Archives For direct action

TWH — May 2016 has been punctuated by a series of worldwide climate-action protests organized under the name Break Free. These actions have been focused on ending the practice of using non-renewable fossil fuels for energy. The Wild Hunt spoke with John Halstead and Margaret Human, two Pagans who participated in this week’s Break Free protests.

Police surround protesters at Whiting refinery [courtesy photo]

Police surround protesters at Whiting refinery [Courtesy Photo]

While both Halstead and Human were focused on the same goal, their experiences leading up to and during the actions were very different.  A retired person in her 70s, Human is open about her Paganism, but she doesn’t write, teach, or promote her beliefs other than to gather with like-minded people in various locations near her home in the Hudson Valley. She has been protesting against war and environmental degradation since the 1960s. She has been arrested multiple times over that period of time, although nobody was arrested at this week’s action.

An attorney in his 40s, Halstead writes prolifically online about his particular flavor of Paganism, and spearheaded the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment from its inception. Halstead became actively concerned about the environment only in the past few years, and this was his first direct action. This was also the first time he’s ever been arrested for any reason.

The idea behind Break Free fired Halstead’s imagination. It is coordinated on a massive scale (20 actions on six continents, according to the official web site) with civil disobedience being a key component. Halstead said:

Our part of the action took place at the BP oil refinery on the shore of Lake Michigan, in Whiting, Indiana, which is 30 miles from where I live. The action drew over 1,000 people from around the region. Many people who had never been to the area discovered first-hand how unbreathable the air in Whiting and surrounding communities is. We had specific demands, which included creating a moratorium on all new pipeline projects and creating a regional citizen review board to oversee all fossil fuel related industry projects. But the larger context is that we want BP shut down, and a just transition to renewable energy worldwide.

The Whiting refinery is, Halstead explained, the largest refinery for tar sands in the United States. It’s also not far from where 1,600 gallons of oil was spilled in Lake Michigan, which supplies drinking water to the region. Environmental concerns are high in that area.

Human was also one of a cast of over a thousand concerned about newer — and likely more dangerous — petroleum products when she joined marchers in Albany, New York. With a number of other people who were prepared to be arrested, she sat down on railroad tracks to stop the movement of so-called “bomb trains” through the state’s capital city. These are trains carrying petroleum — often Bakken crude, derived from hydraulic fracturing — to refineries for processing. In addition to worries over the environmental impact of using these products, the rail shipments have local residents concerned about what might happen if one derails, which is not unknown.

Protesters block train tracks in Albany, NY [Stop the Bomb Trains: Albany Free of Fossil Fuels]

Protesters block train tracks in Albany, NY [Courtesy Photo: Stop the Bomb Trains: Albany Free of Fossil Fuels]

Halstead explained that, only a couple of years ago, he “wasn’t even recycling, much less taking part in direct action.” Many of those who joined him were also quite new to the idea. He said, “I was driven to take part in the arrest action by a growing sense of urgency in the face of increasingly undeniable global climate change and seeing (and smelling) the effects of the petroleum industry where I live and in neighboring communities, like Gary, Indiana, where people of color are disproportionately impacted.”

After he helped draft the community statement, one of the few criticisms he saw about it was that “words are not enough,” and he found himself agreeing with that enough to take action himself. He said:

About 40 people were arrested with me. We marched with over 1,000 at our backs. That alone was incredible. When we arrived at entrance . . . and then unanimously decided to cross the property line of the BP refinery. We then formed a circle in front of the police line. Then we sat down and began singing, “We shall not be moved, Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, We shall not be moved.” And after a period of time, we were given warnings to disperse, and then we were arrested one by one, handcuffed with plastic zip restraints, and put in waiting vans. The police were, for the most part, professional and restrained.

In Albany, the only arrests were some miles away from where Human and others arrived at their point of civil disobedience, also with a massive network there to support them. If police had rounded them up, though, she would have missed out anyway; it was the cold and the rain which ultimately defeated her. She explained that she’d caught pneumonia during the Occupy protests in Washington, D.C., “and that’s when I got really old.” Therefore, she made the decision to leave due to the weather. “I’m willing to risk arrest, but not risk pneumonia,” she said. In the 1960s she made a similar decision, but at that time she chose not to risk arrest because she was the mother of young children.
She plans on protesting a pipeline in Peekskill, New York this coming weekend, and to continue with such actions as long as she is able.

Halstead was philosophical about the impact of his efforts. “The effect we had on BP’s bottom line was undoubtedly negligible,” he said, “but I know we made an impression, not just on BP, but also on the Northwest Indiana community, and on many others who will read about or watch the event in the media – and if those people will stand together, then will not only hurt BP’s profits, but we can bring an end to Big Oil altogether!”

