Can't sink a rainbow

IssueJune - August 2004
Feature by Ian Murray

“When you see something horrible happening, your instinct is to do something about it. You can freeze in fearful apathy or you can even talk yourself into saying that it isn't horrible. I can't do that. I have to act. This is too horrible. We know it. Let's all act.”

So wrote Albert Bigelow, skipper of the Golden Rule, as he contemplated sailing his vessel into the US Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear test site at the Eniwetok Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands (see p28-29 for more on the Golden Rule). The year was 1958, more than a decade before the foundation of Greenpeace, the organisation whose name is now synonymous with the type of dramatic, sea-based nonviolent actions of which Bigelow was a pioneer.

As a Quaker, well versed in the theory of nonviolence, Bigelow understood that direct action moves the focus of a conflict from the boardrooms, parliaments and courthouses, where the power holders are at their most confident, to that area where social movements have the advantage.

For Greenpeace, nonviolent direct action at sea allows us to draw on considerable symbolic and historical strengths.

Setting a precedent

Greenpeace's indirect predecessors were a handful of pacifists - Harold Steele, Albert Bigelow, Earle and Barbara Reynolds - who mounted sea voyages, of varying success, to disrupt British and US nuclear testing in the Pacific in the late 1950s.

Inspired by their example, in 1971 the Vancouver-based Don't Make a Wave Committee - later to become the Vancouver Greenpeace Foundation - chartered an old fishing vessel called the Phyllis Cormack and set sail for the island of Amchitka with the intention of stopping US nuclear tests off the Alaskan coast.

While only the Reynoldses achieved their objective of entering a nuclear test site, all four voyages sparked popular movements back on land. Steele's mission partly led to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, Bigelow and the Reynoldses voyage spurred the growth of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy in the United States, and the voyage of the Phyllis Cormack ultimately led to the development of the international environmental organisation known as Greenpeace.

Deliberate acts of violence

When the French secret service chose to commit a deliberate act of violence against Greenpeace in 1985, it wasn't a land-based office that came under attack. The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior struck at the very heart of the organisation.

With a little nonviolence training, those responsible for the bombing may have understood that the subsequent surge in public support for Greenpeace, and the ultimate defeat of the French nuclear testing programme, were entirely predictable outcomes of a shocking act of aggression against an organisation with a reputation for both nonviolence and persistence.

But as events during the last year have shown, challenges to organisations which take nonviolent action at sea can take more subtle forms than acts of state sponsored violence.

Changing tack

In June last year, Greenpeace's consultative status on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was suspended following complaints by several IMO member states.

In successfully arguing against the expulsion, Greenpeace noted that none of the complaints made any specific claims concerning breaches of the IMO's 1972 collision regulations (COLREGs). We pointed out that Greenpeace has never been prosecuted for any such breach.

The following month, the US Justice Department indicted Greenpeace - as an organisation - with “sailor mongering” under an 1872 law designed to prevent sailors being lured to shore by the prospects of drink and prostitution. This followed a 2002 action in which two activists boarded a ship carrying illegally logged timber off the coast of Florida, carrying a banner reading “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging”.

Then, in October, authorities at the port of Miami refused berth space to the Greenpeace ship, the MV Esperanza, forcing her to anchor off the coast of Florida.

Can't sink a rainbow

While the tactics may be new, the strategy of attacking the organisation at the point of its greatest symbolic strength is a familiar one.

Following the bombing of the first Rainbow Warrior, the slogan “You Can't Sink a Rainbow” appeared on t-shirts worn by Greenpeace supporters around the world. Maybe someone needs to tell the US Attorney General that you can't indict one either.