Civil Disobedience for Climate Justice Verses the Power of Song
On April 23, 2018 I was arrested for the first time, for "Disorderly Conduct," for civil disobedience. It was at the Climate March in the New York capital in Albany. This was, up until that time, the largest environmental protest in NY's capital in history. From my official court document: "A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof: he or she congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse. To wit: at the above mentioned date and time, the defendant did participate in a sit-in with 55 other co-defendants, in front of the entrance to the hall of governors on the second floor of the New York State capital building intentionally blocking entry and egress from said entrance. The defendant did refuse a lawful order of a uniformed member of the New York State police to remove themselves from the area."
Years ago when I first became politically active, the national Republican convention was held in New York City. This was during the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. There were big protests and many protesters were arrested, with a large number roughed up by the NYPD, followed by successful lawsuits against the NYPD. I remember my good friend Katherine Pritchard saying "if you go get arrested I'll kill you. It is your job to sing about it, not get arrested." At that time I agreed. I kept singing at rallies, but did not put my body on the line. I protested through Presidential administrations of both parties but always kept it legal.
Fast forward to 2018. My wife Peg Taylor and I had been involved in a fight against a gas pipeline in our town for a few years. When all legal/ administrative options had been exhausted and failed the group organizing began having actions. I sang at rallies, we fed and housed protesters and hosted meetings at our house, we had an episode of Democracy Now edited at our dining room table, and we held signs at actions and done jail and court support for arrestees who'd put their bodies on the line to protect our home town. Peg and I had both had civil disobedience training at this point. A call went out for participation in a big rally in Albany, and we went to a training meeting about it. Peg had said she would never volunteer to get arrested. At the meeting she raised her hand when they asked for volunteers for arrestable action, AND for a theatrical action involving covering the state seal with a giant sun. Peg volunteered to be a ray of the sun. As if she wasn't already...
When Peg volunteered to get arrested, I felt I had to join her. That's how we roll. I was terrified, but the reasons to finally get arrested were compelling. A black, blue-collar neighborhood in Albany had fought for years and finally gotten a garbage incinerator facility closed down in their neighborhood, and now there was a proposal to replace it with a gas power plant (I refuse to say "natural gas." It is 90-something percent methane, which is "natural," but poisonous and a devastating greenhouse gas.) They needed some white folks to do the arrestable action. (Seems obvious that black folks voluntarily getting arrested in the USA is not a good idea .A LOT of neighborhood people participated in the rally, but not the civil disobedience.) I was scheduled to sing at the rally before the action, and I did so a cappella, because handing my keys, phone, and wallet over to a volunteer was one thing, but I was not prepared to hand a guitar over.
We all passed through the metal detectors and marched to the "War Room." This was where Peg did her part in the "sun dance," in which the state seal was eclipsed by the sun. It was really beautiful. We marched in a circle, and it was public property so as long as we kept moving and did not harm anything it was legal up to this point. (The sun was basically strips of fabric so it did not harm the state seal in any way.) Then we went into the hall of governors and 55 of us sat down and locked arms with red cloths. Our police liaison negotiated with the police that if we were allowed to each say a few sentences about why we were there, we'd go quietly. We went around the circle and when we were done the police began our "3 warnings" to disperse. At this point we'd also negotiated that the 2 song leaders be arrested last, so we could sing songs as each person was arrested. I was one of those song leaders. They arrested four people at a time, going around the circle in an orderly fashion. At some point in my song-leading, I decided to sing Alan Bigelow's mantra "Hallelujah, Jai Shri Krishna, Saura Urja, Om Shanti." Just as I began to get people to sing along, one of the arresting officers stepped across the circle and arrested me out of turn.
To me this illustrated the difference between the power of song and the power of civil disobedience. A song can have an impact on one person at a time. The officer was pretty obviously bothered by that song. Maybe he was offended by the mixing of Judeo-Christian and Hindu spirituality. Maybe the song really made him feel something he was not comfortable with. I'll never know. The civil disobedience tied up the court in Albany every morning for a week. We did not get much press, despite the actor James Cromwell and former candidate for Governor Howie Hawkins being arrested with us. Governor Cuomo announced a plastic bag ban that day, and this took away press coverage. Despite this our action was part of a larger, cumulative effect. Actions like this which tie up the courts add up, and this one did. Not long after this our movement experienced some big victories, mixed in with all of the usual defeats.
It may sound cynical coming from a songwriter, but I learned that getting arrested was much more powerful than a song, particularly in this age of passive consumption of music with corporate streaming services. In the 1960's people owned the songs of the time. Maybe a song had more power. In the 2000's it seems civil disobedience is much more powerful. My ACD is up so though it was a frightening experience and the handcuffs hurt like hell, I hope you will see me in them again. There's a lot to get arrested for! When we do it, we do it peacefully and courteously, with dignity.
Saturday, June 26th 2021
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