Abalone Alliance: Raiders of Diablo Canyon

Active meets passive in the environmental movement — how collective do you want to get?

Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, US on March 28th, 1979. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Jon Duncanson, 25, stared out at the Pacific. Two years ago, what had happened at Love Canal and Three Mile Island had made him feel that time was running out. Now he stood on a beach 10 miles south of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, where, over the next week, would occur a major event in the American anti-nuke movement an elaborate 10-day protest, in which a record-breaking 1,850 persons would be arrested.

The Abalone Alliance, a loose coalition of 60 anti-nuke organizations, had vowed back in March 1979 to "blockade" the plant to prevent workers from getting in when it came time to bring the plant on line. Located about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the plant had been fifteen years in the making–and constructed as it was on an earthquake fault line–15 years in the protesting. To date it had cost $2.4 billion.

Early indications suggested that as many as 30,000 protesters might participate in the blockade, a figure that sent shock waves down the spines of local law enforcement. In fact, as Duncanson and his five companions inflated Zodiac rafts to practice rough-surf landings for their part in the blockade, seven obvious lawmen from various agencies watched. The guy from the FBI took pictures through a telephoto lens.

Duncanson and the others were part of the Abalone Alliance as well as members of Greenpeace, a radical organization that has become symbolic of a new trend in the environmental movement: civil disobedience, salted with the threat of outright violence. Greenpeace studiously disavows any interest in breaking the law, but its record suggests otherwise. Members have been arrested and detained and their boats seized all over the world.

Greenpeace International, based in Washington D.C., is their well-financed umbrella organization, and it operates something like a granting agency. For example, Duncanson and the others submitted a proposal–budget, objectives, etc.–and got the money to go ahead. Three members would act as "support" people, and three others would pilot the Zodiacs. Duncanson was one.

Then there was Jay McManus, 26. He had been the support man for a Greenpeace action in Japan that, after elaborate plotting, resulted in the release of hundreds of captured dolphins scheduled for slaughter. And then there was Désirée Crockett, 23, totally at home handling anything from fancy nautical knots to the carburetor on a Suzuki outboard. Her only worry was that an arrest record might keep her out of the merchant marines.

Together they would lead a kind of environmental Normandy Omaha Beach invasion that would land Abalone Alliance people on the beach. The protesters would then disappear into the hills around the nuclear facility on the chance that a wrinkle in the plant's license might not permit a start-up as long as civilians were wandering around the property.

The Coast Guard had established a "safety zone" offshore of the plant, and violating it could lead to massive federal penalties, plus confiscation of craft. Drawing diagrams in the sand, Duncanson sketched out a plan for a three-day action. On day one, they'd head out for a chartered schooner, the Stone Witch–just arrived from San Francisco and pick up protesters to bring in to shore. On the second day, they'd do the same. By then, Duncanson figured, the Coast Guard would have sensed a pattern. So on the third morning, Greenpeace would move the schooner and make elaborate preparations, as if to launch again.

Instead, however, they would have kept other Zodiacs on the shore to the south of the plant. When the Coast Guard's attention was distracted, these would launch and race up the coast, hugging the shoreline and discharging a flock of demonstrators. Duncanson rubbed out the elaborate diagram he had drawn in the sand. The action would start tomorrow. Today they would just take a little run up the coast and reconnoiter the terrain.

It was a plan entirely in keeping with Greenpeace's international reputation for being, if nothing else, sly. The classic story involves the time their major ship, the Rainbow Warrior, was seized off the coast of Spain during a whaling protest. The Spanish towed the Rainbow Warrior into port, removed the main propeller shaft and levied a massive fine.

Stuck in port, the Greenpeace people first smuggled the necessary repair parts on board and rebuilt the drive train. But they were still facing into the dock, the wrong direction for a quick getaway. So they asked the authorities if they could repaint the ship. Of course, the Spanish said.

After all, at that point, it looked like the government was about to own the vessel. Greenpeace neatly painted one side and then asked permission to turn the ship around, pointing seaward, so they could paint the other side. The Spanish were happy to oblige. In the dead of night, the Rainbow Warrior, its prop shaft secretly repaired, bolted for the open ocean. The Spanish navy, in hot pursuit, nonetheless lost them.

That's the way Greenpeace has always played it. And that's why, when it comes to the fundamental question of style and tactics within the environmental movement–the notion of active versus passive–Greenpeace is always associated with the former.

