FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

"Why Did You Go to Jail?"

by GEORGE LAKEY

“Pop-pop?”

I tunneled up from sleep, realizing that my six-year-old great grandson was at the foot of my bed, all dressed for his school day and wanting to touch base with me before he left.

“Hi, Yasin,” I said groggily. “Come into bed if you want.”

He jumped in and crawled into my arms while I woke myself up a bit more. “Good morning,” I said as I gave him a squeeze.

“Why did you go to jail yesterday?” he asked, alert with curiosity. I could feel his worry about me ebbing as he felt the familiar strength of my arms around him.

“I didn’t think President Obama knew how strongly your Pop-pop and lots of other people felt about his letting coal companies blow up mountains,” I said. “We thought if we let ourselves be arrested it would get his attention.”

“Yasin, time to go to school.” It was Yasin’s mom Crystal at the door of my bedroom. She came further in to take a look at me; she too worried sometimes about her seventy-two-year-old grandfather.

“Have a good day at school,” I said as he wriggled out of bed.

I was one of more than a hundred people from many walks of life, from famed NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen to the son of generations of coal miners, from West Virginia’s Larry Gibson, who has spoken to the United Nations about the pillage of his mountains, to a multiply-pierced young anarchist woman from Chicago. We were there with thousands of of supporters on September 27 to participate in Appalachia Rising, the first mass nonviolent direct action in Washington, D.C. to oppose mountaintop removal.

I dislike arrest and jail, personally. Been there, done that, as long ago as the civil rights movement in the sixties. I dislike the loss of freedom, being put under the custody of someone with a gun. Most of what I dislike are the reminders of that seizure of my body and my destiny: the tight pressure of cold metal handcuffs on my skin, the awkward angles my body takes getting into police vehicles (I’m not as limber as I once was), the temperature in the cells (always, it seems, too hot or too cold), the uncertainty about whether I’ll be able to stay with my comrades or be isolated, the awful clang of metal against metal when the cell doors close. I’m lucky in that I’m rarely beaten and in those situations I have some protection from my white skin and my peaceful disposition.

But this mountaintop removal thing has to stop. And I have yet to meet the political scientist who can argue convincingly that Big Coal and the financiers behind it can be stopped without the countervailing pressure of people power through nonviolent direct action.

I know plenty of people who believe that the President “ought to” stop mountaintop removal (and the wars and poverty and the looting of our treasury by giant corporations) but their “Obama ought to” complaints imply, as complaints do, the powerlessness of the speaker.

The powerful way to handle an ally in the White House is to act in such a way as to “force him” to do what he wants to do already. The powerful way for a citizen to act in our country is to acknowledge the reality of its corrupted politics, as black students and Dr. King did years ago, and participate in campaigns that force change. That’s part of the legacy of power that moves Earth Quaker Action Team, the group I’m part of. Why hold back from taking nonviolent direct action?

I’m remembering the aboriginal woman who asked me a burning question during our break during a labor union training in Canada. Taking the stance of a warrior, fixing me with her brown eyes, she asked: “Why, George, have your people abandoned your president?”

I had no answer in the moment. It was a year ago, and indeed so many people had walked away after casting their vote, leaving Obama the job of cleaning up the mess. In reflecting on her question I realize that some people really do maintain the image of U.S. politics given by seventh grade civics textbooks, and keep their innocence despite everything they’ve experienced since. Others just want someone “on top” to blame: it used to be mom or dad or the teacher, and now it’s the president. Others cherish their comfort zone and continue to talk and sign petitions and lobby and talk some more, keeping themselves almost-convinced that spending their hours in meetings away from their families is the sacrifice that will bring social change. If only they let themselves consider a different paradigm.

Luckily, I was around when Dr. King reminded us that “the truth shall make us free.” The truth about how politics works in the U.S. The truth about climate change and the radical change it requires of us—of all of us. And the promise of freedom to re-join our planet, to have a decent future for our six-year-olds.

Yesterday’s action for me had a curious blend of power and sweetness. We walked into PNC’s ornate and historic bank near the White House. Reverend Billy set down on the middle of the marble floor a tarp and the rest of us poured dirt on it, creating a kind of mountain complete with twigs and leaves and a little red sign saying “Stop.” Eleven of us made an arc around the dirt mound, sitting as we did so, while behind us the gospel choir of the Church of Life After Shopping began to sing. A banner was held aloft: “PNC Bank: The Mountaintop Removal Bank.”

Supporters dialogued with the bank manager while photographers did their thing. Police checked us out and went away to deal with more pressing matters. Those of us sitting in—from Earth Quaker Action Team, Swarthmore College students, Rainforest Action Network—held a meditative silence while the choir sang and Reverend Billy preached and the bank locked its doors.

When it was clear that the authorities would “wait us out,” we alternated the singing with reflections and personal stories of meaningful experiences with nature, spontaneously as in Quaker Meeting. The closeness grew; communion happened.

The police returned and four of us were handcuffed and walked out of the bank to the waiting police cars and the cheers of our comrades.

This time the jail cells were cold. Our hearts, however, were warm.

GEORGE LAKEY, formerly Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change at Swarthmore College, is now directing a research project there. Author of seven books, he founded Training for Change.

This article originally ran on Waging Nonviolence.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail