"Frances Crowe, 95-year-old antinuclear activist" Bulletin for Atomic Scientists
In this interview, legendary activist Frances Crowe looks back on 70 years of protesting against the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. She describes the impact that the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima had on the American public in 1945—and how she and her husband, a radiologist and physician who had educated her on the effects of radiation poisoning, then decided to take a stand against its use. Among other acts of civil disobedience, she went on to spend a month in federal prison after spray-painting “Thou Shalt Not Kill” on the casings of missile tubes at a nuclear submarine base in Rhode Island. This grandmother of five has been arrested nine times for trespassing at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station and was arrested again on January 14, two months shy of her 95th birthday. On the eve of the publication of her book, Finding My Radical Soul, Crowe tells about growing up in the Midwest during an era of Progressive politics, her evolution as a protestor, the limits of civil disobedience, what drove her and her husband—and what continues to drive her today.
When asked how many times she’s been arrested, the mild-looking, Ivy League-educated, 4-foot 11-inch, 95-year-old Quaker said, “Not enough”—before conceding that she stopped counting after the number topped 50.
Police dragged this white-haired little old lady out of her congressman’s office while she protested the war in Iraq—and the Vietnam War before that. She’s been arrested nine times for trespassing at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station alone and was arrested again on January 14, two months shy of her 95th birthday.
Her name is Frances Crowe, and she is a fixture of the college towns, communes, and food co-ops that sit in the hills of western Massachusetts, aka “The Happy Valley.”
She was born in 1919 in the small town of Carthage, Missouri, and grew up at a time when parts of the Midwest were becoming famous for Progressive politicians such as Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin, known for his opposition to monopolies as well as his stance in favor of labor, women’s right to vote, the minimum wage, progressive taxation, and the direct election of senators. At the same time, with the horrors of the First World War still fresh, anti-war organizations—the War Resisters League, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—flourished.
Crowe says she was turned off to capital punishment by a public hanging held outside on the courthouse lawn; hawkers sold tickets to the best views. After moving to New York City to attend college, she lived in a progressive experiment in international living, attended the New School, converted to the Society of Friends (the Quakers), met refugees from Hitler’s Germany—and encountered Thomas Crowe, who would become her husband. A radiologist and physician, Tom’s work made him keenly aware of the dangers of radiation exposure, as did the news of the bombing of Hiroshima. The two started organizing people against the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in 1945, later becoming actively involved in the Physicians for Social Responsibility, and campaigned against the testing of atomic weapons in the atmosphere.
When Tom died years later, in 1997, she continued the work.
Among other acts of civil disobedience, Crowe spray-painted “Thou Shalt Not Kill” on the casings of missile tubes at a nuclear submarine base; that stunt landed her a month in federal prison (and her photo in the pages of Time magazine), before being released at the urging of Jesse Jackson. Over time, Crowe expanded her causes, which can be seen by thumbing through the dozen-odd scrapbooks she has in her basement, each four inches thick: They include everything from posters for civil rights marches on Washington in the early 1960s to flyers for anti-apartheid rallies in the 1990s, as well as protests from last week. Much of it is destined to be included with her oral history
(www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/activist/transcripts/Crowe.pdf) in the archives of Smith College, whose campus lies directly across the street from her house.
Always at the core, however, was her fierce stance against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. She’s been described as an activist’s activist, extremely energetic, determined, and creative when it comes to new ways of getting her anti-nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear power message across: running a draft counseling center, disrupting the christenings of submarine launches, and helping to come up with the “BB demonstration” to illustrate the killing power of nuclear weapons.
She’s been expressing her views for some 70 years—so long that the police are perplexed when arresting her for civil disobedience: “One gets a lot of mileage out of white hair,” she once observed.
Despite her strong opinions, Crowe is unfailingly polite and considerate, as even her opponents admit; she has been arrested so often at Vermont Yankee that she is on first-name terms with the chief of police—with whom she exchanges mystery novels.
To this day, Crowe hosts an antinuclear film series, holds vigils outside the courthouse every Saturday morning, and stages protests, petitions, and sit-ins. She even put up a radio tower in her backyard to broadcast her favorite anti-war radio program. In between, she raised three children, one of whom needed a lot of care as he was profoundly deaf. She is working on her autobiography, scheduled to come out in November 2014. “Crowe [is] the kind of activist who makes others tired just watching her,” opined the local newspaper recently.
The independent radio program Democracy Now! simply calls her
The Bulletin’s Dan Drollette managed to catch up with her between protests.
BAS: Did you really spray-paint “Thou Shalt Not Kill” on the sides of missiles for nuclear subs?
Crowe: Yes. These were on the casings that contained the nuclear weapons. The weapons were not in them yet. They were there on the docks at Quonset Point.2
It was for a Women of Faith action, organized by some nuns in Holyoke, Massachusetts, at the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and they asked me to join. There were six of us, I think, and we met at a monastery down in Connecticut to make our plans in detail.
We knew what we were going to do: We were going to cut our way through the fence at three o’clock in the morning, walk out on the dock, and paint our message on the casings. We had a stencil, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” that we took with us. So, we went out on the dock and we painted. And then we gathered and prayed and sang.
Then we were arrested. We went on trial in Cranston, Rhode Island, where we each went on trial separately, and I was first.
And the judge wouldn’t let me say anything. All he wanted to know was whether I had been there or not, and how did I get in and who cut the fence.
I wouldn’t say. Instead, I called for a meeting for worship. So we all sat for about five minutes in silence.
And he found me guilty, and I went to the federal prison they had then in Cranston, Rhode Island, where I spent a month.
BAS: What motivates you to protest against nuclear weapons and nuclear power?
Crowe: Nuclear weapons could easily wipe out life on this planet, either by war or by causing a nuclear winter. What could be more important? And nuclear power leads to weapons proliferation, and the problem of nuclear waste disposal.
I feel that what we’re doing is trying to change the culture regarding the way we look at these things—and that’s slow, hard work. A lot of the time, the corporate media focuses on fashion, or cheesy trends, or shallow entertainment—all they’re interested in are the things that make them money—so we don’t really hear or see or read about the important things, the big picture.
BAS: Do you think your work has done any good?
Crowe: I think we—all of us—have made a difference, locally here in western Massachusetts of course, but also in other ways, when you look at the bigger movement as a whole. It’s easy to forget how far we have come as a society, in so many ways. Look at my scrapbooks, and you’ll see flyers from a Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963. Who would have thought then that we would have a black president in the White House? Or that apartheid would be gone? Nuclear will be the next domino to fall.
BAS: But why you, and why continue now?
Crowe: It’s up to the elders to tell the story, because we have been there and we have experience. Every generation needs to relearn these things, and if not from us, then from whom?
Besides, older people are in a position to do this work: We’ve raised our children, we’ve had our careers. The issues are still there, but now we have the time and the freedom to pursue them. It’s up to us to do the outreach; it’s up to the elders to stand up and tell them what’s going on, because the corporate media is not going to do it.
BAS: You’ve done many different, attention-grabbing things, such as throw a bottle filled with your blood at the conning tower of a Trident nuclear submarine during its launching ceremony. Where do you come up with your ideas?
Crowe: From talking with people and hearing what others in the movement have done successfully, and kicking ideas around. For example, Helen Caldicott said to try outrageous things. About the only thing I didn’t do was when Helen said, “Frances, you ought to disrobe.” That I could not do.
But maybe at the next Entergy Corporation board meeting that would be appropriate to do.3
BAS: Did you go to prison every time you were arrested?
Crowe: No, no. But most of the time.
Now they won’t imprison me. The last time I was on trial up in Vermont, 36 miles away from here at that nuclear power plant, they found me guilty and the judge fined me $500. But he would not send me to prison.
I said, “I will not pay” … the Quaker Meeting in Northampton, they paid the fine, although I really objected, and I’m sorry that I permitted them to pay it.
BAS: But previously you actually did go to prison?
Crowe: Yes, sometimes I did. I’ve been in Framingham once, and I was in prison in New Hampshire, and I was held at the Manchester Armory for two weeks after the big occupation at Seabrook in 1977. You know that yesterday was the big anniversary of that event.4
But the worst place to be imprisoned was Washington, D.C., because they take your glasses away from you and your shoes. But, you know, it’s doable.
BAS: Tell me about your first arrest.
Crowe: The first arrest was at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts, during the Vietnam War. We had been going down and leafleting people there every Monday morning. And I think it was on International Women’s Day that we had a group, “Women Against the War,” and we walked around silently, single file.
We had been previously going to places like the Amherst town common, where we wore Vietnamese conical hats we had made, and we’d put white paint on our face and red paint for the blood, and we’d dress as Vietnamese women in the pajamas.
Then we went down to Westover, in costume, and were leafleting, and just at some point we all walked out and knelt down and blocked the road, and we were arrested. That was about 1973 or 1972.
BAS: What did your parents and others think when they heard of your first arrest?
Crowe: Well, my parents had already passed away. My kids have always been supportive. Tom was always supportive, though it was hard for him—he said that people kept wanting to bring him food, and he’d reply that “I am managing very well alone.”
But it wasn’t his style to do things like that. He’d go on vigils with me a couple of times, but he didn’t feel comfortable. He was arrested with me once at the federal center in Springfield, Massachusetts, when we had a big demonstration against the embargo on Nicaragua—we’d both gone to Nicaragua in the early 1980s as part of Witness for Peace5—but he preferred to pay the fine.
BAS: How far do you go? For example, I once heard political humorist Molly Ivins say that everything in politics is fair game for satire—except for a candidate’s family members (assuming that they are just innocent bystanders not involved in politics). Ivins said she would not make fun of them—it was not pertinent, and beyond the limit.
In a similar vein, what are the limits to civil disobedience, to creative ways of getting your message across?
Crowe: I believe that we should show respect to all people. And I try to hear what the opponent has to say—you have your viewpoint, and I have mine. And I certainly wouldn’t do any physical damage or injury to anyone. I try to prevail on them to take my flyers and read them.
And I try to do positive things of my own, to reduce my carbon footprint, for example. I’ve been trying for the last five years to really use my car as little as possible, I don’t fly anymore, and I eat locally—all of my produce is local. I try to live simply so others can simply live … I question if it’s a good society where everyone has their own washer and dryer—I’ve retired my dryer. And I try not to use my air conditioner.
It encourages me when I see solar panels on the roofs, although I can’t put them up here because there are too many trees around.
BAS: I understand you call yourself a “war tax resister.” What does that mean?
Crowe: I no longer pay federal taxes, but I do file. I set up a trust, and put everything in my children’s names, so I own nothing. But the government does take money out of my social security, and I donate a sum equivalent to my federal taxes to charity.
So, I try to put a third of my “tax money” into repairing the damages of war—I’ve been helping a woman go to school in Afghanistan, and I gave a thousand dollars for her to pay for tuition this year. I do things like that, and help this cancer clinic in Iraq. And a third goes to peace centers in this country, and a third to public education in this country. It costs me money, but it’s worth it for my conscience.
BAS: Why did you once put up a radio tower in your backyard?
Crowe: Just after 9/11, I was up in Maine taking care of my grandchildren while their parents were going off on vacation. And every morning I would listen to Maine Public Radio, where I heard Democracy Now! and Amy Goodman. I thought she was hard-hitting, giving us the truth about what was going on. So I came back to Northampton determined to get Democracy Now! on the radio here, but I was not successful.
WFCR and WMUA—the university stations—wouldn’t do it. So I put up a tower, a pole, in the backyard and broadcast Democracy Now! every day, at 103.3 on the FM dial. I did it by having someone download the latest broadcast on their computer and burn it to disk. And I would pick up the disk every day and I broadcast it via a transmitter I’d bought, so that I was re-broadcasting Democracy Now! from my home. We did that for a year and a half.
BAS: Is it fair to say that what first got you going was the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Crowe: When I heard on the radio that we had bombed Hiroshima with this deadly new force, I literally unplugged the iron and went looking for a peace center in New Orleans [where she and Tom lived at the time].
And you know, that was really before nonviolence was thought much of in the United States. There hadn’t been that much information about Gandhi, and it was really kind of the beginning of the emergence of another way of thinking. I kept feeling there must be an answer, and I wound up in a used bookstore and talked to the manager. He said you have to start by reading Tolstoy. And he was right. That was how Gandhi got started with many of his ideas, you know, by reading Tolstoy.
Tom and I talked a lot about it when he came in, and then Nagasaki happened three days later … and there was all of this celebration of the end of the war, but we just left New Orleans that day and got a boat and went rowing near an island off the coast. Because we just had different feelings about it than everyone else.
BAS: Who inspired you?
Crowe: Thoreau and Gandhi. I began to read and try to understand more deeply about nonviolence and what it was all about.
You know, it’s interesting, but I went to hear James Lawson6 speak at the University of Massachusetts last week, and he said that it wasn’t until Gandhi and King that we even had the word “nonviolence” in the vocabulary. This is a new, emerging study.
BAS: Who are you impressed by now?
Crowe: Helen Caldicott. She had come over to UMass for the first Earth Day, back on April 22, 1970, and she was telling it like it was. She is a physician from Australia who has written extensively on nuclear power. That was in the days when we had moved extensively to testing in the Pacific, and she did a speech called “If You Love This Planet,”
about the dangers of nuclear power. She came again last spring, and we filled the downstairs of First Churches. She was one of the most inspirational people.
BAS: Looking back on it, how do you assess your protesting “career”?
Crowe: I’ve provided some leadership that has helped to change the culture in this area. A lot of people have been a part of this, and I was privileged to participate. The work goes on. It’s slow and hard, from the bottom up, but we can see there’s progress—and the people in Washington aren’t going to act, so it’s up to us. A lot more people are aware.
BAS: You certainly packed a lot in. How old are you?
Crowe: I’m 95. Sometimes I feel it; I fell last night. The old body is wearing out. But on the whole, I’ve been lucky. I have good health, and good health care. And I exercise. I walk, and go to the senior center and work out. And I go to water aerobics.
And I think my diet helps. I’m a vegetarian, and have been since Frances Moore Lappé came out with Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971.
BAS: What are your next projects?
Crowe: Besides lectures, protests, and sit-ins, we have a film series, showing everything from Dr. Strangelove to the latest antinuclear documentary, such as The Forgotten Bomb which deals with the history of nuclear weapons. And we try to distribute good books on the topic, such as Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, and we try to book speakers of that caliber, such as Elaine Scarry of Harvard who wrote Thermonuclear Monarchy—which questions whether the president of the United States even has the legal authority to press a button and single-handedly launch nuclear missiles.
Very soon, there will be a gallery exhibition at Smith College showing newly discovered photos of the aftermath of Hiroshima which had been stored in an attic by Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review, who had used them in a story and then they’d been forgotten.
His daughter recently found them, and we’d like people to see for themselves what happened.
And every year we go down to the boat launch on the Connecticut River and launch paper boats with candles as a memorial to Hiroshima; it’s important to remember.
We also do the BB demonstration for audiences. To dramatize the amount of weaponry the world has, we ask people to sit and close their eyes while I drop BBs one by one into a metal waste-paper basket; one BB represents all the bombs dropped on London, Dresden, Tokyo, all the fighting on the western and eastern fronts during World War Two, and the Pacific, up to and including Nagasaki and Hiroshima. All that is represented by the sound of one BB—one metal ball falling into the container. We ask them to continue keeping their eyes shut, and I demonstrate the firepower of one Poseidon submarine by dropping three BBs in. Then I show the firepower of one Trident submarine, which is eight BBs. Then I demonstrate all the mega-tonnage of the two superpowers—the equivalent of 7,000 BBs—and start pouring them all into the metal can. And that takes a very long time.
You know, they get that. Right in the gut.
And we pay for all this expensive weaponry out of our pockets, which is why America doesn’t have healthcare for all even now, or free higher education in this country.
BAS: What are your hopes for the future of the anti-nuclear weapons movement?
Crowe: My hope is that people will wake up and say “no” to this madness. We try to encourage them by doing this work week by week, by trying to get them to look at films, and think and discuss and act.
There are places in the world that are moving away from nuclear weapons and nuclear power, such as Germany, so it can be done. And we try to tie it in to current events; Fukushima was a real wake-up call.
With the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty coming up next summer, there will be an added interest. And the American Friends Service Committee [the Quakers] has interns in Washington learning the ropes, and we’ve been encouraging the college students.
BAS: Your colleagues said that you will have a book about your life out soon—true?
Crowe: Yes, I’m working on my memoirs, Finding My Radical Soul. We are aiming at a deadline of November of this year.
BAS: Sounds like a busy schedule. Speaking of which, an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette said, “When Arky Markham and her late husband, George, told friends they were planning to move to Northampton … they received some unusual advice: Whatever you do, friends said, don’t call Frances Crowe, because she will put you to work.”
Crowe: (Laughs.) Well, I hope not. But we do try to get people involved …You can make a difference.
BAS: That same article went on to say: “Crowe [is] the kind of activist who makes others tired just watching her.”
BAS: You certainly have lots of energy—where do you get it all?
Crowe: My diet. And having a cause!
↵1 See: www.democracynow.org/events/2014/3/95th_birthday_celebration_with_
↵2 Quonset Point, Rhode Island, is one of two places in the country where fast-attack class nuclear submarines are built and outfitted.
The other is in nearby Groton, Connecticut. See:
london/about/history.html. Both are operated by Electric Boat
(www.gdeb.com/) which has been building submarines at the two sites for the US Navy ever since it built the first modern US sub in 1899.
↵3 Entergy is one of the largest generators of nuclear power in the United States.
↵4 Seabrook, New Hampshire, about 40 miles north of Boston, is home to the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, site of many antinuclear protests during its construction. On May 2, 1977, after one especially large protest, 1,414 people were arrested and held for two weeks. It took the police of five states 12 hours just to arrest them all, and the event has been termed seminal to US antinuclear activities—the Woodstock of the anti-nuclear power movement. Another vocal opponent of the plant was then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who blocked the opening for several years due to environmental issues and concerns about emergency evacuation plans. A contemporary Time magazine article described the protestors as “a well-trained army”; it is available at:
↵5 See: http://witnessforpeace.live.radicaldesigns.org/section.php?id=89.
↵6 A professor, activist, and theoretician and tactician of nonviolence within the civil rights movement, during the early 1960s Lawson taught many of the people who would become civil rights leaders by using the strategy of sit-ins at downtown stores.
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs