces were there which indicates that people are looking for places to connect and want to get more involved. And we had a great time. After eating we went around and had everyone share some personal thoughts and then we sang songs for at least an hour. It really was wonderful and very moving. We were really a community. People want more community...they need more community...we have to become community and support one another.