A Time Comes: What it means to take action

Feature story - June 2, 2009
The six Greenpeace activists who shut down a coal power station last year made history when a UK jury agreed that they were acting to safeguard property from the impacts of climate change. A new documentary takes you behind the scenes of that action, and into the heart of what Greenpeace and non-violent direct action is all about.

Six people who made a choice to act against climate change.

The Kingsnorth Six were accused of causing £30,000 of criminal damage to Kingsnorth power station.  Their defence of "lawful excuse" was accepted by the jury, which supported the right to take direct action to protect the climate from the burning of coal.

The New York Times listed the defence as one of the ideas that defined 2008.

Inspired by their story, internationally acclaimed director Nick Broomfield has just completed a 20 minute film about the action and the court case, celebrating the spirit of direct action.

Non-violent direct action: what makes us Greenpeace

The Kingsnorth Six case is but the latest chapter in the Greenpeace story.

Greenpeace has stood at the forefront of the environmental movement as a catalyst for positive and durable change for nearly four decades. In 1971 we lived in a world where atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were routine, where whales were being hunted to extinction for profit, where toxic and radioactive waste were poured freely into the seas, where forests and wilderness were destroyed with barely a murmur of protest, and where the morality of environmental destruction was rarely raised.

See the full movie of our Kingsnorth Six victory

Greenpeace activists made a difference to each of those issues in the same way the Kingsnorth Six did: by taking calculated personal risks to stand up for what they believed was right, even if the law told them they were wrong.

Journeys into the bomb

The Greenpeace founders were the first.  They hired an old fishing boat with the intention to sail directly into a nuclear testing exclusion zone to stop the detonation of a nuclear weapon at Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. Although the ship was turned back by the US military and the bomb went off, the Greenpeace  act of defiance catalyzed a movement, and subsequent nuclear testing that was planned at Amchitka was cancelled five months later.

A year later David McTaggart took his 38-foot ketch, Vega, into the forbidden zone outside Moruroa, the Pacific atoll where the French government tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Having been given an order to leave, McTaggart and his crew were expecting to be boarded and physically removed from the area.

But when the test device was raised over Moruroa on a helium balloon,  it appeared that a decision had been made to simply detonate the bomb - protesters be damned. McTaggart recorded an audio message for his friends and family and after the crew secured the ship as best they could against the expected nuclear fallout, they sent the following radio telegram to their Vancouver base:

"BALLOON RAISED OVER MORUROA LAST NIGHT STOP GREENPEACE THREE SIXTEEN MILES NORTHEAST STOP SITUATION FRIGHTENING PLEASE PRAY AND ACT."

The following day, McTaggart's ship was rammed by French commandos who then boarded the Vega and detained all of the crew. But McTaggart was relentless and returned to Moruroa in 1973, infuriating the French military so much that he and his crew were brutally beaten by commandos. McTaggart was hospitalized and almost lost the sight in one eye.

McTaggart and his crew had achieved exactly what they had set out to do. They had brought worldwide attention, and further embarrassment, to the French government. McTaggart pursued the French government in their own courts, eventually winning his own landmark case.  With the entire Pacific united in outrage and opposition, the French finally relented by moving its weapons testing programme underground.  Continued protest eventually led to the end of the programme.

The story continues in Japan

Two other Greenpeace activists still await the conclusion of their story, and their court case. Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki face ten years in prison for the crime of exposing corruption in the Japanese whaling industry. The two turned over to police a box of whale meat, which had been disguised as "cardboard" and removed from a whaling ship, as evidence of widespread embezzlement. But instead of an investigation of the scandal and the contradictory statements made by the bureaucrats that oversee the taxpayer-funded programme, police arrested Junichi and Toru and raided the Greenpeace offices.

Amnesty International expressed grave concern about the case, and 250,000 people have demanded the release of Junichi and Toru and investigation of the real criminals. In a country with little sympathy for civil disobedience, Junichi and Toru have braved the condemnation of society in the name of their beliefs. The trial is expected to conclude later this year.

Imperative to act

You can add to the stories of these individuals the scores of people who took action with Greenpeace: who manoeuvred boats beneath platforms to keep radioactive waste barrels from being dumped in the sea; who overwintered in Antarctica to keep oil companies out; who put their bodies between a harpoon and a whale to demand a moratorium on commercial whaling; who waded into outflows to demand an end to trade in toxic waste; who occupied the Brent Spar oil rig to keep it from being scuttled; who chained themselves to bulldozers to protect the Great Bear Rainforest; and who whooped and hollered and celebrated when the world eventually came to its senses and agreed that they were right.

Yet while we have clocked up an extensive list of victories - the threat of runaway climate change threatens all of them.

There are more reasons to act now than ever before.

The story of Greenpeace is the story of individuals. People like the Kingsnorth Six, like David McTaggart, like Junichi and Toru, and people like you.

Change in this world is made up of a cascading series of individual choices.

A time comes when each of us has to choose.

Take Action

Ask world leaders to take individual responsibility, and personally attend the UN climate summit this year to ensure a meaningful deal is set to avoid runaway climate change.

Support Us

Our activists could not fight the legal battles they may face without donations from individuals like you. Please give what you can.

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