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Greenham's 'symbolic presence'

Stephen Hine — November 1984

TORONTO — Professor Dorothy Thompson, a lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham and a long time British peace activist, gave an informal talk on October 1st at the University of Toronto. The talk was sponsored by the UofT Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (UCAM). Dr. Thompson commented on recent directions of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

The focus of the discussion was the continuing struggle by the women protestors at the Greenham Common US Air Force base in Berkshire, England, at which US cruise missiles have recently been deployed. The protest began once the base had been designated as a deployment centre in the wake of the 1979 NA TO decision to locate cruise and Pershing weapons in Europe if the Soviets did not remove their SS20 missiles from Eastern Europe. The “Greenham Women” participate in civil disobedience-type protests, operating without any real leader or organizational structure.

Dr. Thompson has not participated directly in the Greenham Camp, but is a vocal advocate of the cause, and has joined in larger one day protests at the base. She has also paid fines incurred by her daughter-in-law, a long-time participant.

Dr. Thompson described in moving terms a protest involving thousands of women who encircled the base in a huge human chain. While the camp often appears squalid due to inclement weather and primitive conditions (made all the more so by persistent official harassment), she contrasted” the women “with their colourful clothes and banners, and playing children with the drabness and greyness of the base and its armed guards”

Recent attempts by the local council and” the national government to evict the women have resulted in increased support and publicity for their cause, Dr. Thompson reported. The women recently won a High Court ruling allowing them to camp within 20 feet of the nearby A339 road, contrary to the hopes of the Ministry of Transport. However, Dr. Thompson admitted that ‘the Thatcher government is determined to eventually remove the camp to meet the requests of irate local ratepayers and to keep in line with government policy.

Dr. Thompson maintained that the “protest was an act of theatre which created a powerful image and symbolic presence. It does not “present a sinister appearance to the public and the police~ and therefore it would be politically unwise “to publicly exercise violence against the women~. This was part of the rationale for keeping the camp a preserve of women only.

Dr. Thompson premised her continued support for the peace movement in Britain on her philosophy, which is “based on “pessimism of the intellect versus the optimism of the will. Although totally avoiding nuclear was would seem to be irrational, given the perilous state of the world, one must persevere using the strength of the will to overcome pessimism. “

According to Dr. Thompson, some unilateral action by the British government, such as a reduction or elimination of Britain’s nuclear forces, “would aid the cause of reducing nuclear proliferation.

Unfortunately, Dr. Thompson declared, “the Tory government (in Britain) is intent on pursuing a nuclear programme including purchase of Trident nuclear submarines, and will be in office untiI1988.~ However, the opposition Labour and Liberal parties have said they will send back the cruise and cancel Trident.

In concluding her talk, Dr. Thompson proposed that “the optimism of the will~ must encourage those who seek an end to the nuclear madness, both in Europe and North America.