I am writing this while toying with the idea of being arrested.
This weekend, I’m heading to Somerset, Massachusetts to participate in a climate change action at the Brayton Point Power Station. It burns coal. I do not like this.
Thankfully, a few hundred other people don’t like this either. Last I looked, Brayton Point has 12 likes on Facebook. 350.org has 283,000. Boo yah. Sunday, many of those faces will grow hands and feet and bodies and hearts, and will be there, thanks to the organizing efforts of 350ma.org. We will demonstrate for the closure of the plant, for the hope that a peaceful gathering of well-intentioned people can provide a few hundred more people with the awareness that change from the status quo is possible. And from the awareness grows the spark of making that knowledge live.
I love that we are now calling such things actions, rather than protests. A protest is loud and angry and frustrated. Make no mistake—I am all of these things when I think of the damages wrought on the earth, my home, by broken systems and coal and fossil fuel reliance and ignorance and apathy. But say: “I am participating in an action.” This is a stronger set of words, this is forward momentum. Protest is a raised fist, alternately petulant and bloody. Action is a rising tide, inescapable and unstoppable.
I’ve read and reread Orion Magazine’s “What Love Looks Like”—a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams and Tim DeChristopher. I have Walden and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail on my bedside table. I have said that I would place my life on the line if it would protect the landscapes, the world, I love. A coal and fossil fuel burning power plant, this is an obvious a Goliath as anyone could find.
And yet, I’m not getting arrested, there, this time.
We live in a society that, on paper, values human freedom above all else. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as they say. To willingly give up that liberty, in the cause of something you believe is greater than your own ability to come and go as you please…this is not something that should be undertaken lightly.
Or perhaps it should. Perhaps we should all run out and chain ourselves to doors and gates and trains and fracking equipment and oil derricks and blockade coal ships and anything that threatens our vision of a better world. Perhaps if enough people do this, we will finally expose the lie of the ideal that we—American culture—value life and liberty above corporate profit and the ensuing devastation of all life as we’d like it.
That is the third of my heart that is actively wrestling with the question, that wants to, or wants to want to, get arrested. One third is, of course, occupied with the practical—how long would I be arrested, what are the fines for whatever the chosen charge might be, would there be incarceration, who would watch my dog if I spent time in jail, could I explain where I had been and keep my job, will it make it harder for me to find another job when the garden season ends, could I tell my student loan officers that I had to miss a payment or two because I had been arrested for enacting the lessons of my education, and so on. Things like could I ever run of public office are of less of a concern—chances are good that anything I’m willing to get arrested for will be central to any platform I ever run on.
And here, under the logistics of that third, lies the heart of the heart of the matter: the arrests that will happen, I do not see them as the only true measure of commitment to this cause. I want there to be other ways to register passion for this cause. Perhaps I am just chickenshit or perhaps I am only pretending to care about fighting climate change and creating a better world. Perhaps, I lack the passion and commitment and conviction of those who are willing to put their free bodies in service to this cause.
But I do not think so.
If a police officer zip-tying my wrists together, if my mug shot and booking papers, if my wading through the logistical bullshit of being arrested, if any of this would be truly weighed out and used to protect the landscapes and lives I love, then I would be there in a heartbeat. My freedom for the pure air of the mountains, for cold winters and reliable growing seasons, for more icebergs and fewer droughts, for a way of life that doesn’t hurt the earth or another human…Please, if I give up my most precious liberty, give me a better planet in trade and I will call it more than even.
But, the (alleged) justice system doesn’t work that cleanly. I admire those who get arrested for the peaceful demonstration of their beliefs, for following their hearts above the laws. But I do not think that this is the only way to demonstrate passion. And I see, above all, passion as the magnet that will draw more and more people to this movement, which is what it needs. We all need to be shaken awake that it is yet within our power to create a new and better future. There are terrible threats out there, and much has already been lost. But, not everything. And we need every ounce of passion and drive to hold and reform what is left into something that can be great. We need to not frighten people away with either dire predictions of fire and ice or promises of certain arrest. Not being willing to pay fines or go to jail, I and others must find other ways to demonstrate our passions, to call in the troops who stand still silent, unsure of how to join. Arrest frightens people—it frightens me, for all those logistical reasons, for the reality that I do not think my freedom will barter for what I would it could. We need to demonstrate other options of how to meld our love and fury for the state of this world into effective tools. Arrest is almost predictable, expected, part of the tired patterns we must grown beyond.
Dr. Sandra Steingraber, who was jailed for ten days this year for her acts of civil disobedience while fighting against fracking in upstate New York, continually says that: “it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony.” Everyone has a different instrument, a different key and style and tone that suits their passion. But played together…
In her phenomenal piece, “The Clan of the One-Breasted Woman,” Terry Tempest Williams writes of being arrested at a nuclear test site. She tells the arresting officer that the pen and notebook in her boot were weapons. I just love that.
And yes, both these women who I idolize have been arrested. But, I am more drawn to the Save the World movement by the power and passion of their words than by the legal representation of their convictions. I see my own instrument more clearly for their words. And that gives me hope that the instrument I choose can and does work. All instruments and ways of being matter here, matter now. Actions are not always louder than words. And it is important, vitally, to not become pigeonholed into thinking that arrest is the highest, best, sexiest, rawest, rightest, sole way of demonstrating the depth of one’s convictions, one’s passions.
Not to discount arrest in the spirit of heartfelt belief. It is a crucial instrument for the symphony, and my heart is full for those who will and do go down this path tomorrow and other days. How lovely, though, and how magnetic, to have more voices singing, freely, in a variety of keys.