Base Fears: Women At Greenham
Maggie O'Kane went to Greenham Common for the fourth anniversary of the decision to deploy cruise missiles.
At three o'clock the sounds came again. The police checked their watches and flicked their black gloved fingers against the fence. The camp women moved out from behind the trees. A woman in a pink coat and raggy fur collar carried a black refuse sack under her arm. The camp women danced around a policeman distracting him, singing, whooping - their eyes darting with his. The woman in the pink coat pulled the wire clippers from the bag.
It doesn't take long for a fence to come down at Greenham Common. The concrete posts don't hold very well when the bodies swing on the wire. The plan was to sing the Walls of Jericho as they pulled down the fence but that didn't work because there were 30,000 women there and the Camp Women don't believe in having things organised. They led the attack on the nine miles of fence around Greenham Common Air Base and the day trippers and weekenders followed if they wanted. Some did. Most didn't however; most stood back watching the police pull the women off the wires. They stood whooping like red indians, some shouting, some singing, some eating their sandwiches. The fence swayed like a great wobbling jelly and the policemen stood trying to hold up the pillars pretending they were in Downing Street. Then it crashed down; the women screamed louder and jumped higher. A strip of carpet was rolled out over the ringlets of barbed wire inside the fence and women ran into the base. The soldiers chased and the women cheered.
Seventy-eight women were arrested in Greenham Common last Sunday at the demonstration to mark the fourth anniversary of the decision to deploy cruise missiles in Europe. Four women had their fingers broken when the soldiers hit them with long batons to stop them pulling at the fence. The soldiers were nervous, they ran around inside the fence rolling out the barbed wire and hitting out at the women on the fence with sticks.
All day they were waiting for something to happen. They heard sounds of women shouting, banging and playing musical instruments every hour on the hour for five minutes and then silence. Until three, when they started to tear down the fence .There are nine miles of fence around the base. All around the outside stood the police and 30,000 women. Inside were the regular soldiers, paratroopers and American Gis. The fence came down in three places.
At seven the lights from the two police helicopters were still in the sky. Women holding candles moved, towards the main gate carrying their lunch boxes and cameras. They left behind a fence decorated with candles, wool, tinsel, poems, prayers and photographs of their children.
There are eight gates in the fence all named after the colours of the rainbow by the Camp Women. At the Orange gate an old lady in her early seventies with thin white hair, dressed in motorbike waterproofs was carefully removing the wire as though she was picking up dropped stitches in her knitting.
“Excuse me Madam but if you don't stop doing that to the fence, I'm afraid I shall have to arrest you criminal damage."
All around them women were throwing themselves onto the fence and the police were wrenching them off again. Screaming, cheering, singing.
"Oh that's quite all right officer, I'd like to get arrested,"
"Now Madam, please. . ...
He led her away to the police van, his arm protectively wrapped around her frail shoulders.
There are no men at Greenham Common . It is a woman's peace camp.
In September 1981 after an eight¬ day anti-nuclear protest march from Cardiff to Greenham Common, five women chained themselves to the fence. A base soldier told them that they could stay there as long as they liked for all he cared. So they took him at his word.
Since September 1981 they have been evicted three times and they've come back three times. The first time the army brought in bulldozers and lifted their caravans and tents to a pound but the women slept in sleeping bags outside the gates. 350 women have been arrested so far. On New Year's Day this year 44 women broke into the base and danced on top of the silos - they were all arrested.
At fIrst it was a mixed camp. but then the fights broke out. The camp women say the men tried to domi¬nate; to run the show and tell them what to do. So they told them to get out and they went.
The majority of the women in Greenham Common are lesbian femi¬nists. Men visit the camp but don't stay after nightfall. "The women need to have their own space". said one camp woman. At the moment there are around 60 women living on Green¬ham Common. They sleep in large huts called benders made from a frame of tree branches tied together, and lined with polythene and blankets. Their food and most of their money is donated by visitors and supporters. The first Greenham baby, a boy, was born at the camp a year ago.
Janice Walsh visited the camp a year ago with her son Mark who was introduced to the battle of the sexes at the early age of two. "I just don't wont any pricks on the site", said one camp woman who had been living there for a year. The camp woman's father is an American millionaire and she is plan¬ning to buy an island off the coast of Scotland where "pricks" are com¬pletely banned and radical, feminist separatists can have the place to them¬selves .
