(a very different version of this piece first appeared in the Providence Phoenix here)
By ABEL COLLINS/ 8.7.2013 - I walk into the Coffee Depot on Main St. in Warren at 7:30am on Sunday to meet up with Sherrie’Anne Andre and Nick Katkevich, members of the grassroots movement Fossil Free RI. With a little caffeine for courage we’ll soon be driving to a park and ride lot in nearby Somerset to rendezvous with more than a hundred other activists and be herded onto school buses that will take us where we’ll protest to shut down the Brayton Point power plant. First though Sherrie has to run to the bank to withdraw money to pay for her bail. She is going to get arrested today.
Nick tells her she’ll need about $250. He should know after being arrested a month ago in Connecticut for protesting UBS’ support of mountaintop removal mining (MTR) operations. Rather than going to jail this time and complicating the legal process in Connecticut, Nick will be live tweeting the protest and supporting Sherrie and the other Fossil Free RI members who are going. Sherrie and Nick are emblematic of the climate justice movement, bolder and wired into the social media that have turned into the lifeblood of modern social movements.
In total, the protest will draw around 500 people from around New England, and I tally about 30 I know from Rhode Island, three of whom are among the 45 that will be arrested. Why should Rhode Islanders or people from Maine for that matter show up to get arrested and raise a ruckus to close down a power plant in Somerset?
Nick as a native of Bristol and Sherrie as a resident of Warren have abundant reasons. Their communities live in the shadow of the plant, and the toxins that come out of Brayton Point have visible public health impacts there on a day to day basis. Strangely though, it’s the much less visible and more general threat of global warming that motivates them to take action. Expressing the urgency she feels, Sherrie says “we don’t even have time to worry about the future. We’re already starting to see effects. We need to act now.”
As it turns out, the Brayton Point plant, which is mainly coal fired, is the biggest power plant and therefore the single largest emitter of carbon pollution in the Northeast, and most of the people at the Ed O’Neil playground where we sit in the shade are here to raise awareness of the dire need to stop burning coal and slow the burning of all fossil fuels.
It’s Chuck Nelson, a retired coal miner from West Virginia, who finally points out the local interest, rapping off statistics from the Center for Disease Control saying “I’m here for the health and safety of the people of the community here. 23,000 people are killed and 640,000 are born with birth defects annually due to the mercury from coal; not maybe, they will be.”
Then there is that matter of coal mining itself. Some of the protesters would undoubtedly be out here regardless of the carbon emissions, because MTR is destroying Appalachia. Nelson views it as “a human rights violation, almost like genocide, coal mines buying up everything and forcing people off their land. 500 mountains are gone and communities are vanishing with them. People are just collateral damage, but we don’t want to be collateral damage. We were here before coal was discovered.”
The climate justice movement and the environmental movement more broadly is an odd one. The planet and its besieged ecosystems cannot speak for itself. There are no built in advocates, and so a strange amalgamation of people come forward in defense. Sherrie a 24 year old of Latina and Asian American descent is arrested side by side with Fred Caswell a White 86 year young resident of Middletown.
Missa Weiss who brings her daughter Leilani, the youngest protester at a mere five months, plus her four other children captures one common sentiment. “We borrow the planet from our kids, and we have to give it back.” Many of the arrestees likewise speak of a moral obligation to their children and grandchildren.
To a one, all the folks I approach are concerned that justice not only be done for the planet but for the 400 or so people whose livelihood is tied to the Plant. Camilo Viveiros a longtime labor organizer who grew up in Somerset and helped organize the protest is “pushing for real long-term solutions for Somerset residents, solutions that will offer our town a stable economy versus a dying and dirty industry.” An organizer of the local United Electrical Workers union which supports the closure of the plant gets up and preaches passionately about the potential for a just transition for the workforce as if to echo Viveiros and others I talk to in the crowd.
Will this growing motley crew of activists succeed in fighting the fossil fuel industry where politicians have so disastrously failed? Will the civil disobedience and resulting arrests change anything?
I ask Sherrie if she’ll risk arrest again or if it’s a one-time thing. “Yes,” she says smiling and pointing to a book that she picked up from the floor of Nick’s car “like Gandhi said: ‘disobedience with love is like the living water of life.’ More people should be here. We should all be here.”
By 1:30 we are gone. The Brayton Point power plant is still running, steam rising from one of the two monstrous cooling towers that blight the head of Narragansett Bay. The playground sits quietly in its menacing presence. Sherrie and forty-four of my brothers and sisters in the environmental movement have been taken off to jail. I know the rally, the chants and banners, the marching, and the arrests are working. Thanks to the work of Nick and his ken, word is rippling out over the twitterverse and the debate is surely being taken up on Facebook. It'll even be on the news. At 1:30pm on Sunday, July 28th, my fingers are crossed that it's not already too late.