Whatever one thinks of Christopher Nolan’s powerful and disturbing film Oppenheimer, which opened recently at theaters in Massachusetts, it has sparked widespread discussion about the dangers of nuclear war – discussion which is desperately needed in these dangerous times. Recognizing the opportunity presented, MAPA members leafleted moviegoers at a number of theaters across the state. Our members Louise Coleman, Kathleen Hamill, and Frances Jeffries wrote about their experiences in the stories below. –Jackie King, editor
From the Burren to Oppenheimer to Nuclear Disarmament
by Louise Coleman
The Burren is a historic region in County Clare where people have lived and worshiped for thousands of years. Its landscape is formidable, marked by swaths of stark gray limestone, in contrast to the intense greenery elsewhere in Ireland.
The Burren is also a pub in Somerville, Massachusetts, named after that beautiful Irish locale. Our Burren is located conveniently across the street from the Somerville Theater, in a busy urban community. It’s a location where friends and families often gather for a meal and lively conversation—and sometimes for political strategizing, tackling issues such as the growing threat of a nuclear catastrophe.
Full stop. If there is a nuclear war—and there will be, unless we change course now—all the history embedded in the County Clare Burren and its namesake Somerville pub will be demolished, along with their surrounding landscapes and most of life on earth.
The kind of horror that any nuclear explosion, accidental or intentional, could cause is forecast in the new blockbuster film Oppenheimer. Recently, volunteers from several peace organizations gathered at the Burren Pub to talk about our work to save the planet from the twin existential threats of nuclear war and the disastrous worldwide climate emergency we have begun to experience in events such as the wildfires in California, Canada, and Maui.
Despite our forbidding topic, we enjoyed lunch, checked out the new flyers that describe the urgent danger of nuclear war, and then went across the street to the Somerville Theater where Oppenheimer was playing. There, we handed out educational flyers to people exiting the theater and tried to engage them in conversation.
It’s always an interesting experience to hand out flyers about nuclear weapons to the general public. Some people readily take the information because it includes specific details about what they can do to address the nuclear threat. Yet some people shy away from receiving the information that is available to them. Why?
I remember a psychology professor saying that “Denial is the least effective defense mechanism.” From another psychological perspective, Robert Jay Lifton discusses “psychic numbing” which leads people to avoid talking about and dealing with threats that seem too large, too overwhelming to counteract. Nuclear weapons can fall into that category, both because the issue is so huge and because it is not part of the public’s everyday frame of reference. Unfortunately, if we don’t act, we and all other living things will be destroyed. All the people we love will be gone. This grim reality has to be firmly counteracted. No more empty, useless avoidance. We the people must not be defeated.
On the encouraging side, as we explain in our flyers, there are concrete steps that people can take to resist the propaganda insisting that nuclear weapons are good for the country. Times are changing. Thankfully, people are beginning to realize that, just as we have solved other big problems, like smoking, we can solve the problem of nuclear annihilation. For example, we can demand that our legislators stop appropriating trillions of dollars of our tax money for use by the greedy military industrial complex and choose the far better alternative to divert those funds to feed and educate children, care for the elderly, and combat climate change, in the small amount of time we still have left to make a difference.
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, said, “Love, is the only solution.” Love of life, love of the earth is bringing members of Massachusetts Peace Action and many other organizations together at theaters showing Oppenheimer (and elsewhere) to help people find the courage and the means to take action against the merchants of death. Please join us.
—Louise Coleman is MAPA’s press liaison and a member of its Nuclear Disarmament Working Group.
Did Oppenheimer need security at Legacy Place?
by Kathleen Hamill
My son Sam and I went to the Showcase Cinema de Luxe in Dedham at Legacy Place in order to speak with people as they were coming and going from Oppenheimer screenings at 1:30 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.
