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Bridging the gap between weapons scientists and protesters

THE California scientists who design most of the United States nuclear arms and the activists who used to march en masse against them have found an alternative to confrontation. At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, civil disobedience has essentially been replaced by civil discourse. The signs and shouts have faded. Handshakes and workshops are in vogue. If this experiment can be replicated elsewhere, a new d'etente between the United States defense and protest communities may be possible. When I came to Livermore two years ago to reorganize the lab's public affairs program, there was less communication between the lab and protesters than between the White House and the Kremlin. But there was plenty of theatrics.

My first morning on the job, 300 ban-the-bomb marchers were outside the gate. Atop orange crates, a priest inducted several Protestant theology students into the Roman Catholic Church. About 70 people were arrested that day for trying to blockade the weapons lab. And that was just one of the 64 organized actions against the lab during a 30-month period.

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Livermore demonstrations in recent years have had 3,000 marchers and 1,000 arrests at a time. In that era, each side listened to itself. When arms experts and their critics did meet, views on complex issues were reduced to epithets. And the two sides' views of each other were reduced to stereotypes -- ``money worshipers'' against ``publicity seekers.'' Neither side gave the other credit for having honest convictions or moral values.

The big protests attracted self-proclaimed gay nuns, clowns, practicing witches, people disguised as radiation burn victims, a wheelchair-bound woman chained to a model MX, and others. Most were white, middle-class baby-boomers. The main dynamic at work was the growing public concern over the moral implications of development, possession, and possible use of nuclear weapons.

The lab was beset by peace-minded groups of Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Friends, Hari Krishna adherents, Jews, Methodists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, and members of the United Church of Christ. But little goodwill moved through the barbed wire in either direction.

Most of the lab's 8,000 employees came to work before dawn on big protest days to beat the blockades. But hundreds, later blocked by sit-down protesters, fumed inside their cars. Demonstrators said they were bumped by motor vehicles. Some motorists drove at high speed, inches from crowds that included children. When a sign hit an employee's car, the driver punched the sign carrier -- and the dispute over the lab's later disciplining of the employee raised the frustration level of lab workers for months. Hundreds of demonstrators who refused to sign for their own release spent the hottest summer weeks under circus tents on jail grounds.

All the frayed nerves, emotional statements, criminal prosecutions, and civil suits did not add one iota to the public understanding of the real issues. It made no sense that there was no meaningful communication between weapons scientists and protesters on the nuclear dilemma that threatens the human race. How can we expect to work with the Soviets for a safer world if we cannot even sanely discuss the topic with fellow Americans who hold different views?

So I acted to bridge the gap between the lab and its opponents. I talked with leaders of the Livermore Action Group and other protest organizations. I met with Roman Catholic bishops and other concerned religious leaders. I elicited opportunities to bring lab officials together with thoughtful critics, in formats designed to help them hear each other.

When members of the Livermore Peace Camp were invited to send 15 of their number to take part in facilitated small-group dialogue with weapons designers, hundreds volunteered. When the Catholic bishop of Oakland agreed to be host for an unpublicized colloquium for Livermore weapons scientists, Berkeley political scientists, and theologians of various faiths, the turnout included some of the nation's best thinkers on nuclear strategy. Most of the new dialogue has been taking place outside the view of the general public. But it has not escaped the view of people in the defense research establishment and the protest community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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The result? Fewer people on either side feel a need for confrontation when they know their point of view is being heard in a meaningful participatory process. Livermore protests have dwindled to a tiny fraction of what they used to be.

Conferences using policy mediation and collaborative problem-solving techniques have begun to achieve surprising levels of consensus and synergy. Some of the Livermore weapons planners and protesters have agreed that both superpowers have far too many nuclear weapons, that deterrence cannot work forever, that unilateral disarmament is no option, and that more resources should be put into developing arms control verification systems.

Some on both sides have conceded that more study is needed to determine whether strategic defensive weapons would have a stabilizing or destabilizing effect on the world power balance, or whether they would be unworkable and therefore have no effect. And some have urged more joint Soviet-American projects in areas such as mutual security research, cultural exchange, and third-world aid.

For the sake of our country and the cause of peace, it is high time that people in the military-industrial complex and their critics rose above their old dogmas and habits.

A single protest demonstration can cost taxpayers millions of dollars for security, police, courts, and jails. If a fraction of that sum is spent on conferences to bring together responsible leaders from the defense and protest sectors, new ideas and new momentum can be created to help propel the quest for peace.

There will always be naysayers and know-nothings. But if a better tomorrow is to come, it will be borne by those who dare to do what has not been done before.

Anthony P. X. Bothwell is a public-policy consultant and writer in Livermore, Calif.