In the video above, Halstead is arrested at time marker 44:46. The Break Free website also includes a second video of the Free Midwest march.

In his book “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America” Pagan scholar Chas Clifton notes that the environmental awakening of 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, “was a year when Wicca (in the broad sense) became “nature religion,” as opposed to the “mystery religion” or “metaphorical fertility religion” labels that it had brought from England.” Since then, modern Pagans of many stripes, particularly Wiccans and Druids, have placed a special emphasis on being religions that care for, and have concern about, our natural environment. A who’s who of Pagans, both high-profile and not, have told the press, and the world, that we give special concern to problems facing our natural world, and further, that our faiths represent a positive shift away from abuse and towards sustainability.

“I think only spiritualities of sacred immanence are capable of doing earth justice, and I think that we, as Pagans, have a responsibility to act and speak in defense of this planet that has blessed us into existence.  If anyone can it is we who can argue for and sometimes introduce others to a direct experience of the sacrality of the earth. […]  Far from being anti-human, we need only enlarge that part of us which may be most unique, our hearts, to embrace what [Aldo Leopold] terms a “land ethic.” Such an ethic: ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.’” Gus diZerega, Patheos.com

As Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum continues his historic visit to the Kumbh Mela in India, one of his primary messages to our Hindu cousins has been ecological awareness and restoration. From mucking trash in the Ganges river, to leading and blessing a march of Indian school children who are pledging to preserve the planet.

Patrick McCollum leads a march in India for preserving the Ganges and the planet.

Patrick McCollum leads a march in India for preserving the Ganges and the planet.

“Today I led a march of 5,000 school children along the banks of the Ganges to both clean up the sacred river, but also to call for world peace and the preservation of our environment generally. All of these things have been quite spontaneous, and our single act of mucking trash in front of all of the pilgrims has gone viral across the world.  There were TV stations from many countries and newspaper reporters everywhere.  The Governor and Minister and many other officials have joined with us, and banners and such are literally being created in the moment.  One TV station said this is the most significant event toward saving our planet in modern history. Swamiji got this idea to have the kids take a pledge to clean and preserve the planet, and it turned into a huge gathering.  I sat up in front with 5,000 children behind me and we all took the pledge together.”

Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”, believes that religions which embrace an ethos of environmentalism, or ecological sustainability, will thrive as our world’s climate troubles worsen.

“The forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.”

But how far are Pagans, collectively, willing to go in defense of an Earth they call sacred? In a guest review of John Michael Greer’s new book “The Blood of the Earth” (Scarlet Imprint, 2012) from last year, UK Pagan Paracelsian wonders how deep our commitment to being “nature religions” actually goes.

“I’m not suggesting that individual Pagans are never involved with environmental activism, but I am convinced that this is not a priority for the vast majority of individuals who would identify as being Pagan. Greer’s work (and that of other authors who seek to engage contemporary Pagans with these issues: Emma Restall Orr, for example) should at least be encouraging members of the Pagan community to be asking some questions about what it means, in practice, to espouse a nature-based spirituality. This discussion is long overdue, and needed now more than ever, or Paganism will be never be any more than the “virtual religion” critiqued by Andy Letcher. How many self-identified Pagans can honestly live up to Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion”. It seems obvious to me that thinking about these questions is imperative if Paganism is not only going to survive, but also to make a positive contribution to the way that humanity relates to Nature in the future.”

It is from this lens that I think we should view the news that the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest environmental organization, founded by famed conservationist John Muir, has for the first time advocated civil disobedience to its membership.

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune

Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune

“For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest. Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet’s climate.” 

The first test of this new call for civil disobedience will be at a Washington DC rally this February in opposition to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline. However, even if no arrests are made at this rally, it marks a major shift for the Sierra Club, which has preferred lobbying, deal-making, and advocacy over the more direct methods of groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. It erodes the idea that mere advocacy, or being ideologically behind better environmental policy, is sufficient in the current environment. It means that support for the Sierra Club implicitly means supporting civil disobedience for the environment.

This is a moment of challenge for those Pagans who espouse an eco-spirituality, who want to practice an Earth or nature religion. If the “safe” moderate environmental group says it’s now time for civil disobedience, do we follow suit? Do our leaders also say “enough” and call for civil disobedience? For direct action in the face of climate crisis? Such calls have usually come from “activist” Pagans like Starhawk, and her critics have often accused her of politicizing Paganism, but are we now at a different moment? Is this the moment where we move beyond recycling and buying the Sierra Club calendar, into advocating for direct action? Not just prayers and spells, but our bodies on the front lines? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but perhaps it’s time we had a renewed discussion about what, exactly, Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagan faiths that espouse the natural world as sacred and alive, should do in the face of a now impossible to ignore climate crisis. The Sierra Club has made a decision, and perhaps that should press us to collectively make one too.