REMEMBERING A GREAT PROTEST AT THE SPACE CENTER
January 17, 1987 was a special day. It was the date of the largest peace protest in Florida history when well over 5,000 people marched onto the front gates of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in protest of the planned test launch of the first Trident II nuclear missile. I was then coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice where I worked for 15 years. We initiated the call for the protest and asked for help from groups around the country. Our march to the gates that day was led by famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock and he was the first person to climb a ladder to get over the barbed wire fence. We called the protest "Cancel the Countdown".
In all 186 were arrested for symbolically trying to enter the base to sit on the launch pad where Trident II nuclear missiles would be test fired. About 50 were arrested in the days preceding the January 17 event when they tried sneaking onto the launch center that is located inside the national seashore and surrounded by ocean and swamps. Some hiked up the beach toward the launch towers along the shore and others trudged through the alligator infested swamp marshes. Some were arrested at night with military helicopters searching for them. For a solid week the media around Florida was intensely covering the arrests prior to the January 17 rally. Peter Lumsdaine from California came to help and was a key organizer of these back country actions at the Cape.
Events really got going two weeks prior to the January 17 rally and march. We organized a Peace Pilgrimage to Stop the Trident that began with a protest at Kings Bay nuclear submarine base on the Florida-Georgia border. John and Martina Linnehan took on the responsibility for making the pilgrimage such a success. The peace pilgrimage was led by Buddhist monks and more than 200 people made the two week trek to the space center.
When Jimmy Carter was president (after saying during his campaign that "the arms race is a disgrace to the human race") he went on to build the huge new Trident sub base in the sleepy north Georgia fishing town called St. Marys. Once the Trident missiles were tested they were to be put inside the nuclear submarines at Kings Bay and at the other Trident nuclear sub base at Bangor, Washington.
As the pilgrimage came south, affinity groups were formed that began to plan the back country occupations of the space center in hopes they could get on the launch pad and delay the launch.
From Boston a peace train was organized by the national peace coalition called Mobilization for Survival (Mobe). They reserved several rail cars on Amtrak and the train went from Boston to Orlando stopping along the way holding quick news conferences in major cities at the rail stations and a couple hundred activists jumped on-board the train for the ride to Florida. It was Mobe who got Dr. Spock, Peter Yarrow and Odetta to come to Florida for the protest.
Other organizers streamed into Florida in the weeks prior to the protest to help and we put them to work across the state helping build turnout. Thanks to local supporter Smitty Hooper in Cocoa Beach we opened an office there to coordinate local organizing near the space center.
It was my job to coordinate the overall operation and it was one of the most thrilling campaigns I every worked on. There were lots of threads weaving this protest together and in the days prior to the Internet and Facebook we had to organize the old fashioned way - traveling the state, talking to people, phone calls, mailing leaflets, and the like. One night while speaking to a peace group in southwest Florida I mentioned that we needed to raise $1,500 to pay for a trailer with port-a-toilets for the peace walk. After the meeting a woman walked up and handed me a check for $1,500.
In the end I spent about five days in jail along with many others, some stayed in the lock up for weeks. The Brevard County jail was so over crowded the night of January 17 that they had to set up a huge tent in a parking lot to hold the men who had been arrested. It was cold and raining outside and we chanted for hours demanding better treatment. Eventually, late in the night, they brought us plastic pads to lay on but I refused to do so. I held out for us being moved to a warm and dry inside location. I lost the battle and held tightly to the tent poles through that long and memorable night. I admit there were moments that I regretted taking such a hard line but my pride was at stake here - I'd made a demand and was going to stick with it - through thick and thin, and cold and rain.
Some years later I was shopping at the Albertson's grocery store in downtown Orlando near where I lived. In those days they had bag boys push your cart of groceries into the parking lot and they loaded your car. As we approached my car the young man noticed my bumper stickers and got excited. He told me a story about the Cape Canaveral protest a few years before and how he and his father were watching the news reports on TV about peaceniks going over the fence. "I loved it," he said. "My dad hated it and screamed at the TV."
