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Loathing Las Vegas

January 8, 1991

January 2nd

I’m one of ninety-odd (some very odd) committed individuals who’ve just departed on coaches from the Greenpeace office in Vancouver in the chilly morning hours. We’re were on our way to Las Vegas to attend the Uniting Nations conference on nuclear disarmament. We’re also going to take part in a massive demonstration at the test site in Nevada where sabre-rattling Yanks and Brits continue to explode their nuclear bombs. The date for the protest has been set to immediately precede a UN meeting during which a vote will be held on converting the existing partial test ban treaty into a comprehensive test ban, eliminating all further nuclear tests.

On board the coaches are a large contingent of Greenpeacers, half a dozen members of the marvellously feisty Raging Grannies and individuals from all over British Columbia who heard about the trip and want to be part of it. With so many first and second generation hippies travelling together we’re expecting trouble at the border and even discuss various forms of protest we could make if we’re denied entry into the United States. To the amazement of all, the US border guards simply tell us to enjoy our conference and wave us through.

Spirits are high as we travel along the back roads of Washington and Oregon. A singalong breaks out: old Beatles, old Dylan, old campfire songs. The mood is gleeful until tragedy strikes shortly after our departure from Eugene, Oregon.

On a dark, slippery, two lane road, a driver accelerates to overtake a semi on a bend. The result is a head-on collision with the first Greenpeace coach. There’s nothing our driver could do to avoid the accident. The young woman passenger in the car dies instantly. The young man driving is knocked unconscious. He dies ten minutes later. I don’t know who to pity most: the people in the car, the driver of the coach or my fellow passengers, who, with no experience of such a situation, do their best to help.

The police arrive. A superfluous ambulance arrives. The passengers from the shattered front coach pile into the rear coach and we set off looking for somewhere we can wait for another coach to be dispatched from Portland.

In a small town called Oak Ridge we find Angie’s Place, run by Angie, her husband Bill and various family friends. At 8:30 in the evening they are about to close for the day, but they willingly stay open until our eventual departure at two in the morning. The warmth and kindness of Angie, Bill, Rae, Betty and Linda helps thaw many a numbed psyche. (Angie and the other women are so taken with the Raging Grannies, they vow to start the first Oregon chapter.)

After we leave Oak Ridge we all try, with varying degrees of success, to block out what’s happened with sleep. I think I manage an hour and a half, off and on.

January 3rd

First stop in the morning is Termo, California, population 2 – an incredibly cheerful woman and her husband, who run the gas station, general store and bar. (The town is for sale, in case anyone is interested.)

Then it’s on to the Bally Hotel in Reno for lunch. It’s the worst example of tacky American opulence and conspicuous consumption I’ve ever seen. When someone tells me Las Vegas is ten times worse, I don’t believe them. I’m wrong.

When I first arrive in Las Vegas, I’m more amused than anything else by the irony of coming to (one hopes) save lives in a town which is dead from the neck up.

Yes, the amount of energy consumed to run those giant neon signs 24 hours a day is outrageous. Yes, the sight of thousands of people sitting, glaze-eyed, in front of slot machines, roulette wheels and blackjack tables 24 hours a day is pathetic. And, yes, the greed represented by the whole operation is nauseating. (Not for nought is the city nicknamed Lost Wages.)

But, I have to admit, it does get to you. The overkill of bright lights become hypnotic and the gambling begins to seem relatively harmless – especially after you discover that by judiciously investing a few nickels in the slot machines you can get free beer all night.

I don’t investigate The Strip (home to the big hotels and casinos) that night. I’ve been travelling for 40 hours and want nothing but a shower and some sleep.

January 4th

My first exposure to the glitz our low-rent, no-tell motel has failed dismally to provide is when I walk into the Sahara to attend the conference.


It may be bigger and shinier than our motel, but in the casino the gamblers’ eyes are just as glazed and the cocktail waitresses’ outfits are just as skimpy.

In the morning I attend a workshop on the environmental impact of nuclear testing, with speakers addressing the problems in Nevada (where the Brits and the Yanks test), in the Arctic region of the Soviet Union and in French Polynesia. Little is known about the Chinese test sites and no one from China is coming forward to offer any information. Scientific evidence put forward proves that earthquake patterns in the post-testing latter half of this century have altered dramatically. There’s also a chilling suggestion that, like a junkie, the planet may now be addicted to testing. By the time I walk out of the workshop I’m feeling like Peter Finch in Network. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.

