Activists young and old gather to think outside the bomb

In her soft, earnest tone, Leimomi Kamiya explains to a wide-eyed audience that many Marshall Island natives have little knowledge about the effects of massive radiation contamination in their country, deposited by over 100 United States and United Kingdom nuclear bomb tests.


“It’s sad when you personally experience the bomb and you don’t have the knowledge or know what you can do about it,” said the seventeen-year-old. So much explosive power was dropped on her home country, she explains, that it is like experiencing close to 1.7 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings everyday for 12 years.

Kamiya is one of over 100 activists from across the United States, as well as the Marshall Islands and Puerto Rico, who participated in the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Think Outside The Bomb conference, cultivating awareness, dialogue, and action to counter militarism and strive for nuclear abolition. The third annual west coast version of the conference took place from August 16-19 at the University of California, Santa Barbara; part of the US government’s primary nuclear weapons design contractor, the University of California.

“This conference is intended to weave a tapestry of information and inspiration, to regenerate young people who have been doing this work but have experienced its frustrations and drawbacks, and to catalyze people who are relative newcomers to this kind of movement,” said Will Parrish, Youth Empowerment Director of the NAPF and one of the two primary organizers of the conference. “Think Outside the Bomb is totally unique in that it situates nuclear weapons in the context of the system of militarism and oppression that is destroying our planet and communities, while giving people empowering tools to address the most serious challenges confronting us in proactive ways.”


In addition to the opportunity to meet with likeminded activists, an attractive aspect of the conference was the availability of transportation, housing, and food for only a twenty-dollar suggested donation. Vegan meals were prepared each day by the Santa Barbara chapter of Food Not Bombs, with ingredients donated by local businesses such as the Isla Vista Food Co-Operative and the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market.


With over fifteen states and dozens of grass roots organizations represented, attendees ranged from first timers to seasoned community leaders.


Each day the diverse group participated in panel discussions, workshops and group trainings dealing with nuclearism and militarism from historical, current events, legal, environmental and indigenous people’s perspectives. There were also specific skills workshops about topics like researching power structures, battling racism, and group process for activists.


An interesting characteristic of the conference was its ability to bridge gaps of communication between age groups, with panels shared by members of different generations.


“I appreciate that there are elders here,” said Katherine Fuchs, 26, of the Student Peace Action Network (SPAN) in Washington D.C. “There has been a lot of resistance from baby boomers to give up responsibility and let young people have ownership of these issues, but when you learn from elders and history and work together, you’re never alone.”


Some speakers were so popular that question and answer sessions were extended, such as with Myrna Pagan, a founder and elder of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. Pagan shared her experiences working to evict the US Navy base from her native island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, which was devastated by chemical and depleted uranium weapons tests for decades. She shared many words of encouragement with the primarily young adult audience.


“It’s important for you to realize that the work you’re doing is not just to change the system, but to make life better for your community,” said Pagan. “Your education should be more than a ticket for a better paying job; it should be your entrance to a higher level of consciousness, conscience and service.”


Pagan received multiple standing ovations.


Interestingly, the facility which housed many of the conference’s discussions about indigenous resistance to “nuclear colonialism” — a name given to the process whereby the nuclear industry has exploited native people’s lands for the most toxic and polluting elements of the nuclear fuel chain — sits on what used to be an ancient burial ground of the Chumash Nation, the people indigenous to Santa Barbara. Human remains and artifacts from the site have never been returned to the Chumash people and are believed to be in storage in UCSB’s Anthropology department.


As part of these discussions, the conference featured a rare screening of the controversial film Trespassing, which chronicles efforts by indigenous communities to resist the nuclear industry’s exploitation. Film director Carlos DeMenezes, film star Steve Lopez of the Fort Mojave Nation, and Shundahai Network co-founder Julia Moon Sparrow, who is featured in multiple scenes of the film, were on hand to discuss the film’s significance and update the attendees on the issues it addresses.


Trespassing is a critique and exposé of the U.S. government and nuclear industry’s brutal environmental and cultural genocide of over 60 indigenous nations,” said Moon Sparrow.


