Risking Arrest: a mother’s path

The following is a post written by Vanessa Rule, a community leader, climate activist, and mother from Somerville, Massachusetts.

Monday, April 18th, 2011 by Vanessa Rule

The PowerShift march on April 18th in Washington, D.C, was the culmination of an incredible three days of power building to save our planet.  It all started with a glorious Monday morning, blue skies, green helmets, smiles and “heys!”, the White House to our backs.  We got ready as veteran leaders told their stories of self.  We chanted about the youth uprising and abolishing the fossil fuel culture of death, about climate justice, and then began to walk.

 First stop, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with its big colorful and proud banners, a letter to on each one, outlining the word J O B S, promising American innovation and freedom.   You’d have believed them if you hadn’t known.  The giant paper maché puppets we brought unmasked them though: grinning grotesque caricatures with big heads, and all the right numbers denouncing their financial crimes.  It was all theatrics, and a few of the building’s employees came out to watch as I held up my sign “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA” and stared into their eyes and shouted out with all my might “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t speak for me!”

Next, the sinister and glassy BP headquarters building – again a few heads peering out from behind the blinds, trying to hide, but curious and worried — the way Louis the XVI might have when Parisians stormed the Bastille asking for his head.  Did they hear our anger, did they hear that their time is up?

Then onto coal, at the Corporate Headquarters of GenOn, that owns the Potomac River plant built during the Truman administration fired by Appalachian mountain top removal coal.  We learned last night, holding a candle light vigil at the plant, that this monster – which sits in the midst of a residential neighborhood in Alexandria and has been making people sick and killing them for years – runs at 18% capacity.  Ever played Sim City?  Even in that game, that’s bad news.  So in front at the Genon HQ’s we called for GenOFF and laid our bodies down and traced dead bodies on the ground.

The walk went on.  We got some cheers from passersby, but mostly, people looked at us like they’d never seen people speak up before – we shouted: “This is what democracy looks like!”  We walked proudly, we chanted so hard we lost our voices, we smiled at the strangers among us feeling the deep bond of solidarity, true brothers and sister – happy to have each other and be together.

Three hours later, back at LaFayette Park – a DJ was rappin’ away and I started dancin’.  Then the word came that Peaceful Uprising’s march was going to begin – Tim DeChristopher took the mike, and called on us to join, and warned: “This march hasn’t been permitted, and some of you may risk arrest, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, you can just support those who do.”

I started walking with the crowd, behind the front banner – the time had come.  Forget my 4:00pm train to New York.  My children, these children, we, are facing no future, unless I act NOW.  We locked arms with each other and quietly sang “we shall overcome” knowing we were entering new territory, feeling the nerves in the belly, but resolved to do what needed to be done.   We walked and sang, not knowing where we were going or what we were about to do.

And then, it was clear.  No signal, no word, but standing in front of the U.S. Department of the Interior, a wave of people furiously climbed the stairs and I ran up with them.  We pushed our way through the doors, passed through the guards, and quickly sat down on the cold marble floor and locked arms.  The guards and staff looked stunned.  The shouts and chants were deafening.  Seventy angry but peaceful and loving humans calling for the end of mountaintop removal, tar sands pipelines, natural gas fracking, and deep oil drilling, asked to speak to Secretary Salazar – two days after President Obama told a group of students to push him.  We’re pushing Mr. President!

We sat and vowed not to move. I sat in the front row – I guess I got there pretty quick, not wanting to be left out.   A police chief (he had lots of badges) started to speak, and we shouted him down, several times, until a fellow protester became his spokesperson.  The word: we were allowed to protest, OUTSIDE.  If we stayed inside, we’d be arrested.  A chorus rose: “Arrest all of us!!!!”  Back and forth, singing, chanting, the police and the government employees unsure what to do.  They whispered conversations, called their higher ups, shook their heads.  One even told us he was on our side, but that we had to go outside.  And seventy bodies, close together, mostly youth, some elders and a few middle-aged folks sat, resolved to not let our government destroy us by being peaceful and ready to go to jail.

A second warning: the police officers, stone-faced, stripped on their blue latex gloves, at the ready.  I knew I had to stay.  I made eye contact, as much as they’d let me, with the government employees.  One held my stare for a few seconds, trying to understand, I think.  The group sat for an hour, feeling the civil right’s movement at our back, part of a continuum, singing the same songs from 40 years back.  Looking into the stoic faces of all African-American police officers, who were hearing the songs of black liberation in the US, now being sung by today’s youth fighting for their future and their freedom — youth they might have to arrest.

A third warning comes.  My blood sugar’s really low, no food since this morning and much energy spent shouting, singing, marching, loving, and now resolved to go to jail.  Waiting for it, making them arrest us.  Racing thoughts: Will I be allowed to bring my medication with me?  When will I next eat?  How will this work?  Who will bail me out? What will the cell look like?  Will they be gentle?

I will go limp when they grab me, just like our predecessors who’ve carved this path and showed us how to do non-violent civil disobedience, and win.   They will have to carry me out — I worry that my bottle of pills will fall out of my pocket, bracing myself for a potentially hellish night.  I haven’t gone to the bathroom all day.  I have my period.  Discomfort, but a small sacrifice to pay for fighting for my children’s lives, I try to calm myself and stay steady.

“Do you have a jail support number?”, the woman to my right, holding my sweaty hand, asks?  What’s that?  She’s got hers written on her leg, in big black numbers.  I ask for a pen, and copy hers down on my left calf muscle.  Trying to do all this as fast as possible so not to break the human solidarity chain for too long.  Racing to text people know that I am about to be arrested.  I will miss my train.  I will spend at least one night in jail.  Will I?

