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Peace Train: Greenpeace brings half-century of sheer courage

The environmental nonprofit organization’s many voyages have made a mark on nuclear testing sites

In 1971, a small group of activists set sail from Vancouver, Canada, to Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska with intent to try to stop a U.S. nuclear weapons test. They had been influenced by the Quaker belief of “bearing witness” as a form of peaceful protest that registers opposition simply with one’s presence.

The group’s name “Greenpeace” came about as the activists were starting to plan their mission when member Irving Stowe flashed a two-fingered peace sign and said “Peace” at the end of a meeting, as he regularly did when saying goodbye. Another activist, ecologist Bill Darnell, said, “Make it a green peace,” and thus Greenpeace was born.

With the help of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and other musicians, a fundraising concert to pay for the first Greenpeace ship was held. None of the renowned artists wanted any money for the sold-out concert and Greenpeace activists raised $23,000, bought the ship and left the harbor at dusk on Sept. 15, 1971. The activists were stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard and had to turn back. What at first felt like a failure eventually turned into an enormous success: The bomb detonated, but the other tests that were planned ended up being canceled. Five months after that first Greenpeace voyage, the U.S. halted the entire Amchitka nuclear test program.

That was the beginning of 50 years of voyages in a series of different ships, including the famous ship Rainbow Warrior, which was shamelessly bombed and damaged beyond repair by the “action” branch of the French foreign intelligence services in 1985. One activist was killed. At the time of the bombing, the ship was in Auckland, New Zealand, on its way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test.

My friend Tom Clements was on the second Rainbow Warrior four years after the bombing. He knew colleagues who were on the vessel or on shore when the bombing occurred. Calling it “state sponsored terrorism,” he said the the bombing was very much in active memory and influenced their campaigning.

Clements is now executive director of S.R.S. Watch, Savannah River Site Watch. The anti-nuclear organization in South Carolina keeps watch on the Savannah River Site, a nuclear reservation located on land adjacent to the Savannah River, 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia.

Ostensibly, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior was retaliation for Greenpeace protests. However, according to Greenpeace history, an even bigger flotilla of ships sailed to the Pacific to protest the nuclear testing. “A new Rainbow Warrior returned to the Pacific many times, until the testing was stopped in 1996,” according to greenpeace.org.

In October 1983 — at the time of the 17-mile-long encirclement of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant by about 17,000 demonstrators — six individuals, three men and three women, who knew each other through Rocky Flats activism, founded the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder.

One of the six founding members was Chet Tchozewski. He was the former Pacific Northwest Regional Director for Greenpeace USA in San Francisco and founded the Global Greengrants Fund in 1993. The fund’s mission is to help protect the global environment by giving small grants to the grassroots environmental movement in developing countries. Tchozewski is another stunning example of a Greenpeace leader with endless courage and determination with goals to end the nuclear age and protect the earth from harm.

Go Greenpeace!

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