“I broke down in tears at seeing the trike whose rider had been vaporised when the bomb fell. My small grandson was the same age”
By Beth Abbit, Manchester Evening News, UK
Rae Street has been arrested, travelled the world and camped out on an RAF base — all in the name of peace.
The British campaigner has spent almost four decades fighting to raise awareness of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.
Former teacher Rae, 80, has protested outside NATO headquarters and embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the U.S to promote a message of nuclear disarmament.
She was even part of the famous Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp — an anti nuclear protest which spanned almost 20 years.
But it was during a visit to Hiroshima — the city where the United States detonated a nuclear bomb during WWII — that Rae was convinced the fight to eradicate nuclear weapons was so vital.
“One visit which deeply moved me above all others was being at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorative events,” says Rae, from Littleborough, Rochdale.
“I broke down in tears and collapsed in the dust at seeing the trike whose small rider had been vaporised when the bomb fell. My small grandson was the same age.”
It has been 60 years since the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded at the height of the cold war. The group’s famous logo has become an internationally recognised peace symbol, worn with pride by everyone from Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn to Blur frontman, Damon Albarn.
For Rae, the fight for peace is more important now than ever before.
“We’re in a precarious position at the moment with North Korea and America,” she says. “If we have these nuclear weapons how can we say other people can’t have them as defence? More importantly, we have reached the stage where they are useless.
“The thing that has cost the most terrible suffering recently is terrorism so what use is Trident to us? It’s costing billions, there are huge cuts to the NHS and all the time this money is being used on defence for these horrendous weapons.”
Rae joined CND in 1980 and quickly became an active campaigning member, all while raising a young family.
“I think right from being a young girl I was really concerned about nuclear weapons,” she says. “It was always in my mind. Then in 1960 I saw a film called ‘Hiroshima mon amour’, a French-Japanese film and it just devastated me. I thought ‘how can anyone think of doing anything with these weapons?’”
In 1981 Rae was instrumental in forming the Littleborough Peace Group. Many of the group are still working together to this day.
It was during this time that Rae and her fellow campaigners travelled down to Berkshire to support the women of the Greenham Common Peace Camp, who were protesting a government decision to allow cruise missiles to be based there.
The first blockade of the RAF base happened in May 1982 with 250 women protesting, during which 34 arrests were made. The camp was active for 19 years and disbanded in 2000.
“We took coach loads of people down during that time,” says Rae. “I had children so I didn’t stay long but we all went down and stayed overnight. It was just a wonderful feeling in a way. The whole ethos was to demonstrate non-violently. I felt free to do that.
“We got terrible abuse and people would say ‘women should not be bothered with foreign policy and defence’. But we just carried on.”
Five years into the Greenham campaign Greater Manchester and District CND members held an anti-nuclear conference at Manchester Town Hall. It was here that a friend asked Rae to speak about nuclear disarmament issues in the USA.
“I was absolutely floored,” says the grandmother. “And I had to work out what to do with the children. I was told ‘you’re going where no CND person has ever been before’.”
Rae spent three weeks on a whistle-stop tour of the mid-west, travelling from St. Louis to Milwaukee speaking at colleges, universities and churches to raise money to support the women of Greenham in their legal battle.
Then 49, Rae says she felt guilty for leaving her three children back home in Rochdale. But they all supported her and have since followed in her footsteps.
“My middle daughter, Rachel, she joined up with CND at 16 and cycled to Greenham. She was arrested there for blockading. She’s still a campaigner to this day.
“Campaigning did take up a lot of my time and I think they got a bit fed up sometimes, but overall they were proud of me and they also became very active in Greater Manchester and District CND themselves.
“It was so important to me because nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction.
“From the start, I thought it not only important to be active at home, but also internationally.
“It seemed clear to me that governments and the military industrial complex were in league globally and as peace activists we should also link across borders.”
After years teaching English as a Foreign Language at Hopwood Hall College, Rae retired and devoted even more time to campaigning. She served as a vice-chair of CND and as a vice-president of the International Peace Bureau.
During her long campaigning career Rae has visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki three times to represent CND. She has spent a night in the cells after being arrested during a protest in Scotland and has lobbied NATO outside its Brussels headquarters.
In October 2017, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) — of which CND is a partner organization — was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rae says she is incredibly proud of CND’s achievements over the years.
“In 2006 I got cancer but I never shut up. As long as we have nuclear weapons I won’t.
“I have always been proud of CND’s wide ranging support for international work. Proud too that the well-known symbol is known as a peace sign all over the world.
“I will never give up. But I can only do these things with the support of friends and I have loved that over the years.”
This year marks six decades of CND — the anniversary celebrations include the publication of a new book describing the development of nuclear weapons and the waves of protest they inspired.
Rae joined other Greater Manchester and District CND members in Parliament for the 60 faces of CND exhibition. The exhibit tells the stories of 60 people and their contribution to the peace movement in Britain.
On March 30, Bury actress Maxine Peake served as the DJ during the Supercritical night, hosted by CND, at the Peer Hat in Manchester city centre, with all proceeds going to CND’s Campaigning Fund for 2018.
Then in June, a giant CND symbol will be installed in All Saints Park to coincide with Manchester Histories Festival.
This story is reproduced with kind permission of the author and the Manchester Evening News.