RAF Greenham Common air base, the site of continuous women’s peace protests from 1981 until 1991. Photo: PA Images/Alamy
In September 1981 on a muddy RAF site in Berkshire, one of the biggest women-led protests since the suffragettes began.
Known now as Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, the movement started when a small number of anti-nuclear protesters marched 120 miles from Cardiff to the RAF base. They called themselves ‘Women for Life on Earth’ and their aim was to take a stand against Nato’s decision to store American cruise missiles at the airfield.
As awareness grew, thousands of grandmothers, mothers, daughters and women of all backgrounds came together to join them, with the intention of getting the missiles removed from the site.
Evolving into a series of camps set up on Greenham Common, the demonstration lasted for nearly 20 years before it was disbanded in 2000.
It has since been regarded as one of the largest and most successful feminist actions of its time – yet the likelihood of the same movement being allowed in the present day is increasingly doubtful.
If passed, they would give police increased powers of control over protesters. This would include greater stop-and-search powers, the right to shut down demonstrations deemed too noisy and the ability to impose start and finish times on protests.
Had these regulations existed at the time of Greenham, police would have had the authority to shut down the movement before it had even begun.
Facing this prospect, it’s important to reflect on these movements, and how the world would have been different had they not been allowed to happen.
‘To me, it feels like a step backwards’
The activists of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp were fiercely dedicated to their cause.
All year round, including during the coldest winter nights and hottest summer days, thousands lived in tents on the Common, remaining resilient and finding strength in their sense of community.
The movement was sparked by women rejecting the idea that their place and purpose was limited to the home. They instead used their identity as carers and mothers to fight in the name of peace for future generations.
Sian Jones, who was living in Southampton at the time, first arrived in Greenham just after Christmas in 1981. She spent time at the camp on and off for around a decade and remembers the protest starting out as something of a “free for all”.
“There wasn’t really much respect for the bylaws back then,” she says. “In the end it developed into a sort of competition among some women to see how many times they could go in and out [of the base].
“Women did go to prison, they were arrested for a number of different offences, but that didn’t stop them. I think that it’s always possible to find your way around legislation that prevents you from exercising your right to protest.”
The protest at Greenham was made up of a series of nine camps situated at various gates around the RAF base. To distinguish between them, each was named after a colour of the rainbow and catered towards women of different criteria. Green Gate, for example, was strictly women-only, meaning that it did not accept male visitors. Violet gate had a religious focus, with blue gate suitable for women with an interest in New Age practices.
At each gate, the activists at Greenham were creative in their use of nonviolent action. Group singing was a popular strategy, with lyrics supporting their anti-nuclear cause. In the initial stages of the protest, women also took action by chaining themselves to the fencing of the RAF base.
Other acts of resistance utilised the sheer number of protesters in the camp.
During Embrace the Base, which took place for the first time in 1983, 30,000 women joined together and held hands around the perimeter of the RAF base, creating a 14-mile human chain.
A journalist who witnessed the scene from an aeroplane stated that not a single gap could be witnessed for the entire stretch. When it happened again a couple of years later, the number of women who took part had increased to around 50,000.
In another demonstration that took place in the same year, 200 women dressed as teddy bears scaled the fence of the RAF site and staged a protest picnic. Their intention was to highlight the safety risk the weapons posed for the future of their children.
“Often I think to myself, if we’d had these laws at the time, what would have happened at Greenham?” says Geraldine Lee-Treweek, who spent time at the peace camp during her teenage years.
Originally from Plymouth, Lee-Treweek visited Greenham for the first time when she was 16. A student during the 1980s, she describes herself as being a “weekender” at the camp, never living there permanently but visiting often after finding it changed the way she viewed the world.
“I don’t think for one minute that [the Policing Bill’s] measures are about protecting ordinary people from ‘horrible’ protesters. From what I’ve seen it’s very much about a wider range of increasing police powers, making it harder and harder for people to be able to stand and speak out for their rights. To me it feels draconian, it feels like a step backwards,” Lee-Treweek says.
Some anti-protesting laws did exist at the time of the peace camp. The Military Lands Act, for example, made it an arrestable offence to trespass on the RAF base, resulting in hundreds of women being imprisoned or fined.
The new Bill however, if passed, will give police the power to stop and search “without suspicion” in the context of protests. Currently, these measures are only allowed when serious violence has happened or is anticipated. In future, it’s possible even a non-violent group dressed as teddy bears could be at risk.
‘It’s a way of trying to bring people under control’
Like many of the women who spent time at Greenham, Sian Jones developed a good understanding of the law and policing from her experience. As a result, her involvement in protest continued after leaving the camp.
She regards the proposed amendments to the PCSC as being a revised version of the 1986 Public Order Act, which works to abolish the common law offences of riot, unlawful assembly and affray.
“It’s basically a reworking and a strengthening in quite a scary fashion, it’s a way of trying to bring people under control. The amount of discretion these changes would give police officers and even the home secretary herself to interpret what can be considered a ‘serious disruption’ is particularly worrying,” she says.
If passed, the amendments would make it an offence to intentionally or recklessly cause public annoyance or disruption to the community or surrounding organisations and businesses. Critics have described this measure as being too vague, yet anyone found guilty could now be threatened with a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
In a further attempt to limit activists’ rights, last year the government also announced plans to restrict the public’s use of judicial reviews. These are a type of court proceeding sometimes used by protesters, in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of an action made by a government body.
