Sidewalk or Street?
Compelled to step up her activism by the urgency of climate change, a mother wrestles with a moral dilemma.
February 17, 2013, 1:15 p.m.
Two hundred students and community members are about to break the law. And I'm about to break it with them.
It's a sunny afternoon and the crowd is fresh from the three-day Social Justice, Real Justice conference sponsored by the University of Oregon's Multicultural Center students. We're marching to demand action on climate recovery and to express solidarity with 48 environmental leaders recently arrested at the White House for the same cause. "We don't have a permit for this march," a student announces from the Erb Memorial Union (EMU) amphitheater stage, a platform the university officially designated as a site for free public speech in 1962. "So stay on the sidewalk if you don't want to risk arrest."
Oh. Didn't know that.
Boisterous protesters now stream down East 13th Avenue toward the university's western boundary. I have two blocks to decide: sidewalk or street? I'm supposed to meet my husband and kids at a friend's memorial service soon. We arrive at the corner of 13th and Kincaid, the campus border, and I hesitate. This was the site of another civil disobedience in 1970, when students, tired of dodging cars that barreled through campus, stopped them with the impromptu—and illegal—construction of a brick planter. University and city officials later made the street closure official.
Now, as marchers flow into Kincaid Street, I consider the perils of arrest. At the least, it would involve a trip to jail, a besmirched record, and a fine. I don't know the going rate for blocking traffic on behalf of climate justice, but between the kids' school fees and dental bills, I'm not feeling flush. And what about those batons and rubber bullets visited upon peaceful Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland protesters for similar traffic-obstructing crimes? I'm counting on police to provide fair warning before whipping out pepper spray, and on fellow protesters not to provoke violence. But I don't know the players here. I have no basis for trusting either side.
Decision time. I have a busy afternoon planned following the memorial service: groceries, laundry, homework support. I consider the urgency of the cause, and think of my friend who died, an artist and rebel. Wondering where this march might lead, I step into the street.
* * *
I consider myself politically engaged, but my activism of late wouldn't earn me a very hefty FBI file. Like many other baby boomers, I've expressed my ideals through lifestyle choices, polling booths, and occasional fundraisers for beleaguered candidates. Though my passion for world change can run high, my loyalty always lies, first and foremost, with my children. Caring for them is a 24&ndash7 labor of love that can't be accomplished from a jail cell. But as a mother, I'm also pulled to confront anything that jeopardizes their future—and climate change certainly does. When a crisis looms so large that it threatens every system that sustains life on Earth—how can a mother respond appropriately and still continue the intimate work of raising a family?
* * *
My first—and, so far, only—arrest was 28 years ago. As a student in music and politics at New York University, I met Central American refugees who had fled U.S.-supported dictators and death squads. "Your government ignores me," said a soft-spoken, white-haired Salvadoran mother who had seen soldiers kill her son. "They'll listen to you." Eager to help, I organized teach-ins, street theater, and petition drives to senators. They didn't listen. So when the Senate voted to continue funding the covert war in Central America, I joined hundreds of other activists and students in a peaceful—if rowdy—blockade of my senator's New York office until two policemen carried me away. A year later, Columbia University balked at divesting from companies profiting in South Africa under apartheid, so I grabbed my sleeping bag and joined students on the steps of Hamilton Hall in a 10-day occupation.
I believe both campaigns helped; Central America was eventually allowed to lean left on its own and Columbia divested. Other universities and cities followed suit, adding to international pressure on South Africa to dismantle apartheid. Over time it succeeded, and I learned that if a just cause + education + protest + patience don't get results, a little peaceful civil disobedience might help move things along.
* * *
By 1986, New York's charms had faded in the traffic fumes, and when I decided it was time for more music study, I looked to the other coast. The West had mountains, Eugene had culture, and the University of Oregon had harp scholarships.
Oregon also had political backbone, electing progressive leaders such as Senators Hatfield and Morse, who both opposed the Vietnam War, and environmental champion Governor Tom McCall. The state boasted land-use planning, publicly owned beaches, and the country's first bottle bill. I was won over by the Slug Queen, bike paths, and mammoth old-growth trees that produced the sweetest air I'd ever tasted.
But I'd arrived during the "greed is good" decade, when Oregon was serving up those trees to logging companies. I wasn't the only one horrified as ancient forests were reduced to stump-strewn meadows. While I practiced harp at the UO's music school, members of the Survival Center, a student-run environmental activism group, battled to save old growth. I attended rallies and signed petitions, but my main efforts were toward living simply "so others may simply live." I married another student, and whenever we could, we explored Oregon's stunning wilderness.
I was pregnant with my first child when the 1995 Salvage Logging Rider suspended protections of old growth forest. Activists, among them UO students enraged by the new clear cuts, stormed Northwest streets and courtrooms under the banner of the radical environmental group Earth First! When United States District Judge Michael Hogan ruled that even the spotted owl reserve at Warner Creek, 45 miles southeast of Eugene, was fair game, Earth First! activists dug in—literally—to save it from the chainsaw. Timothy Ingalsbee, PhD '95, who studied the Earth First! movement in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s and '90s, remembers, "They went straight from the hearing up to the woods, and stayed for a year."
I stayed home with my baby. I practiced attachment parenting—breastfeeding, soothing her cries, keeping her close. If she needed a kidney or lung, I'd have offered mine. I'd never felt such fierce protectiveness.
Meanwhile, Earth First! prevented logging equipment from reaching trees by digging trenches and erecting a blockade across Warner Creek's access road. Their nonviolent but confrontational methods drew both fervid support and scathing criticism and—after some of the protestors buried themselves in the road up to their necks—international attention. Warner Creek Blockade became a tourist destination. And it succeeded.
* * *
Wholesale clear-cutting of ancient forests ended in the late 1990s, but trees still fell as global temperatures rose. Al Gore's 2006 An Inconvenient Truth alarmed me—and many others—with its documentation of climbing temperatures that have already brought more droughts, wildfires, floods, and pests. Global warming wasn't a far-off threat, or even—as I'd hoped—one that would await redress until my nest emptied. I redoubled my efforts at a low-carbon lifestyle: more local food, less driving. In 2007, author and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben spoke at the UO as part of his "Fight Global Warming Now" tour. Following his talk I asked, "What's more important, shrinking my family's carbon footprint or political activism?"
"Activism. We've got to cut industry emissions," McKibben replied without pause. "Yours are minuscule in comparison."
So I worried less about hanging laundry and more about petitioning leaders, but was quickly dismayed. It seemed every campaign aimed only to avert new threats—new deep ocean and Arctic drilling, longwall mining for coal, or fracking for natural gas. No campaign aimed to cut current emissions.
Meanwhile, my children built rock sculptures along creeks, rescued worms from puddles, and asked why adults allowed clear-cuts and litter.
* * *
In March 2009, National Geographic offered me my first glimpse of Canada's vast tar sands oil fields. The sinking feeling in my belly reminded me of that moment in my preteen son's favorite action films when the good guys—blood-soaked underdogs battling to save Earth—behold their worst nightmare lurching toward them. Holy crap.
If you've never seen images of the tar sands fields, picture a black, smoking hole that extends as far as the eye can see. Think Mordor from Lord of the Rings. The oil fields' link to world markets is the Keystone pipeline through America's heartland. By the time this bitumen—more soil than oil—has been wrenched from the earth, wrung from sand, and pushed through hundreds of miles of pipe, it possesses a colossal carbon footprint. Climate scientist James Hanson, former head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has studied Earth's atmosphere for 47 years. He has declared it "game over" for the climate—probably within my children's lifetimes—if proposed Keystone phases III and IV become operational.
I moved into a state of near-constant alarm, torn as I was between moral imperatives: How could I parent well in the short run—pack lunches, tend wounds, save for college—while parenting well in the long run, which demanded heroic political work, like, now?
I sought spiritual guidance on fitting into polite society while my planet was destroyed. One devotee of an eastern religion warned, "Your attachment to the physical world will bring you suffering. I like whales, but it's okay if they go extinct. Same with humanity."
"You have no children, then?" I asked. He shook his head.
I decided it's a healthy impulse to be attached to my children's survival, even if it meant I was spiritually immature. But my plate was pretty full with parenting and work. I'd need some champions.
Maybe the president could rescue us—didn't he promise freedom from the "tyranny of oil"? But when it came to energy policy, Obama was now singing his "all-of-the-above" leitmotif over the Republican "drill, baby, drill" chorus. Isn't the president a parent, too? Aren't Malia and Sasha, like my kids, writing reports about polar bears drowning?
Maybe the champions I needed were activists with time to hold Obama to his promises.
"How about you?" I asked my mom, 82. "You're retired."
"My energy's limited," she confessed.
I sat my teens down. "What would it take for your generation to address climate recovery?"
"Make it cool," they suggested. "Have, like, Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber support it—and not just tell us what to do, but do it themselves."
I don't know any pop stars.
My Facebook friends, mostly parents who care deeply about their kids' futures, sighed, "Climate change. Too overwhelming." I could relate. But if my politically astute friends in this tie-dye, blue-state university town wouldn't jump into the climate recovery fight, who would?
* * *
In the fall of 2011, my champions arrived, it seemed, people as frustrated as I was with the economic and political status quo, who used peaceful, direct action to tell the world. Wall Street was occupied.
Initially dismissed by mainstream media, Occupy Wall Street's ranks grew. When labor unions and military personnel joined in and occupations sprang up in cities worldwide, including Eugene, the nation started to pay attention to the biggest movement in decades. I joined two thousand Eugenians in a march through downtown, but returned home to fix burritos for my family before tents went up in the Park Blocks. Whenever I passed Occupy Eugene, I offered encouragement and apples. Though I didn't hear much about climate change, I was heartened by Occupy's on-the-ground democracy as a model for transforming our political structure. Over the 2011 holidays, Occupy sites around the nation were closed down one by one. But the concept of "the 99 percent" had taken hold.
* * *
February 17, 1:45 p.m.
Police cars hover in alleys and cruise behind us. My friends suggest we stick together and walk on the edge, ready to bolt if necessary. They don't want trouble, either.
I can't find the student who e-mailed me about this march. He'd described the distinctive hat he'd be wearing and invited me to say hello. Where is he?
* * *
The dawn of 2013 found few politicians denying global warming outright, but their actions told a different story. They rubber-stamped countless fossil fuel projects, expanding an infrastructure of denial.
Bill McKibben's recently launched fossil fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses, including the UO, certainly qualified him as my champion. But I found signing online petitions from strangers a lonely form of activism. We didn't march together. We'd never even met.
Craving the company of flesh-and-blood activists, I checked on the university's divestment campaign at a meeting of the UO student group Climate Justice League. About two dozen students split into three work groups. Our divestment group had five people.
"Why aren't more students here?" I asked.
One responded, "They think global warming is stupid, but not enough to come to meetings."
Noah DeWitt, a senior journalism major, said later, "My generation is really comfortable, at least within the UO. And the crises are mind-bogglingly huge."
* * *
February 17, 2:10 p.m.
Halfway through the march, protesters roll a dumpster into 11th Avenue. My friends say, "Someone's spray painting. Let's go." We leave, annoyed at the stick-it-to-the-man vandalism. Are they trying to discredit our protest?
"They're like vultures," my friends fume, "feeding off the hard work of organizers."
* * *
Trust is important in any relationship, but in activism—particularly civil disobedience, which risks safety and freedom—it's essential. In the decades since my 1980s student days, especially post&ndashSeptember 11, the definition of "free speech" has contracted while that of "terrorism" has expanded. A lot. The stakes have risen for activists. So has the distrust.
I asked Eugene attorney Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, a nonprofit that provides legal support and education to activists, about recent convictions against some environmental activists, which are fueling that distrust. Regan notes that some who have returned to activism after "a couple of decades off are often shocked by the cloud of distrust that surrounds activism now," although "they love the young activists' . . . ability to [use] social media and network—it far surpasses the 1970s." She tells me that even though the Occupy Eugene march was the largest in Eugene's history, "it was difficult to keep people positive around it because they were worried about cops," concerned that protesting would be dangerous for their families or damaging to their careers.
* * *
February 17, 2:45 p.m.
On my way to the memorial service, I swing past the WOW Hall, the march's destination. No paddy wagons. Protesters appear happy. There is no media coverage of our big civil disobedience. Is it worth leaving my family on a Sunday if it doesn't save the world?
* * *
Maybe it was time to ramp it up. As I considered how, Bill McKibben asked 350.org members to block the Keystone pipeline. If I jumped into that fray, what level of involvement would be effective—and safe? Some activists arrested for impeding construction of Keystone's southern leg are facing severe legal and financial repercussions.
I'd still give my lung—or life—if my kids needed it. But was it fair to them if I risked my freedom—or their college funds—for a campaign that might fail? Was it fair not to?
Then, champions. Right under my nose. The student organization Land Air Water (LAW) has hosted the annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the UO School of Law since 1983. At the 2013 PIELC, titled Earth: Too Big to Fail, I met some teenagers who have flipped the game. They're in court, all right—but the defendant for the last three years has been the United States government. These students—including South Eugene High School's Kelsey Juliana—are demanding that the government uphold its obligation to protect the atmosphere on which their lives depend. UO law professor Mary Christina Wood developed the theory and strategy of Atmospheric Trust Litigation (ATL), building on University of Texas law professor Gerald Torres's concept of atmosphere as a public trust asset.
"Eugene lawyer Julia Olson took this theory," says Wood, "connected with students, and filed cases in all 50 states. ATL is now going global. People are now saying, 'The public trust applies to water. It should apply to atmosphere as well.'"
Torres introduced the young plaintiffs to the PIELC audience, saying, "ATL may be crazy, but it may also be the only thing that works."Â
As I listened, something faint but sweet stirred in me. Hope.
* * *
February 17, 6:00 p.m.
I learn that other marchers stopped the spray painting and returned the dumpster to its place. The police, hundreds of feet away in their cruisers, hadn't even noticed.
Maybe I was too jumpy. I could have interrupted the vandalism, I guess, instead of giving up and fleeing. That hadn't even occurred to me. Would they have listened to a middle-aged stranger? They listened to someone.
Maybe it's time to stop waiting for others to lead.
* * *
Together, the 2013 UO Social Justice, Real Justice conference and the PIELC drew more than 4,000 participants. Speakers from around the world shared their visions of healthy futures for the places and communities they love, along with sharp criticism of government complicity with destructive industries. Thuli Brilliance Makama, an attorney from Swaziland, spoke to a packed crowd in the EMU Ballroom about her struggle to defend the environmental and human rights of local communities against multinational corporations. She asks those with whom she clashes [in Swaziland]: "How do you sleep with yourself at night, when the profits you are enjoying are based on denying a community of their basic survival means?"
In the same room 14 days earlier, Social Justice keynote speaker Cornel West ("The Martin Luther King Jr. of my generation," said the African American student next to me) also addressed an overflow crowd about issues, including environmental crises, that affect the world's poor. They are, after all, the world's first climate victims when seas rise, drought wipes out subsistence farms, or storms annihilate weak infrastructures. The fiery West described American society as "well-adjusted to injustice," and, quoting Henry David Thoreau, asked, "How can I shatter the sleepwalking of my neighbor?" He decried recent laws "criminalizing dissent" that "keep the culture of fear reinforcing the culture of silence."
* * *
April 22, 2013—Earth Day
Sandra Steingraber, a well-known biologist and scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, is in jail for protesting natural gas storage in salt caverns under Seneca Lake, the area's drinking water source. Her children are younger than mine.
* * *
It turns out there are lots of climate champions. So far, 60,000 have signed on to block the Keystone pipeline. Texas ranchers are rolling up their sleeves, irate that foreign corporations can force oil pipelines onto their private property. Indigenous rights groups help lead the fight against countless "dirty energy" projects in their communities. Even the conflict-averse Sierra Club, underscoring the urgency of global warming, lifted its 120-year ban on civil disobedience so top leaders could lock themselves to President Obama's front gate to demand climate recovery.
Student activists, more wary now of arrest than their 1960s and '70s counterparts, aren't rushing to that front line in droves. But by April, 323 campus groups had piled onto the fossil-fuel divestment campaign—triple the number since January.
I asked some UO students what political changes are necessary to create the future they want. Joseph, an African American student who declined to give his last name, responded, "We need complete political reform. This country is built on genocide, rape, and murder. The foundations are rotten. We need to change politics from the ground up because the political system itself is a roadblock to justice." A woman, describing herself as "indigenous to the Oregon territory," powerfully expressed similar feelings during the question period following West's speech. She tearfully grieved the "subordination of the red people and their land and their babies. Our people were slaughtered and we still carry a lot of those burdens and that pain." She thanked West for "speaking for the red race, because we are left out."
When West climbed down from the stage and embraced her, the entire audience—all 600 of us—stood, applauding loudly. I wasn't the only one wiping my eyes.
Something had happened. We listened, together, to her grief. And when everyone in that room rose, it was an affirmation of what I'd hungered for: authentic dialogue about the things that matter. Health for our land. Health for our people. A say in how things go.
The confluence of the social justice and climate recovery movements is growing—and fast. Will it unite "the 99 percent" enough to avoid the frightening future now predicted for my children? I don't know. I desperately hope so.
* * *
April 28, 2013
My husband and I sign up to block the Keystone pipeline. I'm unsure what this will involve, exactly. My hope is to toe the legal line, then return home to care for my children. But as a last resort, I'll join the long line of adults through time who have placed their bodies between children and imminent harm. I'll stay put until that threat is removed—or until somebody hauls me away.
Mary DeMocker '92, a freelance writer and harp instructor occupies her front lawn with interactive art installations. She blogs about the journey from worrier to warrior atclimatemom.com.