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January 5th

January 5, 1991

The sun is shining brilliantly for the first time since our arrival when we gather at eight o’clock in morning to board the coaches which will take us to the protest at the nuclear test site.

There are a number of brave souls from Vancouver who plan to be arrested that day. I’ve chickened out, not wanting to risk losing any chance of ever returning to the US. I have friends here, I rationalise, and I want to be able to visit them. I might want to work here at some point in the future. And I’d listened to the organiser from Greenpeace in Vancouver who warned that anyone arrested might be detained until after the bus departs on Monday morning and therefore liable for the cost of getting themselves home. They also serve, I tell myself, who offer support.

Thousands of people have already gathered for the rally on the legal side of the fence when our buses pull up. It’s an inspiring sight.

Along the road form the makeshift parking lot to the rally I spot a fabulous traffic sign: “Warning: Demonstrators On Road”. Underneath a speed limit set of 25 miles per hour, the speed at which it was apparently acceptable to hit demonstrators. Of course we all have to have our photos taken in front of the sign. (Eco Tourists strike again.)

There are a few short speeches and then it’s time to hug those in our group who plan to cross the cattle guard into the handcuffs of the waiting police. They march off to the crossing and we line the fence to cheer them on. As I watch these determined people being rounded up by soldiers and policemen, I’m torn between pride in what they’re doing and anger that this protest has to take place at all.

There are already enough nuclear weapons stockpiled to destroy the planet many times over. There is no need (other than lining the pockets of the so-called defence industry) for another nuclear weapon to ever be manufactured or tested.

And suddenly I know that standing there beside the fence cheering on those who are being arrested isn’t enough. To hell with visiting my friends and ever working in the US. I have to make a stand.

At that moment I met the eyes of Valerie, a Greenpeacer who, like me, has decided not to risk arrest.

“I’m going over,” she says. I nod and grin at her. I pass my bag to one of my roommates. I look at the cattle guard, some distance away. I look at the fence. It’s two strips of barbed wire. I look at Valerie, grin again, and climb through the barbed wire, Valerie right behind me. It turns out to be a moment I know I’ll never forget.

As we walk, heads erect, towards the police, a cheer goes up from the crowd behind us. I glance over my shoulder. Dozens of people are following us through the fence. If challenging a system of moral corruption and championing the inhabitants of the planet is breaking the law, then lock me up.

We aren’t there to make the authorities’ lives difficult. We amble at a leisurely pace towards a deputy and politely surrender. He cuffs us with two intertwined plastic strips – hospital bracelets demonstrating their versatility. The deputy actually apologises for the cuff on my right wrist being tight, saying it can be loosened after we’ve been searched. We’re led to a large pen, divided in half to separate the men and the women. (Can’t have those damned demonstrators co-mingling. Never know what might happen.) I notice the guards removing protest buttons from the jackets of the women being searched ahead of us and wonder what is wrong with a few anti-nuclear slogans in a detention pen in the middle of the desert? Not wanting to lose mine, I remove it and stick it in my pocket where the search misses it.

The woman who searches us is as pleasant as the deputy who’d detained us. The policeman who removed my cuffs and replaced them with another set with a very generous width of his thumb measurement was equally pleasant. Not so the woman who herds us into the pen. She grabs my arm and yanks the cuffs so tight my right hand almost immediately starts to turn red. When I point out that someone had just put them on, she scowls at me and says, “It’s my job to make sure he did it right.” Fine, I think, the woman’s got a uniform and it’s gone to her head. “Have a nice day,” I say. She scowls again and shoves me into the pen.

Other than the bare earth underfoot, the pen contains a water barrel with paper cups on a table beside it and two portable toilets. Quite how they expect handcuffed women to use these toilets is beyond me. Fortunately, behind the portable toilets two young women, obviously protest veterans, are doing some handiwork with the safety pins they’ve smuggled in, using them to pop off everyone’s cuffs. (Ah, I think, as the cuff is removed from my right hand and circulation begins to return, that’s why they were confiscating protest buttons.)

The last time I’participated in a large demonstration had been as an anti-war adolescent. Here I am, nearly two decades later, locked up in a pen on the Nevada test site, with 100 other women, once again singing Give Peace A Chance. I turn to a woman in her fifties, shake my head and say, “Twenty years later I’m still singing this song. Would John Lennon be flattered or horrified?” The latter, I suspect.

There’s an exhilarating sense of purpose in those pens. There are also moments of sheer comedy. Jordan, one of the protesters from Vancouver, takes advantage of the guards’ distraction, searching a new batch of detainees, to tunnel out and lead the escape of at least ten men. A man from Food Not Bombs crosses over with a bucket filled with rice, chickpeas and carrots, climbs the fence and passes the food down to the people in the pens. The guards spot him, try to grab him, but can’t reach high enough. He jumps into the pen, leaving the guards in the ridiculous position of having to unlock the pen, come inside to get him, take him outside to search and cuff him, then put him back inside the pen.

Eventually we’re loaded onto a bus to take us we know not where. There are several older American women on the bus, many of whom had been arrested at the test site five or more times before. Valerie and I are, I confess, starting to get a bit uneasy about the possibility of missing the coach back to Vancouver. The test site veterans assure us we will simply be taken to a town called Beatty, where we will be given citations for charges which will soon be dropped.

About half a mile down the road from the pen, the bus comes to a stop. Ten demonstrators are sitting crosslegged across the tarmac, blocking the one-lane road. We have to wait until vans can be summoned to pick them up and arrest them. A quarter of a mile later the bus stops again. I hear someone say, “Oh, my God, it’s Tiannemen Square.” I stand up to look out the window and see one young woman sitting crosslegged in the middle of the road. It is, I have to say, an inspiring sight. I know I’d never have the nerve to do what she’s doing. (Of course, they can’t just haul her onto the bus with the rest of us, because she hasn’t been properly searched and cuffed, so we have to wait for another car to come and pick her up.)

When we reach the dusty desert town of Beatty, the bus pulls up outside the schoolhouse and we wait until the previous load of detainees have been processed. We can see women exiting from a door on the other side of the building, pink pieces of paper clutched in their hands, and I realise with some relief that I’m not going to be spending the rest of the weekend in jail. Still, nothing prepares me for the sight that greet us when we walk into the classroom.

On the blackboard someone has written:

welcome-to-beatty

And sitting on the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, swinging his legs back and forth, flashing peace signs and grinning from ear to ear, is the author of the message: Wayne, the coolest cop in the world.

On the jacket lapel of his uniform is a Uniting Nations conference button. His only regret that day is, he says, that he was on duty and couldn’t join us.

When I ask him what I should do with the citation I’ve just been issued, he gives me a brilliant smile and tells me I have two choices: I can either keep it as a souvenir or throw it in the bin, because that’s what the authorities will soon be doing with their copy. (The cost of prosecuting us would, he informs me, bankrupt the county.) I’m still cuffed, so instead of hugging him, which is what I want to do, I shake his hand.

Our cuffs are removed as we leave the building. We’re told to go outside and wait on the other side of the road, where a festival atmosphere prevails. When Valerie comes out of the schoolhouse a few minutes later we decide what we really need, whilst awaiting the arrival of the other Vancouverites, is a beer. As we’re about to set off in search of a bar, Wayne emerges. Oh, what the hell, I think. I cross the road and give him a big hug – the first of many he receives that day. (Someone suggests starting a grassroots campaign: Wayne for President.)

Coaches eventually arrive to take us back to Vegas. Although we should probably be exhausted, Valerie and I are on such an emotional high we couldn’t have slept if our lives depended on it. So we decide to hit The Strip. This is not a good idea.

Oh, it’s all right at first.

I’m still wearing my Greenpeace Stop Nuclear testing cap and I’m stopped a number of times in various casinos by security guards, all of whom want to know if I’ve been out at the test site. When I tell them I was arrested, all of them – every single one – congratulates me. A couple even offer to buy me a beer. I ask them if they want to get rid of the test site and, of course, they all do. (They aren’t stupid. They know it can’t be healthy living so close to all that radiation.) Then I ask them the really tough question: What are you doing about it? They all look at me blankly. (Touch of déjà vu after the previous night’s straw poll.) I ask if they’ve written to their Congressman or Senator or even the President. The looks remain blank. I point out that they elected these men and pay their salaries. More blank looks. I suggest that perhaps, if they actually wrote a few letters to their elected officials, I might not have to come from Canada to get arrested next year. With one exception, they all continue to look at me blankly. But I figure, hey, if even one guy writes a letter or makes a phone call, it’s a start.

And what about the famous hotels? Well, the Excalibur looks like Disneyland with slot machines. Caesar’s Palace is so wildly over the top it seems hysterically funny. The Flamingo’s a bit down at the heels by comparison, its Rat Pack glory days clearly behind it.

And then there’s the Mirage, which finally brings everything back into focus for me. Contained in that palace of avarice are two majestic white tigers, kept in a white marble jungle with a chlorinated pool. That they are almost certainly drugged is probably a blessing. A recorded message plays overhead, a male voice gushing with the pride felt by the Mirage for the role it is playing in saving these creatures from extinction. I kid you not. I look around me at the rich and poor losers of the world gawking at those tigers and I feel physically ill. Suddenly I can’t wait to get out of that horror show of a town.

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One Comment
  1. Irmani permalink

    Fascinating. I hated Vegas too, though there under substantially different circumstances.

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