During the lunch break, hundreds of people march from the Sahara to the Department of Energy building. Why? Well, for a start, to highlight the fact that the vast majority of the DoE’s multi-billion dollar budget – which could be spent on researching and developing renewable energy sources – is currently covering the cost of nuclear testing. A quarter-mile-long procession of demonstrators arrives at and encircles the department’s Nevada headquarters, proclaiming nuclear testing to be dangerous, wasteful and just plain stupid.

Returning to the Sahara, we decide to march back to the conference facilities through the front door of the casino. The sight of hundreds of banner waving hippies striding between the gambling tables causes quite a stir: startled and alarmed glances from the gamblers, a few surreptitious peace signs from the cocktail waitresses and security guards (and a request from the hotel management, who’d donated the conference facilities free of charge, that the incident not be repeated).

I’m brought swiftly back to earth by the afternoon workshop on the impacts of nuclear testing on indigenous peoples. When it’s over, I stop at a table run by our hosts, the Shoshones, who are issuing permits to be on their land to anyone who plans to risk arrest at the test site the next day. Although I’m not planning to be arrested, I pick one up, thinking it will make a good souvenir of my trip. Attack of the Eco Tourist.

When the conference was originally being planned, no one knew Saddam Hussein was about to invade Iraq or that George Bush was going to rush his country into a war waged for cheap oil. The only good news on January 4th (as the clock ticks down towards President Bush’s January 15th deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait) is the announcement that a meeting has finally been arranged between the US and Iraqi authorities.

Even the most optimistic amongst us did not believe this meeting will result in a peaceful solution. Both protagonists are too deeply entrenched, neither cares how many body bags are shipped off the battlefield. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War, both sides think Almighty God/Allah is on their side. One, if not both, must be wrong.

The imminent threat of war is much on the mind of Margaret Brenman-Gibson, a founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists who is one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

She points out that the US Constitution contains a series of checks and balances to ensure the power to wage war does not rest in the hands of one man. Her message is clear: The President of the United States is flagrantly abusing his powers and the newly sworn-in Congress is aiding and abetting him by spinelessly refusing to challenge him.

This message is eloquently revisited by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who was catapulted into the spotlight during the Vietnam war for releasing the Pentagon Papers. An anti-war hero for decades, Ellsberg states simply: Congress must refuse to countenance the impending bloodbath and, if the President ignores their veto, they must (despite the insurance he’d taken out in the form of Dan Quayle) impeach him. Considering his audience, it’s hardly surprising that he gets a five minute standing ovation. (And imagine my delight, 20 minutes later, when I’m able to shake Ellsberg’s hand. Attack of the Peacenik Groupie.)

Later, in the casino, I take an informal poll, asking tourists at the bars and the slot machines how they feel about going to war in Iraq. With the exception of one man with very short hair and a clearly military bearing, everyone I speak to is against fighting in Iraq. Then I ask them what they’re doing about it. They give me blank looks, so I explain: Congress could still vote to refuse the President permission to go to war. Are they phoning/faxing/writing to their Congressman and Senator, telling them that if they vote for war they’ll never get their vote again? More blank stares and some head shaking. “That can’t be right,” they say to me, asking, “Where did you get that?” I smile at them, trying to look helpful, rather than despairing, and say, “It’s in your Constitution.” They don’t believe me.

I eventually give up and go off to consume a 24-hour 99¢ breakfast for dinner. (As these breakfasts are the cheapest thing to eat in Sin City and I’m on a very tight budget, I consume quite a few of them. I’m awoken one night from a deep sleep by a noise I fear might be the sound of my arteries hardening. Fortunately it’s actually two of my three roommates snoring.)

January 5th

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 have to take a photo. (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 cross-legged 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 Tiananmen Square.” I stand up to look out the window and see one young woman sitting cross-legged 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:

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.

January 6th

Unable to take any more of Las Vegas, a few of us pool our resources and rent a car and drive out to the starkly beautiful Nevada desert.

On this land stolen from the Shoshone people, twin evils co-exist. One represents the corruption of the human spirit, the other represents the corruption of the entire planet.

The powers that be in Nevada decided many decades ago that the legalisation of gambling and prostitution were a fair trade for co-habiting with a nuclear test site. They at least, unlike the Shoshone, were given a choice. I don’t know which depresses me more.

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