The women of Greenham Common taught a generation how to protest

Greenham was a place where a generation of women found a public voice. It was a voice that was predicated on inclusion and difference... It identified earlier than most, that we had been let down by a political class, that the interests of ordinary people had been ignored in favor of warmongers and international business interests
It is often said that the protest at Greenham Common was ineffectual. The eventual closure of the US base at Newbury is deemed to have been an almost inadvertent side effect of much more important (ie male) political forces. In this version of history the bunch of women sitting near a fence in middle England 30 years ago are rendered pretty much irrelevant.
Greenham common
The decommissioning of nuclear weapons was the Greenham women’s most important aim. Photograph: PA
But, as campaigners save the village of Balcombe, at least temporarily, from the possibility of fracking, and the cries for fair taxation from UK Uncut are mirrored by world leaders at the G20, perhaps the real success of the protest was not simply what it changed at Greenham Common but how it changed the nature of protest.
Thirty years ago this month marked a high-water mark of sorts for the Greenham Common protests. In the summer of 1983, nearly two years after the campaign began on 5 September 1981, thousands of women took part in the Star Marches, simultaneous marches across the country to Greenham which helped show the extent of national support. Government papers released only a few weeks ago by the National Archives, show how senior Conservative ministers were worried that they were in danger of losing public opinion over the deployment of Cruise missiles.
Yet by November, the first of the missiles arrived and – despite the triumph of protesters occupying the central tower by the end of the year – by March 1984, the local council had joined forces with the Ministry of Defence and local police to start a process of mass evictions at the camp. Despite these evictions and the dismantling of the camp, an inevitable blow struck Greenham in the form of the international non-proliferation treaties of the late 80s. Closed for years, the symbolic Greenham tower has recently been put up for sale with the deadline for bids on 11 September.
In 30-plus years since I sat at the yellow gate filming the heavy hand of the police and the inexplicable prejudice of the media against a group, whose major crime seemed to be the absence of men, I have often reflected upon the creative solutions that the women found to issues that thwart even the most sophisticated of our politicians. This was a community making up its rules as it went along, and yet the lessons have been learnt by a generation.
Everything, from how to allocate donations to the distribution of cooking rotas was democratically decided. Who should speak, travel and represent the protest was a constant source of frustration to those from outside who demanded leaders while those within demanded that there should be none. Meanwhile, the women worked out how to care for the young, how to humiliate the authorities on the ground while arguing the case in the highest courts of the land, how to live with difference while living in a community that claimed one thing – the decommissioning of nuclear weapons – was more important than all other considerations.
In my time there helping to make Carry Greenham Home, the first film the protest, I saw a baby born, relationships come and go, and incredible acts of violence and kindness, from outsiders and wellwishers. I saw how a community could care for its young, its old, its needy and its troubled, showing compassion even for those who attacked it.
At a time when politics in its traditional form struggles to show leadership and find favour with the public, we should be more attentive to those who protest. The Blair government showed scant regard for those who marched against the Iraq invasion – in retrospect, showing more wisdom than their gung-ho leaders.
The Countryside Alliance carried the anger of those who live outside the urban sprawl and who have suffered decades of public policy that has eviscerated train services and post offices, favoured supermarkets over farmers and drained the countryside of its young and its identity.
More recently, the Occupy movement was the target of media sniggering because it could not offer soundbite solutions to the crimes of global finance. How naive to say "We are the 99% and we want better," said commentator after commentator. No one seemed to observe that, given the lack of progress of both the international community and national governments in reforming the financial sector, wanting better seemed entirely appropriate.
Scratch the surface of many women in public life and you can often find a Greenham woman underneath. We know politics is the way you live your life, not the way you vote. Leadership is taking what and who is around you and working out how to make it better. Violence should not always be met with violence. Protest is what you do when those you elect are not listening, and it can, on occasion, be powerful to dress up in fancy dress and sing.
Greenham was a place where a generation of women found a public voice. It was a voice that was predicated on inclusion and difference, multiple perspectives not a single dominant view. It identified earlier than most that we had been let down by a political class, that the interests of ordinary people had been ignored in favor of warmongers and international business interests. Far from being an irrelevance, the demands of the Greenham women have echoed down the years. And if you listen carefully you can still hear their demand: "We want better."
See also

Popular posts from this blog

Third degree torture used on Maruti workers: Rights body

Haruki Murakami: On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus (1940)

Satyagraha - An answer to modern nihilism

Rudyard Kipling: critical essay by George Orwell (1942)

Three Versions of Judas: Jorge Luis Borges

Goodbye Sadiq al-Azm, lone Syrian Marxist against the Assad regime