jailbird for justice
March 12, 2014
The police citation says I was charged with willfully obstructing and hindering free passage of others in a public place “against the peace, government, and dignity of the state.”
Along with three other activists, I blocked the doors to the Frederick County Courthouse last week as part of a peaceful protest against Dominion’s planned compressor station in Myersville, as well as its proposal to build a $3.8 billion giant facility on the Chesapeake Bay that would liquefy fracked gas and haul it off to Asia. We were the Frederick Four.
Dominion’s planned actions are far less peaceful and dignified than ours.
In Myersville, one division of Dominion wants to build an oversized, air-polluting compressor station for fracked gas against the wishes of the town’s residents and officials. In Cove Point in Calvert County, the scheme of another Dominion division involves a gas-fired power plant that would yield no power for Marylanders; storage tanks of toxic and combustible chemicals; a long list of air pollutants; and a six-story-tall-by-three-quarters-of-mile-long wall. The super-cooled gas in its liquid form would get to Asia on tanker ships fueled by the dirtiest of oils, bunker fuel, which coats and suffocates wildlife when it spills. This plan too has aroused resident fury, although Lusby officials seem happy to support and deal in secret with Dominion.
And the gas for both these facilities would come from fracking all over the Marcellus and other shales that lie under our homes, schools, businesses, farms, playgrounds, parks and rivers. Even though scientists and physicians are raising grave questions about the wisdom of allowing this industry to operate in our backyards, particularly because of the millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals, the noise and countless diesel truck trips. And even though fracked gas is a bridge to a catastrophic 6 degrees F of warming on our planet.
But Dominion’s CEOs won’t be pondering their willful obstruction of our safe passage in our communities in a 7-by-11-foot dull yellow, concrete block cell anytime soon.
Our civil disobedience action was the second in as many weeks. Previously, four activists were arrested in Cumberland. We are making clear that — as much as Dominion denies it — Cove Point has everything to do with fracking and the connecting web of pipelines and compressor stations that would run through our communities. We are saying that rushing ahead with these plans without a thorough environmental review of health, environmental and climate effects puts us all at risk.
“We stand together,” Ann Marie Nau told a WFMD radio reporter at the rally. “We stand with Western Maryland. We stand with Lusby. We stand with Myersville. We stand with all the other communities that are impacted. Myersville matters, Lusby matters. Western Maryland matters. And we stand up for one another.”
At the rally before the arrests, we read our statements. Steve Bruns, who’s running for an at-large Frederick County commissioner seat, blasted the gas industry’s PR campaign to promote fracked gas as clean and safe, as well as Dominion’s lawsuit against Myersville and the Maryland Department of the Environment to force approval of the compressor station within a mile of the town’s elementary school and evacuation center. “This sort of contempt for the health and safety of the people of Maryland is unacceptable in a democratic society. If our government isn’t getting the message, then we’re just going to have to crank up the volume,” he said.
Sweet Dee Frostbutter, who grew up playing in the forests and fields of Calvert County and lives in Frederick, said: “This place and these people mean too much to me to stand by and just watch that happen. We have to resist, and I hope you’ll join us!” In June 2011, Sweet Dee was a cook on the weeklong, 50-mile March on Blair Mountain to stop another form of extreme energy extraction: the blasting away of that mountaintop to excavate the coal. The same mountain where, in the summer of 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners battled for the right to form a union against strikebreakers and lawmen hired by mine operators.
“Maryland could virtually turn into one large industrial zone and be sacrificed for energy being shipped overseas,” said Joanna LaFollette of Frederick. Joanna, who has asthma in a county that has a mortality rate from air pollution among the highest in the nation, was there in place of her son Dylan Petrohilos, whose arrest for civil disobedience at a frack-sand processing plant in Boone, N.C., was still being processed.
At a small rally in a plaza in front of the courthouse, we held signs and a banner, “Stop Cove Point.” We chanted, “Myersville is not for sale,” “Lusby is not for sale,” “Garrett County is not for sale” and “Allegany County is not for sale.” Sweet Dee made up the best chant, a syncopated “We gotta beat back, the frack attack, we gotta beat beat back, that frack attack.”
After about 30 minutes, one of the officers said we had to leave the plaza because we lacked a permit for a rally. Instead, the four of us risking arrest moved closer to the courthouse to block the doors. We chanted more and tried singing a verse of “This Land Is Your Land.” Eventually, Sweet Dee and Joanna were given one more warning and then arrested. A few minutes later, police gave Steve and me our final warning. And then officers, who greatly outnumbered us, moved in and escorted us about 20 feet to the Frederick City police office, where we were quickly searched for weapons.
