SOMERSET, Mass.—Henry David Thoreau, that famous son of Massachusetts, famously wrote, “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”
Climate activists across the commonwealth have been taking those words to heart.
On 7 January 2013, eight young people chained themselves together in the Westborough, Massachusetts offices of TransCanada—the company behind the Keystone XL Pipeline, which NASA climate scientist James Hansen has said would be “essentially game over” for the earth’s climate. All eight were arrested.
On March 11, about 100 people gathered outside those same offices. Twenty-five were arrested.
On May 15, two activists climbed into a lobster boat, motored into the sea off Somerset, Massachusetts and blocked a barge delivering 40 thousand tons of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the region. Both were arrested.
And on July 28, several hundred activists marched to Brayton Point calling on Governor Deval Patrick to shut down the facility, which is directly responsible for the release of both toxic emissions and climate-altering carbon dioxide. The action climaxed with the arrests of forty-four peaceful demonstrators who ranged in age from teenagers to grandparents. (Full disclosure: I attended the action as both a reporter for SPARE CHANGE NEWS and a photographer for 350 Mass.)
Something is happening. Climate-change activists—frustrated by the lack of any genuine progress on the part of the political and business establishments in addressing an issue that scientists agree is both imminent and potentially cataclysmic—are adopting the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Andree Zaleska, Jamaica Plain climate stalwart, proprietor of the zero-carbon “JP Greenhouse” used this analogy to describe the significance of the Brayton Point action:
“When it comes to sites such as Brayton Point, the concept of private property trumps the externalized social and environmental costs of burning coal,” explained Andree Zaleska of Jamaica Plain.
“Most of us respect [private property]; we call it the rule of law,” he continued, “But we also recognize that the smoke that comes out of those towers pays no attention to abstract concepts of borders and property lines. The smoke obeys a higher and firmer law—the law of nature, not of humanity. We’re going to have to behave more like that smoke if we want to dismantle this.”
About that smoke: Each year, Brayton Point pumps 15 thousand pounds of carcinogenic pollutants into the air. Dorian Williams—one of the eight students who participated in the first Westborough action—summed up the dangers faced by communities on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry in chilling words: “No one should have to die so that the lights stay on.”
But toxic pollutants are just one of the reasons around 400 demonstrators from around New England descended on Somerset that morning.
“Brayton Point emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year,” explained Adam Greenberg, “We need to shut Brayton Point down, quit coal, and wean ourselves off gas to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change.”
It’s the increasing possibility of climate catastrophe that brought Vanessa Rule down from Vermont to join with Mothers Out Front in demanding that Governor Deval Patrick use his authority to shut down the plant.
“As mothers, grandmothers and other caregivers, we can no longer be silent and still about the very real danger that climate change poses to our children’s and grandchildren’s future,” said Rule, “Mothers Out Front is building a movement of mothers and other care givers to ensure that our elected officials and business leaders swiftly and responsibly work to transition the world from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. “
Mothers Out Front was just one of many groups represented at the Brayton Point action—part of 350.org’s “Summer Heat” campaign, a series of climate-oriented actions taking place from the Pacific Northwest to Washington, DC. The action in Somerset included speeches by activists, labor organizers and those affected by environmental damage, along with rousing sings-alongs led by Melodeego, who describe themselves as a “grassroots environmental justice band.”
In fact, many of the activists at Brayton Point spoke of climate change in terms of justice rather than conservation. That shift in language recognizes the gross injustices that result from the intersection of our economic, environmental, and energy policies—whether it’s the health and economic disasters wrought by mountaintop removal in West Virginia, the environmental impact of the Brayton Point plant on neighboring communities, or the disproportionate impact of global climate change on the world’s poorest communities.
The activists at Brayton Point also refused to accept the dichotomy of “jobs versus the environment,” instead reframing that issue as one of a “just transition.”
“Destruction of jobs and pollution are caused by corporate desire to privatize profit and socialize cost,” Peter Knowlton, of the United Electrical Workers, told the crowd. “Pollution and other environmental destruction more negatively affect the working class, communities of color, and indigenous people than the white, the wealthy, and the privileged. My union fully supports a just transition where groups of workers and communities should not have to shoulder the burden caused by the transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to one based on renewable energy.”
But this wasn’t just another demonstration full of speeches and songs, banners and chants; nonviolent civil disobedience is becoming an integral part of the climate movement.
“Risking arrest is one of the only tools we have to formally and publicly demonstrate the depth of our commitment to stop the climate crisis and get society off of coal, oil and gas,” explained arrestee Craig Altemose, executive director of the Better Future Project, which staffs 350 Mass. “For those of us who are able, it is not enough to say we are against something, we must show that we are against it by our actions. And in today’s society, risking arrest is a powerful tool to show people how seriously we view this threat.”
Varshini Prakash, another arrestee, agreed. “Risking arrest indicates the urgency of the issue at hand. Climate change and its consequences to civilization and our lives as we know them are important enough that we are willing to put our bodies on the line,” said Prakash.
For Sophia Robertson, who was also arrested at the action, civil disobedience was a last resort. “It makes me really sad that I feel like I need to break the law in order to be heard,” Robertson explained,”but . . . if another country were ripping apart our natural environment and killing as many people as our fossil fuel companies do, we would already be in a world war.”
What made the Somerset unique was that the demonstrators made it very clear that they were not at war with the authorities. Their lengthy preparations included three face-to-face meetings with the Coast Guard, the Somerset Police, and the State Police, alongside a guarantee of total transparency on the part of organizers.
According to Altemose, it paid off. “They were really top-notch professionals whose overarching concern was the safety and well-being of the participants and the plant’s property and workers. And several members of the Somerset police expressed the personal thanks to our participants and/or their support for what we were calling for.”
Robertson and Prakash saw this first-hand. “The cop that arrested me was very friendly, and we chatted for a while about the action. He told me that he agreed with me, and that he was glad we did the action,” said Robertson. Prakash agreed: “Working with arresting officers was an incredibly positive experience! It allowed us to build mutual respect and appreciation between protesters and police, a relationship that has often been portrayed as confrontational and antagonistic in other rallies.”
As government, business, and other powerful institutions continue to waffle, more and more people are seeing grassroots-fueled civil disobedience as a logical alternative to a long stream of failed tactics. If Summer Heat is followed by a winter of discontent, an American Spring is not out of the question.