TThe first time I was arrested, I was picked up for drug smuggling to the US from Canada. They were vitamin pills, but that didn’t seem to matter to the Cleveland police officer, who mentioned that his orders came from the Nixon White House. It was 1970. He had just started a lecture tour on campus protesting the Vietnam War and was under the surveillance of the National Security Agency. I raised my fist for the mugshot and after a night in jail they let me go.
I think the idea was to discredit my opposition to the war and maybe cancel my speeches. Instead, the students showed up by the thousands. My first arrest wasn’t for an act of civil disobedience, exactly, but the lesson I learned from that surreal experience was how powerful it can be to turn your ideals against the machinery of the state. Half a century later, it still works. And, as the extraordinary activists who tell their stories here attest, it remains an indispensable means of being heard by those who prefer to ignore us.
Today, the climate crisis requires collective action on a scale humanity has never achieved, and in the face of those odds, a sense of hopelessness can occasionally descend. But the antidote to that feeling is to do something. The question is: what? Changing individual lifestyle choices – like giving up meat and ditching single-use plastic – won’t be enough when time is not on our side. We need to go further, faster. Instead of changing straws and light bulbs, we should focus on changing policies and politicians. We need large numbers of people working together to find solutions that work for the climate. Nonviolent civil disobedience can help mobilize that movement. At 83 years old, I am still ready to be arrested when the occasion calls for it.
In 2019, for example, I was arrested four times. I had been inspired by the global rise of Extinction rebellion, the Sunrise movementand Greta Thunberg. Young people like Greta were asking the older generations to move on and, well, I’m definitely older. It made sense to me: why should the burden of fixing this problem fall on those who didn’t create it? In the same year, nearly 400 scientists from more than 20 countries He called for civil disobedience, arguing that “continued government inaction in the face of the climate and ecological crisis now justifies peaceful, non-violent protest and direct action, even if this goes beyond the limits of current law.” I thought: maybe if I got arrested at 80, it would get noticed. People might say: if she can do it, so can I.
With the help of Greenpeace, I launched Fire Drill Friday. For four months, we held weekly rallies in Washington, DC, followed by acts of civil disobedience, including standing on the steps of the Capitol with banners, chants, and roadblocks. We started small: about 16 of us climbed the steps of the Capitol and turned to the crowd of supporters and media that had followed us. There was something routine, almost ritualistic, about it: a line of 10 policemen had separated to allow us to take our position. Then, as we were told they would do, they gave us the first of three warnings that we had to leave or face arrest.
We keep singing and waving our signs. After the third warning, they took a step towards those of us who had stood our ground and began to secure our hands behind our backs with white plastic handcuffs. They were silent, almost stoic, as they led us to the trucks. But we feel full of energy. I was not afraid: this was what I wanted to do, put my body on the line, align myself completely with my values. There is something powerful about not knowing what is about to happen, knowing that for a period of time you will have no control, and then going ahead and doing it anyway.
I do not mean to present myself as a hero: the simple calculation is that my age and celebrity ensure the kind of national and world press attention that the cause needs. That’s why I invited friends like Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette to accompany me. On another occasion, I yelled my acceptance speech from a Bafta while being led away in handcuffs. My publicist expected me to come back to Los Angeles to see it, but they told me they liked the video in the auditorium.
Every Friday, people from all over the country traveled to join us. Most had never risked arrest before, and many told me they found the experience transformative. But as a famous white woman, I have no illusions that my experience has much in common with that of a black person without the international press in tow. We have to deal with this dire reality if we want to be sure that what we are doing is more than just tourism.
After a number of previous arrests, the police took a firmer line, and so, after the fourth, I ended up spending the night in jail. They put hand and foot shackles and took me to a cell of my own: just me and the cockroaches. Got a mortadella and cheese sandwich on white bread (I happen to like mortadella). They posted an officer outside “for my protection,” which scared me a bit: given the lock, who could they be protecting me from but themselves? I used my sweater and scarf as a pillow, covered myself with the coat, and tried to get some rest. When the officers were booming up and down, making a lot of noise, I summoned all my upper-class lady powers to ask if they could be quiet so I could go to sleep. It made no difference.
The next day was an object lesson in how the state treats you differently depending on your race and position in the world: before I left, I was held with several other women, most of them black, many of whom seemed to need the due care, not imprisonment. I got out, but they didn’t.
I hope my disobedience can be a small contribution to the fight to pressure our governments to make bold and immediate policy changes that end all new fossil fuel development, ensure a just transition for affected workers and communities, and invest in green energy systems to replace them. Hundreds of millions of lives hang in the balance with every half degree of warming that we enable or prevent, and right now world leaders are heading in the opposite direction.
There is much evidence that nonviolent civil disobedience can change the course of history. Think about Boston Tea Party, Gandhi’s Salt March and his role in securing India’s freedom from British colonialism, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Climate activists have spent years soliciting, writing articles and books, exposing officials to tests, generating hundreds of thousands of texts and letters to officials, marching, lobbying – all to no avail.
This is what justifies nonviolent civil disobedience today, and it must be nonviolent if public support is to be secured. Research from the Yale Project on Climate Communication has found that 11% of Americans are alarmed by the climate crisis, but have not campaigned because no one has asked them to. About 10% of Americans age 18 and older are willing to engage in nonviolent disobedience, but they have never been asked to do so either. Well, it’s time to ask. Fire Drill Fridays started with a handful of arrests and ended with hundreds: Since then, we have continued to communicate with virtual fire drills during the pandemic. We had 9 million viewers on all digital platforms in 2020; to the viewers we are educating about the climate and inviting them to action. It is the “Great Dismissal” that must now be mobilized throughout the world.
We’ve all seen documentaries of activists willing to break unjust laws, stand up to police hoses and batons, and wonder what we would do if they put us to the test. Now is our time. This is our moment. We don’t all necessarily have to face the hoses or be arrested, but an unprecedented number of us have to stand up and put relentless pressure on the leaders who will attend next month’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow. We are the last generation that still has the opportunity to force a course change that can save lives and species on a large scale. Remember: the cure for despair is action. And if you can take the risk, who knows who you would inspire?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism