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Building (and Singing) the World Beyond the Horizon: A Reflection on Direct Climate Action

Editor’s note: This piece was written in October 2019.

I was arrested a week ago. Getting arrested is good for news headlines and Facebook statuses. But getting arrested wasn’t the point.

We were trying to remove fuel from the fire that’s burning our planet. This specific fire: the coal-fired Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, NH. But that wasn’t the point either.

The point was to build power, to build unity, to build a sense of what is possible. To deepen our bonds with each other as friends and community. To increase our ability to take risks. To act from our hearts and conviction. To take one more step — together — in a strategic, nonviolent campaign to shut this plant down for good and save what we can of our futures and our burning planet.

We definitely did all those things, and we did them with an extraordinary quantity of bravery, care, and love. That combination creates a magical kind of power. It’s the kind of power that can build the world beyond the horizon.

The 1.5 days of the action felt like weeks, in the way that intense relationship-building experiences do. It felt like something I had been unknowingly practicing for for years.

All those weekend festivals, contra dances, worship services, song circles, social justice rallies, hikes, cooperative strategy board games, and team-building challenges. All that organizing, singing, playing, facilitating, listening, loving and grieving for the planet, practicing the kind of relationships I want, grounding in spirit, and stepping into power.

This is what it was all for. Yes. I can do this.

The cops took us seriously. REALLY seriously. There were local cops there. State cops. Railroad police. Fish and Game officers. Private security. Homeland Security. Cops in boats, cops on ATVs, cops in a f—ing helicopter.

This power plant — a public good, but privately owned — blew an extraordinary amount of taxpayer resources on stopping a group of nonviolent protesters who just want to make the planet livable. Livable for our families, and for the cops’ families, and for the families that are also called ecosystems.

The police presence scared me, but also galvanized me. Yes. This is important. What we’re doing is really important.

Clad in Tyvek, carrying buckets, we walked together. More than 40 people strong, ages 17 to 70s and everywhere in between, we walked down the road past the power plant, down the railroad tracks that carry coal from the South to the plant, and past the Fish and Game officers who warned us that we would be arrested. We sang. We walked to the beats of polyrhythmic bucket drumming. We chanted. We sang again. We offered one another water and snacks, a hand to hold, eye contact, presence.

Activists from around New England march on the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, NH, in Sept. 2019. Photo courtesy No Coal No Gas / David Shaw.
And we paused for group meetings, to circle up and speak about why we were here, to wave at the helicopter overhead, to decide what to do next. These pauses held just as much power as the movement of our feet and hands and bodies.

The last two circles were the most intense. First, to decide whether or not to cross the concrete Jersey barriers onto plant property, behind which 10-plus local cops faced us in a line. We chose to move forward, in love and not in anger, chants silenced, hands held up in a dual gesture of “stop, no more” and “join us, welcome.”

I was in the half of the group who made it past the cops and kept walking — only to be met by a squad of state police in riot gear marching toward us, dust rising. I was calm for most of the action, but this is when the fear came in. When there are riot clubs and pepper spray and guns, the body does not want to listen calmly to the mind.

But the other leaders in our group got us circled up. We decided to stop walking, hold our ground, hold on to why we were here, and hold onto each other in a final circle of nonviolent resistance.

The riot cops surrounded us and began arresting us one by one. After a few words of encouragement to one another, the group fell silent. And then, I did what I knew how to do — I started singing into the fear. We sang together, over and over, under the hot sun, to each other, to the planet:

Let the life I lead speak for me

Let the life I lead speak for me

When I’m lying in my grave

And there’s nothing more to say

Let the life I lead speak for me

I kept singing. We kept singing.

Sitting on the ground after arrest, and all this week, I’ve been thinking about white privilege. About how our majority white group of protestors were treated basically really nicely by the cops. How might have things been different if it were a Black Lives Matter rally? An action at an ICE facility with undocumented migrant folks? We were so close to being shot, sprayed, brutalized by law enforcement — and yet so far away because of the perceived whiteness of most of us.

I’m trying to hold this unpleasant, sobering understanding close. Is this a way that I can use my privilege for good — by putting my magically protected-by-the-broken-system white body on the line? Does doing that silence and erase climate activists of color, or make space for them? How do we design truly inclusive direct actions?

It feels self-centered to tell you about the thing I did, about how I brought song to a group of frightened, brave activists and friends. I’ve been thinking about hero culture, about how we celebrate the people in the shiny roles, the people who are charismatic, who get arrested, who get splashed on the pages of a newspaper. I want you to know that one leader may have charisma, but a cohesive, determined, compassionate group has POWER.

When I say “group” and “we,” I’m talking about the people who cooked meals for us, who offered us their place of worship to sleep and plan, who spent the day making sure we all got water and sunscreen. The people who met us with clipboards and cheers as we were released from the correctional facility, the people who drove cars and made plans and made speeches and kept track of everyone and everything. Actual heroism is the exponential power of what we can accomplish together.

And I’m telling you this story because I want you to know that maybe you, too, have all the tools you need to start leading and loving the way you want to. You will find your voice for justice speaking through your vocation. You will find your core of calm in the middle of fear and chaos. You are braver than you imagined, especially when you take another person’s hand and remember how much you love this life, how much you love this big blue ball we’re all on together.

Work is love made visible. Work in community takes that love and transforms it into power. The system is broken, but we’re doing what we can to build the world beyond the horizon.

I’m ready for the next step, and I hope that I get to take it with you. Let’s do this.

Postscript: I had an overwhelming (and positive) response to this piece after posting it on Facebook in October 2019. And, as often happens to me, I started to worry in a perfectionistic sort of way.

There’s so much more I could have said, I think to myself. I don’t want these people to get the wrong idea about activism, that it’s all sunshine and rainbows and power and beloved community all the time.

My brain is right about the messiness. This action was not perfect. Plans changed, needs went unmet, misunderstandings happened, feelings got hurt. People trusted when they could have questioned, and questioned when they could have trusted. Actions like this take a whole lot of behind-the-scenes, in-the-trenches kind of work that is ugly, that involves grumbles and sleep deprivation and hand wringing and exasperation.

But you know what? (I’m telling this to you and also to myself, just so you know.) Messiness is beloved community also.

This is work that calls us to show up with our whole selves — our beautiful, powerful, brave selves, and our grumpy, unsure, messy selves. Acknowledging the mess, the shadow side, and the places we could do better allows vulnerability to come in, and leads to greater care, greater compassion, and greater resilience when things get a little ugly.

We build power together not in spite of our imperfections, but because of them. Don’t let that stop you.

Dana Dwinell-Yardley lives in Montpelier, VT. Learn more about the No Coal No Gas campaign and get involved at nocoalnogas.org or strikedowncoal.org.