***

While Greenpeace was reconnoitering, the Abalone Alliance was preparing to break camp and start their land blockade. Their encampment at Diablo Canyon was something of a time warp. While Greenpeace was out playing like the marines, a guy in the Alliance camp, wearing tie-dyed pajamas and a feather headdress, was announcing: "Rebirthing! Rebirthing exercises, ten minutes, next to the medical tent! Please bring your own blanket!"

The encampment was an answer to the question, Where did all the hippies go? They were all there, poised for action in the hills above Diablo Canyon. There was probably more holistic health available in the campground than in all of Berkeley. Whether you wanted shiatsu, polarity therapy or simply a bit of Rolfing, it was on-site.

There was a half-kilowatt photovoltaic panel to power the PA system, and all organic garbage was being composted. The food from the central kitchen was strictly vegetarian, and anywhere you looked, it seemed there was a group of people standing in a circle, arms around each other, swaying and usually singing, either newly composed anti-nuke songs or older protest songs from the Sixties.

On the surface, it looked as if the camp had been frozen in time 15 years ago, but on closer examination, the Abalone Alliance could be divided into two very different age groups. There was the 17-to-25-year-old bracket. For them, this was the first real opportunity for institutional civil disobedience. And then there was the older (35 and up) contingent.

Some of them could actually reminisce about Selma, Alabama. These were chronic-cause cases who needed an issue to keep them going. Individuals from the ages of 25 to 35 were conspicuous in their absence: the peak of the baby boom had stayed home paying the mortgage and making more babies. They gave at the office, in the early Seventies. A little Kent State seems to have gone a long way.

***

In a bizarre leap of faith, a majority of the Abalone Alliance members seemed to have convinced themselves that they would actually shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. This was a notion that sent media representatives away shaking their heads, for it was common knowledge that: a) the nuclear fuel rods had been on-site since 1975; b) there was a month's worth of food and clothing stockpiled for all workers; c) the utility had so much at stake, it was even willing to fly the lowliest laborer to and from the site by helicopter as long as the blockade lasted, so that employees wouldn'thave to endanger their cars at the main gate.

(Later, at a beer-and-burger place down the road from the plant's main gate, I met a carpenter who had been ferried to and from the plant for three days via the executive helicopter, a six-person craft with plush wool carpeting and a walnut veneer interior. "They even said we could use the phone if we wanted," he said. "And that's ten dollars a call.")

But no matter. Faith had, in the past, triumphed. And in this case, the Abalone Alliance had determined–through a complex process called "consensus"–that the media were not crucial to their program. Since they were going to shut down the plant anyway, why kowtow to a bunch of cynical reporters? Greenpeace, more experienced in the business of civil disobedience, rebelled immediately. When the Abalone Alliance told them that no reporters should be allowed on the boats, Greenpeace told them to take a hike. The Alliance gave in as far as Greenpeace was concerned.

But that didn't affect onshore press relations. At their massive encampment, they established a wire-fenced pen for reporters. Media people, whether from the Fresno Bee or NBC, were not admitted without a "spoke"–a newspeak designation that the Alliance adopted to avoid the complex problem of specifying gender and authority. The Abalone Alliance was doing its best to be an army without generals.

"Voting," one young woman told me, "means that someone wins and someone loses. Consensus means that everyone wins."

True, but it also meant that every decision took an inordinate amount of time. On the day before the blockade began, I asked one of the leaders what would happen if the police suddenly changed strategy.

He gazed at me evenly. "Each affinity group would have to meet," he said, "and select a spoke. Then each group would have to consensus a proposal. Then the spoke would take the proposal to a cluster. When there was consensus, we'd move forward."

"What if the National Guard was tear-gassing you as all this went on?"

"Our reaction would have to come from consensus."

***

On my first day in San Luis Obispo, I met a veteran New York reporter. "These people," he said of the Abalone Alliance, "are so collective you could puke."

It wasn't quite that bad. But for a journalist walking in off the street, the Alliance's egalitarian system of assigning random spokes made it entirely possible to get saddled with a complete flake. Press interviews sometimes tended to become free-for-alls, because, if, say, your average northern California lesbian communist wandered in and wanted to tell a visiting reporter about boycotting the Bohemian Club encampment in Sonoma, it was okay. After a few days, however, the astute observer could determine who was in charge–or at least who knew what was going on. But it was tough.

There were two full pages in the Diablo Canyon demonstrator's manual on how to avoid being a dominant male in your affinity group. The advice was basic and would have pleased Amy Vanderbilt: be polite and don't interrupt.

However, spending a few days in the Abalone Alliance office–a small frame house in downtown San Luis Obispo–made it clear that one way not to be a dominant male was to become a manipulative one. Tracking one organizer carefully, I noticed that every time he talked for more than thirty seconds with a female Abalone Alliance member in attendance, he would almost automatically change the subject to feminism. Even if the subject at hand had absolutely nothing to do with feminism.

"Have I mentioned," he would say, "just how much the feminist perspective has altered our notions of collectivism?"

"Yes," the visiting reporter would say. "When we talked about feminism and egalitarianism yesterday."

"Right. Let me tell you what I think."

"But I already talked to––"

"Right. I think you'll want to hear this, anyway."

Not surprisingly, Greenpeace and the Abalone Alliance didn't always get along very well. The Alliance, with its lessons on how not to be dominant, often thought that Greenpeace, which has a track record of fostering unbearably dominant males, was kind of adventurist. On the other hand, Greenpeace thought that the Abalone Alliance were, in general, rather out of it.

Greenpeace was also a little nervous around the Alliance. They thought these chronic hippies might be entertaining spies. Greenpeace was suspicious they themselves had been infiltrated occasionally, so why not the Abalones.

The Alliance certainly had been infiltrated in the past. Four years ago, during the first arrest of Diablo Canyon protesters, 47 had been jailed. Within 30 minutes, a deputy had come into the men's cell block and called out a name. "Your wife's been in an automobile accident," the deputy had said, and then he'd led the protester away.

The Alliance people smelled a rat. After their release, they tried contacting him by phone, but he refused their help. He never showed up for the legal strategy sessions. Finally, a local reporter called the sheriff's office and asked outright whether there had been an undercover agent in the group. For reasons still unknown, the law said yes and gave his name.

It was that of yet another demonstrator. The group, in short, still had a spy sitting in on all its legal strategy sessions. The case went to the California Supreme Court, which dismissed all charges against the Alliance and excoriated law agencies for flagrant misuse of undercover officers.

Some in the Abalone Alliance were sure there were undercover agents at Diablo Canyon, but decided to ignore them. Greenpeace didn't understand.

During the initial march on the plant's main gate, hundreds of protesters–20-year-olds on the way to their first arrest–cheered when they saw the Greenpeace schooner anchored in the harbor. But behind the scenes, relations between Greenpeace and the Abalone Alliance steadily deteriorated. Greenpeace was unable to make the strategy meeting with the Alliance the night before the assault because of car trouble.

Jon received a call at 11 that night, telling him it would be a one-shot deal instead of the three-day action originally planned. Greenpeace had five hours to prepare for a launch that was to take place at four the next morning. But Greenpeace was still willing to follow orders. They agreed to do a single beach assault, dropping off as many wet-suited demonstrators as the Alliance could produce, then trying to outrun the Coast Guard.

"It's lambs to the slaughter," one Greenpeace boatman said. "But what can you do?"

***

A bit before dawn the next day, the Greenpeace Zodiacs were on their way to the schooner Stone Witch, now under sail two miles offshore, just outside the Coast Guard safety zone. The sky was salmon.

Jon, Jay and Désirée gunned the 35 horsepower engines on the little rafts, bouncing from wave top to wave top. They traveled in a little pod, making elaborate turns and twists for no reason past pure exuberance, eventually nosing their Zodiacs against the big ship. The pilots and support people handed up their IDs, keeping only one dime apiece; the telephone number of the Greenpeace lawyer was written in indelible ink on the backs of their hands.

Their talk was half-serious, half-silly: there was a real chance that if the Greenpeacers didn't end up in jail, they'd end up in the ocean.

Soon the three rafts were off, carrying the demonstrators full-throttle onto the beach. In the distance, the twin cooling towers of the Diablo Canyon plant glistened in the morning sun like a pair of hard-boiled eggs.

The Coast Guard cutter had been watching the Stone Witch ever since it started tacking along the edge of the safety zone. The cutter started to move immediately, which could have been the prelude to Greenpeace's biggest fear: that the cutter would deploy its own Zodiac, one with a faster, 50-horsepower engine.

On his boat, Jon had briefed the demonstrators: "You're going to get arrested, released on recognizance and go back to the encampment. We're facing five years, $50,000 fines and losing our rafts. We don't want to be martyrs. We need to get in and get out."

Désirée was more direct: "Stay low, get out fast," she yelled. "Have everything in your hands. If anything gets caught or stuck, I'll cut it off, because I'm getting out of here."

One Abalone Alliance guy on her raft lost a flipper as he went overboard; as she turned the raft, one hand on the Evinrude, she picked up the flipper from between the seats and threw it to him.

Within a few hundred yards of the beach, the Coast Guard cutter had begun to close in. The Zodiacs stopped still in the water. The cutter continued to approach at high speed and overshot the rafts; Jay, Jon and Désirée gunned off again, this time in the opposite direction. The Coast Guard vessel put on flashing lights and a siren, and one officer on deck displayed a shotgun. But the Greenpeace rafts drove south and split around the bow of the cutter as it did its best to make the nautical equivalent of a U-turn.

The Greenpeacers figured that if they could penetrate the safety zone and then escape, things would be fine once they were outside the zone. Wrong. The Greenpeace rafts sped south along the coast at full throttle, but the Coast Guard was in hot pursuit. The Zodiacs maneuvered deftly through a kelp bed and'out of the safety zone, but were running low on ga. Finally, they were forced to put in at the fuel dock at the port of San Luis.

The guard had radioed ahead, and the California Highway Patrol was waiting. The Greenpeacers were popped as soon as they climbed out of their Zodiacs. Still, they managed to abandon the rafts so quickly that the law-enforcement officers were unable to determine who was steering each vessel; previous experience had taught Greenpeace that if the law can't determine individual responsibility, it's harder to prosecute. And indeed, the first question the patrol asked was who was steering each boat. No one could seem to remember.

Though the Highway Patrol wasn't sure what to do with the Greenpeace people, the Coast Guard had no problem. It promptly confiscated their rafts and ended up towing about $10,000 worth of equipment.

The Greenpeacers didn't seem overly concerned. "We've never had a vessel permanently confiscated anywhere in the world," one said, failing to mention that the statistic includes boats stolen back.

The Highway Patrol finally put the three Greenpeace sailors into one of the big yellow school buses that had been rented to cart off protesters. Then it made the tactical error of parking the buses just 50 yards down the road from the front gate of the Diablo Canyon plant, where several hundred bored media people were milling around aimlessly, waiting for the next action.

For Greenpeace, Raiders of Diablo Canyon this was equivalent to throwing the rabbit into the briar patch. Within minutes, the bus was surrounded by reporters and cameras, and Jon and Jay and Désirée were giving on-the-spot interviews faster than the press could take notes.

Clearly, the situation was out of control. The county sheriff called in a special paddy wagon to take the Greenpeacers out before they made the evening network news.

***

The Greenpeace lawyer, well-prepared, made a few appropriate calls. The organization had been through this Coast Guard safety-zone business before. Their legal tactic is to raise the question of whose safety is really at stake; at Diablo Canyon, they contended, it was clearly the safety of the power plant, not of other boats out in the water. (The one time Greenpeace had problems with this rarely invoked federal regulation was in Puget Sound, in Washington State, when the group was trying to blockade an oil tanker. In that case, the tanker would have cut their ship in two if the Greenpeace vessel hadn't moved.)

The challenge worked. The Greenpeacers were out of the slammer in less than four hours, even though they'd been booked on felony conspiracy charges. Their bail was immediately dropped from $2,000 per person to personal recognizance.

Ironically, hundreds of Abalone Alliance protesters booked on minor misdemeanors would remain in custody for days. Some would even initiate a hunger strike. Partly it was because of the county's fear that if protesters were released, they would promptly return to the blockade. Partly it was because of the Abalone Alliance's notions of "bail solidarity" and "noncooperation."

Even if given the opportunity to be released on recognizance, the protesters had been pressured not to accept–to remain in jail and "clog the system." (Several months earlier, a state assemblywoman from the county had sponsored a bill to forbid jury trials for Diablo Canyon protesters in order to avoid "clogging." Because the bill raised certain rather obvious constitutional issues, it had not fared well in Sacramento.)

Greenpeace had no sympathy for the Abalone Alliance's jail policy. They wanted out as soon as possible in order to start another action somewhere. "What the hell good does it do to sit around in jail?" one Greenpeacer asked, moments before they left for the county's temporary prison facility. "We want our boats back, too," he added quietly.

In all, there were interesting differences in the ways Greenpeace and the Abalone Alliance related to authority.

In its two-dollar, 64-page blockader's handbook, the Abalone Alliance detailed elaborate procedures for starting "dialogue" with law-enforcement officers. During the last days of the blockade, a handful of protesters regularly stood one-on-one in front of the sheriff's department reserve officers and said things like, "I'm a human being. You're a human being. Radiation hurts us both."

This did not win hearts and minds, particularly when the demonstrators also sang. Most of the officers, both male and female–all of whom had been instructed not to interact or show emotion eventually looked like they were ready to deck somebody.

As one reserve officer said over beer and fried fish, "When you're standing in the hot sun for four hours, in your helmet, you get tired. A lot of the reserve guys miss their noon beer. And you can't smoke. When you've heard the same song for two hours, you get edgy." He shrugged. "You don't fucking want to 'relate.'"

On the other hand, Greenpeace had been on fairly good terms with the Coast Guard for weeks. Indeed, the Greenpeace people developed a bizarre confidence that the Coast Guard actually liked them and respected their seamanship. In their view, the safety zone was intended only to exclude amateur sailors and idle sightseers. "They know our nautical safety record," Jon told me at one point. "The worst accident we've ever had was only a severed finger."

Curiously, even though the Coast Guard did finally run Greenpeace to ground, they seemed sympathetic.

The Greenpeace mother ship remained in radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter, even as the cutter was in self-described "hot pursuit" of the little Zodiacs.

The Greenpeace people on the Stone Witch had been concerned that someone would be thrown out of a raft during the open-ocean escape attempt. The Coast Guard had immediately radioed back a count of how many people remained in the rafts they were pursuing. At all times, the dialogue had been completely amiable:

"We have your rafts in sight, and they appear to be maintaining a due-south heading." "Thank you, skipper. This is Stone Witch, out."

In the end, Greenpeace and the Abalone Alliance represent very opposite ends of the environmental-activist spectrum. The Alliance showed uncomfortable proportions of group-think. There was a mass mentality that, in its worst moments, almost bordered on Moonie "love-bombing." No one could ever say that they loved everybody else enough. And there was a distressing amount of canned dialogue.

When you asked someone, 10 minutes away from his first arrest, how he felt, the answer was often, "Why does the press keep asking us meaningless questions like that? Why don't you write about what a single grain of plutonium can do?"

Greenpeace, on the other hand, would much rather talk about the relative merits of Evinrude over Suzuki, or how to turn a Zodiac in surf, or whether you had a Swiss army knife on you because they could really use a screwdriver right now.

While the Abalone Alliance did their best to put on a happy face–alleging that some of the younger Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) employees are really ambivalent about nuclear power–the fact seems to be that the average worker was perfectly willing to render limb-from-limb any protester in proximity.

In a curious culture clash, even the younger, longhaired plant employees seemed entirely unsympathetic to the protesters. Though many of them shared similar cultural icons–marijuana on the job, a fondness for Jackson Browne–they felt no particular bond with the "hippies" outside the gates. Indeed, Browne's arrest on trespassing charges during the blockade probably cost him some album sales in San Luis Obispo. The other major star involved in the protest, Robert Blake Baretta fame, avoided arrest at first, and in fact returned to San Luis Obispo to personally apologize for calling the county sheriff "fat."

An informal survey indicated that the younger PG&E workers still respected Blake. Then he showed up again and was arrested. The guys were starting to think he was kind of a jerk. But they retained a grudging admiration for Greenpeace; some of them have been out in the surf off Diablo Canyon, diving for abs, and it's really not that easy in a small boat It's hard not to think of the difference between Greenpeace and the Abalone Alliance as that between a handful of privileged pirates and the Children's Crusade.

The Alliance walked stoically–almost lemming-like–to their arrests. The Greenpeace members had a great time plotting tactics, outrunning the Coast Guard and using thousands of organizational dollars to play pirate and provide a symbol–and film at eleven.

Who did more for the anti-nuke cause? The Abalone Alliance pulled together into an enormous presence and sent enough people to jail to eclipse the record of the Seabrook demonstration in the East, Greenpeace managed to keep a lot of undercover officers worried for a relatively long time.

It's worth remembering that no new nuclear plants have been ordered in this country for several years. And actions like Diablo Canyon, as untidy and silly as they sometimes may seem, make it even less likely that more will be constructed.

Two days after the blockade ended, a new set of fundamental construction errors was discovered in the plant, and its eventual operation remains in doubt. On nearly the same day, Boston Edison became the second utility this year to scrap plans for a nuclear power plant, a decision that cost them nearly $291 million.

Meanwhile, the head of media relations for the Abalone Alliance began to make plans to leave her home in San Luis Obispo permanently. Greenpeacer Désirée Crockett was hoping that her legal problems would be resolved shortly, because she really wanted to go out on an action against some whalers.