Helen John Obituary
One of the founders of the protest camp at Greenham Common who devoted her life to the peace movement
In September 1981, Helen John, a midwife, marched from Cardiff to Berkshire to protest at nuclear weapons being sited at RAF Greenham Common and became one of the founders of the protesters’ camp that soon grew up there around the military base. The following year the camp was declared women only and it became one of the longest lasting examples of feminist action, disbanding finally in 2000.
John, who has died aged 80, devoted her life to the peace movement. Leaving her five children with their father to live at Greenham caused John anguish throughout her life, but she would often talk about how she had made the right decision, “for the world”.
The Greenham camp and its slogans, Arms Are for Linking and Fight War Not Wars, soon became an embarrassment to both the British and US governments. I first met John in 1982 when I was one of 30,000 women who travelled to Greenham for the massive Embrace the Base action. The only means of publicity had been a chain letter sent out via various women’s groups around the country.
In 1994, having spent a decade living in a tent in Greenham, John set up another women’s peace camp, this time in North Yorkshire, at Menwith Hill (which she and other feminist protesters referred to as Womenwith Hill), an eavesdropping base run by the secretive US National Security Agency. John had been arrested several times, and it did not take long for it to happen again: one morning later that year, along with 10 other protesters, she blocked the Skipton to Harrogate commuter traffic by erecting fake road signs and homemade “school-crossing” lollipops.
She supported direct action to keep the media and politicians interested, and her tactics included daubing graffiti on the Houses of Parliament (opposing depleted uranium weapons); the Scottish parliament (in protest against Trident); the Bank of England (over alleged collusion with Menwith Hill); GCHQ Bude (for its supposed collaboration with the NSA); and the US embassy (opposing the use of plutonium on the Cassini spacecraft).
In 2001 and again in 2005, she stood against Tony Blair as an independent in the Sedgefield parliamentary constituency, opposing the Son of Star Wars missile defence system, but was not able to attend the count on either occasion as she was in prison for criminal damage and public order offences.
On Remembrance Day 2010, John was arrested for writing anti-Trident missile slogans on the high court building in Edinburgh. Convicted of malicious damage, and refusing to pay a fine, she spent three weeks in prison. One of her final direct action campaigns was an anti-drones protest at RAF Waddington in 2013.
She served as vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 2001 until 2004, and in 2005 was nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
Born in Romford, Essex, to John and Margaret Doyle, who met while working in the Ford factory in Dagenham, Helen attended a local comprehensive school, leaving at the age of 15. In 1963 she married Douglas John.
Through her work as a midwife she realised how underfunded healthcare was in impoverished communities, and became aware of how much was being spent on the military. She told me the revelation hit her one day as she was driving past a field of tanks. But before she marched to Greenham, she had not been politically active. “I went through life like a pudding,” she remarked. “I didn’t notice a lot of things. I didn’t know what feminism was.”
In her final years, having developed dementia, she moved to a nursing home, where staff had to keep an eye out in case she repeated her attempt to scale the wall that was designed to keep patients safe.
Her marriage ended in divorce in 1983. She is survived by her children, Deborah, Alexander, Alistair and Magnus. Her youngest son, Marcus, died in a car accident in 2000.
• Helen John, peace campaigner, born 30 September 1936; died 5 November 2017
Source: The Guardian