The author recounts his two nights in a D.C. jail following his arrest after a display of civil disobedience.
Oil and Honey (Time Books, 2013) is a timely call for environmental awareness as we face the reality of global climate change. Bill McKibben, founder of the organization 350.org, was one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming. The excerpt—taken from "Storms," the second chapter—chronicles the early stages of the Keystone XL pipeline protest. The author was one of protesters jailed early in the event, but even he could not have predicted the outcome of the protests: more than 1,200 arrested in the largest display of civil disobedience in thirty years.
We weren’t really planning to actually go to jail.
Our advance team had been on the ground in Washington for three weeks. It turns out that in a market society there are people equipped to fill every need, including organizing civil disobedience. The crew we’d found, and who would soon become close colleagues, was headed by Matt Leonard. With his shaved head and earring, he bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Clean. But he was more like Mr. Calm; in what became a rapidly mounting storm he never lost his cool. His posse included Rae Breaux, Linda Capato, Duncan Meisel, and Josh Kahn Russell, each the veteran of many such actions.
But because of that history, they were pretty sure only a small number of people would turn up—it had been at least thirty years since people had been hauled away in the thousands. (That had occurred during protests at the Rocky Flats nuclear test site in the Western desert.) Matt kept saying that we’d be fine with five or ten arrestees a day over our two-week protest; even as the number of people signing up kept mounting, he cautioned that many would melt away. The D.C. police must have felt the same way, because it was next to impossible to get their attention—our team was bounced from one sergeant to another, and none seemed to take the whole thing very seriously. I began to worry they’d just let us sit there, that we wouldn’t get arrested at all.
We’d told each daily wave of potential arrestees to gather the night before at a Washington church for training. So it wasn’t until five p.m. on Friday, August 19, 2011, when we convened the first of these sessions at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, that we got to find out if anyone would really show. People started streaming in early; soon there were more than eighty people planning to risk arrest the next day, which was more than we’d anticipated—many more. We practiced for an hour, walking in columns down the center aisle and fanning out in front of the altar as if it were the White House lawn. A procession of lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild answered questions (“What if I have a green card?” “Will they take my medicine?”) and assured us that the routine for arrests was well established. We’d sit down on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House in a fifty-yard zone called the “postcard window” reserved for people taking snapshots. The police would handcuff us, load us in paddy wagons, drive us to the police station, process us, fine us a hundred dollars apiece, and release us that afternoon: we even handed out slips of paper with subway directions from the police station back to the airports and train stations, because most people were planning to travel home that evening.
But it turned out that the police were not as pleased by our turnout as we were. When we arrived the next morning at Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, there were a scattering of police cars—but as the crowd swelled, more and more cops kept arriving, too. And though the rest of us didn’t know it at the time, an angry lieutenant was giving Matt the first indication that the arrests might be anything but routine.
I made a short speech through a bullhorn, and then, as we’d practiced the night before, we walked toward the White House, spreading out into a long line three deep, with our banner at the center. We sat on the sidewalk, the president’s front porch behind us, and then we waited. People tried a few chants, but they didn’t fit the mood, which seemed solemn, but also joyful. To me at least it felt like I was finally taking action on a scale that began to match the scale of the problem—that if the planet was at stake, handcuffs made more sense than lightbulbs. I was grinning, I think.
Three times a police officer read out an order to leave: “Attention. This is Lieutenant Phelps of the U.S. Park Police. Because of violations of park laws and regulations applicable to this area, your permit to demonstrate on the White House sidewalk has been revoked by the ranking supervisory U.S. Park Police official in charge. Due to these violations the sidewalk is closed. All persons remaining on the closed portion of the White House sidewalk will be arrested. This is your third warning.” With that, they closed metal barricades around us, shooed away the onlookers and camera crews, and began arresting us, one by one. It took a long time (which, as it turned out, would be the basic operating principle for the next few days). Beginning with the women, officers in full body armor hauled us one by one to our feet, cuffed our hands behind our backs, and then led us to a small tent, where they photographed us and gave us each a number. From there we were escorted to the back of a paddy wagon, which was stifling hot and claustrophobic once it filled with the requisite ten bodies. And from there we took a ten-minute drive to the U.S. Park Police station in Anacostia.
We sat on the ground outside the station for an hour or two, hands still cuffed behind our backs—after a while, it’s painful. And then, one by one, we were led inside, where an officer emptied our pockets and wrote out in laborious longhand a receipt for each of us. (The Park Police seem not to have been informed about the advent of the digital age—I did see a couple of IBM Selectrics on a desk, but they were unplugged. It was pure Bic and carbon paper for us.) That’s when my wedding ring went, along with my ID, my hundred dollars, my belt, my shoelaces, and my necktie. But I really only cared about the wedding ring—it’s amazing how much you suddenly miss something that normally you don’t even know you’re wearing.
“Why are you taking it?” I asked.
“Because where we’re sending you they’ll cut your finger off to get it,” one cop explained.
That was a pretty good clue, but we still didn’t fully understand we were headed for jail. The lawyers had been so sure it would be just a matter of hours before we’d be released back out into the sweltering Washington afternoon—everyone still had their slips of paper with the directions to the airport. But as the afternoon dragged on, the police broke us into groups of ten or fifteen and ushered us into small holding cells, small enough that only one or two could sit on the floor at a time while the rest stood around them. (There was a stainless steel toilet in each cell, too, and it took a while before we overcame our reluctance to use it while surrounded by a dozen others.) We stood for hours, and it gradually began to dawn on us that we were not, in fact, going anywhere soon. They let us out one at a time to make our single phone calls, just like in the movies—I called our support team working out of a borrowed office in D.C. and learned the bad news: we were almost certainly going to be held overnight, and probably the next night, too. The police had told Matt they didn’t want to deal with two weeks of demonstrations of this size, so they were upping the price to try to deter those planning to come.
This scared me—not the jail part (well, a little), but the deterrence part. What if it worked? I mean, we’d been telling people that the most likely outcome was a few hours in a police station, not a few days in jail. Would the protest just fizzle now? I asked our communications coordinator, Jamie Henn, if he could spread around a one-sentence message: “We don’t need sympathy; we need company.” And that was the last message I’d manage to get out for the duration.
I’d spent all summer plotting to get us arrested, so there was no point in complaining. About ten o’clock that Saturday night they loaded us back into the paddy wagon and took us to D.C.’s Central Cell Block. They put me in a holding room and shackled my ankle to a bolt in the floor, then fingerprinted me and led me to a cell: a small steel cage with two steel bunks and a steel toilet/sink. There are, one hears, “country club prisons,” but not, I think, country club jails—this one lacked mattresses, pillows, even sheets. Just stainless steel. My cell mate—Curt, a real estate salesman and blogger from Louisville, Kentucky, who had driven east for the protest—was on the upper bunk, a much tougher spot since the light shone all night in his face. We chatted, and we talked through the bars to find out who was nearby: Gus Speth, one of the great heroes of the environmental movement, was in the next cell; Jim Antal, conference minister for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts, was a few doors down; next to him was Chris Shaw, one of my oldest hiking and paddling and writing friends from the woods of home. There were about sixty of us in all—the women had been taken somewhere else; no one knew where. Everyone seemed mildly amazed to be there, but no one was too freaked out, or at least they weren’t saying so. I tucked my shoes under my head for a pillow, did my best to sleep, and failed.
My mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages to get to the media. The oddest, most disconcerting thing about jail was being cut off from the flow of information, silenced. But it was also liberating—I’d spent the past two months in overdrive, endless conference calls, obsessing over messaging and framing, and . . . now I couldn’t do anything. For the moment my only use was as one of a few dozen symbols, sitting behind bars. I couldn’t help with what were clearly going to be crucial decisions: most important, if another wave of people showed up for the evening training, would we send them out to the White House knowing now that it might mean jail? The rest of the crew would have to figure it all out. I could relax, in a way I hadn’t for weeks, and wouldn’t for months to come. My body was uncomfortable—there really is no way to curl up on a steel slab that doesn’t leave you bruised—but my mind was oddly at ease.
No one had a watch, and when we asked the guards what time it was they enjoyed messing with us, giving answers hours apart. As far as we could tell, mealtimes were about three a.m. and three p.m., when someone shuffled down the hall handing out a bologna sandwich and filling your cup with a few inches of water if you held it out between the bars. (“Feeding time at the zoo,” the guard would shout.) Eventually Saturday’s adrenaline fully drained away, and I was tired, though falling asleep on steel was tough. After a while I woke up, sure that it was Sunday morning. Since I was feeling at least a little guilty (this was, after all, my idea), I was doing my best to keep people’s spirits up. I knew there weren’t that many churchgoers on hand, but people seemed to enjoy singing the old civil rights call-and-response hymn “Certainly Lord.” (“Have you been to the jailhouse? Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord.”) I asked Gus Speth to shout out a half-hour synopsis of his next book to the whole cell block, and when that was done—well, not much.
The guards had laughed when we asked them if we could see our lawyer. “Not on the weekend,” one explained, which isn’t exactly what the Constitution specifies, I think. So we had no idea of what they were charging us with, nor any way of knowing what was going on outside.
Reprinted with permission from Oil and Honey: The Education of An Unlikely Activist by Bill McKibben and published by Times Books, 2013.