Wales, Greenham Common and Occupy

Helen Thomas at Greenham Common
Helen Thomas at Greenham Common

A memorial bench to Helen Thomas, a peace campaigner killed while taking part in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Protest, has been unveiled in the centre of Newcastle Emlyn by the town clock. Helen was born and went to school in Newcastle Emlyn and her family still have a business there. Aged only 22, Helen died after being struck by a police vehicle in 1989. Folk singer Dafydd Iwan wrote a song about Helen, ‘Cân i Helen’ and took part in the ceremony honouring Helen where Mayor Hazel Evans said the town council honoured her memory and her commitment to peace and her fight against nuclear weapons.

The Occupy movement has filled our media who struggle to understand the nature of protest which is not accompanied by a list of demands.  Thirty years ago Wales kicked off another protest which lasted for 19 years. The Greenham Common Peace Camp, where Helen Thomas sadly lost her life, was started in September 1981 by a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, who travelled to RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest against the decision of the British government to allow Cruise missiles (nuclear weapons) to be sited there. The Women for Life on Earth group walked 120 miles from Cardiff to Greenham Common and on reaching their destination they chained themselves to the perimeter fence. They were joined by women from across the UK and during the height of the protests, thousands of women blocked the entrances to the base, cut through perimeter fences and formed human chains around the site.

Ring of womenThere were some huge demonstrations during the tenure of the Peace Camp. In December 1982, 30,000 women joined hands around the base at the Embrace the Base event. On 1 April 1983, some 70,000 protesters formed a 14 mile human chain from Greenham to Aldermaston and the ordnance factory at Burghfield. Another encircling of the base occurred in Dec 1983, with 50,000 women attending. Sections of the fence were cut and there were hundreds of arrests.

The women were ultimately successful as the Cruise missiles were removed in March 1991. The airbase was closed in 1993 but the peace camp remained until 2000. The attention they received prompted the creation of other peace camps at more than a dozen sites in Britain and elsewhere in Europe so the Occupy movement is not breaking new ground. There are two clear lessons for Occupy from the Greenham Peace Camp.

  • You have to be prepared to be there for the long haul
  • Despite all the Police, the Media, the Courts and Local Authorities throw at you – peaceful protest is the way to succeed

Support peace camps logoOccupy is beginning to succeed. It has caused the St Paul’s authorities to (finally) take a principled stand and Ed Milliband to (finally) come off the fence. Thoughtful people are starting to think the issues through and I’m optimistic that the most powerful force for change, public opinion, will gradually start to bring about the changes our society needs.

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