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.