Public Comment

Commentary: Commemorating the Life of Peace Activist Brian Willson

By Mark Coplan
Friday August 24, 2007

Long-time peace activist Brian Willson became an international symbol of nonviolent resistance when he was run over by a train carrying weapons to Central America at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, near Concord, California, on Sept. 1, 1987. Brian miraculously survived, but lost both his legs and received a severe head injury. A subsequent investigation revealed that the government train was speeding, that the military drivers could see him for over 650 feet, and that they never applied the brakes as the train ran over him. He had been sitting on the tracks in a widely publicized protest against U.S. military intervention in Central America.” (Excerpt from The Road to Transformation: A Conversation with Brian Willson, by John Dear). 

From this tragedy the small group of veterans, peace activists and pastors who called themselves Nuremberg Actions were joined by peace activists from around the world. 

In the time that followed, many of us came to the weapons station to take part in a 24-hour vigil that lasted for over three years, blocking every weapons train that attempted to pass, in an extraordinary action that was recognized around the world. Many came to live on the small stretch of railroad track that a court order allowed us to maintain, for a week, a month or a year, or just for the night. Others felt compelled to come once a week or once a month to share in the community, drawn by the spiritual energy left by the thousands who came to witness in those years, including Wavy Gravy, Martin Sheen, Daniel Elsberg and Jessie Jackson, as well as other religious leaders from around the world. From churches and peace centers in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Mendocino and many other communities, so many peacemakers regularly made the difficult pilgrimage out to the other side of Concord. I had the opportunity to live on those tracks for a year as the media coordinator for Nuremberg Actions, one of the most profound experiences of my life.  

Sept. 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the assault on Brian that woke up the world to what was happening at the Concord Naval Weapons Station and the role that Nuremberg Actions would play in the long term witness of the weapons being shipped to Central America and other places. 

Brian Willson, David Hartsough, Ken Butigan, Greg Getty and I welcome any of you able to join us on Sept. 1 at that sacred spot from 10 a.m. to noon to remember, reflect and re-affirm our commitment to peace and justice. No program per say, just a typical circle at the tracks with music and friends, hugs and reflections, and a chance for old friends to catch up on where our lives have gone these past 20 years. For more information, write to 


Mark Coplan is currently the public information officer for the Berkeley Unified School District.