an arresting experience
“The police are asking you to leave.” I had imagined this command would come from a surly, scowling cop. Instead it came in a tone of calm explanation from Marla, our motherly police liaison.
I’ve had unexpected run-ins with law enforcement before, but as Marla’s presence made evident, this time was different. On this day, I sat locked to 24 other people in a TransCanada office in Westborough, Massachusetts, joining dozens more students and local activists in an act of civil disobedience to protest the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The protest took the form of a “funeral for our future,” the idea being that, if built, the pipeline will lock us into catastrophic warming that will destroy any possibility of a livable climate.
If carrying a flower-covered coffin into a suburban office complex sounds cliché or alarmist to you, welcome to the club. I wasn’t part of the group who planned the action, and my first thought was something along the lines of, “I know global warming is a serious threat, but it’s not like it’s going to kill me.” I didn’t want to look self-centered or hysterical. Until recently my understanding of global warming was a vague compilation of windmills, quasi-apocalyptic scenarios, and impotent international protocols, cultivated from occasional exposure to Al Gore TED Talks and New York Times articles. I considered climate change a dire problem, but had kept it at a mental distance where I felt neither emotionally affected by its implications nor morally responsible for its prevention. Since becoming involved in climate activism, that distance has shrunk to an almost suffocating degree.
I’ve started to process the inescapable fact that unless we wake up in the next decade, the floods, food shortages, and resource wars that climate change will wreak are going to kill millions of people around the world, and will turn the planet into an unrecognizable place for my children. So far, this inexpressibly terrifying prospect has been met with apathy and political paralysis. If this isn’t cause for alarm, I don’t know what is. I was willing to look a little hysterical.
Whether I was willing to get arrested was a tougher decision. A criminal conviction I could manage—I’m pursuing a career as a neuroscientist, a path relatively unthreatened by having a record, and I was prepared (although not thrilled) to show up to an unpredictable slew of trial dates at the Westborough courthouse. The outcome that had me freaked was the possibility of going to jail. The odds were admittedly slim, but I found myself spending unproductive SciLi hours preoccupied with visions of American History X. I couldn’t help making a mental list of everything I’d miss with even a small sentence—my birthday, my last spring weekend, my thesis due date, graduation.
My chances of going to jail hinged partly on how the arrestees would lock ourselves together during the sit-in. Making this decision with 24 sleep-deprived strangers the night beforehand, I started to panic. By the last few practice runs with the handcuffs I was pretty sure we were all on the same page, but how could I be certain one of these people wouldn’t lose it and literally drag me along with them into a charge of resisting arrest or assaulting an officer? I would have backed out, if I’d had even a glimmer of a doubt that this was an important risk for me to take. As scared as I was to go to jail, climate change scares me more.
I tried to slow my heartbeat down by thinking about the careful design of the whole operation: the tightly scheduled day of preparation, the neon hats to identify legal support on the scene, the charts with car assignments. I thought about the all the incredible organizers and allies committed to making sure I’d be okay, and about the friends from Brown who’d wait all day to bail me out and drive me home. And, of course, I called my mom.
The next morning I made the painful decision to forgo coffee for fear of spending all day in a jail cell having to pee, but I still felt like jumping out of my skin as I sat waiting in the Marshalls parking lot across from TransCanada’s office. Thankfully, my nerves melted away as we began the procession, calmed by the social effervescence of group singing. Holding hands and looking into the eyes of those around me, I felt an overwhelming sense of solidarity, which persisted as the police gradually arrested us one by one.
My experience in jail turned out to be about as far from badass as can be imagined. The police made small talk as they took our fingerprints, and laughingly reminded me that I could smile for my mug shot. (I was recently emailed that shot, which—in an almost inconceivable feat—is even worse than my senior portrait). My jail time amounted to 8 hours in a holding cell playing improv games, teaching Mánde, and singing incessantly. The room buzzed with the energy of 25 people exhilarated by having had the chance to turn our feelings of fear and moral responsibility into action. I’ve never felt such a sense of instant community, nor such a powerful feeling of mutual gratitude and admiration. I’ve never felt so certain that what I was doing was right. I left with a renewed sense of hope and fierce determination to keep fighting. Some things are worth the risk.