On Monday, April 9, three Maryland students were arrested in front of the Annapolis State House in support of offshore wind. (There will be a post with more about the whole campaign coming later). They agreed to share their stories about their decision to risk arrest, the consequences of civil disobedience, and how civil disobedience as a tactic fits into campaigns as a whole. Below are excerpts from our interview, for which they graciously took time out of their crazy schedules.
[Photo: University of Maryland student Sam Rivers is arrested at the Annapolis State House © Aaron Davis, Washington Post]
I’ve included everything in order so that readers can see the trajectory of the conversation, but the best parts of the interview are at the end and if you don’t have much time I encourage you to check out the last few sections first.
What sort of planning went into this action?
Ashok: From the St. Mary's end, on Sunday at like 5 o'clock I got a call from Megan Jenny, who's the CCAN campus organizer…she said it was going to be a somewhat organized protest because the wind bill wasn’t going to get voted on this session, it wasn’t going to happen.
Sam: I got a call and she asked me about the idea…I agreed immediately. She said they were behind us all the way.
Did you have any training in preparation?
Johanna: We were a little bit briefed on what the basic procedures were, what the consequences would be, and they told us not to resist arrest, but beyond that it was basically a quick discussion. We got to Annapolis at about noon, and at 2 o’clock we went, so there wasn’t a lot of time.
What was the protest like?
Ashok: CCAN made sure we knew what we were getting ourselves into. They had someone talk to the capitol police, find out what the consequences were going to be if we took this action. The capitol police were trying to bully us out of it. Mike Tidwell was on the phone with the capitol police and saying, “They’re trying to intimidate us out of it.” So then we all took banners and we walked down to the State House and we waited there for ten or fifteen minutes…and then at 2 o’clock we walked up to the steps together, turned around, did a chant, then sat down and waited.
What was your personal decision making process like?
Sam: We decided it ourselves and it was really our decision. [Edit: Sam later wrote, "[We] were all in the planning room. Mike [Tidwell] had just told us what they envisioned the final action could look like and was asking us if we were still on board. At that point, we looked at each other and asked if we could discuss it alone. Mike and the rest of CCAN left and at that point we all just discussed it among ourselves, deciding for ourselves that we really believed that this was the right thing to do."]
Johanna: For me I’ve been arrested once before, which made it a little bit less scary, but I’ve been arrested under much more planned, predictable circumstances. It is a big step in terms of it’s scary, there’s potentially force involved, there’re big men with guns telling you what to do and telling you that you’ve broken the law and you have to face the consequences. There’s also the decision you’ve made that the traditional channels aren’t working, which is sort of a hard thing to acknowledge and a very disappointing thing to acknowledge, and both of those things make it more difficult. What clinched it for me was I really didn’t see what else we could do.
Ashok: I’ve been thinking about getting arrested since the Tar Sands Action that I didn’t participate in. Whatever the consequences for me are, they’re virtually nonexistent compared to dying from coal dust or lung cancer or even asthma. Even if I do end up spending, what, six months in jail, if doing this –
[Caroline: Are those really the consequences?]
Johanna: For trespassing, we could have up to a thousand dollar fine and up to six months in jail. For all the other ones it’s sixty days in jail and a couple hundred-dollar fine.
Ashok: The chance is there and we knew that going in. I think that pales in comparison to the benefits we could get out of this if someone finally started caring. If me getting arrested has a chance of making someone start to care, then done. Done done done a thousand times over.
Sam: Speaking to the arrests and the fines, I have absolutely no regrets. When we were first on the steps, they told us the one charge. And when we were in the attorney’s office, there were three charges. They wanted to make an example out of us and they may very well be saying we don’t want this happening again.
What was your goal? What did you want to convey with this action?
Johanna: By the time we went and sat on the steps, I think we all knew that the bill was not going to pass and we were all really disappointed. We wanted to make it known that we are willing to do things that are potentially illegal if that’s what it’s going to take to make a conversation go.
Ashok: The way I saw it was that this (the wind bill and the apathy that the legislature has been acting on it with) isn’t something that’s been that readily available in the news, and students getting arrested is something that gets in the news.
Sam: I think that’s only part of it, because we wanted it to be part of the next year’s goals. We wanted people to realize that this died and that they lost something. When we went up there, I don’t think any of us expected that we would come out of jail and hear that, oh yeah, they passed the bill, but we wanted to say “We’re willing to give up our time, our money, our permanent record or whatever it is to make a difference on these issues and to make sure people know and care.”
What do you think your arrest represents?
Johanna: …that if any state would take a step to subsidize clean energy, that would be a really important step and would trigger a domino reaction, which is what I was hoping for with the bill.
Sam: This bill had an opportunity to start something. They talk a lot about new, leading industry, but what it really means is that when one person has done it, when one state has broken the barrier, others will follow. It had the ability to be a pilot project that others could look to. It could have been something so much more. We could have led.
How were you processed after the arrest?
Johanna: Basically the process is you try and talk with the police beforehand if possible, then you go up, you do something so that you become visible – in our case it was holding a banner and chanting – and then sit down, the police come up to you and give you three warnings, they give you a little bit of time between each warning so that if you want you can change your mind, and leave, and if you choose not to leave, they have you stand up, they handcuff you, and then they walk you into a police van. You go into a processing center, and at the processing center you get fingerprinted, get a mug shot, they fill out some paperwork, and in-between that you spend a lot of time sitting in a jail cell.
Anything you want to say to the youth climate community about civil disobedience and where we are right now in the youth climate movement?
Sam: While civil disobedience is in the news now, I think everybody should know that civil disobedience was five hours out of a campaign that took weeks and weeks and weeks and months and that I know at least I’ve been working on for over a year. It’s the one tactic which made a lot of noise at the end, but you can’t just do civil disobedience alone. You can’t do that and expect to win. We didn’t expect to win with it. To win, to make a difference – because in the end, we have to start winning – you’ve got to do other things, and you have to run campaigns. Civil disobedience is a tactic and it’s not the campaign. I would hope that by seeing this, by recognizing this tactic, by seeing this bill and what it could have been, other people are inspired to go out and run not just sit-ins but campaigns.
While to me it’s clear that they’re trying to make a statement by giving us a harsh sentence, I think the police officers themselves should be commended for being incredibly polite throughout the process and for being absolutely exemplary. For recognizing the fact that we hadn’t done something wrong.
Ashok: Anyone who’s thinking about civil disobedience should remember that police are people too. They have jobs to do, and arresting you is a part of their job if you put them in that position. You will gain nothing from being less than kind to them. With the officers who were taking care of us – I would actually say they were taking care of us – we were chatting with them, they were making jokes with us…
The other thing I have to say about civil disobedience is, it’s like shouting at the top of your lungs. If you go around shouting all the time, no one’s going to take you seriously. You need to try talking first. Then after you do that for a while, then you can start shouting, you can start yelling, you can start saying, “No, you need to listen to me.”
With the information and options we had on the table, this made sense, because now people who are reading things about the end of the session are seeing that students cared enough to miss their classes and go and get arrested.
The last thing I have to say about getting arrested is, if you do it, make sure you have someone there to watch your back not getting arrested. Because the moment that Megan [Jenny] and Keith [Harrington] walked into the office – it was such a relief.
Johanna: The first time I got arrested, I was so nervous, and I know other people were too. It was such a really, really scary thing. And I think that you don’t have to do it. It doesn’t mean that you’re cooler or you care more or that you’re a better activist. Like Sam said, the real work is in planning, is in calling people everyday. It’s the sort of boring grunt work that nobody sees that is the most important. If you do choose to do it [civil disobedience], having support makes all the difference. I have a whole community of people who are supporting me.
DISCLAIMER: I am friends with the three arrestees, was involved in the Maryland Offshore Wind Campaign, and am the former Communications Chair of the MSCC.
(Exactly how busy were they? Ashok Chandwaney, a sophomore at St. Mary’s, was working on his calculus homework in preparation for his midterm, Sam Rivers, a sophomore at UMD, was studying for an exam, and Johanna Galat is working on her senior project).