In my trainings and workshops with activists, I always tell folks that we are most powerful when we are expressing our deepest personal truths. This week I took action to express the grief that has been weighing on my heart ever since I read about Pakistan digging mass graves in anticipation of their climate change induced heat waves last month. Even as someone who reads a lot of heartbreaking stories about climate change, the fact that we have now entered the age of anticipatory mass graves broke my heart in a whole new way.
When I saw the pictures of the long trench they dug as that mass grave, I realized it looked just like the trench that Spectra is digging through the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston for a new high pressure fracked gas pipeline. I felt powerfully called to connect the dots between those two trenches and climb into the one in Boston to reflect on this new age of anticipatory mass graves.
The morning began with around 200 people gathering, praying and singing before marching down the street to the Spectra's worksite for the West Roxbury lateral pipeline. The folks with Resist the Pipeline have been fighting this pipeline with direct action for nearly a year, with over 140 people arrested so far. For most of that campaign, the Boston police have allowed to activists to walk on to the site and temporarily stop work. This week, the cops began preventing any access into the worksite, so when we marched up we were met with a line of police using bikes as a barricade. We kept singing as we unsuccessfully looked for opportunities to get past the police into the trench.
Instead we stayed there in the street and had a religious service honoring our grief for the mass grave in Pakistan and all those to come. Rabbi Shoshana Friedman opened the service and was followed by powerful eulogies from Rev. Ian Mevorach, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Rev. Rali Weaver and Rev. Lindsay Popper.
Some folks carried two large images of the mass grave in Pakistan as it was filled with bodies.
The spirit of this ceremony was one of heavy grieving and grappling with a traumatic world. I spoke about the need to combine that grief with resistance and hold both at once.
What we did next has not gotten much mention yet in most of the reports of this action. We left.
We had been outmaneuvered by the police who were in position with a wall of officers blocking the entire street. We probably had enough numbers to rush the line and perhaps get a few folks to the hole while others were arrested, but we were not prepared for that kind of blitz. We were holding the heavy energy of grief, and have not yet learned to simultaneously hold that energy along with the kind of energy that is needed for a game of capture the flag with the police. As I said in my speech, it might take us some practice to meet this new challenge of combining grief with resistance.
So we left and regrouped off site to figure out what to do next. We acknowledged the change in the logistical situation that required a shift in our tactics. We re-centered ourselves to be able to hold on to the spirit of love and the principles of nonviolence that have been established throughout the campaign even if we were moving with a different speed and energy. We strategized a plan of rapid approach, assigned different roles, and broke into groups to be able to support one another and move quickly and deliberately.
I think this quick adaptation was possible because the consistent long-term organizing done in that community had created a group bound in trusting relationships and rooted in principles. Everyone there had been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience by Resist the Pipeline trainers Marla Marcum and Cathy Hoffman. The heart of the group revolved around local residents like Mary Boyle with longtime ties to the neighborhood and to each other. Rabbi Shoshana and many of the other clergy had previously been arrested together and helped spiritually ground many of the resistance actions happening there for the last year. Those bonds of relationship and principle were too strong to be rattled by a little shift in the logistics.
A couple hours after we had left the site, we came back with speed and determination. The police were not expecting us, and we found the worksite completely open. When I saw an open path to the trench, I felt a surge of adrenaline and rushed forward. I jumped into the hole and eleven other people followed me into the trench, while another 40 or so swarmed over the site. I moved toward the far end of the trench opening, ducking under cross beams as I went. (One time I didn't duck enough, but that's where the adrenaline came in handy.) When I got to the end of the opening, I laid down right next to the pipe. I felt my heart pumping hard with excitement and I knew the trench was ours.
Raw video footage of our taking the trench:
As machines were powered down and work ceased on the pipeline, many of the workers began congregating right above me on a metal plate that stretched across the trench. Several of our supporters also leaned over taking photos and video of those of us in the trench. Soon I heard Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, minister at Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, begin preaching people's mic style somewhere in the trench behind me.
Her words reminded me that I was not just there for an exciting rush into a pipeline trench. She helped ground me in the reality that I was there to recognize this trench as the mass grave that it is. I felt the adrenaline drain away and I settled into a period of deep reflection about all the kinds of death we are imposing on the world. In particular, I thought about my own mortality.
A week and a half before this action, I was at the funeral of my partner's grandfather. When he was interred, we walked past the open grave and leaned over to look at the urn with his ashes in the bottom. Now I felt like I was on the other side, in the ground, looking up from my grave.
Once the police cleared our supporters out of the area, all the people standing over my end of the grave were pipeline workers and cops. Most of the construction workers were heckling and sneering at us in their Texas accents, threatening to pour concrete over our bodies.
At some point I began to see them as the mourners looking at my body in the grave, and I was grateful that they had come to witness this. I even appreciated that their jeering and laughter brought a little levity to this somber ceremony. I found myself hoping that when I die, there will be some folks like those construction workers above my grave, laughing and reminding everyone that dark humor is better than no humor at all. The 50 bodies who ended up filling that mass grave in Pakistan were the ones who were unclaimed out of the 1100 who died in the heat wave. They had no one but the grave digger to say a final prayer over their bodies.
When the police cleared our supporters off the surface street, there were eleven who remained. These eleven were soon arrested and hauled away.
Next the police climbed down into the grave and told us that we were all under arrest. We didn't move. One officer grabbed my arm and pulled me into a sitting position while another one cuffed my hands behind my back. They moved on to handcuff Sophia Wilansky, who was laying on the other side of the pipe. While they cuffed her, I laid back down, which was now significantly less comfortable with my cuffed hands behind my back.
Once the cops had handcuffed all twelve of us in the hole, they came back to me and said that I could either walk out of the trench or they would have to carry me out. I said that I was willing to be carried. The cop had the confused look of someone who didn't think he was offering multiple serious options. He said that I could be hurt if they had to carry me out. I said I trusted them to find a safe way to get me out. He said that he or another one of his officers could be hurt trying to carry me up a ladder. I said that they shouldn't take that risk, and should leave me there until they could ensure their own safety. He asked how long I was prepared to stay in the trench. I said I was willing to stay there as long as they would leave me there. He asked how long, a day, a week? I said yes. He said I was being unreasonable. I said I thought this pipeline was unreasonable, and the officer walked away. I went back to reflecting on mass graves.
Four of the twelve in the trench decided to walk out rather than be carried, and they were taken away. Around that point the police decided to call in the fire department to extract us from the grave. Before long I heard the workers exclaiming how there were five or six fire trucks on the street. Firefighters were leaning out over the grave, smiling and taking pictures of us. Soon I could hear the clanging of their stretcher as they began extracting people at the other end of the trench.
I was the last one they raised from the grave. Several firefighters grabbed onto my shoulders, belt and feet, and they maneuvered me into the stretcher. They strapped me in and lifted the stretcher up to the surface. I had been in the shade for most of the nearly two hours I spent in the hole, and as they brought me up, I suddenly felt the warm sun on my face. I felt like I was reentering the world, snugly held in my stretcher cocoon.
I was lifted into the police wagon and was taken with the other seven who were lifted out of the grave to the Jamaica Plain police station. We were charged with disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, and trespassing, and finally released around 9pm that evening.
Friday morning we appeared in court, and the eight of us faced a different plea bargain situation than the other 140 or so people who had been arrested resisting the West Roxbury pipeline. We were offered a six month pretrial probation and a six month stay away order of 500 yards from this or any other pipeline project. Two folks took that deal to bring some closure to their experience. But six others refused the offer and are willing to take the case to trial. Those six are myself, Karenna Gore, Nora Collins, Sophia Wilansky, Dave Publow, and Callista Womick.
We head back to court in Boston on July 29th, and I'm sure I will be sharing much more as we proceed through the legal system. And while we're tied up in court, I know the folks with Resist the Pipeline will continue their committed campaign to stop Spectra. Wednesday was a turning point in escalation in the campaign, so there will certainly be more excitement to come.
For a clergy perspective on Wednesday's action, read the post by Rev. Lara Hoke, who was arrested in the trench: http://revhoke.blogspot.com/2016/07/resisting-pipeline-in-trenches.html
For high res photos of the action, check out this Flickr album by Peter Bowden: https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterbowden/sets/72157670314896286