Louise Knowles / Reuters – 2004-06-30 11:40:56
MENWITH HILL (June 29, 2004) — From a red camper van parked on a roadside, a British grandmother and veteran peace campaigner has launched her latest attack on America’s military presence in Britain. Helen John, 66, who set up camp beside a road near a huge US-run listening post at the end of May, admits she plans to cause damage and says she won’t be deterred.
From her vantage point near the base in northern England, John is surrounded by stunning rural landscape. Rising on the horizon are rolling hills, dry stone walls, flocks of sheep and what appear to be 20 giant white golf balls, part of the high-tech US surveillance system. “They want to brand me a terrorist because they don’t like how I behave. I set out to damage property, never people, but I intend to cause damage,” she said.
RAF Menwith Hill is the site of the world’s largest surveillance base. From here, the United States’ National Security Agency operates a listening system capable of tracking communications as far away as the Middle East.
Armed with wire cutters and banners, John and a group of fellow local campaigners have been trying to damage the base for more than 10 years, arguing that it represents American imperialism and is furthering US efforts to take nuclear weapons into space. “There is not a single person in the United States that would allow a foreign base on its soil, acting against the interests of the people of that country,” said John. “These Americans are not monsters, but they are involved in something monstrous.” John’s move will re-establish a women’s peace camp at Menwith Hill. An eviction notice in the late 1990s forced local women’s campers from the site.
Camp life will be nothing new for John, who was one of a group of women who marched from the Welsh city of Cardiff to Greenham Common in Berkshire, southern England, in 1981 to protest against plans to house nuclear missiles at the base.
When they arrived at Greenham, John and three other women started a movement that grew into a full-time camp where tens of thousands of women protested against nuclear arms. “The US base commander said we could stay as long as we liked … and we took him at his word,” she said.
John lived at Greenham Common for a year while her husband looked after their five children, a decision that earned her vilification in the tabloid press as an unfit mother who had abandoned her family. Alerted to the station at Menwith Hill, John moved to Yorkshire in 1993 to focus her energies on the base. When she arrived, around 100 women were already camped near the site in protest against its activities.
After the camp was evicted, John launched numerous attacks on the base, setting out to cause as much damage as she could. She appears unfazed by the armed police guarding the perimeter.
Police have arrested her many times, and John refuses to pay fines or do community service. “The only option they have is to lock me up,” she said. She has served several three-month stretches in prison.
John is resigned to the fact that Menwith Hill may never attract the levels of support that Greenham did. “Women could identify with weapons at Greenham. War is exciting, weapons are exciting, command and control is not. It just kills you.”
She does not expect much support from people in the local area. “Having the Americans here pumps a lot of money into the local economy,” she said. But her resolve and devotion to the cause are unwavering. “I came here to do a job. As long as the Americans have bases on the soil of this country, I’ll be around showing opposition and actively trying to harm it in a non-violent manner.”
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