CONSTRUCTIVE CONFRONTATION STRATEGIES: THOUGHTS OF A GREENPEACE ACTIVIST


CONFLICT RESEARCH CONSORTIUM

Working Paper 94-15 February 1994(1)

By Jack Mento

Director, Greenpeace, Boulder, Colorado


(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Jack Mento for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on November 6, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309- 0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.


© 1994. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.


I am with Greenpeace here in Boulder and have been for five years. My interest in Greenpeace began when I was arrested at the Nevada test site. I had been living there in a tent for about four months and had been arrested a number of times for actions against nuclear testing. There was a permanent peace camp there and we did continuous action, day and night. Sometimes we would get caught (as we intended) and sometimes we didn't. Sometimes we would go in at night and bumpersticker the DOE vehicles; we would leave peace poles at the stop signs in the town of Mercury, which is the demonstration area for all the testing that is done out there.

One Easter eve, 13 people went on to the test site and consecrated a building as a chapel. These protesters were Franciscan monks and a number of local activists, including Father Vitale, who has been protesting the nuclear testing there for the past 30 years. These protesters were summarily arrested and taken to Beatty, Nevada, a town which is the county seat. The federal government has been using this tactic for years--keeping the arrests on a state level. By taking protesters to Beatty, the protesters couldn't challenge the federal policies on nuclear testing, genocide, breaking the Hague Convention, and a number of other treaties that the U.S. government had signed.

Together with a friend, I walked onto the site the next night. Because it was Easter morning, we wanted to go to church, and what do you know, the consecrated building was the closest chapel for 150 miles! We were quite sure the building would be locked, but decided to test it. Much to our amazement, the door opened and we went in. There were still "pews" left from the night before. We even found computers and telephones in the building! We called people around the country wishing them a Happy Easter. It was good action; it was a strong action, especially since Easter signifies a time of renewal--it is a time of seasonal change.

At about ten o'clock, I said, "Well what do you think Ted? You want go out and get arrested?" (we knew there was going to be a big action at the front gate). He said, "Yeah, OK. Sounds good. That's great." As we were walking out, I said I had to stop at the men's room and that I would be right back. When I came out there were three Wackenhut security guards there--they are the corporate police. They are used all over the world. In Central and South America they have actually been tied to the death squads. They are also used at Rocky Flats. When we came out of the building, the guard said, "Where are your badges?" We answered, "We don't have any badges. We don't need any badges. We are here with the permission of the Western Shoshone nation." But his reply was, "That's it. You're under arrest." And they took us away.

They put us in an outside holding pen where we could wave to all our friends. (Anyone that has ever been at the test site knows about the massive actions that can take place. They can arrest up to 2000 people and hold them in these pens. It's fun and games. After years and years of protesting, it has gotten to be just a big game out there.) This was a relatively small action--maybe twenty or thirty people were arrested. The Wackenhuts were running back and forth saying to Ted and me, "You've done it now. You guys are going to get federal charges!" We cheered despite the fact that could mean a five-year jail sentence. It was a big victory in our eyes, but to the guards and other officials, it was a major penalty. They were trying to scare us, since there was going to be a big action of 2000 within two weeks. They wanted to use us as an example to try to keep people from crossing the line and being arrested.

But instead of being a deterrent, 2000 people decided to get arrested and demand federal charges. So the local police, the sheriffs, and the state highway patrol had their hands full with people wanting federal charges "like those other two guys." That didn't happen.

Only we were charged and went to trial. A member of the DOE sat at the prosecutor's table, very calmly rocking back and forth. I'll never forget the way that guy just sat there and kept looking over at us. The federal judge was just going through the motions, at least it felt that way to me. I had never been to court before. I had never been in a trial. I have never even witnessed a trial. So maybe I was a little paranoid. But it really seemed like this person from the DOE was making sure that the federally-appointed judge was doing everything right, according to the government.

We had a jury trial. All twelve members of the jury had ties to the Nevada test site or the military in some way. You don't get to pick who is going to be on the jury. You get to pick 12 out of the 18 people that they bring in. You can throw out 3 and they can throw out 3; that's the way it works. This was really news to me. Also, the government called a motion in limine, which basically limits your testimony. I couldn't say "nuclear"; I couldn't say "genocide." I couldn't talk about my motivation, why I was out there. I was charged with federal trespass. They simply asked, "Did you or did you not cross the line?"

Answering the charge of trespass, we said we had permits to be there from the Western Shoshone Nation. The permits stem from the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1876, which was broken when the government set up permanent bases on the reservation--all the treaties of the Native Americans have been broken. I'm sure most people realize that. (I hope they do.) So, I had this permit, but I couldn't show it, because I couldn't even talk about it. I couldn't even mention the words "Native American." I couldn't mention "indigenous people." I couldn't say anything about why I had been out there. My friend Ted, who is a black man, had been arrested as a juvenile, so they used this to contend that his was a different case.

I got on the witness stand and tried to say as much as I could, but got threatened with contempt, which is an even worse charge than what I was facing. Within three days we were convicted of trespass, but sentencing was three to four months later. We were then released on our own recognizance.

It still seemed like fun and games. Of course, I had a lot of people in the courtroom supporting me. They had banners and things they wanted to use, but I said, "Let's just wait a minute here. I could go to jail for five years."

After this, I traveled around the country saying good-bye to people, figuring that I might go to jail. It was the first federal charge in the history of the test site; no one knew what was going to happen. When I went back for sentencing, I had everyone there with the banners again--getting ready to go to prison. The trial was good because it got a lot of press in Las Vegas and a little outside of the area--some in LA. Lots of publicity is what you want as an activist. In order to get more people involved you have to get the word out. The best way is to get the word out is through the media, which Greenpeace uses extensively. They probably do it the best.

In the process of sentencing, the probation officer in charge of your case makes telephone calls everywhere in order to get information on you. They even look at family letters. They want to know what you did in high school; they call your college. I am sure those records are readily available in our society. They want to know everything.

I was on the Great Peace March of 1986, so I knew people all over the world--that was when I really became active, because I realized that there were people out there that felt the same way I did, and I wasn't insane to feel the way I did. I graduated with a degree in accounting, and most people thought I was crazy to become an activist. They told me "just go get a good job and make a lot of money, you'll be happy." But I didn't do that. On the Great Peace March I realized there were all these issues that needed action--this is how I got involved with nuclear testing. Anyway, my friends and my family had been writing letters to the judge and the probation officer, so they were getting letters from all over the world. Basically, I organized my family and friends to help me to get more power within the system.

Throughout this process the probation officer would call me. In one call he told me that Ted had been arrested before: "Ted is a whole different case and he may not get the same sentence as you. We are recommending probation for you." I said, "Well, let me tell you this straight up. I'm not going to take it. I'm not going to walk in there with a friend of mine, who is a black man, let him get a different sentence than me when we did the same "crime." You're crazy if you think I'm just going to stand there and then walk out of the room and you take him away." There was this long silence at the other end. He said, "Well, OK. I understand what you are saying. But I have to reiterate." I said that it didn't matter. I understood what he was saying, and that it was not going to happen. I wanted us to get the same sentence or I wasn't going to cooperate at all. When we got to the sentencing, I had my little speech prepared. I rambled on but Ted got up and basically stated, "I just said no more." They gave both of us probation with 100 hours of community service.

Later on I found out that my probation officer, who I had never met, was Hispanic. He subsequently told me, "You know, what you said on the phone really impressed me because you had never met me. You don't know how that affected me personally, even though I can't get personally involved. We had gotten letters from people . . . I have never seen so many letters coming in from people all over the world. I bet I go back today and there's a stack of letters on my desk right now. That is really impressive." This had affected him and he has seen hardened criminals in the federal system! I'm sure it also affected the judge.

I felt I had more power as a result of all my friends participating from the outside. That is the key to activism, especially if you are taking the risk of an arrest, which I believe every activist eventually does.

Part of my probation was that I had to get a "real" job and couldn't continue to live in a tent near the test site. I tried saying that protesting and living out there was my job, but I was told, "No, no. You have to make money and have an address and a house." I didn't want to live in Las Vegas, so I asked them to transfer my probation to Boulder, Colorado, which is a much more pleasurable place to live than Las Vegas.

