On April 30, 1977, over 2400 people gathered at a construction site in New Hampshire to protest the building of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. The coalition of activists called themselves the Clamshell Alliance, referring to the native clams endangered by the building of the power plant. Every single attendant had been trained extensively for this action. It was not the first time these organizing practices had been used; such ideas had been implemented widely in the antiwar movement and had been used organically by peoples all over the world for time immemorial. Nor was it the first time someone had objected to the project plan at that site; for years, community members had been using traditional legalistic tactics to stop the construction plan, and local activists had already held two smaller-scale occupations of the site the year before. But the protest in April-May 1977, less than a year after the Clamshell Alliance had formed, proved to be a watershed moment that has shaped the form of leftist organizing in much of the United States and Europe up to the present day.
Inspiration for the Clamshell Alliance came from the activities of two communities on opposite sides of the Rhine River. There, the French and German communities worked in solidarity to nonviolently occupy the construction sites of a lead factory and a nuclear power plant, successfully halting the building of both facilities. Back in New Hampshire, when the local community’s traditional legalistic strategies to stop the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant failed, activists began planning their own occupation of the building site. In April 1976, organizers invited American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) member Suki Rice to train activists for the first protest action. One striking detail to note is that the Clamshell Alliance actively sought the expertise of extraordinary women who had much experience from their work in other social movements. Suki Rice had received her training from Marj Swann, co-founder of CNVA and the Voluntown Peace Trust (which sent the affinity group Millstone Mollusks to the 1977 Clamshell occupation). Swann, in turn, received her training as a charter member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942, and led trainings alongside civil rights leader Bernard Lafayette, one of the student-activists of the trailblazing 1960 Nashville sit-in campaign.
Activists announced the formation of the Clamshell Alliance in July 1977 and made plans to occupy the power plant’s construction site in August. At the first action, 18 activists were arrested. At the second action later that month, 180 people were arrested. Organizers realized the need for all attendants to undergo extensive and specific training before participating in any given action, especially if they wanted to also scale up the occupation. They invited Suki Rice, fellow trainer Frances Crowe, and others back to give those trainings, but shortly after the first action, it became clear that more trainers would be necessary to keep pace with the growing numbers in the Clamshell Alliance. Thus, Rice and others began conducting weekend training-for-trainers so that each state and region had the persons to give such trainings as well. The basic training agenda began as a day-long program, but gradually got shorter as the date of the action neared and more people wanted to participate. Trainings included group discussions of values and actions, roleplay of scenarios involving hecklers and police, information on legal matters like arrests, consensus decision-making in affinity groups, and various other resources as handouts.
The Clamshell Alliance adopted a specific set of organizing principles. The Clamshell would be organized without hierarchies or leaders in order to maintain logistical flexibility. As mentioned, Clamshell activities would be strictly nonviolent: all participants agreed to a code of nonviolence, and organizers ensured discipline among participants with the extensive trainings delivered by Rice, Crowe, and others whom they trained. In the same nonhierarchical spirit, the Alliance organized itself by “affinity groups”: small autonomous groups of about 6-20 persons who already know each other and have some common bond. Affinity groups were inspired by Spanish anarchist cells, women’s consciousness raising groups, and had been used to some degree in the U.S. by the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, in which many Clamshell activists had participated previously. The Clamshell organizers also adopted the consensus decision-making process learned from Suki Rice and others in the AFSC. In the consensus process, participants take no action without the consent of all members. Affinity groups were trained in the consensus process for all their meetings. To coordinate between affinity groups the concept of the “spokescouncil” formed. In the spokescouncil system, each affinity group would choose a representative from among the group to join in a circle of “spokespeople” to coordinate. The representatives would then return and consult with their respective affinity groups. These organizing principles were described in handbooks.
Setting all these principles early and ensuring that all participants were trained in those principles proved to be essential, especially at the April 30, 1977 occupation. With over 2400 activists preparing to camp at the construction site, everyone had to be on the same page. But within the next two days, 1415 of the occupying activists were arrested. Jail solidarity, including the mass refusal of bail, had been a part of the trainings everyone received, and everyone maintained their discipline. Some were held in National Guard armories for two weeks. Locked up in such close quarters, their morale buoyed by the mental and physical preparations they had previously made through training, some used the close quarters and extended time together for even more training and cross-pollination of ideas between various affinity groups. Although one of the two Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant was eventually built, the antinuclear movement that developed in the preparations for April 30, 1977 as well as during the two weeks after their arrests proliferated and became so effective that no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since.
No one could have known it at the time, but the trainings that were held, the handbooks that were printed, and the relationships that formed during the April 30, 1977 occupation reverberated longer and wider than anyone expected. Later in the same year, activists in central California, on the other side of the continent from Seabrook, formed the Clamshell-inspired Abalone Alliance to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in much the same way that Clamshell had. Over the next few years, the War Resisters League (WRL) would spread the Clamshell model that included affinity groups trained in consensus and nonviolence guidelines to many other groups around the country. In 1979, some WRL members who participated in the Clamshell Alliance formed the SHAD Alliance in Long Island, NY, using those principles to organize a successful campaign against the construction of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. In 1982, during the United Nations’ Special Session on Disarmament, close to a million people gathered in New York City to demonstrate for nuclear disarmament. WRL organized mass actions among the incredibly diverse collection of people, spreading the Clamshell principles to an even greater number of activists. ACT UP, the grassroots HIV/AIDS activist group that began in 1987, also organized their movement around these principles to great success. In 1989, WRL published the Handbook for Nonviolent Action, which was updated and extended in the new text, Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. By the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, concepts like the consensus process, affinity groups, spokescouncils, and pre-action trainings were so widespread that anarchist groups were quickly able to organize and mount disruptive civil disobedience and other actions. And in 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement began, those same organizing principles used by the Clamshell Alliance maintained the camps and directed mass actions. Now that a new generation of activists has formed since the George Floyd protests, it is important to review watershed moments like the Clamshell Alliance 1977 occupation in order to learn effective organizing practices and to understand how these practices were forged and proven. It is a terrible waste of time and resources to attempt to reinvent the wheel -- or the spokescouncil.
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Asinof, Richard. “No-Nukers Demonstrate Their Strength at Seabrook.” Valley Advocate. Published May 11, 1977 (accessed 28 April 2021). https://archive.is/20030706050409/http://old.valleyadvocate.com/25th/archives/seabrook.html
“Clamshell history.” To the Village Square. (accessed 28 April 2021). https://web.archive.org/web/20070629024709/http://www.clamshell-tvs.org/clamshell_history/index.html
Rice, Sukie. “As I Recall It.” Clamshell Alliance. (accessed 28 April 2021). https://www.clamshellalliance.net/legacy/2010/03/06/as-i-recall-it-by-suki-rice/
“Seabrook, NH Nuclear Plant Occupation Page.” Updated 18 February 2012 (accessed 30 April 2021). https://www.marcuse.org/harold/pages/seabrook.htm
Sheehan, Joanne. “Practicing Nonviolence.” War Resisters League. Published originally in The Nonviolent Activist, July-August 1998 (accessed 28 April 2021). https://www.warresisters.org/decades-nonviolence-training
Sheehan, Joanne and Eric Bachman. “Seabrook-Whyle-Marclolsheim: transnational links in a chain of campaigns.”
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