Rex Weyler

How Greenpeace Got Its Name

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from "Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World, by Rex Weyler (Rodale, $26).



Greenpeace was founded as much by happenstance as by design. In October 1969, the United States detonated a one-megaton nuclear bomb on remote Amchitka Island, 2,400 miles northwest of Vancouver, B.C., in the Aleutian Islands. The blast created a Richter 6.9 shockwave around the world. Newspaper columnist Bob Hunter, recalling the 1964 tsunami that had caused $1.4 million in damage to a town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, wrote, "There is a distinct danger that the tests might set in motion earthquakes and tidal waves which could sweep from one end of the Pacific to the other." For a disarmament rally in front of the American consulate, Hunter came up with the slogan "Don't Make a Wave." When the U.S. announced another test, five times more powerful, for the fall of 1971, local antiwar and environmental activists rose to stop it. American Quaker Irving Stowe phoned Hunter, Ben Metcalfe from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, expatriate Americans Jim and Marie Bohlen, local members of the Sierra Club, and others. They formed the group that came to be known as the "Don't Make a Wave Committee."

On Sunday morning, Feb. 8, 1970, Jim and Marie Bohlen drank coffee in their Vancouver kitchen. From the typically overcast winter sky, a diffused light filtered through the chestnut trees and into the large window. Marie, a nature illustrator, watched busy juncos and chickadees in the damp morning foliage. Jim said he was frustrated with the Sierra Club for its failure to take up the nuclear weapons issue, and with the Don't Make a Wave Committee for its inability to arrive at a strategy.

Marie sipped her coffee and watched the birds. Jim seethed as he read the newspaper. He got a second cup of coffee. Finally, somewhat casually, Marie said, "Why not sail a boat up there and confront the bomb?"

Most of the disarmament crowd knew of the Golden Rule, which had attempted to sail into the Enewetak test zone in 1958; the Phoenix, which had actually made it; and the Everyman, whose crew was arrested en route. Bob Hunter and lawyer Hamish Bruce had launched a tiny fishing boat to stage ecology actions, but it had sunk at dockside. Rod Marining and others had discussed the idea of procuring a ship, but Marie's suggestion was pure inspiration, detached from the practicalities. It just seemed to her like the right thing to do.

Jim and Marie were contemplating this when the phone rang. A local reporter, making a routine call and looking for a story, asked what the Sierra Club was planning. The synchronicity caught Bohlen off guard. Out of frustration, he took the plunge.

"We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb," he explained. To Bohlen, this may have been a hypothetical idea, but to the reporter, it was a scoop. Before Bohlen knew it, he was describing how they would sail inside the 12-mile limit. "If the Americans want to go ahead with the test, they'll have to tow us out," he said. "Something must be done to stop their insane ecological vandalism."

Next day's headline proclaimed: SIERRA CLUB PLANS N-BLAST BLOCKADE.

What happened next would be later disputed in people's memories and clouded by myth, but over the next week the Don't Make a Wave Committee devised a plan to sail a boat to Amchitka Island and gave the boat a name, although no such boat had been committed to the cause. That week the committee held an emergency meeting at a local church. Light entered the unadorned room from two tall, thin windows in the west wall. Wooden and grey metal chairs had been pulled out, facing a table where Irving Stowe presided. The throng pulsated with anticipation. Although Marie's idea and Jim's pronouncement to the media had bypassed the consensus process, no one opposed the plan for a boat. On the contrary, it had given the group some direction.

Terry Simmons had set up the B.C. Sierra Club chapter with the blessings of the Seattle group but had not received official sanction from headquarters in San Francisco. He made it clear that the group might have nothing to do with the plan. Although Don't Make a Wave had originally been a committee of the Sierra Club, it now assumed ad hoc status. Members unanimously ratified the action, although they had neither a boat, nor the money to charter one, nor any legal standing other than the democratic right of citizens to assemble and challenge their governments.

As the meeting wound down, they discussed what kind of boat they needed and who would find it. Some people drifted into the church grounds and others milled around inside and talked in small groups. When Stowe left the meeting, he flashed the "V" sign, as was his custom, and said, "Peace." Bill Darnell, a quiet ecology activist who rarely spoke at the meetings, said modestly, in the same offhanded manner that Marie Bohlen had suggested the boat, "Make it a green peace."

The assembly went silent for a moment. Darnell was not aware that anyone took notice, yet everyone heard the magic in the two words. Others in the group had discussed the confluence of disarmament and ecology, and Hunter and Metcalfe had written about the idea, yet no one had quite articulated the fusion so succinctly. The indelible conjugate lodged in people's minds. A green peace.

A few days later, Stowe confided to Darnell that he could not stop thinking about the words. Hunter believed the expression fused the two most urgent movements in human affairs. Metcalfe said, "Yeah, well, it fits better in a headline than the Don't Make A Wave Committee." Over the next few days, people talked about the hypothetical boat as if it already existed, and some called it "the Green Peace."

Ashcroft Pursues Greenpeace

On Friday, April 12, 2002, the 965-foot cargo ship APL Jade approached Miami with contraband cargo -- nothing unusual for a port through which large quantities of illegal drugs pass every week. Three miles off Miami Beach, a crewman lowered a 50-foot ladder to allow a harbor pilot aboard. When the pilot boat departed, two small inflatables pulled alongside. Climbers Hillary Hosta, 28, and Scott Anderson, 29, clambered up the ladder, wearing T-shirts labeled "Greenpeace illegal forest crime unit."

Greenpeace transmitted a radio communiqué to the Jade: "We are conducting a peaceful demonstration. We have personnel on your ship." The Jade reportedly carried 70 tons of Amazon mahogany, which Greenpeace claimed violated Brazilian, U.S., and international trade laws. "I am not against the trade in forest products," Anderson explained. "I'm against the illegal trade -- and cannot believe that the U.S. turns a blind eye in the face of overwhelming evidence."

The U.S. Coast Guard arrested Hosta and Anderson as they prepared to unfurl a banner that read, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." They spent a weekend in the Miami Federal Detention Center, along with 12 compatriots.

"We knew we'd be arrested for boarding the ships," said Scott Paul, one of the detainees. "Everyone was relaxed. The officers in jail told us to order pizza. They released us on Monday morning, and everything seemed normal." Six protesters pleaded guilty, received minor fines, and were sentenced to time served, a typical result for a Greenpeace protest.

Fifteen months later, the U.S. Attorney for south Florida, Marcos Daniel Jimenez, indicted Greenpeace USA for "boarding a vessel before its arrival in port and the conspiracy to do so."

"The conspiracy charge implies serious consequences," Greenpeace lawyer Tom Wetterer said. "It transforms a trivial offense into a federal felony."

In order to invoke the conspiracy statute, there had to be a crime committed by the organization. For this purpose, the U.S. Department of Justice harkened back to an 1872 law prohibiting "sailor-mongering." Lawmakers enacted the statute to stop brothels from sending hawkers, armed with liquor and prostitutes, to entice sailors to their establishments.

The obscure law has been enforced only twice. The New York judge who presided over the first conviction called the language "inartistic and obscure." In 1890, a second conviction followed the boarding of a ship by seedy characters at the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River. For the next 112 years, the law remained unused and obsolete, until the Greenpeace arraignment in Miami.

The case against Greenpeace represents the most direct attack on free speech in America since the dawn of the civil rights movement, according to longtime observers. Said the NAACP's Julian Bond, "This is a government assault on time-honored nonviolent civil disobedience."

Redressing Grievances

Greenpeace claims it is the victim of selective persecution by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft grew up in a family of devout Pentecostal fundamentalists in Missouri. As that state's attorney general, he opposed school desegregation. As governor, he used black prisoners for domestic help and publicly insulted women and gays. In his memoirs, he described his political defeats as "crucifixions" and his victories as "resurrections."

When named U.S. Attorney General, Ashcroft swathed the exposed breast of the Statue of Justice and instituted a Justice Department prayer group. "The law is not about forgiveness," he advised his new group. "It is oftentimes about vengeance."

This is not the first time Greenpeace has faced Ashcroft's wrath. After Greenpeace activists violated a security zone in California, protesting the "Star Wars" missile defense program, government attorneys sought curiously long prison sentences for 17 defendants. To avoid the excessive jail time -- and in deference to U.S. sentiment after the Sept. 11 attacks -- Greenpeace USA signed a consent decree, waiving its right to protest Star Wars research for five years.

The deal marked a turning point in Greenpeace history and in the saga of American civil liberties. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has claimed that Ashcroft used the Sept. 11 attacks to roll back civil rights and unleash Homeland Security snoops on American citizens. For example, he imposed a policy of selective deportation against men of Middle Eastern descent, charging 1,200 with petty immigration violations, and imprisoned them in secrecy without access to lawyers. The ACLU claims Ashcroft violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution by targeting Muslims and citizen activists.

A conviction against Greenpeace for conspiring to monger sailors could cost the organization its tax-exempt status and expose it to further government inspection of finances and membership roles. "This kind of prosecution is unprecedented in American history," said executive director John Passacantando. "It is designed to stifle public dissent by an entire organization."

In October 2003, Greenpeace filed motions to dismiss the indictment and to compel the federal government to turn over evidence supporting its claim that the mahogany aboard the Jade had been legally harvested and traded. Since the government had no such evidence, the Justice Department revised its indictment, deleting those claims and purging any mention of mahogany.

Friends of the Court

"Seventy percent of Brazilian mahogany is destined for the U.S. market," said Greenpeace's international head Gerd Leipold. "Most of it illegal."

Big-leafed, or "genuine," mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is a reddish hardwood valued for fine furniture, musical instruments and boat decks. At the time of the 2002 incident in Miami, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had placed the tree on a list of vulnerable species requiring export "certificates of origin." Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, had halted mahogany logging due to depletion of the species and destruction of the Amazon by logging roads. The wood aboard the Jade lacked an IBAMA certificate. "The mahogany was illegal," said Greenpeace lawyer Wetterer. "The prosecution is political."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Elliot disagreed. He told the court, "There is no evidence that the government has discriminated against Greenpeace because of its political views." He claimed that Greenpeace's opposition to the government's environmental policy "makes it no different from thousands of other political advocacy groups."

That's precisely what other groups are worried about. The Natural Resources Defense Council, "troubled by the apparently political nature of this prosecution," filed an amicus brief with the court, supporting Greenpeace. So did the ACLU, Sierra Club, NAACP, Al Gore and lawyers across the country. The ACLU claimed the prosecution "threatens every advocacy group whose message may offend the government of the moment."

"If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s," said Julian Bond, "black Americans would not be voting today."

On October 30, 2003, The Miami Herald urged the Justice Department to drop the prosecution. "There seems no point to it beyond vindictiveness toward a group that riles the administration," the editorial stated. "Why hasn't Justice applied the same standards to... pro-life activists that use similar protest tactics?"

"The Greenpeace case is particularly chilling," wrote George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley in the Los Angeles Times. "The extraordinary effort made to find and use this obscure law strongly suggests a campaign of selective prosecution."

The sailor mongering case has placed Greenpeace on the front lines of the battle for citizen rights in America. "We didn't pick this fight over civil rights," said Greenpeace's Passacantando, "but we will defend ourselves. This attack on an American tradition is unconstitutional and unpatriotic.

"This case woke us up," he added. "I never took the environmental issues for granted. I knew we faced severe opposition over the environment, but I did take my civil liberties for granted. I always assumed, in America, I had the right to dissent."

Rex Weyler is author of the forthcoming GREENPEACE: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists and Visionaries Changed the World (Rodale Press/September 2004).

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