Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Designated Area for Protest

In C.Spiby on June 18, 2010 at 1:42 pm

AWE Aldermaston

{CLICK HERE for the photo-essay}

It was still dark on that late October morning when our coach came to a polite halt outside the main gates of Britain’s atomic bomb factory, the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

At about the same time – a pre-dawn 6.30am – other coaches and minibus vans pulled up at their pre-planned positions around AWE’s numerous high security gates. Wrapped in layer upon layer of warm clothing, activists piled quickly out and set to work blockading the entire base, despite the awaiting police.

For our part, we, the main gate contingent comprising of about a dozen misfits of varying age and dress, disembarked quietly but were met instantaneously by a squad of approaching and eager police. Dispensing with any formalities they immediately requested we move directly to the acutely ridiculous ‘designated area for protest’.

I felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie. I mean, have you ever heard of anything as pointless as an approved area reserved for safe and inoffensive civil disobedience? A middle-aged man standing at my side and dressed as Death was equally bemused.

‘Um, no thanks, we’ll go this way.’ Pointing to the main gate where the largest gathering of police stood ready to welcome us in more traditional fashion.

‘No, Sir.’ And gently motioning his patronising arms as if he were directing traffic added, ‘If you’d kindly step this way – to the designated area for protest – over here in the car park.’

And he finished his repeated request with that ‘Thank you,’ police officers tend to add just to let you know that they’ve already decided you will obey their order – why would you possibly consider doing otherwise?

‘And under what law do you think you have the authority to direct us anywhere? This is a public pathway.’ I objected.

He looked at me quizzically. This wasn’t the way it normally went when patrolling B-roads, ASBO-ridden estates and during the weekend rumble down the local pub. ‘Ministry of Defence Land Byelaws!’ He blurted, unbelieving my incredulous reply.

That was all we needed to hear: it meant they had nothing.

Unless he cited a Section 14 Public Order Act, which he didn’t, and, I am guessing, invoked it with some kind of paperwork, they couldn’t force us anywhere. Thus I had an impromptu but abject lesson in how to use the law to the letter against the police, who, it seems, will try and get you to do whatever they want just because they think they can and ought. In reality they can do very little unless one is breaking a specific law. It is in knowing which law applies and when to call them into play wherein the power really lays.

In the meantime the message had got about that this wasn’t going to be some tin-pot demo with a couple of hippies, a few songs and some scraggy banners: numerous coaches and vans were dropping off tens of activists at each gate – way more protestors than the chap in front of us could see. He capitulated, leaving the designated area for protest as impotent as actually using it would be. He rejoined the ranks of his high-vis’-clad compatriots probably thinking to himself ‘Worth a try.’ and who could blame him?

A second contingent of blockaders arrived having been diverted from the construction gate by the police along the way. Since things weren’t really happening at the main gate yet and by the fact we overwhelmingly outnumbered here, many of us elected to make off to the next gate instead. Only the horse-mounted police followed.

The point of this blockade was to halt the construction work going on at AWE Aldermaston but we weren’t going to be picky and aimed to stop all traffic going in and it was this which necessitated the early start. In March 2007, parliament voted to replace Trident – our submarine-launched nuclear weapon system. But despite only voting for only the replacement of the subs and missiles – and not the actual warheads – a massive construction programme is steaming ahead at AWE Aldermaston, creating extra facilities to design, test and construct the next generation of deadly nuclear warheads, in advance of any parliamentary decision. In July 2007, the CND obtains documents that proved the decision to press on regardless had already been made by Government.

Couple this renewal, expansion and investment with the US Missile Defence system planned for Eastern Europe and no wonder Russia is re-aiming some of its arsenal of nuclear missiles this way.

Worse, this is public money being spent as The Morning Star newspaper reported the day following our blockade: ‘The government has pledged to spend £76 billion – handing over much of it to private weapons firms – to upgrade the weapons of mass destruction during the next few years.’

Since we have signed up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, why not consider Trident Ploughshares’ alternative proposal for AWE making it fit for use as an international centre of expertise on warhead decommissioning and verification as part of a global nuclear weapons convention?

Meanwhile, a mix of local, Thames Valley and MOD police were mostly professional, although I spotted one very over-zealous PC violently drag a protestor spread over the road across a kerb with way too much force. He did this with one arm free while the other clutched a police camera there to record evidence and add to their profiles of us. Perhaps it was his over ambitious nature that landed him the photographer role that day. Then I noted his lapels where his police id number ought to be clearly visible was not shown at all. It lay beneath his high-vis vest and stab-jacket.

Someone else commented that is a police requirement but when I questioned him on it he said ‘You don’t need to worry who I am.’

He was still visibly enraged and shaking with a glimmer of violence in his pursed lips, furrowed brow and piercing glare. Unlike the other constables there, this heavily-built copper looked to me like he was out for a good old-fashioned rumble and nothing more. I too had my camera and decided it was his turn to be snapped. Having done that, I decided to shadow him, letting him know clearly that whatever he did, I’d catch it on camera. It didn’t take long before he turned on me.

‘Have you got some kinda fixation on me or something?’ he snapped. Clearly the police aren’t so keen to have someone constantly taking their photo and surveying them quite so closely.

‘No.’ I replied, ‘I simply think, like the three other witnesses there, you man-handle people. You’re unnecessarily rough and…’ – but he interrupted with a booming ‘That’s my job!’
‘What, man-handling people?’
‘If necessary.’
‘Uh, I don’t think so. But I’ll watch just in case, eh?’

