Written by Quinlan Galvin
on Friday, January 10, 2020
Edited by Marc Alvarado
Today I got arrested at the final Fire Drill Friday to be held as a national action in W.D.C.
As I stood on the steps of the capitol, waiting for my turn to be escorted out, I was filled with the joy of singing and sharing and organizing with a community of activists. However, despite the exhilaration of the moment, this wasn’t a choice that I took lightly.
I was glad that Annie Leonard of Greenpeace reminded us that civil disobedience--while it is a hot topic and a bit of a trend right now--is not something new, and is not something to be used willy-nilly. There is a long and deep history of civil disobedience being used as a last-ditch effort for people who have exhausted all other “acceptable” forms of advocacy in their fight to defend themselves and their communities. That was a humbling reminder to hear in a room full of people ready to risk arrest, and I hope it sparked thought and reflection in others the way it did in me.
Before I landed on my decision, I asked myself a series of questions. Firstly, “Will this limit my opportunities as a young person starting my career?” Luckily, this was an easy and quick question to answer. If ever there comes a day when I find shame or regret in the action I took today, then I can confidently say that this hypothetical future version of myself—one content with complacency and complicity in an unjust system—deserves all the friction and adversity that an arrest can garner in the professional world. Truthfully, I don’t think of this hypothetical as any real plausibility, but in case I ever feel regret for my action, please lovingly point me in the direction of this essay and kindly tell me to shut up.
Another relatively simple question to grapple with was, “Who am I doing this for?” Simple answer: everyone, duh. There is some ever-needed nuance to include here, though. The better question might be “How can my *suffering* recenter and uplift the voices of those who are suffering but widely ignored?”
*Suffering is a silly term considering this was the tamest arrest I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure that has NOTHING to do with the fact that the majority of those being arrested were white (sarcasm).
With that question in mind, my immediate thought was of the many rightful indigenous inhabitants of the land that I have come to call home. Indigenous land defense has come into and out of the spotlight throughout the years but their efforts are unceasing and their leadership is strong. The only thing missing is widespread attention and amplification of their voices. Our indigenous leaders have been poisoned by pipelines and forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands, for which they have cared, care, and will care for millennia, and yet they still fight. I will follow their cue in the defense of the earth until I am in it myself.
Further, I hope to amplify those voices for all those whose health and wellness have been impacted by shameless multinational corporations, many of which hail from the U.S. Again, this applies to everyone, but specifically to those who have been evicted from their communities to make room for exploitative mining, drilling, damming, or farming. Considering the work IRTF does, I’m keenly aware of the many instances of this in Latin America; however, following my week with Witness Against Torture, and especially after the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani, it would be foolish if I didn’t mention the presence of Earth-murdering MNC’s in the Middle East.
Which brings me to my next point. I hope to amplify the voices of those who have felt the pain of US economic imperialism and institutionalized Islamophobia under the guise of national security, especially the hundreds of Muslim men who were abducted, imprisoned, tortured and dehumanized at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, of which 40 remain. Their suffering is unnecessary, unwarranted, inhumane, supposedly in opposition to the ethics of those who call themselves “Americans”, but upon further inspection, not at all surprising. The “war on terror” has always had its roots in the desire to control fossil-fuel-resource-rich territory. As long as we maintain these occupations, we will always place importance and investment in fossil fuels; the reverse is also true, as long as we place importance and investments in fossil fuels, we will maintain our position as the oil-obsessed bully to our friends in the Middle East and other fossil fuel-rich countries. A real chicken-and-egg situation, and if you ask me, that is one ugly chicken.
Of course we know that there is no fossil fuel without pollution, and who experiences pollution? Any honest assessment shows that pollution and its largest and most pressing threats disproportionately affects already marginalized and impacted peoples.
In recent years we have seen the term “environmental racism” enter mainstream discourse, and I am glad for it. This concept connects oppressed communities—namely communities of color, but I hope I am not inappropriate or off base in extending this to include those who are working class and low income, rural, from the “global south,” and those who are otherwise relegated to the margins of society—to the industries which pollute the air, land, and water. Far smarter people have explained it far better than I will but basically, those who hold the power in this system are predominantly old, rich, white men who have buddies on the boards and in the pockets of huge (and hugely polluting) corporations. If you were them, would you put one of those factories by your own neighborhood or that of your mom, dad, aunt, uncle, sibling, golf buddy, or big campaign contributor? My guess is no, and evidence supports that.
Further, those in the global south are not only facing pollution but also its effects: rising sea levels, marine life destruction through acidification, drought, and natural disasters increasing at alarming rates.
Lastly, I did this because the earth herself is screaming and we are not listening. She will likely persist after our destruction but must we wait until our own extinction—as well as that of countless species of plants and animals—is imminent? I hope my answer to that question is clear and I hope you share it with me.
The next question was admittedly harder to juggle as time drew closer and closer to the infamous third and final warning of arrest; “What statement will be made if I personally risk arrest?” And by this I was asking myself, is this the time for me to step up or to step back?
On one hand, being a cis-gendered white person of middle-class background who has never felt religious persecution or very much discrimination in general—excluding the sweet, sweet run-of-the-mill sexism which is ever-present in our patriarchal world—I would think that it’s high time that far more impacted and far less highlighted voices got to ring above all others. So should I step back?
On the other hand, in the wide world of adversity faced by those who look different from me, what sane person would tell them to voluntarily submit themselves to the US carceral state? White folks have to do significantly more to end up as “criminals” in the eyes of the police, and then once we ARE in contact with the police, we are automatically deemed less threatening and given far greater latitude with what we can say and do; the same act performed by a white person versus a person of color can and does have infinitely different repercussions--often accommodation for the former and police brutality for the latter. So again, what sane person would tell them to voluntarily submit themselves to the US carceral state?
And so, even though I am a person who both gladly and begrudgingly enjoys many privileges in life and has additionally enjoyed the privilege of being well heard in the current system, I still find that my place is to step up--because my privilege both protects and enables me--in order for others to stay safe and alive to continue leading the movement.
If reading this exhausted you, I get it. The world extends this chellenge to us everyday: to exhaust ourselves in thought as often as we can. The absence of thought usually signals some amount of unchecked privilege, and we can do better than that. Now let's go listen to our neighbors.
p.s. yes, that IS Jane Fonda's autograph on my arrest slip
*Daniel Berrigan would describe my arrest as a "yogurt arrest" because it went down so easy.