By Sandra Steingraber
I have come to believe that a successful civil disobedience campaign likewise depends on the willingness of at least some of us to gladly accept jail time over other kinds of sentences, such as paying fines.
There are four reasons for this. First, it shows respect for the law. In my case, I was arrested for trespassing on the driveway of a Texas-based energy company that has the sole intention of turning the crumbling salt mines underneath the hillside into massive gas tanks for the highly-pressurized products of fracking: methane, propane and butane. (The part of the plan involving methane storage has already been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). Even before the infrastructure for this gas storage is built, Crestwood Midstream has polluted the lake with salt, at levels that exceed its legal limits. Crestwood’s response is to pay a fine and keep polluting. By contrast, I refuse to pay a fine to excuse my crime and so accepted the lawful consequences of my actions.
Second, extending one’s civil disobedience testimony in jail shows seriousness of intent. Four of the 17 civil disobedients who have so far been arraigned as part of the We Are Seneca Lake campaign have chosen jail instead of fines: 75-year-old Dwain Wilder, a veteran of the Navy who was incarcerated for Veteran’s Day; 86-year-old Roland Micklem, a Quaker, who is now incarcerated in the Schuyler County Jail [Roland Micklem was released yesterday due to health concern]; 58-year-old Colleen Boland, a retired Air Force sergeant who served in the White House; and me (I’m a 55-year-old biologist and author).
Colleen occupies the cell next to mine. We talk through the wall. Colleen, Roland and I are on track to find out what they serve prisoners for Thanksgiving dinner.
By our willing separation from our families, by our sacrifice and consent to suffer, by our very absence, we are saying that we object in the strongest terms to the transformation of our beloved Finger Lakes community into a hub for fracking. We object to the occupation of our lakeshore by a Houston-based corporation that seeks to further build out fossil-fuel infrastructure in a time of climate emergency, and in so doing, imperils a source of drinking water for 100,000 people.
Third, by filling the jails with mothers, elders and veterans, we peacefully provoke a crisis that cannot be ignored by media or political leaders. Of course, civil disobedience is always a method of last recourse, deployed when all other methods of addressing a grievance have been exhausted. We have turned over all stones. We have submitted comments, written letters, offered testimony, filed Freedom of Information requests for secret documents—only to see our legitimate concerns brushed aside. Our incarceration shows that the regulatory system is broken. So far, in the Seneca Lake campaign, there have been 59 arrests, and a majority of those have yet to be sentenced. There will be more of us in jail before the year is out.
And the fourth reason is this: spending time in jail is a time of personal transformation. Alone with a pencil, some inmate request forms for stationery, the Bible and your own thoughts, you discover that you are braver than you knew. You are doing time, and time offers the possibility of rededicating oneself to the necessary work ahead: dismantling the fossil fuel industry in the last 20 years left to us, before the climate crisis spins into unfixable, unending calamity.