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Risking Arrest in the Fight for Climate Action

Podcast ponders the role of civil disobedience in the climate movement for activists young and old

If you are trying to figure out how to respond to the mounting climate crisis, the newly released Stepping Up podcast has you covered. Each story tells a tale of people taking a stand in unique and surprising ways: A bunch of kids organizing a global movement; a millennial learning how to talk to his climate denying congressman; an evangelical doing the Lord’s work by saving the planet; climate clowns donning red noses and taking to the streets. One of their stories might just give you inspiration to find your own path forward. In any case, these stories are fun and imaginative and often funny to listen to.

image of civil disobediencePhoto courtesy of Stepping Up podcast The latest Stepping Up episode examines the role of civil disobedience in the climate movement.

The second episode in the Stepping Up series has been released. In this episode, series producer Claire Schoen has decided that it is time to step up her own game — and tell her own story. Schoen has been protesting climate change policies lately, along with millions of other Americans; raising her voice against cuts to the EPA and speaking out against our climate denying cabinet. But she is beginning to wonder if it’s enough.

Perhaps it is time to get arrested.

Yet she wonders how effective civil disobedience is in today’s era. And at the age of 65, Schoen wonders what her role should be.

To answer these questions, Schoen travels back in time to visit her hippie youth. It’s 1981 and she’s half-way down the California coast joining a protest against the Diablo nuclear power plant that is just about to go online.

The sound of people singing and drumming drowns out the noise of police screaming into loudspeakers. The gathering crowd is 30,000 strong and the day of action is months in the making. Among the 60 anti-nuke groups, there are professors with their students, farmers from the surrounding countryside, and teenagers getting arrested with their moms.

The area was scouted in advance by activists, who published a 64-page manual on how they plan to stop the plant from opening. Schoen notices people on walkie-talkie’s, figuring out how to sneak into the plant. They are saying things in code, like “Fourteen hobbits going down, over.”

She makes her way to the front gates, where there’s a massive human chain linking arms in an effort to stop the plant’s workers from going through. It is peaceful at first, but eventually, the police start using tear gas and violence when their threats to move are ignored. The scene ends in chaos. Two thousand arrests have been made. And Schoen is one of them.

The turmoil caused by this action scared her. And it gave her a lot to think about, as she sat until the wee hours of the morning in handcuffs tied tightly behind her back.

Why take the step to get arrested again? Schoen is hearing some pretty powerful arguments against breaking the law. Maybe writing your congressman or starting a petition will get more traction? Besides, getting arrested can hurt.

“It’s scary to put yourself on the line and risk arrest,” says Sara Shor an activist with 350.org who has been arrested several times while protesting climate policies. “And I have to think about that every time, whether I am ready to get sprayed by tear gas or water or be left in the rain or have my handcuffs too tight or have my arm dislocated from being pulled. But that is the reason why civil disobedience is powerful. Because it’s not easy.”

To repeat that experience, especially with a less nimble body, gives Schoen pause. Perhaps she should leave the task of getting arrested to Sara’s generation?

Elder statesman and climate activist extraordinaire Bill McKibben says no. Older folks like him have less to lose, he says. “One of the few unmixed blessings of growing older is, past a certain point, what are they going to do to you?” While, if you’re 22, “having an arrest record from the Federal government may not be the absolute best thing for your resume.” So Bill encourages “people with hairlines like mine” to turn to civil disobedience in order to call attention to the looming climate catastrophe.

Schoen ponders her arrest. It was powerful. And while it didn’t shut down the Diablo plant, it changed the conversation around nuclear power. “For me personally, it was a life changing moment,” she says. “I felt I needed to stand up and be counted.”

But Schoen thought that period in her life was over, at least until meeting Sara Shor’s mother, Nancy Feinstein.

Feinstein was always an activist but didn’t do anything on climate change until her daughter connected the dots. She began to understand “that all the other issues will have really no room to move if we don’t deal with this one, because this one is a time bomb.” And she decided to put her other activist work — fighting for women’s and civil rights — on hold. “This is the one that I must devote the rest of my life to, because if we don’t crack the code on this one, everything else is a dead issue.”

But like Schoen, Feinstein is no longer 29 years old. In fact, she’s a grandmother. She’s part of a group called the 1,000 Grandmothers — an organization that is based on the premise that elder women can offer their “loving arms” to the climate struggle and join their allies in fighting for climate justice and against projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Sometimes that may mean civil disobedience.

It’s a way to get “off our butts,” says Feinstein during the episode.

Schoen waivers, however. She knows that his time isn’t going to be like last. Sitting in jail for 4 days in 1981 with 450 activists resulted in some surprising, even hilarious, moments. But, I’ll save that for your listening pleasure.

This time around, it’s serious. What does it take to get arrested? And how do you do it? Should she take this step?

Find out more about Schoen’s adventure by listening to Episode 2 of the Stepping Up podcast. And subscribe so you don’t miss the next story on its way. It’s all at: http://steppinguppodcast.org

Sarah Craig
Sarah Craig is a writer and radio journalist living in Oakland, California. She is the Associate Producer for the Stepping Up podcast. Her work has been published by Marketplace, KQED, Grist, and others.

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