Monday, July 29, 2013

Alternatives to Convention

I write these uncomfortably true words with full admiration and support for the forty-five people who were arrested, with the utmost gratitude for the many organizers of who labored for months to pull the event together. I know that everyone who was there—in body or spirit—shares something vital and powerful in the deepest corners of our souls. As we chanted at the property line of the power plant, this is what democracy looks like. Here, democracy is wearing my broken, dissenting heart which still remains loyal to the unifying ethos of the movement.

My heart felt like a bitter raisin as I left the Brayton Point Power Station action on Sunday. What had been so full of hope, of love, was shriveled and heavy as a stone in my chest. The action was entirely successful to its stated goals. I was demoralized on a deeper level.

Friends and family who were not physically present, who followed on Facebook and Twitter and news and radio reports tell me that the action looked wonderful, that they are galvanized and jealous and proud and every good emotion I could wish them to feel. And, at a base level, gathering several hundred people together to walk towards a coal and fossil fuel burning power plant to demand its closure, for those forty-five people to trespass into the waiting zip-ties and unventilated paddy wagons, this is a strong demonstration of public outrage against coal and climate change and all the horrors held therein. On that level, I am proud to have been present. As my brilliant poet friend said as we walked together: “sometimes I guess you just have to be just a body.”

But in that, in being present, in being a body who made it her business to show up and be counted for the social media updates, for the eventual lobbying and creation of policy that will shut this plant and pursue clean and renewable energy, I felt keenly that I was counted, rather than that I counted. But, for the act of being counted, for that physical articulation of one more human for this cause, I'll likely attend  more of these events, in the same dutiful way I answer the Census and file my taxes.

That is not the way I wish to feel about making the world better, though.

En route to the action, another dear and wise friend asked what I hoped to see happen, what I hoped to gain from participating. I answered that I thought these things were a time for the choir to be preached to, for the choir to sing, that I was drawn to the idea of being among hundreds of people who share this passion for a better world, that I was excited to feed from that energy.

And as we left, he asked how I thought it had gone. “There was no joy,” was my deflated reply.

I am new to organized activism, to public actions and protests and rallies. I appreciate the efforts organizers made to communicate positively and proactively with the local police. I appreciate the intentionality and planning and structure of the event so that it was a safe space for infants and elderly and everyone in between. But, I also think that all that planning, all that negotiation, all that “dialoging” and agreeing and compromising and organizing, has sucked some beautiful vitality and fun and goddamn spirit of rebellion out of the revolution! 

Emma Goldman wrote: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.”

Granted, the entire climate movement certainly not anarchy, and very much is an intergalactic step away from most conventions, a huge release towards a life of joy. To me, part of this joyful life is where people don’t die of lung disease in one corner of the country so people in another corner can plug in their computer and blog to their wrinkled-bunny soul’s (dis)content. Or where polar bears aren’t drowning because I need to get from place to place. A joyful, unconventional life where I can laugh a lot and also be reasonably sure my daily actions do not have catastrophic repercussions is all I truly want. I know that there are private revolutions towards this kind of life. And I love that there is a public movement moving towards this life, or at least part of it.

But I worry that even climate actions and rallies and protests are becoming disturbingly conventional. We are trying, I think, to foment a revolution away from conventional ways of being in the world. We are looking, we are hoping, we are struggling to find our way towards those better lives and futures that are freer from corporate pollution and corporate control. I do not advocate violence or aggression against innocent or ignorant parties. I do not advocate for the damage of the property of citizens, or public property. (Corporate property I am more okay with damaging.) To have these sorts of safe, polite actions were every second is pre-scripted and planned, where we sing about taking to the streets while walking in a dignified manner down a narrow sidewalk past bored cops, to have all but eliminated spontaneity...this may all be entirely unconventional and effective as actions go, but it also speaks only to me as a body. 

It does not touch those deep places of my soul that I share with the other hundreds gathered there. 

I do not know how we create a strong movement of social change, of opening doors to other—joyous and unconventional, with dancing and laughter and undignified love and clean sources of power—ways of being. I have been on the brink of tears since I left Brayton Point trying to answer, even for myself, how to go forward.

After the march, I stuck around at the jail to drive the released arrestees back home. I saw three things there that spoke to me about how we proceed, that began to unwrinkle my raisin-heart:

First, the parents who did not want their college-aged, climate-organizer, daughter to get arrested, but came to the action to make sure she was safe and to see what she is so passionate about, and then came to pick her up from jail. The mother danced down the sidewalk to embrace her daughter. I don’t know that I have witnessed a purer articulation of love.

Second, a gray-haired couple with radiant smiles, both having been arrested, had a quick, sweet kiss upon being reunited. For all that the climate change movement is often viewed as a youth movement, I am continually impressed by and wanting to learn from those who have been fighting this fight, with stamina and passion, for longer than my entire life.

Third, one of the last to be released was a man about my parents’ age. He came out, laughing and clicking his heels together. It was the most joyful thing I’d seen in the entire action.

Based on those moments, I’ve got is this as a starting manual for going forward: 
1) We need each other. 
2) We need to love what we are doing, and to do what we do out of love above all else. 
3) Whatever we do needs to defy convention and definition and bring us joy.

How this happens, what this looks like, I do not yet know. But I trust it is possible. And that is the alternative I want.

(Photo is of the soon-to-be arrested folks as they set up models of solar panels and wind turbines on the Brayton Point property line. Well done, truly! Photo is from


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