And he promptly pushed me roughly back to the pavement for ‘my own safety’ as a colleague of his put it, noticing the situation was rising and could get quickly and unnecessarily out of control.

For her part, the veteran campaigner Pat Arrowsmith, now 78, lay repeatedly in the road but was not arrested whereas a number of younger activists were led away. The first that I saw were three angels from our gate: three young female students dressed in white with kitsch home-made fairy wings. The police raised some screening, thereby inadvertently actually helping close even more of the road and assisting in our blockade, and prised them apart. There was a mix of superglueing each others’ hands together and the use of tubes to link hands so the police cannot use the usual 3 on 1 tactic to prise protestors apart from linking on to each other (the latter requiring specialist cutting teams instead, all taking more time and therefore prolonging the blockade).

The problem with non-violent direct action is that it is still pretty hardcore stuff. I don’t mind being arrested or having a record, but the fine for the most likely conviction – Obstruction of the Highway – carried a fine of anywhere between £80 to £500 with court costs. I simply don’t have that kind of money lying readily around what with two very young children, a mortgage which has increased over £150 per month in the last two months and the credit crunch to contend with.

On the other hand, what price should we put on the future of these very children? I felt utterly deflated with the moral quandary at hand. I needed to act responsibly as a parent but what did that mean when the state and rule of law was removing my ability to act practically against it? A selfless sacrifice can also be selfish I learned with knotted stomach. Before parenting children I would have been in there, in the very thick of it, but now, with children – even though it was FOR them I was here – I just couldn’t. A support role (legal and photographic witness) and my very presence was the best I could offer Trident Ploughshares while all about me pensioners, Quakers and students were being arrested and carried off to police vans.

Kate Hudson, Chair of the CND said the blockade had “…been a great success. We have effectively obstructed work at the site for many hours, closing gates and blocking roads. This is the largest blockade of Aldermaston for many years and signals an increased public concern about Britain’s weapons of mass destruction. At a time of economic crisis, our government is prioritising nuclear bombs over healthcare, job creation and investment in sustainable energy production. The majority of British taxpayers do not want their money sent on Trident replacement and the new generation of nuclear weapons that will be made here at Aldermaston.”

Paradoxically, the Big Blockade 2008 was also at times life-affirming. In Reading we raised the ghosts of the original March to Aldermaston with strangers coming together snoring and reading in a community hall attached to a church. And then there was the free hot supper, ginger cake and tea, jazz and folk music, brightly-costumed people and, more than anything, camaraderie across the faiths, years and ideologies.

Like most nuclear sites, the sheer size of the AWE is breathtaking, the magnitude for destruction terrifying. But the appearance of the size of the privately-run AWE doesn’t stop incompetence creeping in. In the July 2007 flooding that so affected our own area, AWE itself barely got by with one of the main bunkers where the nuclear warheads are maintained was almost ‘overwhelmed’. 84 buildings were flooded, some up to two feet and all live nuclear work had to be stopped for nine months.

Worse still, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that both essential radiation safety alarms and criticality alarms were out of action for up to 10 days. Although heavily censored, the FOI request revealed that AWE’s own review said ‘Several key facilities experienced Near Miss events…’ This mostly overlooked piece of news (Channel 4 being the exception) was not missed by protestors and more than one banner referred to it directly. But did we raise the profile of our concerns on this day?

For sure all gates or roads to them were peacefully blocked at one point or another, many for a number of hours. Of the hundreds present at the blockade (estimates vary – as ever – from 150 to 400 or more), there were 33 arrests, the greatest number at the site in a decade. That would be the largest number since the end of the Cold War. But the press coverage was, as ever, minimal with most reports making pedestrian remarks at best as to the reasons behind the blockade.

Perhaps, though, this number will also be the largest number to beat at the start of a ‘New Cold War’? For sure it will be if ministers like our very own Mark Harper MP get their way.

Not content with supporting the renewal and replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system, the Forest of Dean MP now backs the dangerously destabilising and controversial American Missile Defence System to be sited in Eastern Europe, as I mentioned earlier.

Although supposedly aimed at ‘rogue states’ – those, we presume, being Iran and North Korea (favourites in Bush’s axis of evil), the Missile Defence System is planned to be built in what was previously the other side of the cold war eastern bloc. It doesn’t, therefore, take a genius to deduce that this would rightly wind the Russians up somewhat.

At least on this occasion Mr. Harper is consistent. His argument for supporting Trident was that the future threat would primarily be a resurgent and aggressive Russia as we had seen in the Cold War. I couldn’t agree at the time of that argument but that was before the Litvinyenko case and the fall-out (ahem) that has since followed from events in Georgia. Now we’ve stoked the old fires in the great Russian bear and Putin’s puppet successor looks to continue the hard line. Indeed, it seems as if we WANT a second Cold War. After all, the war on terror seems to be going the same way as Vietnam.

On a final note and on the other side of things nuclear I caught an intriguing headline on the cover of the 12th June edition of the Municipal Journal [1]: ‘Councils set to be offered ‘carrot’ for nuclear waste’. The carrot this time being some vague form of virtual bargaining termed ‘community benefits packages’. How dumping nuclear waste constitutes a benefit to any community is such incredible spin as to be frankly beyond my logic.

[1] The Municipal Journal, Thursday 12th June 2008 edition, news article by Sally Guyoncourt.

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