When I got to Boulder, I looked for a peace job. The only thing I saw in the paper was a canvassing job with Greenpeace-- going door to door requesting that people write letters, getting petitions signed, and doing general fundraising for Greenpeace. I had never done anything like this in my life. I found out it was a very difficult job. You have to contact people everywhere--Arvada, Aurora, Boulder, and in parts of Denver. Boulder is very supportive, and so are parts of Denver. However, there are people who think simply living in Boulder is activism: "Hey, I live here, I know all about it." I did the door-to-door work for about a year and then I became the assistant director. Now I am the Director of Greenpeace in Boulder.

I was drawn to Greenpeace because of their direct actions and because they have been around for twenty years. Canadian citizens founded Greenpeace. Their initial action was the stopping of nuclear testing off the coast of Amchitka Island. They didn't actually get to ground zero; the U.S. Navy arrested them beforehand. But, this action resulted in major world-wide media exposure because, in a rickety old boat, they went against the U.S. Navy to try to stop nuclear testing and it worked! The U.S. stopped testing up there and it got people involved.

As a result of Greenpeace actions, I started seeing how environmental issues are connected with social justice issues. Environmental racism has existed for years. Communities of color are often targeted for hazardous waste incinerators and hazardous waste dumps. The more I get involved with these problems, the more I see how they are connected with women's issues, too.

Greenpeace found out that a U.S. company was selling hazardous waste ash in Bangladesh to be used as a crop fertilizer. We exposed that discovery and worked on getting more world press on that issue. That company has been found guilty. They have to retrieve all the hazardous waste and make retribution to the people. This was a long process, but one with eventual good results. Greenpeace's angle on this issue and others like it is to help shed light on problems and get more and more people involved.

Greenpeace also wants to show people that by maintaining our lifestyle, by making more and more toxic chemicals and figuring that we'll just dump it somewhere else, we impact people all over the world. For example, about five or six years ago a barge with a toxic load of garbage from the U.S. was traveling around looking for a dumpsite. Finally, it was dumped on the docks in Haiti. It's still sitting there. The garbage is loaded with cadmium and other types of pollutants. To "prove" that it wasn't toxic and that they weren't doing anything wrong, the skipper of the barge actually ate some of it to show how non- toxic it was! That, of course, made the press. This same company has also been found guilty in court and has to bring the stuff back.

We in Greenpeace feel that the things done in any size community are going to affect people all over the world. Greenpeace is a global environmental group, so, our perspective is on that level. I like that. I'm not much of a nationalist and I like Greenpeace's global perspective. We still have to work within the system we have in this country, which I don't really think is democracy, or ever completely was. But it's what we have and that is what we have to work with. So Greenpeace lobbies Congresspeople. We get together letters and petitions, which is our power base, from the people of the United States. By going door-to-door we get people to write their representatives on issues such as NAFTA. Rocky Flats was a national campaign for Greenpeace. These tactics work. You can influence your local representatives.

In conflicts Greenpeace doesn't compromise. We do not sit down and say, "OK, what do you want and what do we want?" We will not compromise. If a company like Dow Chemical or DuPont is polluting or producing CFCs to make styrofoam, we will not compromise and give them fifteen or twenty years to change this practice. DuPont has known since 1972 that there are alternatives to CFCs. They have had a patent on an alternative since 1972 and had not done anything to change their production until 1990 when they sat down at the Montreal Protocol. The only reason they finally did agree to change, I believe, is that Greenpeace got more and more information on the fact that DuPont had alternatives to CFCs. The bottom line for companies and multinationals is, indeed, the bottom line-- how much money they can make. If it is cheaper to do one thing, they are going to keep doing it until they are actually forced to change. I really believe this because of years of experience I have had and the things that I have read while working with Greenpeace.

Greenpeace now also puts out position papers. The most recent topic that is actually getting into the mainstream media concerns the link between chlorine and breast cancer. There is a very definite link. It has been proven. We are pushing this campaign in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

It is very important that people understand that when we put out these papers, they are not just by Greenpeace and Greenpeace people. We get scientists and people outside of our "insular activist, radical, treehugging fringe," as we have been called. The media has also called us terrorists. But, Greenpeace always does nonviolent direct action.

That is something else that drew me to Greenpeace. I'm 41 years-old, so I was brought up in the sixties. I just missed going to Vietnam. I was lucky enough to be in college. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others like him affected me because they actually got things done through nonviolence. Nonviolence is a tactic. Some people argue that it is a moral stance. I'm sure it is. But it is also a very strong tactic when you have a lot of people doing it.

Greenpeace is not that big. About 1000 people work for Greenpeace in the United States and that includes canvassers as well as our campaigners. Our power comes from member support. Greenpeace only exists through contributions--we are funded by people. Some environmental groups take contributions from large corporations, like DuPont, Dow Chemical, or various oil companies. I think Waste Management (?) is involved with the Nature Conservancy or the Environmental Defense Fund. These environmental groups will eventually have to step away from an issue because it involves someone who has given them an awful lot of money. Corporations are not just doing this out of the goodness of their hearts; they are doing it because they know they are going to get around some issues.(2)

I really like the work we do. Greenpeace is definitely left-wing and maybe still considered radical--I like that. But it has actually got a little more mainstream over the years and that is okay, too. In Greenpeace there is room for dissent, and that happens a lot. People who are drawn to work for Greenpeace are usually strong activists. They are opinionated, and may be pretty stubborn. So we have a lot of dissent and discussion within the organization about things like how much we are going work with Congress, how many actions we are going to do, and how actions might really upset people.

Our action against the U.S. Navy with the "nuclear-free seas" campaign caused us to lose a lot of supporters. We had gone after the Russian Navy. We had gone after the French. The U.S. Navy is one of the biggest nuclear navies. How could we not do an action against the U.S. Navy? The U.S. Navy tested the Trident II missile off the coast of Florida. During the action they were ramming our boat. They said they were "nudging" us out of the testing zone. There were two battleships on either side of our boat smashing it repeatedly for an hour; they put a hole in one side. They were not nudging us out of the testing area, they were trying to sink our boat! It was great, because we got a lot of press. We lost a lot of members, but we got new members, too. That is just the way it is. Greenpeace carefully considers the tactics and the strategies which are used in actions.

On an organizational level, I don't particularly like the structure of Greenpeace. It is very hierarchical, but that is changing. Since it is an organization open to dissenting opinions, the structure needs to be revamped. We've already done a lot of changing, as one example demonstrates.

Boulder is actually known as revolution central because we organized canvassers around the country to say that we wanted more political power within Greenpeace. This happened when Greenpeace was going to close two offices. Our action prevented the offices from closing. The primary reason we were able to accomplish this was because we had organized the canvassers. The canvassers are the largest working force (they are like worker bees) within the Greenpeace structure and we realized our own power. Now things are changing so that the canvassers will have more power within Greenpeace.

I've learned a lot about resolving conflict because of my involvement in Greenpeace. Greenpeace has proven to me that actions do work. They work because they get attention but also because the actions take a moral stand. We often take a moral stand on a particular issue, even though we may not win.

Several issues demonstrate our moral stance. For twenty years Greenpeace has vowed to stop nuclear testing. We are almost there. Another example was the campaign against Rocky Flats, which was really started by local groups like the Peace Center. One day I came into the office and Jason Salzman, our campaigner working on stopping plutonium production, was sitting with people from Rockwell. They were asking him, "What can we do so that Greenpeace will stop the actions against Rocky Flats? What do you want us to do?" Jason's answer was simply, "Stop making plutonium triggers." They said, "OK that's good, but what can we do before that happens?" He said, "Nothing. That's it." They sat there for an hour trying to convince him. Greenpeace has also been involved with the folks in Denver that Adrienne was talking about. They called us about civil disobedience wanting to know what works and some of its tactics.

Our work and actions are tactics. They have to be seen that way. But it is also important to note that taking action is also taking a moral stance.

(2) Co-panelist, Adrienne Anderson interjected here (as an example) that the Colorado Wildlife Federation, which has done nothing about the incinerator at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal spewing dioxin and other things into the atmosphere, has received a $58,000 donation from Shell Chemical.