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Protesters Demand Nuclear Disarmament Outside the United Nations

11 Arrested for civil disobedience as a crowd of almost 200 people gathers to urge action on nuclear non-proliferation.

Owen Schacht Aug 5

All photos by Ellen Davidson.

On June 12, 1982, New York City saw the largest protest in American history, as an estimated one million people marched from Central Park to the United Nations, demanding a “nuclear freeze,” a halt to the production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Forty years later, nearly 200 people marched from the Isaiah Wall, across the street from the UN, to the United States Mission with the same demand. 

This demonstration occurred on August 2, the second day of the month-long Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the UN. After peace songs and Buddhist drumming, a herd of red papier-maché dragons roared through the crowd with signs on their backs exclaiming “Nukes Destroy People, Planet,” “Nuclear Armageddon,” and “Endless War Economy.” At the U.S. Mission, some protesters, including Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, held a vigil, while others held a sit-in, blocking the doors to the building.

While the Non-Proliferation Treaty took effect in 1970, the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons has increased from five to nine, and they continue to be manufactured, maintained, and researched.

“We want to disrupt nuclear diplomacy. We hope to be a disruptive influence; we’d like to have thousands of people sitting in front, that would be even more disruptive. But it’s better to have one person there with a sign than no person there,” Ed Hedemann of the War Resisters League, one of the protest’s organizers, told The Indypendent. “If we weren’t here, we would have no influence. So it’s better to risk being ignored than do nothing and know that you’re going to be ignored and the issue won’t be visible. We just keep being an irritant in the side of the establishment and let them know that we’re here, we’re not going away, and what they are doing is criminal.”

Reiner Braun, executive director of the International Peace Bureau, said the protest would have more of a long-term influence than an immediate impact: “All of these small drops of water are coming together to a river, and this river will change society. It all starts small and then becomes big.”

While the Non-Proliferation Treaty took effect in 1970, the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons has increased from five to nine, and they continue to be manufactured, maintained, and researched. Anthony Donovan, one of the protest organizers and a Catholic Worker member, said he prefers to call it the “nuclear proliferation treaty.”

Donovan, who protested in 1982, quoted Zenon Rossides, who was Cyprus’s ambassador to the UN and the U.S. in 1970: “These negotiations are a stagnant pretense deceiving the people that something is being done about the nuclear arms race, which is a galloping reality.”

The protesters had six demands: to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons by dismantling nuclear reactors; to redirect resources from the military to human and environmental needs; to end military interventions in other countries, that each nuclear-armed country must announce an immediate and significant step toward disarmament and a plan to dismantle nuclear weapons and safely dispose of nuclear wastes; to disarm unilaterally, starting with nuclear weapons, and the ratification of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

“I came here to raise awareness for those members of affected communities, including atomic bomb survivors, nuclear testing survivors, and members of affected communities infected by the nuclear programs of the United States, including those who live near the nuclear facilities,” Mari Inoue of the Manhattan Project for a Nuclear Free World told The Indypendent. “Not just nuclear weapon victims, but also those infected by uranium mines or processing plants and other nuclear facilities that continue contaminating our land, water, food, and people.” 

The protesters were middle-aged and elderly, with young people seemingly absent. John LaForge, co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, said that was partly because corporate control of the media makes it hard to spread the message and part because for younger people, global warming is a worse threat of doom than nuclear war. “The climate crisis is more urgently in their consciousness than nuclear weapons,” LaForge said. “However, nuclear weapons do exacerbate the climate problem by robbing resources from efforts to control the climate chaos. I encourage young people to look into the problems of nuclear power and weapons in parallel to the question about how to reduce carbon emissions.”

“Nuclear weapons harm everybody. They even harm everybody by just getting produced: In nuclear testing, most of the radioactive isotopes are still in the stratosphere coming down, or uranium mining on indigenous people’s land,” said Marion Küpker, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Germany and German Peace Society of War Resisters. “And this is something we definitely don’t need, especially with the trillions of dollars being used for nuclear weapons. That money could be used to fight the world’s problems, not contribute to them. For example, climate change; the military is one of the largest polluters, and they are totally left out of the climate-change discussion.”

Eleven people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for blocking the doors to the U.S. Mission to the UN. Felton Davis of the Catholic Worker noted that in 1982 “over 1,500 people got arrested at the nuclear missions, including the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia.” 

Some of the 11 people arrested on August 2 had been among those arrested in 1982.

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