Joshua Martin speaks about civil disobedience and going to jail with the insight of one who’s been there and done that. So does Charity Ryerson. Ditto Jeremy John. They have been there. They have done that. And they say they’ve only just begun.
Martin was arrested for civil disobedience last month while protesting mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. He spent a couple hours in a county jail holding cell in Lexington, Ky.
Ryerson and John were arrested for civil disobedience last November at a U.S. Army base in Georgia, while protesting a federal government torture academy called the School of the Americas. They will begin serving six-month prison terms in federal penitentiaries on Tuesday.
This trio of Bloomington-area activists are among a growing number of American citizens willing to risk their freedom to confront the forces of greed, corruption, and environmental destruction that dominate the political landscape at the state, national, and international levels. Two others–Liam Mullholland and Collette Eno–were arrested for civil disobedience during an I-69 protest in Bloomington last May.
In the coming weeks and months, we will publish the stories of these and other activists who decide that the crisis in American democracy is so severe that they will go to jail, if that’s what it takes, to turn things around. Josh’s story follows. Charity and Jeremy’s is up next.
Josh Martin didn’t plan on getting arrested when he went to Lexington on June 23 to participate in a direct action protest against mountaintop removal. He went there to lend his talents as an environmental activist to a series of multi-state protests against the horrifically destructive mining practice.
Mountaintop removal is a process through which coal companies literally blast the tops off of mountains to expose slim veins of coal contained within their rock. Shattered mountaintops are bulldozed into mountain stream valleys below. Communities and jobs literally disappear in the process.
"I could be brought to tears thinking about the mountains that are destroyed during this process, the forests and the streams," Martin says. "But people’s homes have been destroyed, people have lost their lives. These are super, super poor communities, and they’ve had most of their jobs taken away because of these modern methods of mining coal. Blasting the mountain is good for the company, but it costs a lot of jobs."
Martin got involved in the mountaintop removal struggle through his involvement in a collective of activists called the Eastern Forest Justice League, which trains activists in the arts of civil disobedience, nonviolence, and media relations. The convergence of environmental, social and economic justice elements in mountaintop removal provided common ground among the forest protection and coal activist communities.
"We had been communicating with the coal people, so I know all of the people collectively through that informal network," he says.
In a coordinated effort to raise awareness about mountaintop removal, three veteran groups of the campaign–Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy–organized simultaneous protests for June 23 in Lexington, Pittsburgh, and Charleston, W. Va. Martin, along with two activists from Asheville, N.C., and another from Lexington, planned an attention-grabbing direct action to coincide with the Lexington rally.
"We knew there was a risk associated with it," he says. "We didn’t want to go to jail, but we were prepared to accept the consequences. We were totally prepared to accept the consequences."
Civil disobedience, up to and including going to jail, is not an act of political expression that activists should deploy frivolously, Martin says. To the contrary.
"I think that it is one tool in a much larger toolbox and is something that should be used very strategically and appropriately and thoughtfully," he says. The goal is to raise public awareness in a way that increases public affinity for the issue without casting activists involved in it as radical or extreme. Acts of civil disobedience must be bold, creative, peaceful, and nonviolent.
While some see civil disobedience as an act of last resort, when it’s down to the "bulldozer, the trees, and you," Martin says it can be appropriate at any time during a campaign–because the issue is so important, because the public is "asleep at the wheel," or when the odds are stacked completely against you.
Those conditions were satisfied for Martin with mountaintop removal. "For this particular issue, the devastation is so severe, and the public awareness is pretty minimal, so the dynamics around that disparity created a situation where civil disobedience was really appropriate," he says.
As the rally progressed in downtown Lexington, local activist Corrie DeJong scaled a Plexiglas "pedway" that connects two buildings above a Lexington arterial road called Broadway. He carried with him a banner that, when unfurled, told rush-hour motorists 50 feet below "Stop Mountaintop Removal" on one side and "King Coal is Killing Kentucky" on the other.
Activists cheered, while the media interviewed rally participants and snapped pictures and shot footage. Traffic, Martin says, flowed smoothly, until someone from one of the pedway buildings called the police. "The cops showed up, and traffic got all backed up," he says.
As the two Asheville activists–William Gorz and Kent Mettle–helped steady DeJong with counterbalancing ropes on the ground, Martin served on the street as "a safety patrol sort of person, a police liaison." When the police did arrive, he told them his name, stressed that the protest was peaceful, and advised them of the dangers to the climber if they intervened before the action was complete.
Because of the size of the sign, which Martin described as a "double banner, sort of like a saddle," the action took a while.
"I guess they felt like they had to do something, because they were all standing there watching him up there," he says. "I was standing there talking to a reporter, minding my business, and they all of a sudden came up behind and grabbed me and arrested me and put me in handcuffs. I was standing in front of a reporter from the Lexington paper, and I told him my name and that mountaintop removal is killing the environment and communities in eastern Kentucky."
The quote ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader the next day.
A Connecticut native from a suburban background who recently received a master’s degree from the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Joshua Martin had never been inside a jail before the early evening hours of June 23. His first taste of incarceration was the inside of a paddy wagon.
"It was extremely hot, like 90 degrees," he says. "I couldn’t breathe in there, and I had no water. That was a little uncomfortable."
The mobile jail cell did have a window, through which Martin could see the banner and watch the action transpire. When DeJong came down, police arrested him, Gorz and Mettle. All four were transported to the Lexington Fayette County Jail.
"We were charged with disorderly conduct, which I think is ironic because we were extremely orderly and extremely professional," Martin says with a chuckle. "I didn’t think there was anything disorderly about it."
The jail mirrored the region’s architecture, he says, resembling a horse barn from the outside. But it’s pure, high-tech prison on the inside. "I felt like we were cruising into the Death Star in Star Wars or something," he says.
At the protest scene, with the exception of his actual arrest, the police had been almost cordial, Martin says. "One of them, as he shut the paddy wagon door, said he respected our positions and he appreciated what we did."
The attitude at the jail, however, was the polar opposite. Workers were matter-of-fact about their tasks and were not amenable to conversation about mountaintop removal. But the activists hadn’t planned on spending much time there, anyway.
"Some people were going to bond us out," Martin says. "But then we were taken to the back room where we were asked to sit in front of this machine. We thought we were going to have our fingerprints taken. Then this woman says, ‘Now we’re going to scan your retina.’"
That chilling phrase gave the activists pause. "We had never heard of this being normal procedure," Martin says. "And we mistrusted the handlers of the information enough to be concerned about it. We felt like we needed some sort of representation on the issue."
The jailers said that was not an option. Two of the four flatly refused the scan and were put in holding cells. Martin and the other pressed the case for their rights: "I told one guy about my concerns, and he told me my theories are far out, X- files kind of stuff and that the reason is for my own protection, which really sent a chill up my spine. It was so bizarre."
Martin ultimately was placed in a holding cell "to think about my attitude," even though he had allowed his retina to be scanned. "I wasn’t prepared to be a martyr, to go to that length on that particular political issue at that moment," he says. "I didn’t want to take away from the attention that was supposed to be on the mountaintop removal and the issues surrounding that."
He bonded out of jail and was greeted outside by "a big crowd of people with beer and burritos." Upon learning that any inmate who refuses to submit to a retina scan stays in jail on a judge’s order until they do, the other activists succumbed to the pressure and were released the next day.
By just about any measure the action had been a success, but the Big-Brother confrontation had taken a toll.
"We were feeling a little bit charged up with all the adrenaline and feeling like we were really proud of ourselves," Martin says. "We were drawing attention to this thing and doing what we said we wanted to do for these communities and these mountains. But as soon as we had to do the retina scan, it just took the wind totally out of our sails."
Five days before his first scheduled court hearing on July 16, Josh Martin contemplated his act of civil disobedience in downtown Lexington within the bigger picture.
"This particular case just seemed appropriate for civil disobedience with dramatic direct action or something that would draw attention to the issue," he says, "to shine a light on the issue, to hopefully allow people to see the truth, to draw their attention to it with a dramatic human story."
On that count, the action was a success. "We got on the front page of the Lexington paper’s region section, with a big picture," Martin says. "It was on all the local news banners, on every broadcast throughout the night. And a bunch of local papers ran it."
Even though some media slanted their coverage in favor of a counter demonstration put on at the Kentucky Coal Association’s offices a few blocks away, the action did get the issue of mountaintop removal mining before the public.
As activists spread word of the action and the arrests over the Internet, a huge amount of awareness was raised within the national environmental activist community.
And Martin was able to speak directly to the issue of Big Brotherism in America when the Bloomington City Council debated–and passed–a resolution opposing the USA Patriot Act right after his arrest. "In the three-minute version, I was able to say why this is a reality that we’re dealing with, that I hope we never see retina scanning here in the Monroe County Jail."
He also considered the motivations for civil disobedience and some of its potential consequences.
"To me, it’s not like an expression of anger or frustration or last resort necessarily, or just a going-out-in-flames sort of situation like some direct action may be," he says of civil disobedience. "It was more of a strategic, high-profile stunt that could complement what I’m doing with other campaigns and draw attention to it. As far as I know, I think we were the first people to be arrested or to do an act of civil disobedience on this particular issue."
But, he repeatedly emphasized, civil disobedience is but one tool of many in that must be employed. "I never plan to do anything intentionally to get arrested," he says. "I’m continuing to work lots of ways, lobbying, organizing, lots of organizing, using the media, going to court being the plaintiff."
And, he says, there are an abundance of issues in Indiana worth going to jail for. "I think Hoosiers need to rise up for sure," he says. "We’ve sat and sat and been complacent. There’s been a lot of good work, but there’s also been a lot of destruction of land, and we’ve been beaten down, and our water is polluted, and our air is polluted, and highways are everywhere.
"I think highways are a really good place to make a stand on it because they’re sort of like the veins that carry the poison blood everywhere else. So, road issues are an appropriate place where we can finally make a stand for air and water and the land and all of it together."
With his pretrial hearing in Lexington just five days away, Martin also ruminated over the worst-case scenario.
"I don’t want to, but I’m prepared to spend time in jail," he says. "I think that the issue is that severe and outrageous and disastrous that I think I’m willing to do that. We’re prepared to fight for our rights, and if they want to make it a public spectacle, then that’s fine with us."
On July 16, Martin sent the following e-mail: "Just had my pre-trial and we ended up getting dismissed and our files expunged in 60 days. It’s good news. It keeps my energy focused on things."