I realized in that moment that the protest had not just been about the 5,000 people there. The audience for this public participatory production had been extensive, even national. It made me wonder even more what other creative ways we could find to get our message beyond our limited confines.
In the end this bold day of action was the kind of direct citizens challenge that we need to mount against the military industrial complex. We were proud to have organized many of these events at the space center in Florida over the years.
A few other friends yesterday have offered their memories of that protest.
Long-time Catholic Worker activist Patrick O'Neill from North Carolina writes:
"As 5,000 people (from dozens of cities around the nation) converged on the gates of Cape Canaveral 27 years ago today, we soon discovered the Air Force had changed plans on us -- the gates -- which were always open, were closed to prevent our plan to occupy the base to protest the Trident II D-5 missile, the most diabolical first-strike weapon ever made. Undeterred, the late great activist and famous baby book author, Dr. Benjamin Spock, (then 86 years old and leading the march) walked straight up to the 8-foot fence and scaled it with his wife right behind. More than 200 others followed Spock over or around the fence line [by going into the river], joining one of the greatest mass acts of nonviolent direct action ever staged in the South. That day marks one of the strongest efforts ever carried out in opposition to US nuclear policy."
Frank Donnelly (then in Florida but now living in Maine) writes:
"I'll join in on this, 27 yrs ago I along with others rode bus from Lake Worth, Florida to the protest where I saw Patrick for the first time since prison, I was still on probation . I remember that most of the folks on my bus where older Jewish women along with a friend visiting from Maine, he was worried we'd be arrested .It seemed to me there was more than 5,000 but maybe I was just hoping. It was a great day for the peace movement we sure could use lots more like that day. Peace to you both."
Leslie Cagan (then national coordinator of Mobe in New York City) writes:
"In the 1980's, Mobilization for Survival was a fairly strong national network of about 125 organizations - mostly local groups with several national organizations as well. Committed to trying to build a strong national peace and justice presence meant we did what we could to help nurture grassroots, community based activism. As is so often the case, the most creative, the boldest and most challenging ideas came from that grassroots activism and our national work was given shape by those initiatives. Such was the case with the plans for an action in Central Florida at the time of the 1st flight test of the Trident nuclear weapons missile. Here was an opportunity to take the widespread opposition to nuclear weapons right to the front door of one of the facilities directly involved. It was a no-brainer - Mobilization for Survival quickly jumped into the work.We did what we could to let people far and wide know about the plans for the protest in Florida. Most importantly, we encouraged those who could to make the trip there themselves. And we facilitated this by organizing a peace train that came down the East Coast picking up folks along the journey. I don't recall now how many stops it made or how many people got on board. But that didn't really matter since everyone knew the great majority of the people at the demonstration would be Floridians. What did matter was that people in other parts of the country were taking notice, helping in whatever ways they could, and being inspired to think about what anti-nuclear actions they could take in their own backyards.I had the good fortunate of people able to go to Florida for several days before the action, and of course was there on that great day. It was exciting to watch the buses roll in and to be there as people gathered for the rally and march to the front gate of the facility. I'll never forget the sight of hundreds of senior citizens who had retired to Florida opening up their folding chairs and taking out their lunch baskets...rejoicing in the fact that they did not have to travel all the way up the Washington, DC or New York City (where so many of them had come from) to be part of this protest! Some of these folks were too frail to do the march to the front gate, let alone to climb over the fence that day. But their full support for the action was evident, and inspiring.It was a great day, and another one of those important reminders that a national movement is grounded in communities all across the nation. Mobilization for Survival was thrilled that we could help build this protest, and I, personally, was honored to have been a part of it."
I thank Patrick for the reminder of this special day. He is good at remembering these important landmarks in our life and celebrating them. His joyous and loving personality brings us all great gifts.