“If they take these powers away, a lot of people involved in protest will struggle to find another way of making the government accountable and challenging its decisions,” Jones explains. “I think that combined with the amendments they’re discussing it’s going to make it a challenge to protest. I don’t think people are going to stop doing it, but it’s going to make things a lot more difficult.”
‘The violence that I saw there from the police was horrifying’
Though the PCSB did not exist at the time of the Greenham movement, the police would often resort to other measures to assert their power.
This included threats of violence, says Sue Say, who travelled to the peace camp on a one-way ticket at the age of 18, after becoming fed up with the sexism she was facing in her workplace at the time.
Raised by her adoptive parents in Surrey, she recalls a number of sinister experiences involving police at the protest.
“In my little village I saw the world just from my perspective. When I went to Greenham, the whole world was opened up to me. The violence I saw there from the police was horrifying, they really brutalised women. Us standing firm and refusing to leave the camp made it much more difficult for them.”
Say’s role in standing firm in the protest resulted in her being sent to Holloway Prison “around eight or nine times.” She thinks it was a small price to pay.
“It didn’t matter to us what the police said or did. We weren’t there for anything other than for peace and for our gender. The whole thing was about creating the most outrageous demonstration that could be had at that time – and that was for women to leave their children and husbands to go and live in the dirt at a peace camp. That was just radical beyond all belief back then.”
Last year, the Metropolitan Police provoked outrage after officers were photographed using physical force towards women at the vigil of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old who was murdered by a serving police officer. Say remembers that a similar level of force was an everyday prospect for activists at Greenham.
“They would hit us with truncheons and push women down stone stairs – but they weren’t going to get us to surrender by doing that.
“Sometimes the press would come, and while they were there the police were less likely to use physical force. So, the more publicity we got, the less opportunity the police had to be violent. When the cameras were gone, that was a different story.”
Say’s time at Greenham strengthened her resolve as an activist. She came away from the camp with the belief that protesting remains the effective way to raise awareness about an issue.
“How can we be made aware of issues just sitting in our homes, doing our jobs, rolling along? We can’t! Protest is the point at which nobody has listened, but something needs to be done – and that is our fundamental right.”
Over the years, protest has been transformed by technology. Without access to the internet or mobile phones at the time of the peace camp, Say remembers messages being passed on through word of mouth and radios. To get information from outside the camp, women would often have to run miles to the nearest telephone box.
“What a tool the internet is for demonstration in the hands of somebody with good morals,” Say says. “I look at protests now and I’m full of admiration for the way people are using technology. They’re starting to get smart and thinking outside the box, which means they’re keeping people interested.”
Her advice to contemporary protesters is to value how individuals can come together as a team.
“You need unique people at your back. You can’t do it alone, that’s what I learnt at Greenham. We weren’t successful because we were really organised or paratrooper trained women, it wasn’t that. It was because we were independent with our own creative minds with no one over our shoulder telling us that we couldn’t.
“I found myself in Greenham. Ever since, I’ve never turned down a call from a woman asking for help. That’s my sister.”
‘Once you know what’s achievable you can’t unknow it.’
Despite the anti-protesting measures being discussed in parliament, the Greenham campaigners agree that the threat of stricter regulations should not discourage activists of the future.
Shirley Law, originally from Plymouth, joined the peace camp permanently in1985, living at Greenham common for nearly three years in total. She would often leave her tent behind one weekend of every month to return home and visit her family and children.
Recognised as a source of knowledge on peace campaigning and the legal and criminal justice system, Law partook in a number of Greenham’s most iconic demonstrations, including Embrace the Base.
“Those in power now are afraid. It sounds very stupid, but they are,” Law says. “They’re worried about people like you and me standing up for ourselves. If these measures had been around when Greenham was going, I don’t think it would have made much of a difference because the women were so bloody-minded – and it worked!
“One of our greatest achievements was the fact that we were able to stand there and watch the missiles go back to America.”
The missiles started to be removed from the RAF site in 1989, a process that took nearly two years.
Law continues: “Greenham has now returned to a beautiful common, it’s got all kinds of things going on in it. Because of that, I have always protested, and I will continue to do so regardless of what happens.”
The impact that Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp has had on subsequent protests is immeasurable.
It’s been suggested it played a part in the evolution of a number of environmental movements, including the demonstration against Newbury bypass and other anti-road protests of the 1990s.
Sian Jones has since participated in monitoring police evictions and providing legal support for Roma and Travellers, a group who are also affected by the PCSC through government plans to increase regulations for pitching on private land.
Both Shirley Law and Geraldine Lee-Treweek have continued on their path as activists even after leaving the camp, following their shared interest in environmentalism and anti-nuclear work.
Lee-Treweek has also gone on to fight for border and refugee rights, and is now a university professor of Knowledge Exchange and Social Justice.
“Having learnt strength from people like Shirley, and being around women who have that call for social justice running through them is a learning experience you can’t get anywhere else,” Lee-Treweek said.
“Once you’ve got it into your way of being, that you can stand up for what you believe, it’s a core part of who you are. Once you know what you want is achievable you can’t unknow and you can’t forget.”
The success and legacy of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp proves how protests can create positive change for all. Though the future of protesters’ rights are uncertain, it’s clear that where there’s a will for change, there’s always a way.
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