Joan Gregory had always considered herself a radical, but in all her 58 years she’d never been arrested until Monday afternoon, April 18.
That’s when she and around 300 others entered the lobby of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) building in Washington, D.C., as part of a protest against federal energy policy. They sat down on the floor and refused to leave. Twenty-one of them were arrested and taken to jail.
Nine other people were arrested when they caused a disruption by singing in the gallery of the House of Representatives. Of the 30 people arrested that day in Washington, five, including Gregory, were from the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah.
All the way from Salt Lake City to make a social justice statement? There’s a reason for that.
Flash back to March 3 when another First Unitarian member, Tim DeChristopher, was convicted in Salt Lake City of placing bogus bids in a federal oil and gas lease auction in Utah in an effort to protect government-managed land from drilling and focus attention on the climate crisis.
On the day he was convicted—and facing the prospect of up to ten years in prison—DeChristopher, hailed by supporters as an environmental hero, came out onto the federal courthouse steps and defiantly told his gathered supporters that if federal energy policy was to be changed, more people would have to engage in civil disobedience. “If we’re going to achieve our vision, many after me will have to join me as well.”
Gregory, who serves as First Unitarian’s environmental ministry coordinator, and many others who were there on the courthouse steps that day vowed to stand up and be counted. And that’s why she and the other Salt Lake UUs came to be among 10,000 people attending Power Shift 2011, a youth clean energy and climate summit in Washington on April 15-18. They went as part of a group DeChristopher formed before his trial, Peaceful Uprising.
On Friday, First Unitarians Deb Henry and Steven Liptay were among nine arrested for taking turns singing in protest from the U.S. House gallery, disrupting a budget debate for about 20 minutes. Then on Monday, First Unitarians Gregory, Cori Redstone, and Krista Bowers were among 21 arrested at the DOI. The same day they and hundreds of others demonstrated in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and BP offices.
Gregory said she made the decision at the time of DeChristopher’s trial that she would do something like this. “I guess I’ve been waiting for the right time,” she said in an interview a week after her arrest. “It wasn’t until Tim’s trial that I decided I could do this.”
In the end it was pretty simple: enter, sit down, and wait to be arrested. And sing. “We sang for the whole hour and a half we were there,” said Gregory. The group ran through its whole repertoire, including “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?”
Then, one by one, police began to remove the protesters. “I wanted to be last,” said Gregory. “I wanted to be alone. I put it out to the universe, asking to be the last and I was. At the end I was singing all by myself in the lobby. The acoustics were wonderful, by the way. I knew what the last song should be. I sang (UU singer/songwriter) Peter Mayer’s ‘Blue Boat Home’. I’ve thought that I should tell him that.”
Gregory and the others were held in jail for eight or nine hours before being released. That’s eight or nine hours of singing. “We sang the whole time with joy and resolve,” she said.
The singing made a difference, she believes. “It’s really amazing how it feels to sing as opposed to chanting three-word chants. Singing gives you joy and strength and resolve. It’s empowering. It’s fun and it’s even fun for the people having to put up with you for the afternoon. Several of the police officers were moved. You could tell. They’re used to angry people chanting. They don’t know what to do with people who are singing.
“And singing helps create a situation where it’s less likely that anyone will be confrontational with you. How would it look if they roughed up a group singing ‘This Little Light of Mine?’” The songs weren’t new for Gregory. DeChristopher’s supporters had sung them outside the courthouse in Salt Lake City in March.
DeChristopher issued a call to action at Power Shift, saying “What level of injustice is it going to take . . . in order for us to fight back . . . for it to be more important than us graduating on time? Where is the point where our movement is going to say that stopping this injustice is more important than our career plans? This should be that point. Now is our time to take a stand.”
All of those arrested were charged with misdemeanor counts and are to return in May for court appearances. Gregory said everyone she’s encountered in Salt Lake City has been supportive of what she did. “My 14-year-old son said, ‘Awesome, Mom.’”
She added, “Tim did inspire me. The urgency of the climate crisis is what demanded my action. We can’t wait until there’s a convenient time because there never will be. Every generation is complicit, but mine more so because we’ve been silent longer. I’m not going to be silent anymore.
“It feels very good to have done this. Like I’m finally doing something that has a chance to make a difference. Can we just get on now with renewable energy?”
She added, “We resolved to deliver two messages in Washington—that the people of Wyoming, Utah, Louisiana, West Virginia, and the rest of the United States will no longer sit in silence while our government and the corporations extract every ounce of fossil fuel from our public lands, not only devastating the land, but assuring that our children will suffer the grave consequences of catastrophic climate change; and that moving swiftly and without delay to renewable energy sources is essential if there is to be a chance for a livable future.”
Krista Bowers, arrested with Gregory, went to Washington because she was part of the reason DeChristopher decided to make bogus bids in the oil and gas auction. DeChristopher related during his trial how he was moved to action when he saw a woman—a member of his church—crying in the back of the auction room.
That was Bowers. She said later, “I wanted to see how cheaply my government would sell its soul . . . it was $2 an acre.” In an interview after her arrest in Washington, she said, “I had a pretty big stake in this. If someone risks ten years in jail because of you, you get involved. Like Joan, I took a vow on the courthouse steps.”
Bowers has long tried to reduce her own footprint on the world. She gave up her car six years ago and commutes to work by bike. She works for environmental and food groups. “I try to eat local. I don’t buy new if I can barter or buy used. I advocate for a lot of different groups.
“I think it’s time we all took a stand. We have to be willing to go to jail for justice. Nothing is going to change otherwise. We’re facing thousand dollar fines and six months in jail. That’s a small price to pay for what the rest of the world is facing with climate change.”
She’s been attending First Unitarian for about six years. “I came on a Sunday and got involved in the choir right away. The very first night in choir I knew that I belonged. And I couldn’t have done what I did last week without knowing I had the love and support of the people in the church.”
Gregory said that people are welcome to contribute to a Peaceful Uprising fund that will help pay the fines of those arrested. To contribute to the fund, called PeaceUp Backup, go to the fundraising website, she said.
- Peaceful Uprising.Organization founded by Tim DeChristopher and others dedicated to defending a livable future through nonviolent action. (peacefuluprising.org)
- 350.org.Organization founded by environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben. (350.org)
- Power Shift Annual youth climate summit. (wearepowershift.org)
Correction 9.19.11: An earlier version of this story, and the version that appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of UU World, incorrectly stated that Tim DeChristopher was convicted of placing bogus bids in a federal oil and gas lease auction in Utah to protect national parklands from drilling. Drilling was never proposed on parklands. Some of the parcels that DeChristopher bid on and won were adjacent to national parks. Others were not. All of the parcels were on Bureau of Land Management lands.