Thousands of protesters converged on the Berkshire village of Aldermaston yesterday to commemorate the birth of Britain's anti-nuclear movement in an act of mass defiance against the Government's plans to curb protests at the headquarters of Britain's nuclear weapons programme.
The protest was called to mark the 50 th anniversary of the first march to Aldermaston when up to 10,000 people walked from London to the Atomic Weapons Establishment to protest against nuclear testing. The Easter 1958 march coincided with the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and was widely credited with starting the world's first mass anti-nuclear movement.
Coaches from 50 different locations brought up to 3,000 activists from as far as Aberdeen and Penzance where they converged on six of the gates leading into the facility, where Britain's Trident nuclear warheads are manufactured and maintained. The protest at each gate was themed to mark a particular decade of anti-nuclear campaigning from the 1950s onwards and was visited by a moving float of speakers who included veterans from the original peace march, anti-nuclear MPs, the designer Vivienne Westwood and one of the few remaining survivors of Hiroshima.
Yoshio Sato, 77, lost his family when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which together with the Japanese city of Nagasaki is the only place in the world to have suffered a nuclear attack. "I lost my mother, brother and younger sister," he said. "My mother died one month after the bombing, my sister took six months to die. Atomic bombs and nuclear weapons must not be allowed to survive."
Many of those participating in yesterday's protest were veterans of the original march to Aldermaston. Pat Arrowsmith, now 78 and still a member of CND, was a nurse at the time of the first march and helped organise accommodation for the protesters. "I think Aldermaston was a pivotal moment in the anti-nuclear movement," she said. "It might not have been as dramatic as the demonstrations that involved civil disobedience but we all knew we were partaking in something that was truly significant and historical."
Yesterday's protest also focused attention on government plans to ban protests at Aldermaston, a move that would outlaw the Aldermaston's Women's Peace Camp, one of the most famous and potent symbols of protest in British political history. Struggling to stay warm around a fire, veterans of the camp said they would continue to defy any attempts to remove it. "We have a right to protest and we intend to keep it," said Rebecca Johnson, who helped found the camp 23 years ago. "Civil society protest is one of the few ways to initiate change in this country."
The poor weather may have deterred many people from travelling but the protest still attracted thousands of demonstrators, including a woman aged 102.
Margaret Morton, a Quaker in her mid-seventies who travelled from her home from near Glasgow, said: "I'm not here to celebrate the past. I care about the present and the future. Aldermaston is the centre of Britain's nuclear weapons programme. How can we hope to persuade other countries to give up their bombs when we still have ours?"
Walter Wolfgang, the 84-year-old Labour Party activist and CND founding member who was famously evicted from a Labour party conference for heckling Jack Straw, said he believed the world was a more dangerous place now than during the Cold War. "On the one hand, we have made progress, but on the other hand, because of US and UK foreign policy, the danger is greater," he said. "At least during the Cold War we were vaguely aware of what the other side was doing."
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