Risking arrest: a mother’s path

A moving personal account, cross-posted from It’s Getting Hot In Here. Added clarifications are in brackets.

The following is a post written by Vanessa Rule, a community leader, climate activist, and mother from Somerville, Massachusetts.

Monday, April 18th, 2011 by Vanessa Rule

The PowerShift march on April 18th in Washington, D.C, was the culmination of an incredible three days of power building to save our planet.  It all started with a glorious Monday morning, blue skies, green helmets, smiles and “heys!”, the White House to our backs.  We got ready as veteran leaders told their stories of self.  We chanted about the youth uprising and abolishing the fossil fuel culture of death, about climate justice, and then began to walk.

[More video: Rising Tide North AmericaLiveLeak ]

First stop, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with its big colorful and proud banners, a letter to on each one, outlining the word J O B S, promising American innovation and freedom.   You’d have believed them if you hadn’t known.  The giant paper maché puppets we brought unmasked them though: grinning grotesque caricatures with big heads, and all the right numbers denouncing their financial crimes.  It was all theatrics, and a few of the building’s employees came out to watch as I held up my sign “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA” and stared into their eyes and shouted out with all my might “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t speak for me!”

Next, the sinister and glassy BP headquarters building – again a few heads peering out from behind the blinds, trying to hide, but curious and worried — the way Louis the XVI might have when Parisians stormed the Bastille asking for his head.  Did they hear our anger, did they hear that their time is up?

Then onto coal, at the Corporate Headquarters of GenOn, that owns the Potomac River plant built during the Truman administration fired by Appalachian mountain top removal coal.  We learned last night, holding a candle light vigil at the plant, that this monster – which sits in the midst of a residential neighborhood in Alexandria and has been making people sick and killing them for years – runs at 18% capacity.  Ever played Sim City?  Even in that game, that’s bad news.  So in front at the Genon HQ’s we called for GenOFF and laid our bodies down and traced dead bodies on the ground.

The walk went on.  We got some cheers from passersby, but mostly, people looked at us like they’d never seen people speak up before – we shouted: “This is what democracy looks like!”  We walked proudly, we chanted so hard we lost our voices, we smiled at the strangers among us feeling the deep bond of solidarity, true brothers and sister – happy to have each other and be together.

Three hours later, back at LaFayette Park – a DJ was rappin’ away and I started dancin’.  Then the word came that Peaceful Uprising’s march [Note: The unpermitted march and action was planned primarily by Rising Tide North America, a network of which Peaceful Uprising is proud to be a part] was going to begin – Tim DeChristopher took the mike, and called on us to join, and warned: “This march hasn’t been permitted, and some of you may risk arrest, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, you can just support those who do.”

I started walking with the crowd, behind the front banner – the time had come.  Forget my 4:00pm train to New York.  My children, these children, we, are facing no future, unless I act NOW.  We locked arms with each other and quietly sang “we shall overcome” knowing we were entering new territory, feeling the nerves in the belly, but resolved to do what needed to be done.   We walked and sang, not knowing where we were going or what we were about to do.

And then, it was clear.  No signal, no word, but standing in front of the U.S. Department of the Interior, a wave of people furiously climbed the stairs and I ran up with them.  We pushed our way through the doors, passed through the guards, and quickly sat down on the cold marble floor and locked arms.  The guards and staff looked stunned.  The shouts and chants were deafening.  Seventy angry but peaceful and loving humans calling for the end of mountaintop removal, tar sands pipelines, natural gas fracking, and deep oil drilling, asked to speak to Secretary Salazar – two days after President Obama told a group of students to push him.  We’re pushing Mr. President!

We sat and vowed not to move. I sat in the front row – I guess I got there pretty quick, not wanting to be left out.   A police chief (he had lots of badges) started to speak, and we shouted him down, several times, until a fellow protester became his spokesperson.  The word: we were allowed to protest, OUTSIDE.  If we stayed inside, we’d be arrested.  A chorus rose: “Arrest all of us!!!!”  Back and forth, singing, chanting, the police and the government employees unsure what to do.  They whispered conversations, called their higher ups, shook their heads.  One even told us he was on our side, but that we had to go outside.  And seventy bodies, close together, mostly youth, some elders and a few middle-aged folks sat, resolved to not let our government destroy us by being peaceful and ready to go to jail.

A second warning: the police officers, stone-faced, stripped on their blue latex gloves, at the ready.  I knew I had to stay.  I made eye contact, as much as they’d let me, with the government employees.  One held my stare for a few seconds, trying to understand, I think.  The group sat for an hour, feeling the civil right’s movement at our back, part of a continuum, singing the same songs from 40 years back.  Looking into the stoic faces of all African-American police officers, who were hearing the songs of black liberation in the US, now being sung by today’s youth fighting for their future and their freedom — youth they might have to arrest.

A third warning comes.  My blood sugar’s really low, no food since this morning and much energy spent shouting, singing, marching, loving, and now resolved to go to jail.  Waiting for it, making them arrest us.  Racing thoughts: Will I be allowed to bring my medication with me?  When will I next eat?  How will this work?  Who will bail me out? What will the cell look like?  Will they be gentle?

I will go limp when they grab me, just like our predecessors who’ve carved this path and showed us how to do non-violent civil disobedience, and win.   They will have to carry me out — I worry that my bottle of pills will fall out of my pocket, bracing myself for a potentially hellish night.  I haven’t gone to the bathroom all day.  I have my period.  Discomfort, but a small sacrifice to pay for fighting for my children’s lives, I try to calm myself and stay steady.

“Do you have a jail support number?”, the woman to my right, holding my sweaty hand, asks?  What’s that?  She’s got hers written on her leg, in big black numbers.  I ask for a pen, and copy hers down on my left calf muscle.  Trying to do all this as fast as possible so not to break the human solidarity chain for too long.  Racing to text people know that I am about to be arrested.  I will miss my train.  I will spend at least one night in jail.  Will I?

Third warning: this is federal property, you will be charged with felony.  Get ready for arrest.  We don’t have enough paddies, so we’ll probably be taken three at a time, and the processing could last at least a day.  My children – Tim DeChristopher’s inspiration – jail time?  How long?  My children.  How long can I leave them.  The cops are using scare tactics, I suspect, and if I give in, I’m a softy.  If I leave, how will I be able to look my children in the eyes and say I did everything I could to prevent their lives from being destroyed?

Yet I stand up – letting go of the arm of the sister to my right, whose elbow I’ve been squeezing for the last hour.   I look at her in the eyes and know I’m letting her down.  “I have children,” I say.  “So do I”, she answers, her eyes brimming with tears, and she stays.  I leave, walk out and hear the cheers and the thank-yous from the crowd outside.  I don’t look up.  I feel ashamed.  I hear the crowd and think: “I only was in there a little longer than most of you.”  I caved in. I have let those still inside down.  Fear won.  They won.  This time.  Now, I know how to get ready for the fight.

How to support those who were arrested: