Monday, December 13, 2010

The Original Live-Blogging: On the Ground with Antinuclear Activists in 1979

Morgan Hubbard

Professionals of all stripes know that some workdays are better than others. Much of the historian's task is tedious and thankless—slogging through reams of records that may or may not be important for the puzzle she's looking to solve, or the argument she's looking to build. Some days end up being totally useless.

Some days, though, are windfalls.

The Alternative Energy Coalition was an alliance of anti-nuclear and environmental activists in New England in the late 1970s. The AEC, together with the better-known Clamshell Alliance, staged a series of “actions” against the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in eastern New Hampshire. Some were more intense than others, and a few made national headlines. When the AEC dissolved in the early 1980s—members moved to affiliated groups or dispersed—the organization's papers lay fallow. In the 2000s, they were given to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Special Collections.

Many of the AEC's records are run-of-the mill: mostly catalogs, routine correspondence, heaps of newspaper clippings. But tucked into one folder, fastened unceremoniously with a single staple, was something remarkable, a historian's goldmine: a sheaf of papers on which AEC protesters had logged, hour by hour, the events of a massive blockade action at the Seabrook plant in October 1979. (Click on the image of the log to enlarge.) The document is special not only for the intensity of its scribbled notes (“8:30 a.m., police dogs and water hoses are visible. Action before noon.” “10:00. Verified macing and clubbing.”) It's special because it's a step closer to historical reality than historians can usually get.

Most of the time, we have to reconstruct the past obliquely. But documents like this allow us to witness the past almost as its participants did, play-by-play, on the ground. Obviously, there's much missing from a written account: the smell of teargas, the overhead chop-chop-chop of police helicopters, the fervency of a protest at the height of the anti-nuclear movement's momentum. But documents like this—a live-blogging before there was such a thing—demonstrate that with the right sources, we can recapture some of the potency and urgency of the past.

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