Americans, and in particular US Americans, often ask me if protests make any difference. Surely the politicians are corporate executives and are set in their ways. Surely protesters have no real power and protest in the street won’t influence their thinking. I have some personal experience that disproves this thinking. When i sat on the Cornell University board of trustees, at one point the board was inconvenienced by a couple hundred students protesting against apartheid in South Africa, because the students had surrounded the building the board was in and the board could not leave.
So the efficient Cornell board re-opened its completed meeting and spent an hour talking about the oppressive and racist government in South Africa. While campus security forcibly removed the protesters, the board decided to set up a committee which would review the university investment policies. A year after this forced meeting started they would start selectively divesting from South Africa.
When the committee started to do it’s work, almost no one linked it’s creation and actions to the protest, they were too far separated in time. These protests and thousands like them would ultimately help free Nelson Mandela and liberate South Africa from exclusive white rule.
In 1970, 300,000 protesters surrounded the Pentagon. Inside that building sat a defense contractor named Daniel Ellsberg who was writing the secret history of the Vietnam war for the highest brass of the Pentagon to review. He had access to all of the military’s top secret documents. He looked out his window, saw this tremendous protest, which included all three of his daughters, and he decided that he was on the wrong side. Ellsberg would leak his secrets to the NY Times and Washington Post in what would ultimately be known as the Pentagon Papers. These papers would show that the US had staged the Tonkin Gulf attacks that had been used to justify the war in the first place, as well as many other lies about the war. These papers and the huge national protests that ensued would force Nixon to promise to withdraw from Vietnam as part of his re-election campaign.
Over the last couple of days the largest protests in Egypt’s history and perhaps the largest protest ever in the world have raged in Tahrir Square. [See pictures]. The Daily Kos is reporting unofficially 33 million people, which would make it about 1/3 the countries total population. The military has given the fairly recently elected Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi 48 hours to satisfy the demands of the protesters before it acts (as it has in the past) to solve the problem. Five of Morsi’s top ministers have already resigned.
Similar mass protests forced out Honsi Mubarek just two years ago. After years of dictatorship, Egypt is still finding its democratic legs. And as is more often true than many people realize, these protests really do matter.
My first anti-nuclear demonstration was at Diablo Canyon in 1981. i did not identify as an anti-nuclear activist at the time, and it would take almost a decade for me to realize that this was my calling. But Diablo still holds a special place in my heart.
When the president of the utility that built this reactor was being interviewed after he had left the job, he was asked if the protests at Diablo Canyon had mattered to his company and his response was unusually candid.
“At the time Diablo Canyon was completed, we were planning 10 more reactors in California, we did not build any of them”.
So as is so often the case, the people who were protesting did not see the effect of their work. Diablo went online not long after the protest despite thousands of arrests and proof that systems had been installed improperly.
So we lost the battle at Diablo, but we won the war agaisnt reactor construction nation wide. And as is so often the case with both technology and politics, as goes California, so goes the world. New reactor construction in the US had already dropped off to nearly nothing after the Three Mile Island accident, which resulted in over 100 in-construction reactors to be stopped.
Now California is possibly leading the way again. Voters will likely get a chance in November to keep all of the reactors in California off line, should they choose. The two San Onofre reactors have been closed for over a year now, awaiting very expensvie repairs. Similarly, Diablo Canyon has no place to put its radioactive waste and this initiative requires that a long term waste repository be established before these reactors can be trusted to dispose of their waste responsibly. With the canceling of the Yucca Mountain project, this will be years if not decades away.
We can only hope, as goes California so goes the world.