Oh why can’t you see
It’s my life that’s at stake
When you sell out our world
You are stealing my future.
Can you look in my eyes
As you gamble our lives?
When will you stop the lies
So that we can survive?
If you represent me
Not the fossil fuel industry
You must stop wasting time
Chasing your dollar signs.
Oh, say will you listen to
If you refuse to hear us now
Then we have to shut you down.
-sung to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner
There were two nonviolent civil disobedience actions that bookended the powerful Power Shift conference this past weekend in Washington, D.C. organized by the Energy Action Coalition. Because of these actions, and because of the success of Power Shift, there’s reason to have hope that we could soon be seeing a much-needed, more massive, nonviolent direct action wing of the climate movement, of the progressive movement, led by young people.
A loose network of mainly students pulled off a powerful action on Friday, April 15th. Nine of them were able to thoroughly disrupt the House of Representatives for almost 20 minutes as the Republicans’ atrocious 2012 budget proposal was being debated. The students did so by standing up, one after the other, in the gallery overlooking the House and singing. They sang the above song, set to the melody of the Star Spangled Banner but with a very different message. All were arrested and will be returning to court the first week of May.
Then on Monday afternoon the 18th, a march on the Interior Dept. took place right after the final action of Power Shift, a dynamic and spirited march of thousands through the streets of D.C. As part of the Power Shift march there were stops at the offices of the Chamber of Commerce, BP and the GenOn coal company. The march was led by young people from groups based in frontline communities where fossil fuel companies are directly poisoning nearby air, water and land.
The Rising Tide-organized march to the Interior Dept was noteworthy for the singing which went on throughout it, primarily We Shall Overcome, with updated verses. Those leading the singing were mainly women from the Peaceful Uprising organization. It was inspiring and uplifting to be singing this oldie-but-still-goodie classic as part of the rising youth climate justice movement.
Walking in the back of the march, all of a sudden I saw lots of people ahead of me rushing up the steps of the Interior Department building and going inside. Joining them and coming into the lobby, I was overjoyed to be part of a group of hundreds chanting, then singing, then sitting-in on the lobby floor in front of security personnel guarding the inside entrance into the offices.
This was a needed action. Almost a month ago, on March 22nd, the Bureau of Land Management within the Interior Department announced their plan to lease over 7 thousand acres of land in the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming for the mining of 2.3 billion tons of coal. If this goes through and all that coal is burned, it will release the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases as 300 coal plants operating for a year. Ken Salazar, Barack Obama and anyone else responsible for this decision deserve the most withering criticism.
The Federal Protective Services police on the scene inside the lobby pulled out all their tricks to try to get people to leave the lobby. They told people that if they didn’t leave right away they would be arrested. When that didn’t clear the lobby, they escalated their lies. They told people that if they didn’t leave and were arrested they would probably spend a couple of nights in jail. Then they said that if you were arrested you would be charged with a felony, that it was a felony to sit-in inside a federal building—a complete and total lie.
The lies worked for many people, but 21 of us, myself included, refused to leave. I had absolutely no plan to risk arrest as I marched earlier to the Interior Department, but something about the whole situation moved me to do so. Without question, a major part was my desire to nonviolently hit back at Salazar and Obama for their latest, perhaps most egregious, attack on our wounded Mother Earth, the “planet in peril,” in words Obama used to use all the time. Were these ever more than just words?
Although there was no mass civil disobedience at this year’s Power Shift conference the way there was two years ago when thousands blockaded the Capitol Coal Plant, these two civil disobedience actions were in synch with the feelings of many thousands of the 9,000 or more in attendance.
On the morning of the first day of Power Shift, a prominent page 2 article in the Washington Post ran the headline “Youth at environment summit unhappy with Obama policies.” The article went on to quote Courtney Hight, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition, saying, “When I looked at that energy security speech [Obama’s March speech on energy policy at Georgetown U.], it seemed like something BP wrote. . . When I saw that, it almost made my stomach drop. When I watched that speech, that’s when I changed. It flipped me.”
* * * * * * *
It wasn’t exactly comfortable in jail as we waited for the police to finish processing us and tell us our fate. The seven men of the 21 people arrested were in a small, stuffy holding cell next to the 14 women, but there was a cinder block wall and a heavy, closed iron gate in between making it difficult to hear one another. But when the women started singing, we men heard them, and we began singing too. We’d yell to one another, “your turn” after we were done, and we’d riff off each other, singing songs from famous Broadway plays, for example.
At one point, while we were in the middle of singing West Side Story songs back and forth, and after the police had opened up the iron door so we could hear each other better (and the men get some much-needed fresh air), one of the women yelled, “sing I Feel Pretty,” which we proceeded to do. We all had a big laugh after that one, and the police were clearly enjoying themselves listening to us all.
James Connolly, an Irish freedom fighter martyred for his leadership of the Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916, once wrote this about the importance of song:
“No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement. It is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.”
As we sat in on the lobby floor of the Interior Department, we were joyous and defiant as we sang and sang, as we continued to sing despite their threats and lies. May this spirit, and may the rising youth climate movement, lead us all to a new, 21st century movement for the protection of the earth, for people’s power, for a new world. Si, se puede!