I recently picked up a book that’s been sitting in my must-read pile for a long time: David Halberstam’s The Children, a remarkable account of the African-American students who began the momentous lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in February 1960 and went on to risk their lives as Freedom Riders and as movement leaders in Birmingham and Selma. Half a century on, it can be easy to forget that citizens of this country took such risks, and made such sacrifices, in order to gain basic human rights.
Still, I thought I knew the story. So I was startled to find myself pierced, on the very first page, by Halberstam’s description of one young woman’s inner struggle:
Years later, though she could recall almost every physical detail of what it had been like to sit there in that course on English literature, Diane Nash could remember nothing of what Professor Robert Hayden had said. What she remembered instead was her fear. A large clock on the wall had clicked slowly and loudly; each minute which was subtracted put her nearer to harm’s way. … It was always the last class that she attended on the days that she and her colleagues assembled before they went downtown and challenged the age-old segregation laws at the lunch counters in Nashville’s downtown shopping center.
Halberstam then describes Diane Nash’s memory of the night before the first sit-in, on Feb. 13, 1960:
On that evening, she had sat alone in her room at Fisk University. Suddenly she was hit with an overpowering attack of nerves. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered. … She, Diane Nash, a coward of the first order in her own mind, a person absolutely afraid not just of violence but of going to jail, was going to join a small group of black children and ministers and take on the most important and resourceful people in a big, very white, very Southern city….
It was a joke, she thought, it will never happen. We are a bunch of children. We’re nice children, bright and idealistic, but we are children and we are weak.
I think I know why those words pierced me the way they did. Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten acquainted, and at times worked closely, with a group of student climate activists in the Boston area. And while the situation they face is vastly different on multiple levels — historical, cultural, political, personal — from what students like Diane Nash confronted, I’ve seen them begin to make similar choices, and to take, or be willing to take, similar risks. A number of them have been arrested — some multiple times, and in unpredictable circumstances — for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and extreme fossil-fuel extraction. And they are ready to do more.
Then came the news on Friday that John Kerry’s State Department had issued a draft environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, offering President Obama no reason to reject the project. Reactions from climate hawks were swift and, in some cases, blistering. And with a decision still months away, some (like TIME‘s Mike Grunwald) are suggesting that the Keystone battle — and the larger battle over the Alberta tar sands — is shaping up to be the climate movement’s Selma moment, comparing it to that 1965 hinge point in the civil rights struggle.
This comparison, I’m finding, is one that a lot of the student activists I know are ready to embrace. It’s certainly true that none of them face anything like the racial injustice that the lunch-counter students and Selma marchers suffered. And yet most of them are consciously fighting for what they call climate justice — and, here’s the thing, fighting not only for people in faraway places but, increasingly, for themselves.
These students feel themselves — people of their generation and younger — oppressed by powerful, corrupt forces beyond their control. They grasp the urgency and scale of the climate crisis — and understand the role of the fossil-fuel industry in obstructing any serious efforts to deal with it. They quote the alarming reports from the International Energy Agency and the World Bank. They see the catastrophic trajectory their elders have put the planet on — and the failure of our governments, corporations, and media to address the crisis in any adequate way — and they feel something approaching desperation. They feel forced onto a path of radicalism.
I’ll be honest: This scares me. I worry about my young friends. I’m inspired by their courage and commitment, but I know that most people their age can’t afford an arrest, not in this kind of economy. And I empathize with anyone who feels ambivalence toward radical action, and where it might lead. I think of the lessons of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the more radical elements of the antiwar movement took an increasingly destructive turn. It’s easy to draw comparisons to the early ’60s and forget where that decade ended up.
And yet I can’t deny these young people their right — and privilege — to act on conscience and to struggle nonviolently, against seemingly immutable forces, for their future (and, yes, my own children’s future). Their analysis of the political situation is painfully accurate: at this late hour (as I argued recently in the Boston Phoenix) to be serious about the climate crisis — and what science demands — is to be radical. Sometimes I wonder if young people like these are the only ones in this country with the guts and maturity to accept what that means.
I sat down in a coffee shop with two of these students, Harvard sophomore Alli Welton and first-year Boston University grad student Ben Thompson, immediately following the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17, and I later spoke at length with Brandeis senior Dorian Williams. All three are deeply involved in the campus network Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF), the statewide grassroots network 350 Massachusetts (spearheaded by Better Future Project, on whose board I serve as a volunteer), and in the student-led fossil-fuel divestment campaign.
These excerpts from our conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alli Welton, 20 years old, is a sophomore at Harvard studying government and the history of science and deeply engaged in the Divest Harvard campaign. She grew up, as she puts it, “privileged in a poor rural town,” in eastern Washington, and had “very direct experiences with inequality and poverty.” At 16, while attending an international school in northern Italy on a scholarship, she was invited to tag along with 350.org to the 2009 U.N. climate conference at Copenhagen.
Arriving at Harvard in 2011, Welton dove in with SJSF and got to know a number of older climate activists, some of whom had been arrested at the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline that August. She recalls: “My huge respect for those people gave me a distorted idea of civil disobedience for a few months. The arrest record seemed like an exclusive symbol of commitment that I felt I needed to be taken seriously by some of the older activists. By the time I entered sophomore year, though, I had a much better understanding of the strategic value of civil disobedience. I’d taken classes on civil rights history and media strategy.”