Sweet Dee and Joanna were booked first and never saw the inside of a jail cell. But Steve and I were put in adjacent concrete-block cells with sliding solid metal doors. Solitary confinement. The only opening on the door was a 4-by-6-inch window.
The cell had a metal bench with rings along the back wall, but I wasn’t handcuffed — or handcuffed to these rings. It also had a stainless steel toilet/sink combo on one side behind a partition. I was thirsty from all the yelling, but when I pushed the first of the three buttons on the sink, the toilet flushed. The only reading materials were the scratched messages on the bench from those who had gone before me under much more miserable circumstances. “Fox + Mel 4 Ever” was on someone’s mind. But so was “LSD” and “ebay.” And “This sux!”
My jail memoir will be short, as I was probably in the slammer about 35 minutes. Eventually, officers unlocked our cell doors and took us to an office for a mug shot and booking. They asked about our action. One officer had read a lot about global warming but said he hadn’t made up his mind about it yet. Another thought nuclear power was the answer.
And then we were free to leave.
My arrest was a small action. I was trying to help make the future come out differently from the way it’s headed, one small shove to help steer us from fossil fuels and their giant corporate pushers. The Frederick Four and the Cumberland Four are not alone. In August, more than 2,000 people participated in a days-long campaign against fracking in Balcombe in the United Kingdom, including 20 who blockaded the headquarters of energy company Cuadrilla and six who superglued themselves to the doors at the London headquarters of Cuadrilla’s PR firm, Bell Pottinger. Last June, in Zurawlow, a rural community in Poland, 150 farmers slept in fields and blockaded a drilling site with cars and trucks. In the fall, farmers in Pungest, Romania, cut cables laid for seismic testing, scooped them up and dragged them through the street to protest Chevron’s plans for fracking on their land. They also formed a human chain around the land where Chevron wanted to place test drills. “We have to do these kinds of things. It’s our duty,” one farmer said.
“We are Romania. We don’t want to sell our country,” they shouted, echoing our chants in Frederick. Or, here’s a new one: “Out you flea-ridden dirty dogs.”
They don’t want fracking for “schist.” Even though Chevron offered the Romanian farmers T-shirts and yogurt — a ploy wackily similar to the cheese pizza Chevron offered residents in Greene County, Pa., after a well pad explosion and fire that burned for days and killed one worker. Note to Chevron: Communities want clean water and a safe place to live, not free dairy products and clothing.
Also note: Schist and fracking. In any language, it sounds like a curse.
Sometimes, civil disobedience is our only currency. We don’t have millions to spend on disingenuous television, radio and Web ad campaigns about “clean” energy that really isn’t and “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs” that are inflated and too often in the rescue, emergency and mopping-up industries. Sometimes all we can do is get in the way, slow the machinery, free our voices, give the science time to catch up and emerge.
Just yesterday, at least 30 people were arrested in Philadelphia to protest the Keystone XL pipeline for tar sands oil. As were 398 students who either chained themselves to the White House gate or engaged in a mock human oil spill on a black tarp in an XL Dissent a week ago. In 2012, several protesters chained themselves to a giant papier-mâché pig at Maggie Henry’s western Pennsylvania farm 4,000 feet from a proposed Shell fracking operation. In Youngstown, Ohio, a nonviolent protest blocked the gate to an injection well for fracking waste. Last year, Sandra Steingraber and 11 other citizen-turned-activists spent 10 days in jail for blocking the entrance to a planned gas storage facility in salt caverns under Seneca Lake in New York. “My small, nonviolent act of trespass,” Steingraber said at her sentencing, “is set against a larger, more violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into water and air and thereby into our bodies. This is a form of toxic trespass.”
At a Seneca in the Balance forum last night, Steingraber said that we each have to figure out our role in this movement and that “we can spend our bodies if we need to.” But, be clear, “we are way beyond the ‘every little bit helps’ stage. … When you think about what it is you are going to do next, know that it has be really big and something really heroic.”
Civil disobedience has been key to many justice movements, from Alice Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. to the many anonymous protesters who sat in at factories, lunch counters, nuclear facilities and treetops. As folksinger Anne Feeney would say, I’ve now “been to jail for justice” with the Frederick Four. The battle against fracking and Cove Point is now part of the justice movement to save life on the planet from catastrophic warming and, along the way, create energy forms that don’t bring sickness and misery to others. And the window for acting is small, not unlike the one in my jail cell door.
–by elisabeth hoffman