Seventeen-year-old UU youngest person arrested in climate justice action.
Connor Wertz, 17, a member of the UU Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, is arrested June 29 for civil disobedience during a climate justice protest interrupting the construction of the West Roxbury lateral pipeline in Boston. (© Peter Bowden CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
At least eight Unitarian Universalists, including a teenaged boy, were among twenty-three people arrested June 29 as they protested construction of the West Roxbury lateral pipeline (WRL), a natural gas pipeline slated to go through a dense part of Boston, which Boston-area UUs and others have been fighting for months on climate justice and safety grounds.
The arrest of Connor Wertz, 17, a member of the UU Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, marked the first time a minor has been arrested protesting the pipeline, said Evan Seitz, a climate justice organizer for UU Mass Action.
“This is the movement of today and the future, and I want to be able to look back at myself in thirty years and tell myself I wasn’t just standing on the sidelines,” said Wertz, a high school senior who was inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Eventually released without being charged, Wertz said police were “very respectful” as they arrested him, and several told him they agreed with the protesters.
The City of Boston is fighting in court to stop the pipeline, which was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and a number of prominent politicians also publicly oppose the WRL, including U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. Some opponents object to the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure when the global climate continues to heat up, posing what they believe is an existential threat to humans and other living beings. Many also have concerns about the safety of the WRL, which passes near elementary schools and an active blasting quarry.
The June 29 protest included an interfaith service featuring the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Boston and Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, a climate justice activist and assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai of Brookline, who helped organize the action with Tim DeChristopher, a prominent UU climate justice activist, said Seitz.
Four UU ministers were among twelve clergy arrested: the Rev. Heather Concannon, a minister at First Parish in Sherborn; the Rev. Rali Weaver, minister of First Church and Parish in Dedham; the Rev. Lara Hoke, minister of the UU Congregation in Andover; and the Rev. John Gibbons Sr., minister of First Parish in Bedford, which has been awarded the 2016 Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action, largely for its climate justice work, including its efforts against the West Roxbury pipeline.
Some of those arrested lay inside a trench where the pipeline is to be placed, while others, like Wertz, lay atop the ground near the trench, in a “mass graves” action to symbolize the connection between fossil fuel infrastructure and mass graves being dug in Pakistan in anticipation of heat-related deaths due to climate change, Seitz said. DeChristopher and Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the daughter of former Vice President Al Gore, were among those arrested. It marked the first time DeChristopher had been arrested since serving twenty-one months in federal prison for disrupting a government oil and gas lease auction in 2008.
“This is the age of anticipatory mass graves, and this pipeline trench is our anticipatory mass grave,” DeChristopher said in a speech at the site. Those arrested were charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace, and some were charged with resisting arrest.
While a social movement encouraging people to buy locally and drive energy-efficient cars is important, the fossil fuel industry is so powerful “that I think the political movement needs to be the focus. That’s one reason I wanted to get arrested,” said Wertz, a high school senior who wants to study sustainability and music in college. His twin brother, Aidan Wertz, and their father, Richard Smyth, also members of the Haverhill congregation, participated in the protest but were not arrested.
“I’m utterly proud of him for doing that, and not just him, my other son was willing to do it, too,” said Smyth, who said he and his sons are likely to be arrested at future actions at the site. “It’s extremely meaningful. Ultimately, it’s their world, the young people, and they know that—and it’s scary.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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