Arms shipment protest, 25 years later

Photo by author.

We are not worth more. They are not worth less.

With this simple but profound conviction, Vietnam veteran Brian Willson stepped onto the railroad tracks at Concord Naval Weapons Station in Northern California on September 1, 1987 — 25 years ago this week — resolved to stand in the way of trains carrying arms bound for U.S. wars in Central America. Many of the boxcars were destined for ships headed to El Salvador and elsewhere in the region, as documents released under the Freedom of Information Act had confirmed. Willson had spent time in those war zones meeting the people who were facing the consequences of such arms shipments. His own experience as an intelligence officer in Vietnam — and the obligation of the Nuremberg principles, which maintain that citizens are responsible for the war crimes of their government — compelled him to put himself in the way of the war.

He expected the U.S. Navy train to stop and then, with a handful of others, to be arrested. Instead, the train, running at three times the railroad speed limit, crossed the public roadway outside the base and slammed into Willson. Standing a few feet away, I saw him rolling under the train as it dragged him along the tracks. When we reached him, he was a huddled mass of blood lying in the track-bed. His skull had been cracked open. One leg had been sheered off, while the other was hanging by a thread. He looked like he was dying.

But Brian Willson did not die. As I have chronicled on this site previously (here and here), Willson’s then-wife Holly Rauen, who is a medical professional, applied tourniquets to stop the bleeding, keeping him alive until an ambulance arrived a glacially slow 17 minutes later. Sixteen hours of surgery followed. Willson lost both legs but he survived, and has devoted the last quarter of a century to healing himself and a hurting world.

Last weekend 50 of us who had been part of that original witness — and the eight-year Nuremberg Actions Campaign that followed — gathered with Brian at the base 30 miles east of San Francisco. (Here is a video of the event.) Like the others, I was drawn to mark an event that had profound personal significance (my life falls into two parts: before the incident at the Concord tracks and after it) but also one that resounded with the power of nonviolent social change. From many parts of the country, we made a pilgrimage to this place fraught with trauma but also, paradoxically, with transformative energy.

A pilgrimage is a journey to a meaningful place. As Jean and Wallace Clift stress in their book The Archetype of Pilgrimage some people go on pilgrimage to experience a place of power. Others undertake a pilgrimage to answer an inner call or to reclaim lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of themselves. Still others become pilgrims to get outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen. Each of these motivations, it seems, played a part in last week’s gathering.

Experiencing a place of power. When human beings stand for justice it is transformative for themselves and at times transformative for their society. But it is also, I believe, transformative for the place where such a struggle occurs. When I first visited the California Central Valley, I was awash in its sacredness: not only because it helps feed America, but because it is here that the migrant poor formed the United Farm Workers and took a stand for dignity and human rights. Similarly, the site where Brian Willson (and hundreds of others after him) took a stand is a place of meaning bearing enduring witness to the power of nonviolent love in action. When we live in a society that defines power as domination and control backed by violence, we are healed and transformed when we make contact with a different kind of power: the power of compassion, connection, community — and the willingness to face the consequences for putting this power into action.

Reclaiming lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of ourselves. Returning to the Concord tracks gave us an opportunity to remember what went down there and, by remembering, to renew our passion and commitment to a world where everyone matters. We live in a world that strenuously works to erase our history of nonviolent resistance. To journey to this place (and many scenes of nonviolent struggle) is a process of contesting this erasure. As Brian Willson said when contemplating the importance of observing this anniversary:

Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future. As memory is obliterated, people possess no frame of reference for assessing present policies. Thus, imperial history repeats itself over and over.

By remembering, we reclaim these forgotten dimensions of ourselves, but also of our society.

Answering an inner call. The longing that brought us to Concord in the first place burns within us still: the hope for a world where the nonviolent option is the default, with the follow-on call: translate this into reality with creativity and relentless persistence. Throughout our time together last weekend, we mulled on this question: “Where will this desire and call take us now?”

Getting outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen. The work for nonviolent change means peeling away the scripts, patterns and habits of domination and violence with which we have been formed. This was symbolized by some of us dropping what we were doing in the rest of our lives and gathering to see a new way forward together. This is true for us as individuals, but it is the vocation of social movements to do this for one’s society. Nuremberg Actions did this by rising from the ashes of the violence of September 1987 to build an enormously powerful campaign, with trains being blocked on a virtually daily basis for several years. The Occupy movement could glean much wisdom from the travails and triumphs of this multi-year effort.

All of these dimensions of pilgrimage crystalized in two images last Saturday. First, Brian Willson, standing on his two artificial legs, erupting in dance as one of the musicians leads the gathering in song. Second, the sacred journey we made from the rally site to the tracks where Brian was run down all those years ago. Poignant. Heartfelt. But also a moment of recommitment in a world where people are being run down by the train of history — now, often, in the guise of drones — throughout the world. At this hauntingly abysmal place, the energy of connection and potential and new action hummed through us, with most of us sensing that the next pilgrimage is just ahead.

A special note of gratitude to Sherri Maurin, Mark Coplan, and David Hartsough for organizing this event, and to the 41 Nuremberg Action people who have passed on since September 1, 1987.

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