Third warning: this is federal property, you will be charged with felony.  Get ready for arrest.  We don’t have enough paddies, so we’ll probably be taken three at a time, and the processing could last at least a day.  My children – Tim DeChristopher’s inspiration – jail time?  How long?  My children.  How long can I leave them.  The cops are using scare tactics, I suspect, and if I give in, I’m a softy.  If I leave, how will I be able to look my children in the eyes and say I did everything I could to prevent their lives from being destroyed?

Yet I stand up – letting go of the arm of the sister to my right, whose elbow I’ve been squeezing for the last hour.   I look at her in the eyes and know I’m letting her down.  “I have children,” I say.  “So do I”, she answers, her eyes brimming with tears, and she stays.  I leave, walk out and hear the cheers and the thank-yous from the crowd outside.  I don’t look up.  I feel ashamed.  I hear the crowd and think: “I only was in there a little longer than most of you.”  I caved in. I have let those still inside down.  Fear won.  They won.  This time.  Now, I know how to get ready for the fight.

How to support those who were arrested:


9 Responses to “Risking Arrest: a mother’s path”

  1. 1 christine Apr 19th, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Nothing to be ashamed of – THANK YOU for doing what you could – what you can. I was not even THERE <3 We each can do what we can and do it with LOVE is the most important way otherwise we need not do it at all. THANK YOU AGAIN

  2. 2 Nicole Apr 19th, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Thank you for doing what you could.
    I was there too. We were there. We didn’t know where we were going either, nor what specifically the Department of the Interior was being stormed for (everything, really). Several students from St. Lawrence University, where I attend, stayed as long as they could. But obviously we had to leave– no one had the transportation, money or resources to be arrested, and I think they felt the same shame and regret as you. But as one of our leading organizers put it, “You have to do what’s best for you as an individual in that moment for the movement.”

    I think we still proved to them what democracy looks like. Thank you so much, I’m proud to have shared this experience with you.

  3. 3 Nicole Apr 19th, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    I was there too. Thank you for doing what you could.

  4. 4 John Deans Apr 21st, 2011 at 10:56 am


    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You were incredibly brave and committed and I hope you never feel bad again about doing what you think is right for this movement and for your family. Your decision to get up after several warnings is just as admirable as those that stayed and were arrested. It was the right decision because it was the right decision for you and what you thought was right for your kids. This movement will not flourish and win the victories we need if people feel for a second ashamed even as they are demonstrating courage in the face of injustice. I can also tell from your writing that you are going to do all you can going forward.

    We need you, whatever you can give. Some will risk arrest, but just as important are those who are there to support, or there to communicate the issues to the wider world, those who will organize, those who will communicate with decision makers, those who will tell their skeptical family that this is about justice, those who will be inspired to take their first step in this movement – no matter how small.

    Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story and I hope that you never feel ashamed again for doing what is right.


  5. 5 Matt Osborne Apr 22nd, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Did anyone capture this moment on camera? Because the greatest thing you *might* have done is not to get arrested, but to capture your friends *being* arrested. I’ve covered two civil disobedience actions in DC, and just watching the video now STILL moves me to tears.

  6. 6 kelly Apr 22nd, 2011 at 8:43 am

    those are my videos–this essay really gets at one of my biggest concerns, and yes, it’s about race issues.
    i left moments before arrests as well, because i had already paid a round-trip ticket and couldn’t afford to get myself back to chicago. my bus was leaving at 4 from the glenmont metro station. i ran to the nearest train station, and there was a high school girl running too. she had been inside, and left because she didn’t believe her parents would come from michigan to get her out of jail. we both felt remorse, some cowardice for leaving.
    two of my friends that were inside for a good amount of time left earlier–they were two of the “chicago 6″ that climbed a mountain of coal with a banner that said “close chicago’s toxic coal plants.” that was wednesday. thursday, a circus of a hearing happened–and what could have been a committee vote on a “clean power ordinance” was tabled. despite having enough “committed” aldermen, there were hardly enough to call a vote. a real downer, coming out of powershift and these direct actions.

    i don’t know the point of this comment. just that maybe, in some places, it really must get to the point where federal troops might be sent in. (dechristopher’s point) today, mayor daley is going to celebrate his green legacy–his big ole greenwash legacy. and i am going to stay at home and let my throat recover. i have been yelling too much lately.

  7. 7 Vanessa Rule Apr 22nd, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Thanks John. I agree we all need to bring as much as we can of our true selves to this movement. I think if everybody did this, we’d have a good shot at turning this thing around. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and moving ahead by doing the best you can and knowing everyone one else is doing the same, is what gives me hope. That happened at PowerShift. It was magical.
    Keep up the good fight. — Vanessa

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About Craig

Craig Altemose is the founder and Executive Director of Better Future Project, which engages in movement-building to make communities more resilient and to accelerate a rapid and responsible transition away from fossil fuels. Currently, he serves on the Massachusetts Green Economy and Climate Protection Advisory Committee and on the board of the Mass Climate Action Network. Craig founded and led Students for a Just and Stable Future (MA's state network). He has previously served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Co-Chair of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies, worked with Energy Action as an intern and a fellow, and served on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Student Coalition, a group he remains active with. Craig helped plan Power Shift 2007, and was the Lead Organizer of the Massachusetts Power Shift conference in April, 2008. He holds a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School, a Master in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a B.A. in International Relations and Global Affairs from Eckerd College.

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