Other women are less offended by the presence of men. Mary Connell is 20 and left a music course in Edinburgh University to come to Greenham. Caroline Quinn from Portrush was a final year business studies stu¬dent in Coleraine Technical College when she came to Greenham two months ago. Jane Rennet is 57 and she has been living at the camp for over a year.
At Sunday's demonstration men came but mostly in backup role to run the creches and cook soup for the women. They were not invited to take part in the action.
Three miles away in the village of Newbury the camp women are not welcomed. A sign in one of the cafes reads: "Green women or their suppor¬ters not welcome here". There is one pub where they are allowed to drink, The Rockaby, run by an Irish land¬lord. In September a vigilante group of young men came out from New¬bury to attack the camp. They came at night and poured bags of maggots into the benders when the women were sleeping and threw pig shit over the tents. A badly made nail bomb was thrown into the fire at the main gate but nobody was hurt.
The green canvas tent at the main gate was full of supplies by Sunday afternoon. The demonstrators came in 400 buses, walking and in cars, bring¬ing supplies of coal, wood, Christmas cake, boxes of Tampax, blankets and fIowers.
At eight on Sunday evening the candles placed around the peri¬meter fence were burning low and most of the women were going home. The soldiers and police were weary. All through the day women had gone to talk to them, to persuade them that they'd' got it all wrong but by eight they didn't want to be persuaded by anyone, about anything anymore. An Australian woman dressed in a Black cloak, with a white painted face addressed herself to a bored soldier through the fence.
She told him she was dressed in black because she had come back from a nuclear death. Yes, she knew her face should really be painted red be¬cause that was the colour that people went after a nuclear bomb but she hadn't any red paint. Anyway - she wanted to tell him about what he was allowing to happen to the world and
how the karma of man was crumbling.
"Piss off hippy", said the bored soldier.
Two miles away at the Green Gate the women were making plans for a new attack on the fence. The day trippers had gone home. The police were murmuring among themselves about pints of lager. The soldiers were making suggestions to the few straggling protestors about possible conversion attempts in their tents .
Twenty women gathered in a bender with a mound of wire cutters in the middle. A legal observer was appointed; a woman who takes all the names of the women and contacts relatives or friends if they are arrested. Outside, the diversion team were making preparations. Things were organised; Alex and Lucy would lead the road runners. Susan would lead the attack through the woods. It was almost too organised compared to the spontaneity of the day's action.
The diversion groups would go along the fence singing, dancing, weaving peace signs in wool, annoying the soldiers while the others cut through the fence. But the road runners couldn't find the women in the woods. They lay crouched in the grass watching the sentries through the trees. It started to snow, they were getting cold. There was no sign of the women in the woods. The diversion went too far along the fence. It all got a bit boring - with the road runners waiting for the wood's women - who were wait¬ing for the diversion. The diversion had got lost.
But the Greenham women are not easily deterred. Shortly after midnight 18 women from the Green Gate cut their way into the base in a secluded wooded area of the Common. The bored soldiers who had watched all day from inside the base had had enough of the chanting women.
It was late at night; the television cameras had gone; the children with the balloons had gone home with their mothers. The soldiers picked off the women as they came through the fence and threw them onto the barbed wire. At every blow the soldiers yelled like true paratroopers going into battle. The legal observer was screaming for the police to arrest the women and take them away from the soldiers. The word spread along the fence to the main gate. It was 2am when the others arrived but by then the women were standing quietly in a group and the soldiers had encircled them with barbed wire. They sat waiting for the police. Eighteen bloodied and bruised women were brought down to be charged with criminal damage in New¬bury police station .
Newbury police station is busy these days.
Of the seventy-eight women arres¬ted by the police most were let go after questioning. But the hard core were kept. The police knew all their faces: they'd been there before many times. They would be charged again with criminal damage. If the damage is estimated to be over £200, the case can be tried in the High Court before a jury and the maximum penalty can he an unlimited fine and/or ten years in jail. More likely they will be held for 24 hours, Another charge added to their list and they will be allowed to return to the camp.
Inside the base, Lady Olga Maitland was paying a visit to the commander with a message of support from the Women and Families for Defence Group. Outside near the Green Gate, eight women gazed into the darkness at the shadows of the silos where 16 cruise missiles are stored. Each one six times more powerful than the bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima.