Renewable Power to the People

Risking arrest with the global warming protesters.

The Power Shift ‘09 rally on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol 

“How many people here have been arrested?” asks Tom Wetterer, general counsel for Greenpeace. Ten hands go up in the crowd of 40, gathered at the United Methodist Church on Capitol Hill. One guy has been to jail more than a dozen times for protesting a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Another has a friend who had been charged with conspiracy to aid terrorism. Wetterer proceeds to outline what to do if you’re lucky enough to get arrested during Monday’s protest at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington.

The immediate goal of the protest, organized by a coalition of 40 or so environmental groups called Capitol Climate Action, is narrow: to block the four entrances to the coal plant that provides energy to the U.S. Capitol building. (It’s a coordinated attack: Today the coat-and-tie set is also lobbying members of Congress about climate issues.) The broader goal is to raise awareness about climate change and maybe even nudge it into the exclusive group of issues that merit large-scale organized protest—the Iraq/WTO/civil rights club.

But for many protesters, the goal is simpler: to get arrested. It’s not an official goal, of course. “Arrests are never the goal of civil disobedience,” says Joshua Kahn Russell, an organizer for CCA. “They’re an unfortunate byproduct.” Behind closed doors, the story is slightly different. “We hope they’re gonna do some arrests, but it’s not necessary,” says one of the organizers at a pre-protest training seminar.

But they are clearly excited about the prospect. “Reporters asked me if I want to get arrested,” says the author and poet Wendell Berry at the rally in front of the coal plant. “The answer, briefly, is no. But I am willing to get arrested.” Actress Daryl Hannah has shown up to block the power plant gates, too. She tells me she is planning on taking the train back to California the next day—”if I’m not in jail.” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. even offers up his next of kin to the police. “My two children, Kyra and John … came here to be arrested with the rest of you,” he tells everyone.

To that end, the organizers have created an easy-to-use color-coded system. Four groups—red, blue, green, and yellow—would march around the Capitol power plant, with groups peeling off to block each of the power plant’s four gates. The red group is at highest risk for arrest; yellow is the lowest. Everyone else is free to kick back and watch the speeches and musical acts.

“I don’t want to get arrested,” says Alex Thorp, an American University student I find shivering in front of the plant’s main gate. “But it’s necessary to get the message across.” Thorp met earlier in the day with his congressman, Rep. Kenny Marchant of Texas, but to no avail. Marchant didn’t even invite the five students into his office; he came out into the hall. The meeting lasted five minutes.

Now Thorp stands in the freezing cold, still wearing his pinstripe suit, gripping a bamboo sign and looking as if he wished the cops would just arrest him already so he could warm up.

Next to him, Susan Brown, 76, of Waltham, Mass., is also preparing to do time. “That’s the point of the effort—saying we’re willing to risk arrest,” she tells me. During the civil rights movement, her kids were babies, so she couldn’t march. “This is my first chance to put my foot on the line.”

We’re told that the plant workers’ shift ends at 3 p.m., which means someone will have to enter or exit through the gates. So get ready for some action. “No coal, no oil!/ We don’t want our world to boil!” But 3 p.m. comes and goes, and still no confrontation. The police are supposed to be accommodating, but this?

“Maybe they anticipated this,” one of the designated “legal observers” observes. It seems possible, seeing as the organizers alerted the police to the protest two months in advance. Since then, there have been negotiations about the route, the performances—even the number of people who will get arrested.

Right now, word on the street is the police will arrest 75 people—the product of a bizarre and counterintuitive haggling process. The organizers had been pushing for 100 arrests, I’m told. The more arrests, the more attention they get. But the police didn’t want to go above 25. Eventually they settled on 75. But now, with 3 p.m. receding, it’s unclear if anyone is going to the slammer.

The protesters decide to step it up a notch. “If you want to get arrested, please go over to the gate now and sit down,” says a girl wearing a green helmet and wielding a green folder. “Those who don’t want to be arrested, please come over this way.” The two groups separate. The jail-seekers link arms and stretch out across the fence. (“I don’t like linking arms,” says one activist, Dave Slesinger. “The power of nonviolent resistance comes not from our muscle, but from our hearts.”) The chants escalate. “Clean coal is a dirty lie!/ Renewable is doable!” The police don’t seem to mind.

Around 5 p.m., the red group is called off its gate. The green group soon follows suit. As the sun sets, an organizer takes the mic and tells everyone to go home. “We are leaving. It’s been a beautiful, beautiful day,” she tells the crowd. “We had a victory today.” Brown, the septuagenarian, plotzes. “It’s over? That’s it?”

A small cluster is forming in front of the main gate. “This is bullshit!” A tall guy who came down from Yale Divinity School for the protest is venting. “The whole point of civil disobedience is you force authorities to act. We forced nothing today.” His friend from Harvard Divinity School agrees this was a fail by CCA: “Gandhi is on your home page.” (He’s right.) “No one is going to tell you you have to leave,” says a young woman. But it becomes clear that’s what everyone is doing.

“I understand there’s going to be a diversity of opinion for what success is,” says Johanna DeGraffenreid, one of the organizers. “But we discussed what our objectives were, and none of them were getting arrested as a primary goal.”

In the meantime, says Kahn Russell, they managed to have a national conversation about climate justice, sway Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to write a letter calling to convert the plant to natural gas, and throw the plant off its normal schedule for a day. Plus, he says, “at the end of the day, everybody wants to have a peaceful demonstration.”