We stood on the sidewalk out in front of the movie theater. It was a scorching July afternoon, but lots of pedestrians, shoppers, and cars were buzzing around us. We held clipboards with postcards addressed to members of Congress, copies of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, copies of the MA Nuclear Weapons and Climate Commission Bill H.738, and a few other visuals—including a report on nuclear weapons with an image of the Massachusetts State House on the cover. We asked, “Are you going to see Oppenheimer? Or did you just watch it?” Most movie-goers seemed genuinely interested in our materials, and one couple engaged in a discussion about disarmament initiatives and the TPNW. We saw no signs of anyone being upset or calling for security.
However, within a few short minutes after we started speaking with people, a Legacy Place security guard approached and informed us that we had to leave and could not talk to anyone. “Why not?” I asked while also explaining that my son and I were just handing out postcards and seeking support for nuclear disarmament legislation. Sam pointed out that we were reinforcing the film’s message about nuclear disarmament, and I mentioned that we would be leaving soon anyway. I showed the security guard my business card and noted that I am a lawyer licensed to practice in Massachusetts, concerned about the future of people and the planet. As I continued speaking with people, the security guard warned Sam that we needed to leave immediately and threatened to call the police.
Trying to think through my rights with respect to free speech, I wondered whether the sidewalk inside this open-air shopping mall would be considered a public forum or not. Legacy Place has certainly been held open to the public for all sorts of commercial, entertainment, dining, transit, and other activities. My initial thoughts, in brief, were that speaking to people on the sidewalk in front of the theater might be restricted because it was a quasi-public forum.
Regardless of the specific legal or constitutional issues, it seemed quite heavy-handed of the security detail to force me and my son to leave while threatening to call the police.
I hope to follow up on my experience with some further investigation into the legal issues. to determine whether I might be able to make the case for free speech with the ACLU. Meanwhile, the bottom line is that it seems wiser to talk to people and to flyer in front of movie theaters that are on main streets and not in open air shopping mall areas – even if they might seem to qualify as quasi-public spaces.
—Kathleen Hamill is a human rights attorney, member of the MAPA Nuclear Disarmament Working Group, and convener of the Twin Existential Threats campaign.
Many Questions … Simple Answer: No to Nukes!
by Frances Jeffries
How can we emphasize how urgent it is to eliminate nuclear weapons? How can we tell people of the dangers? How can we reach more people? How can we engage more people in the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons?
How often have we asked ourselves those questions?
The blockbuster film, Oppenheimer, offers the nuclear weapons abolition movement a unique segue to introducing the existential threat inherent in nuclear weapons to the general public. Each of us can begin where we are.
In my home area, Southeastern Massachusetts, there has been relatively little activity or seeming interest in learning about nuclear weapons or in advocating for their abolition.
I was eager to change that apathy and decided that one very simple way to do so would be to go to the theaters where Oppenheimer is being shown. Virtually every theater in the entire state had announced showings of the film not just once a day but several times each day. In some locations, the film would be shown in more than one theater within the complex.
Using a simple spreadsheet that included the city, name, address and contact details about each theater, as well as a space for individual activists to “adopt a theater” and record details about their activities (i.e., “tabling”, “flyer-ing”, postcards to legislators, etc.), I ventured out into Oppenheimer venues.
In my own case, I “adopted” six theaters within a 20-minute drive of my home. Using materials from the resource kit on the Back from the Brink website, I printed one of their postcards, which includes links to information as well as some actions that individuals can take. My first stop was on the opening day, July 21st, at the Plimouth Pawtuxet Cinema, where I distributed postcards as people exited from the theater.
Every person accepted the card; four or five commented, thanked me, and said they would follow up on the actions as well as getting more information. As far as I know, no one threw away the card.
I continued to share the cards with theatergoers in East Bridgewater, Foxboro, Hanover, Kingston and Randolph.
My goal is to engage at least six new people at each theater I visit. I will attempt to measure the impact of this outreach effort by seeking evidence of any new inquiries to MAPA or Back from the Brink from individuals in the ZIP Codes in Southeastern Massachusetts during the period beginning July 21 and continuing for another few weeks. Success will be measured by the number of new people who engage with any of the organizations working toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.
It is then up to us to engage this new talent and to incorporate new ideas in order to reach our overall objective, the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
—Fran Jeffries is a member of the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group and of the MAPA Education Fund board of directors.