Everyone was buzzing. It was finally Friday night, and I was sitting among a relieved and excited group of friends in Lower. We had made it to the eve of Spring Break, and now we were going to be able to put the semester on pause for a week or so. We went around the table, each girl sharing what her plans for break were. An Appalachia service trip, a family vacation in Florida, etc. My turn inevitably came, and I was met with quizzical eyes, seeing that I was sitting there with my duffle bag and polka-dotted pillow at my side.
As I told my friends about my trip down to Washington, D.C., with other members of BC Fossil Free and over 1,000 other college students to the XL Dissent action, my phone rang. My mother was calling to wish me a safe bus ride down to the capital. “Don’t get arrested!” she joked. And I assured her that it wasn’t part of my plans. It wasn’t. She also asked me what exactly I was going to D.C. to protest, so I gave her a few websites to look at. She called me back not too much later. “Get arrested if you want, Erin. I’ll give you the bail money.”
My mother has always been supportive of me and has always trusted my judgement. Sometimes she surprises me.
That night we boarded a bus in Harvard Square, and a short 11-hour journey later, we pulled up to the Thurgood Marshall Center in D.C. It was my first trip to D.C. (I missed the eighth grade field trip), and that on top of the tiredness and nervousness left me quite disoriented.
Fast forward to 5:00 pm Saturday. After a day of exploring D.C., it was time for “Mandatory Civil Disobedience Training,” where everyone planning on attending the protest on Sunday would learn the agenda for the day and have a chance to consult a lawyer who came to answer questions regarding arrests. By the time the training was over, my mind was made up. Throughout the day I leaned more and more towards risking arrest; “I’m 50% sure I want to” turned into “I’m 75% sure I’m going to,” which ultimately led to me kneeling on the floor scribbling my emergency info on a crumpled sheet for the lawyer to have–you know, just in case something went wrong. I was committed.
Fast forward to Sunday morning. It was pandemonium at Georgetown University as all of the members of our group tried to meet up before the pre-march rally. At that point, I was more nervous about finding my BCFF friends than about getting arrested. We eventually found each other. After some impassioned speeches and the distribution of signs, props and zip ties, the march began.
And wouldn’t you know–protesting was actually loads of fun! We marched from Georgetown to the White House lawn, along the way chanting a bunch of savvy rhymes (“Hey Obama, we don’t want no climate drama!” “1700 miles of pipe, 1700 miles we’ll fight” and “the people are rising, no more compromising!” are some examples.) The solidarity was palpable, and I was proud to be part of the spectacle. Over a thousand students my age all shared the same dream as me during that march. For someone who has seen the other side of the coin (namely many students at BC who seem to be apathetic to any climate issues), it was incredibly validating.
Eventually the march ended, and there we were before the White House. It was time for another rally and more speeches. To be honest, I mostly just wanted to skip right to the arrest part, I was so anxious! But, on the other hand, the speeches I heard reminded me that this whole trip of mine was more than a personal rite of passage, more than a weekend I could brag about afterwards. I listened to 13- and 14-year old girls talk about the struggles they’ve faced in fighting the pipeline and how they feared for their futures. I saw a man hold up a chunk of tar sands and he told me a story of 3 old women from Michigan who were incarcerated for protesting the invasion of the pipeline into their backyards. I heard a very shy Native American man talk about the devastation the proposed building plans have brought to his community, and how they are willing to give their lives to stop it.
Keystone XL isn’t just a pipeline. It’s a symbol that our generation cares more about a dwindling industry–an industry that is destroying our planet–than it does about our youth and our posterity who have to inherit it. It’s a symbol of us writing a check that our children will have to cash. A balance that will be paid by the inhabitants of the regions where the pipeline will be. These people will have their property taken, their air quality sacrificed, and their water supplies contaminated. They’ll be the most immediately affected, yes, but eventually we will all feel the consequences of the innumerable tons of greenhouse gases that the Keystone XL Pipeline will allow us to emit.
But I digress. Once the speeches ended, we ran towards the White House fence. The six of us BC folks risking arrest ran up to the fence and strapped ourselves on in a mad rush of adrenaline. Hundreds of others did the same; some demonstrators sprawled out on top of a black tarp (our makeshift “oil spill,”) while others ran back and forth leading more chants. Those who didn’t risk arrest stood outside the “arrestable” area–10 yards on each side of the center view of the White House–and cheered us on. It was an electric atmosphere. Paradoxically enough, once I was hitched to the black fence, paint chipping on my wrist, I could finally calm down. There was absolutely no way to turn back now, and I felt damn good about it.
An hour and five police warnings later, the arrests began. The crowds cheered as the first demonstrators were cuffed and walked towards a white tent to be processed before the bus ride to the Anacostia jail. Girls were taken first, for some reason. As such, I was early on in the process. I will always remember locking eyes with one of the park police as he walked towards the crowd with a pair of black cuffs in his hand. I gave him a “welp, it’s my turn” look as he approached. I was student number 76 of 398 arrested, and I was thankful to go early as it had gotten cold out and I was freezing. When I had to hold that number 76 up in front of a camera for my mug shot, I did so with pride. (I almost smiled at the camera, but thought it would be in bad taste.)
Next I was loaded onto a big white bus with a bunch of other college girls, all giggly with our arms cuffed behind us. We were brought to the jail and processed quickly by rather friendly policemen. The real struggle came once I was released. With nothing on me except my driver’s license–no phone, no wallet, not even my jacket, I had to find my way back to St. Stephen’s Church, our meeting place. Luckily, I made quick friends with some fellow arrestees from MIT and we walked to the Metro together. Once we got to the station, we met up with more students just as confused as we were, and a kind stranger paid for my subway fare back.
At that moment that I actually felt the gravity of what I had done. Cold and wet from the rainy walk, hungry since it was around 5:00 pm and I hadn’t eaten since 9:00 am, in an unfamiliar city with no money and no way of contacting anybody, and depending on strangers for directions, I was completely vulnerable. It was a valuable lesson in just how comfortable my life is otherwise. We forget the fears that we are lucky enough to live without in our daily lives.
Eventually, thank goodness, we made it back to the church. Then the waiting began. My new friend Maggie and I got there around 5:30, and sat in wait for both our arrested friends and our non-arrested friends to return, the latter group with all of our belongings. By 8:30 just about everyone was back, and after a temporary snow scare, we were scurrying back onto the bus that drove us down.
I couldn’t sleep at all on that 9-hour ride back. My mind was so full of the events of the last 72 hours that reflection was pretty much involuntary. On the personal, more selfish side, I had just gotten more life out of a few days than I usually get out of a month at school. I finally proved that I care about the environment, instead of just saying so. The empowerment I felt was addictive. On a larger scale, I had participated in a remarkable and hopefully historical event, one that could possibly change the outcome of a presidential decision and therefore change America’s climate legacy.
This week at home, some of my younger cousins heard of my arrest and got upset. Doesn’t this whole episode go on my record? Am I rendered unemployable? Aren’t I worried about my future, my family asks? Damn right I’m worried about my future. I’m only 19 years old, and the rest of my life depends on climate stability and the preservation of the planet. That’s exactly why I had to do what I did. I’ll still be able to go to graduate school, I won’t lose any scholarships, and any job that won’t hire me because of a civil disobedience infraction is not a job I want to have.
When you’ve read all of the climate change statistics, it’s hard to be optimistic. But no matter what, I’ll be spending my future engaged in the climate fight, the most important fight humanity has ever faced. Whether it’s marching in another protest, or writing my physics Ph.D. thesis on green energy and alternative technology, or even getting arrested again, you can bet I’ll be fighting.