Locals recall Jackson Browne's arrest at 1981 Diablo Canyon protest

As thousands of protesters flocked to the entrance of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 1981, sheriff’s Detective Gary Hoving heard that someone famous was among the demonstrators. “I thought they said the Jackson Five,” he said.

When a still boyish-looking Jackson Browne walked toward him — ready to be processed and handcuffed for arrest — Hoving didn’t even know he was a celebrity.

“I’d never heard of him,” Hoving said. “I didn’t know anything about his music or his style.”

But after a photo of Hoving handcuffing Browne ran in The Tribune, Hoving would eventually learn more about the singer and activist, and would even make a point to listen to some of his music.

“It was enjoyable,” said Hoving, who still is more into country and Christian music than rock. “It kind of reminded me of Jim Croce.”

Browne’s sold-out performance at Cal Poly on Monday is expected to be a low-key, acoustic show featuring hits such as “Running on Empty” and “Doctor My Eyes.”

But those who were with him in 1981 remember a much wilder time, when Avila Beach hosted what Rolling Stone magazine called “the boldest demonstration yet against a nuclear future” and what the Los Angeles Times described as “the Normandy Invasion of civil protests.”

With nearly 2,000 arrested including Browne, the demonstration garnered national publicity. In the end, the plant did eventually go online, prompting the Newsweek headline “Diablo Canyon: The Assault That Failed.”

Protest takes shape

Two years after a partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the prospect of opening a nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo County was unnerving to many. Yet, PG&E went forward with its newest plant, which happened to be near at least one known seismic fault line.

“Diablo was always a big deal but especially when the Hosgri Fault was discovered,” said John FitzRandolph, a Cambria resident who helped organize benefit concerts and sold anti-nuclear T-shirts at Browne shows. “That’s when the Mothers for Peace and the Abalone Alliance (got involved). They just felt like PG&E was not doing enough to ensure safety. The very idea that our pristine coast would suddenly have a huge nuclear plant — that just set off all the sirens you could possibly imagine.”

Before the plant was to go into operation, the Abalone Alliance, a coalition of 60 anti-nuclear groups, planned a massive blockade, preventing workers from entering Diablo Canyon.

“The whole idea was to just inundate the property with people willing to do it,” said Stephen Plowman, a protester from Los Osos.

The actual movement, though, had begun much earlier. Browne was a key organizer of the “Stop Diablo” concerts in the late 1970s. One memorable show, at Cuesta College, featured Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills & Nash) and Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary).

“It was a real crazy time around here,” FitzRandolph said.

As plans to launch Diablo neared, organizers spent months organizing a blockade. A camp was set up on Los Osos Valley Road, where protesters were taught to passively resist. And detailed plans were made to arrive by road, trail and sea.

“I spent months on the ocean, between Morro Bay and Port San Luis, landing on a bunch of different coves, mapping the whole thing,” Plowman said.

Just before the blockade, the government had established a “safety zone” around Diablo Canyon in the ocean, Plowman said, threatening to seize boats that entered that area. Still, plans went forward.

And in August, Browne, then 33, suggested he would be there.

“The plant at Diablo Canyon is the most important one in the country right now,” he told The Associated Press. “If they can open one on an earthquake fault, they can put one anywhere.”

A more controversial celebrity also vowed to be in Avila Beach.

“We ain’t commies or loonies,” said actor Robert Blake, who would be acquitted — but held legally responsible — for the murder of his wife years later.

A peaceful rally

The blockade was to last several days, and thousands of protesters from around the country were expected. Greeting them would be the National Guard, who arrived via trucks and helicopters, the Coast Guard, CHP and San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department. Still, when the event occurred, law enforcement was outnumbered, hundreds to thousands.

“They could have easily stormed the front gate,” Hoving said.

Yet, he added, the demonstrations were peaceful.

“There was music and there were balloons,” he said. “It took on a real festival-like atmosphere.”

Browne was peaceful, too.

“When it came to the arrest, there was no resistance,” Hoving said. “He was just a pleasant young man.”

After Hoving placed the cuffs on Browne, the songwriter offered a few comments, which appeared in The Tribune.

“I don’t want to go to jail, but I want to make a statement,” he said. “My wife’s pregnant, and we want to have children without genetic defects.”

While Hoving found Browne likeable, he wasn’t so fond of the “mouthy” Blake, who later apologized for calling then-San Luis Obispo County Sheriff George Whiting “fat.”

“He was one of those people where he was a front-and-center kind of guy,” Plowman said. “It was about him.”

Most people at the blockade, however, weren’t famous.

“There were campouts and people bringing food in and firewood — really supporting the blockade in a big way,” said Carol Paulsen of Los Osos. “You had a choice if you wanted to be arrested or not. And I went there not to be arrested because I had a 3-month-old baby.”

A blue line at the plant’s entrance marked the spot where protesters would be arrested for trespassing. On Sept. 18, Browne was among those arrested for crossing that line. After Hoving processed him, scrawling an identification number on his left forearm, Browne was sent to a makeshift jail at Camp San Luis. He and hundreds of other protesters — including Plowman — would spend several days there.

In a barracks there, several mattresses were placed on the ground. Browne, who had an acoustic guitar, would perform songs nightly. Sometimes Wavy Gravy — an activist best known for his appearance in the “Woodstock” movie — would entertain. Other times, the prisoners would perform drum circles using plastic buckets and stage talent shows.

“There was a huge feeling of solidarity and the power of having a righteous cause,” Plowman said.

Eventually, activist John Trudell began making radical speeches, which upset the guards, Plowman said.

“At the end of it, it wasn’t so festive-feeling.”

Moving on

Even though the plant opening was delayed when an engineer discovered some of the plant’s seismic blueprints had been reversed, it did go online in 1985, and protesters couldn’t help but feel dejected.

By 1989, even Browne had thrown in the towel.

“I have more interests now,” he told the AP then. “I don’t know if that’s a function of aging or that many of the other issues in my life are settled or on the way to being settled.”

Browne, now 64, was not available to comment for this story despite several attempts to reach him. But when Bonnie Raitt talked to The Tribune in 2008, she said the Diablo Canyon protests weren’t a complete failure.

“There hasn’t been a new nuke built in 30 years,” she said, though licenses to build new ones were approved just last year.

PG&E says the plant has run efficiently and safely since it went online.

“No priority is more important than the safe operation of Diablo Canyon, and our operating record speaks to that,” said Tom Cuddy, a spokesman for PG&E.

The plant, which employs 1,400, has had a positive impact on the community, he said. And, he said, the company continued to advance safety measures after the 2011 nuclear crisis in Japan.

Still, that meltdown, set off by an earthquake and tsunami, affirmed the fears nuclear protesters had expressed decades ago.

“It’s dangerous,” Paulsen said.

Today Paulsen and Plowman — who eventually married — are artists whose work includes several public art pieces. Hoving, who retired from the Sheriff’s Office, was just named interim director of public safety in Guadalupe.

More enthused by his meeting with country singer Barbara Mandrell at the California Mid-State Fair in the ’80s, Hoving still can’t name a single Jackson Browne song. While he’s impressed that the power plant has operated smoothly — though he’s concerned about nuclear waste — three decades later, he also has positive feelings about the blockade.

“It’s kind of nice in our country that you can have an opinion — and an opposing opinion, for that matter — and have it heard in a way that’s appropriate.”

Browne is still performing music and working as an activist. While he probably won’t mention Diablo Canyon at his concert here Monday, Plowman and his wife remain fans of his music and his commitment to social causes.

“It makes me proud that I was in jail with him,” Plowman said. “So every time I hear a song by him or Bonnie Raitt, that’s what I think. I go, ‘I’m proud to live on the same planet with people like that.’ "