NH's Climate Civil Disobedience, Misguided or Misunderstood?
Updated: Jan 28
January 20, 2020
New Hampshire's climate action organizations are working cooperatively as the "No Coal, No Gas Coalition", participating in direct action to shut down Merrimack Station, the largest remaining coal plant in New England without a closure date. In September, 69 coalition members from 7 states were arrested protesting Merrimack Station coal plant in Bow.
Since then, there have been multiple attempts at blocking coal train deliveries to the plant. People have been physically on the tracks, on a railroad bridge and part of a constructed blockade. I've been told it can take a half mile for a coal train to stop. In one of these attempts, the train was within 50 feet of activists and not slowing down, despite advance called-in warnings of people on the tracks.
NH's Consumer Advocate Don Kreis does not support such actions and made his voice heard this week in his InDepthNH column, "A Misguided Call for Civil Disobedience in NH".
"Regular readers of this column will recall that I am no fan of Merrimack Station, particularly because Eversource customers are paying off $400 million in costs resulting from the 2008 decision to build a mercury scrubber there instead of shutting the plant down...
Turning it off forever is a worthy goal. So is transforming the energy economy from one based on fossil fuels to one based on alternatives, particularly energy efficiency and renewables.
But [Reverend Jim]Antal's call for widespread acts of disruptive and illegal activity as a “normative spiritual practice” for congregations across the region is misguided. I hope the religious communities of New Hampshire and Vermont do not do as Antal recommends."
Mr. Kreis' reasons for objecting to civil disobedience are:
1. It does nothing to "achieve their desired outcome".
2. Institutionally sanctioned civil disobedience is "corrosive to the general social order".
This angered many activists who posted comments on social media beginning with the words, "he is wrong".
Feeling that Mr. Kreis has publicly disparaged the efforts of the past few months is understandable, but is there another perspective?
Don Kreis is a thoughtful and important advocate of the people of NH. It is his job to work within the structure of the law, protecting our rights. I feel assured he understands the passion and sense of urgency we feel, regardless of his view of tactics being employed.
I believe in calling out our weak legislators who know the consequences of inaction and choose instead to fall in line with the demands of their party. They must be publicly called out or the status quo will persist. Political activism is also essential to this movement. The meek must raise their voices, and they are.
There are those who may not agree with our actions, but are our allies nonetheless. Don Kreis falls into this category.
"My job requires me to remain on good terms with people across the political and ideological spectrum who care about energy. This experience leaves me worrying that illegal efforts to disrupt operations at Merrimack Station, or other lawfully operating energy facilities, only serve to alienate people who are not already on board with the cause. And in a politically diverse state like New Hampshire, climate activists cannot afford to do that."
Mr. Kreis has a good point. Most law-abiding citizens would never want to risk arrest and to do so seems as reckless as standing in front of a moving train. I admire and appreciate the work of fellow activists, but I also want to live to fight another day. There is much work to be done.
Risking arrest with a clean record.
When police see how many arrested activists have never been in trouble with the law before, some openly ask why. Risking a clean record is an indication of the immense concern for the survival of life on Earth. The catastrophic natural disasters are devastating. The extinction rate is staggering. Every worst case scenario seems to be surpassed. What we are seeing is a bellwether of what is to come. It's a cry for help.
Does civil disobedience achieve its goal?
When the work of activists is covered by the media, that's a win. It accomplishes raising awareness locally to nationally, letting our legislators know the target of concerns cannot be ignored, may drawn in additional activists and creates pressure on the fossil fuel industry and utilities. When activists get the opportunity to speak out in court, that's another win. If the court accepts a defense of action by moral imperative, that's a huge win.
Are activists misguided or misunderstood?
Those who participate in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience are trained, have engaged in much discussion, planning and are mindful of their actions. Civil disobedience is far more than the action that hits the news. It is a way to respond when other means of action are not attainable, have been exhausted, or are not gaining necessary attention in a timely manner.
Civil disobedience can be spontaneous, taking advantage of circumstances that arise, or the result of much planning and coordination of groups. The morality of the action, whether group members are comfortable participating, what kind of a role they want to play, and the parameters of the action, are all taken into consideration. Clergy, faith and spiritual leaders may be involved, offering guidance. Affinity groups (small to large action teams) may have their own agreed upon plan of action as a subset of the larger group. They decide who will risk arrest, who will speak to the media, who will bear witness, who will support those arrested and more. Affinity groups may have pro bono legal counsel who support their work.
Actions are unpredictable and may have changing conditions. Affinity groups often have leaders who, if possible, pause and ask members if they want to continue. Participation in nonviolent direct action campaigns, does not endorse, nor promote, violence or destruction of property.
I do not agree that there is inherent value in arrests and that an arrest of any kind is courageous or honorable. An arrest takes place when meaningful action requires it. The action does not end with arrests. Getting before a judge to talk about why activists made the choices they did is often the goal. Increasingly, activists testifying in court are defending their actions saying that it is a moral imperative, their action is necessary.
Activists are reflective before and after taking direct action. They are generally guided by a call to respond when the usual paths to action are not working. While activism can build strong bonds of community between those who are driven to protect the vulnerable, it is not for fun, but for necessity that their action is taken. They are guided by a desire for environmental, climate, racial and economic justice.
Merrimack Station coal plant, like so many other toxic projects that taint the air and water, put health and safety at risk and may have long-term impacts on health, lungs, brain, eyes and skin. Where are poison projects located? In the communities that have the least ability to fight back. They are low income and communities of color. This is the case in Bow as well.
People before politics. Planet before profit.
Humanity has already set catastrophe in motion. There is no time to waste waiting for legislators, corporations and industry who have dug their heels in and show little sign of movement, still putting personal aspirations and financial gain ahead of proactive choices that could mitigate disaster.
In times of great crisis, acts of civil disobedience are what move us forward, away from the reckless and toxic acts of those with no regard for the survival of life on Earth.
In the past ten years, activists have poured into the streets with increasing numbers. 400,000 marched in New York City. Thousands went to Standing rock, including politicians and celebrities. Jane Fonda and notable names are being arrested, demanding fossil fuels be shut down. At age 16, Greta Thunberg awakened the youth and then people of all ages across the planet, to take action on Fridays For Future.
Civil disobedience is a means to an end. It alerts and educates threatened and impacted citizens who have been lulled into submission by corporate media. Toxic projects like pipelines have been stalled and shut down. It has made universities and businesses divest to the tune of billions. Yes, it does indeed accomplish its goal.
Time to nix NEPOOL's closed door energy deals
Mr. Kreis suggested an alternative to train-track-trials, to instead shine the spotlight on NEPOOL. The New England Power Pool (NEPOOL) is influential in New England energy policy decision-making. They're a group of utilities, power plants and other electricity providers.
The Consumer Advocate pointed out that "Assuming that the legal protections afforded coal power are the moral equivalent of the legal protections previously afforded segregation, the analogous dateline is not some forlorn railroad track in the middle of the night but rather the antiseptic hotel ballrooms where meetings of NEPOOL take place. NEPOOL is the forum where regional electric market rules, including those that protect legacy generators like Merrimack Station, are hashed out behind closed doors."
NEPOOL requested that FERC make their policy of not allowing press attend their meetings an official position, stating that the presence of press suppresses candid discussion. The literal power players are banging out decisions that impact us all, in dark corners with no press in the room. Most of us don't know who the players are, but when they can legally make decisions with no public oversight, that practice should receive some loud and (pardon the pun) energetic attention.
The inner workings of the energy sector are complex. Consumer Advocate Don Kreis, as usual, has made an excellent point. In fact, NEPOOL has already been on the radar of activists, thanks in part to Mr. Kreis' regular columns with InDepthNH and community workshops.
We may not all walk the same path, but the destination is the same. If we are to transition away from fossil fuels, it is critical that the attack be on many levels, with consistent pressure.
A calling that cannot be denied.
Those who engage in nonviolent direct action are often driven by a sense of duty to humanity and the natural world. We know where to place the blame. Nature did not create crisis, we did, and we must do all we can to mitigate the devastation happening around us. We are driven by a moral purpose that comes from knowing that we are not mere observers, but players in this race to save the planet.
Making a difference doesn't have to mean putting your body on the line
1. Call your NH State Senator and ask if they oppose fossil fuel expansion.
If your senator is not opposed, request a meeting where you can both talk calmly about the health, economic and climate impacts on our state. Some feel that talking to legislators who are unlikely to move on the issue are not worth their time. They are. If we stop talking about our concerns, why would they take action?
If your senator says they are opposed to say, Granite Bridge pipeline, ask them for any and all documentation of their public comments and action in support of their claim. If they have taken action, thank them, then ask for more action. Be specific. If they can't provide it, ask why.
State Senators may represent specific regions, but their choices impact us all. It's perfectly reasonable to speak with legislators who do not represent your district.
2. Write letters to the editor.
If the Governor, your State Senator, State Representative, Mayor or Select Board are in support of fossil fuel expansion (the greatest expansion threat is methane fracked gas), let others know. Explain your concerns thoughtfully, use their names and ask for their support.
3. Make calls and emails often.
It takes just moments to make a call. If you call the Governor, an aide will take down your information and relay the message. Other calls may be answered by an administrative assistant. You may be surprised at the positive response you get in return! It's important to let our legislators know they're doing a good job and have our support. Writing a script before you call can be helpful.
4. Write testimony in support of renewable energy, energy conservation, climate action, protection of resources and wildlife, and other powerful legislation for change.
There are many bills being introduced that address climate other environmental concerns. Your email to the committee or your State Representative helps them make decisions and have a way of judging public opinion. You do not need to use elaborate language. Just share how you're feeling and why.
All of the organizations that are fighting for climate action have limited resources. A few have a handful of paid organizers, but most are all volunteers. You can support their work and help with bail even if you cannot be there in person.
If you're thinking about participating in nonviolent direct action (civil disobedience), speak with others who have been engaged in actions, become trained. Find a group that aligns with your philosophy on action, which may take some time to form. Consider how you want to make your voice heard and your action will be meaningful.
Activist Echoes Blog Editor