On May 10, a dozen of us passed through security to the Statehouse in Boston, intentionally spaced several minutes apart and dressed differently, from casual tourist to summer intern to suit-and-tie lobbyist (me). We waited separately in twos and threes at various benches on the third floor until the entrance was opened to the visitors gallery overlooking the rather grand House chamber and we could take seats there. Then, with a signal from the “action lead”, we began our attempt to disrupt a joint session of the House and Senate that had just begun: we stood up, tried to hang a banner from the balcony that read “NO NEW FOSSIL FUEL INFRASTRUCTURE”, and chanted loudly. Our “good trouble” had begun.
This action had been planned by the Boston chapter of Extinction Rebellion (“XR”). Like 350 Mass, XR Boston’s mission focuses on addressing the climate crisis, Unlike 350 Mass, XR abjures traditional advocacy such as lobbying state legislators, and instead focuses entirely on attention-getting “direct actions”. These typically aim to shift the public perception of the climate crisis - its urgency and what should be done about it. The recent Statehouse action was the latest in a series for XR’s “No new fossil fuel infrastructure” campaign.
The action did not end up following its script, but nevertheless turned out better than planned. Local security guards swooped in and prevented the banner-deployers from fully hanging the banner. The joint session we aimed to disrupt turned out to be only a thinly-attended mere technicality, which was over in a few minutes before we could really disrupt it. Therefore, although we had expected to get arrested promptly to prevent further disruption, the guards and police decided to just contain us and wait us out. We had not expected that, so had not brought food, water, or adult diapers.
Nevertheless, most of us who had planned to risk arrest were able to stick it out until the arrests began about six hours later, at the building’s closing time. That delay created a different kind of drama. While still bottled up, we connected via Zoom with a Channel 5 reporter, so TV viewers got to see and hear a full articulation of the campaign’s demands, explained clearly and powerfully by our action lead. News crews also showed the arrestees being marched out, some still singing. Now that’s good TV!
We acolytes of Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, know he has long argued that the big changes that are necessary to address the climate crisis will come only once there is a sufficient change in the “zeitgeist” (roughly meaning, the spirit of the time). I believe that direct actions are an important part of accomplishing that change in public consciousness - not only about how quickly we must act, but also how boldly. (Google “Overton window”, for part of this theory.)
Of course, while some people focus on that, some also need to do the related work of communicating actionable demands to state and local government officials - as well as other actions to draw more people into climate-change work. I like being a part of 350 Mass partly because I feel well-suited to traditional advocacy methods (meeting with officials, etc.). I like how 350 Mass provides ways to act in that way, as well as other ways, such as Climate Courage for direct actions, the letters-to-editor team, etc.)
However, I have been surprised to find out how much I also like participating in direct actions about the climate crisis that include non-violent civil disobedience (“NVCD”). Although not done under the banner of 350 Mass, they can be very fun, creative, exciting, cathartic, and satisfying. Note that even such actions that involve some risk of arrest also include many important roles that do not risk arrest – such action planning, media liaison, photographer, social media, marshall, police liaison, and jail support) – so there’s something for every talent and interest.
I hope that sharing the details of a recent experience makes the option of direct action easier to visualize and feel more available to people who haven’t tried it. To learn more, look for training sessions on direct action, available here and elsewhere.
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