“The film documents struggle and victory. It educates the public on connections between the horrors of the nuclear industry (mining, testing, and dumping) perpetuated on indigenous communities,” she said. “The U.S. government has systematically used and abused indigenous communities for the nuclear industry’s own gain at the expense of their lives and their land.”


Moon Sparrow considers the film a “rare gift” and said the conference’s screening had an extraordinary reception. The packed audience had members of at least nine indigenous nations in attendance, and many audience members were moved to tears.


Much of the conference’s content was geared toward young people who have, in recent years, navigated the often disillusioning terrain of nuclear disarmament non-profit activism.


The conference built to a crescendo on the final day, which focused on how to make change. Participants exchanged contact information, started planning actions in their local communities and signed commitment cards detailing what they felt compelled to do after leaving.


On the panel “Making It Real: How Do We Live Lives of Resistance?” speakers Jennifer Nordstrom, Andrew Lichterman, and Will Parrish addressed the linkages between working for nuclear abolition and working to end all forms of oppression, as well as the material conditions such as debt and rent that make working for social change difficult, the pitfalls of non-profit work, and how to be personally sustainable as activists for the long term.


The final activity of the conference was called “the appreciation circle.” Each participant and organizer was individually recognized for his or her contributions and qualities, resulting in an outpouring of love and support. Even after the game had finished, participants stood around talking and thanking one another for another hour.


But it wouldn’t be their last group gathering.


Think Outside the Bomb also offered direct action training with the Ruckus Society. In these breakout sessions, participants spent time focusing on definitions of direct action, roles, goals and demands, and planned actions for hypothetical scenarios. These exercises served not only as practice, but as a launching pad for a direct action at the downtown Santa Barbara office of the war profiteer Alliant Techsystems (ATK), located just outside a popular shopping mall. ATK is the US government’s largest supplier of depleted uranium munitions, among other weapons systems. 


The action took place on the morning of August 20th, the day after the official end of the conference. Participants spent time planning the action for all four days during the conference.


Spiral Q Puppet Theatre, of Philadelphia, held daily workshops for activists to learn how to use art in public demonstrations. Participants in these workshops brainstormed ideas for the ATK action, such as constructing fake grenade bombs and fat cats whose pupils were glazed with dollar signs. One student suggested changing ATK to stand for “armed to kill.”


“I’ve never been in a group that’s been able to generate something this creatively on a consensus basis,” said Jonathan Williams, National Director of SPAN, who attended the workshops.


Out of these workshops, participants constructed a mock store front announcing a “blowout sale” and satirical bomb advertisements that they erected in front of the ATK office at 735 State Street in Santa Barbara on the morning of the 20th.


Jaws dropped and eyes widened as the young activists from around the country posing as ATK employees individually informed passersby about the weapons being created and supported in their community. Shouts of “Bomb globally, buy locally!” “WMD’s for all your needs!” and “Bombs are dropping while you’re shopping!” rang throughout the afternoon, as well as mock auctions for cluster bombs and radiation rays.


A local activist posing as an ATK employee named “D. Pleted-Uranium” said the response of shoppers was relatively positive. “The tactic is lighthearted and goofy, so they are more receptive.”


Although real ATK employees peered out their windows anxiously and police arrived eager to deliver citations, none of the participants were arrested and little could be done to minimize the commotion.


The Truth commercial-like action literally left a mark on State Street. A potted sunflower which decorated the stage at Think Outside the Bomb was brought to the action and transplanted by supportive landscape workers to a planter on the curb, where it sits discretely amidst towering flowers.


For all participants this action and indeed the entire conference was not just a great learning experience, but highly empowering.


As its name suggests, Think Outside the Bomb enabled activists to step outside the stream of their normal lives to discuss pressing issues that are often hidden and suppressed. By collaborating with others and realizing their connection to the larger movement for peace, ecological balance, and nuclear abolition, activists were rejuvenated and inspired to bring back knowledge from the conference to their local communities, and to those still in “the box” that is mainstream society.

Leave a comment