Sample Chapter

Part of in-book interview with Daniel Ellsberg

Sample Chapter

The rider drew his horse to a stop, sending a few small stones rolling and a wisp of dust rising. As if examining the fading trail of some fugitive desperado, he peered down at the barely damp ground; then, straightening once again in the saddle, he wiped his brow and nudged the animal into a shuffle. Only the squat buildings and jutting metallic silver tower in the background revealed the true nature of the scene, far removed from the time when solitary cowboys were a common sight on the prairie.

April 29, 1978 started off hot, but as the day turned to evening, occasional rain showers and a chilling wind dampened the spirits of the horseman and his companions, about 45 Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and Rockwell International security officers. They had grown weary of their charge: an estimated 5,000 sign-carrying anti-nuclear protesters just out of sight beyond the railway embankment leading into the plant from the south.

Not that police were needed to control the peaceful crowd, a muddled blend of environmentalists, peaceniks and assorted activists, including small contingents from 20 other states and a 22-member delegation from Japan. The spirited assemblage occupied itself during its four-hour rally by singing songs, transforming lines from old favorites into anti-nuclear slogans—the familiar Vietnam-era cry of “Hell No, We Won’t Go” became “Hell No, We Won’t Glow.” They listened to speeches and mulled about the access road leading into Rocky Flats from Route 93, about 800 yards from which stood a half-dozen helmeted sheriff’s officers, posted to keep the protesters well away from the plant itself.

As national reporters and network camera crews mingled with and hovered above the protesters, and the activists themselves ambled through the crowd meeting old friends or browsing the T-shirts, bumper stickers and other anti-nuclear wares being offered, Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers, urged the congregation to dedicate itself to a lengthy struggle against what he termed nuclear “gas chambers.” Survivors of Hiroshima warned of the horrors of atomic destruction, and calls were issued for a national referendum on the nuclear power question.

Earlier in the day, caravans of automobiles and buses laden with an anxious cargo had arrived at the plant from Denver, where about 1,000 protest participants received pep talks from Democratic Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder and onetime civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael. Groups of bicyclists, joggers and walkers, as well as vehicle caravans, came south from Boulder, home to the University of Colorado’s 20,000 students and a politically active populace. Hundreds more converged on the site from various points east and west.

It was called the largest anti-nuclear-weapons demonstration in U.S. history, and it was seen as a major link in the long series of activities directed against Rocky Flats.

The earliest demonstration at the plant had been staged in 1970 by a group called Citizens Concerned About Radiation Pollution. It followed by a year the first nuclear gas stimulation explosion on Colorado’s Western Slope. CCARP issued warnings that the 40-kiloton blast would cause structural damage and radioactive air, land and water pollution.

The state’s anti-nuclear movement began to take on momentum following the 1970 demonstration, with CCARP continuing to organize demonstrations against the plant. Other groups, including Environmental Action of Colorado, joined in by staging commemorative demonstrations on the anniversaries of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Environmental Action sponsored the formation of a group in 1974 to initiate a statewide referendum prohibiting plans for underground nuclear blasts, which succeeded in November with 60 percent of the vote. A similar effort by Coloradans for Safe Power the following year, placing the Nuclear Safeguards Amendment on the November 1976 ballot, fell to defeat after sponsors failed to organize a strong grass-roots constituency and opponents invested over $600,000 in a media campaign.

It was also in 1974 that the Rocky Flats Action Group was formed as a coalition of concerned citizens and groups, including Environmental Action, the American Friends Service Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned and others. This coalition attempted to correct the movement’s constituency problem by organizing community meetings, seminars and workshops in the area. It lobbied extensively, assisted and watchdogged the Lamm-Wirth Task Force, and sponsored visits from Japanese atomic bomb survivors. Additionally, it held periodic rallies at Rocky Flats, keeping the issue ever before the public eye.

By 1978, anti-nuclear activists had developed the planning of demonstrations into an art. Early in the year, “Stop the Bomb” and “No Nukes” T-shirts were being hawked in the hallways of the student center at the University of Colorado, while ubiquitous posters and advertisements in the local media saturated eyes and ears with news of the event planned for April, billed as the first such massive protest against a nuclear weapons plant. Over 30 national and local organizations, including Boulder County’s Democratic Party, had endorsed the protest by late March, calling for closure of the plant, alternative employment for its workforce and the replacement of nuclear technology and the arms race with alternative energy and production in the service of human needs. During mid-April, nonviolent civil disobedience training sessions were staged by professional trainers from the Movement for a New Society and the American Friends Service Committee, and persons planning to participate in a symbolic blockade of the railway leading into the plant on the night of April 29 were told of the legal implications of such an action. In other training workshops, protesters were introduced to the concept of affinity groups, small squads whose members would offer one another emotional, spiritual and moral support during the planned action.

Fearing outbursts during the blockade by undisciplined protesters, organizers of the event worked closely with Rockwell security and the county sheriff’s department during April to iron out any problems and prepare for unexpected occurrences. It was also during April that the Boulder City Council adopted its stance favoring conversion of Rocky Flats after hearing testimony from an officer of the Colorado Department of Health, who said the plant’s location constituted a serious hazard to the local population.

Various activists, including Daniel Ellsberg and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, made appearances on the university campus during the spring. If they did not devote entire speeches to the Rocky Flats topic, at least they seldom failed to release a few disdainful remarks. Nader, in the course of a harangue directed at automobile manufacturers, called the plant “an environmental menace.” It was evident by the fact that people like Nader knew of plans for the protest that it was not an isolated action being staged by a small group out of the American mainstream. Some perceived it as such, however, including the Colorado Coalition for Science and industry, whose membership included Congressman Wayne Aspinall and former Colorado Governor John Vanderhoof. Apsinall called the protesters “hysterical,” but his comment probably served best to spread the word about the protest.

Seen in the context of previous smaller demonstrations and all the organization and preparation that went into it, the April 1978 protest was to the anti-nuclear movement in Colorado what a baby’s first step is to a parent: It had been tottering, carefully supported, and now it was finally off and walking on its own. But the real importance of the April protest—the factor which would keep the issues prominently displayed before the public—began to emerge only as the thousands of protest participants packed up their gear, climbed back into their vehicles and started the journey home. Long before the traffic created by this exodus had cleared out of the area, about 120 protesters began to pitch camp for the night on the rail spur south of the plant where it crossed Route 72. They had begun the symbolic blockade that was to cap the massive protest, but which instead would turn into an unplanned year-long occupation.