On Jan. 7, Welton and seven of her young activist friends, including Ben Thompson and Dorian Williams, walked into the TransCanada office in Westborough, Mass., sat down facing outward in a tight circle, and locked and glued themselves together in protest of Keystone XL and the extraction of tar-sands oil. (The Phoenix‘s Chris Faraone has described the action in colorful detail.) “We stand together as representatives of a desperate generation,” Welton wrote for the groupin an online statement. “Today, we hope to present our political leaders with an example of the courage needed to confront the climate crisis by putting our bodies in the way of corporations whose activities threaten our society.”
It wasn’t a hard decision to do the Westborough TransCanada action. We were all pretty good friends, and very comfortable with each other, and we were all in it together.
But then I remember sitting, on Christmas Day, just sitting there thinking about this, and feeling scared, and like, what am I doing, is this even strategic, or right? And then just realizing I couldn’t back out, because I’d made this commitment to my friends, and I don’t know, that’s the most powerful thing in the world. There were definitely moments when I was really scared, as we were practicing and I could sort of visualize how it would be, and how intense it could get, but I also felt like I couldn’t let the fear show, because I felt like, if I looked scared, everyone else would pick that up. And I just felt like, you had to push through that emotion, and not let people realize you had it.
But then, I don’t know, the night before, it was like 3 a.m., and we’d been practicing all day — I was really tired, hadn’t eaten or really drunk anything, and just sitting up awake, I pulled out the Martin Luther King Jr. stuff that I read last year as a freshman, when I took this class on the civil rights movement, and understanding the history of that. And just reading that calmed me down, incredibly.
Then the next day I was 10 times more nervous. But you just have to act like you know what you’re doing. Because I felt like, we’re such a tight-knit group, if some of us start caving in to the fear, or the anxiety, it could just spread and the whole group could crumble. So you have to have people who are strong, and, “OK, we’re going to do it,” and just walk into that office park like nothing’s wrong, like it’s not scary to be dressed up in a coat with chains hidden under your scarf and feel like you’re sneaking in disguise, like some sort of children’s fantasy book. That’s what it felt like — invading the castle. And I just had to pretend like that was normal.
And I think the other thing that scared me, and still scares me, is when I think about that, there is some sort of analogy here to military and invasion. Like, these companies are waging war on us and our lives. And we have to fight back, somehow. And I don’t know, it’s still surreal sometimes to realize that this is the world we live in, where it’s not something from, like, 500 years ago, when there used to be knights and kings and all that sort of drama that you read about in books when you’re a kid. You’re just, like, “Oh, I don’t live in that world, that would never happen to me, nothing that terrible would ever happen.” And then you, like, grow up — and you realize that we have these giant corporate tyrants who are just controlling our lives and, like, sacrificing us — for their profits. And that’s really scary, that we have to fight that. It’s insane that we live in this society. And you only see it clearly when you really sit down and think about it. Then our actions make sense.
I graduated from high school at 16 and got a scholarship to go study abroad in northern Italy for two years. And I ended up going to Copenhagen in 2009, the U.N. conference, with 350.org, when I was just 16. Being there, and being surrounded by the most committed youth activists in the world, we were doing a lot of organizing and protesting in solidarity with Tuvalu and Kiribati, and the island nations, or like African countries, or South American — the Indigenous Environmental Network was really big there — I saw climate change as this huge human rights abuse against people who are already disadvantaged in our global society. And it became the most important thing in the world to me. I knew theoretically there could be impacts on the U.S. But I thought, I’m from a rich, developed country, my parents are well off, I know I’m going to college, and it’s not going to make a difference to my life.
But especially over this past year, I’ve learned that climate change is a threat to me. One of the seniors, last year, involved with SJSF, she said something like, “You know, I think I could die of climate change. That could be the way I go.” And that stuck with me. And the more I learn about it, and read the incredibly scary reports coming out from the World Bank — saying, like, 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 may be impossible to adapt to — it’s very possible that we could be the generation watching our society crumble away. And, I don’t know, sometimes I walk around Harvard late at night, you know, with all these huge, fancy buildings, and think about what Rome was before it fell. And are we the generation that gets to sit and watch America fall?
And I guess before, I’d always been thinking of climate activism primarily as solidarity, and helping reduce inequality in the world, which is something I’ve cared about ever since I was a kid, growing up privileged in a really poor town. But I guess, recently, it’s become more of a self-preservation thing, in a way.
As youth, we don’t have a voice in this fight. In the sense that, like, there’s no way that I can climb the government ladder and end up in a position of enough political power to save myself now. I’m never going to get that chance. And there are kids who are being born today, or born 10 years ago, they’re not really going to get that chance either, if we don’t start winning in the next couple of years.
And that’s insane. You always learn about marginalized groups in society, and think about how their voices don’t have as much power, and then suddenly you’re like, “Wait, that’s exactly what I am, with climate change.” I’m like the helpless kid here just begging the older generations to save me. And, like, what the hell is that? That’s hard — I don’t like begging.
Ben Thompson, 22 years old, is a first-year PhD student in mathematics at Boston University. He grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, his father a CPA and his mother an elementary school guidance counselor, and then went to Cornell College in Iowa. During his freshman year, deeply affected by accounts of the devastating 2009 wildfires in Australia, he began thinking seriously about nonviolent direct action. “I remember looking up the Iowa legal code trying to figure out what would happen if I sat down in front of a coal plant entrance,” he says. “But I was in Iowa with no support, and it was a big scary step, so I never ended up doing it.”
Thompson was one of the eight who “locked down” in the TransCanada office in Westborough, Mass. “I’m ashamed to say that it took me nearly eight years to tell my dad that I am a climate activist,” he told a crowd of 1,500 at the Northeast tar-sands protest in Portland, Maine, on Jan. 26. “I finally had to tell him, because I had to say that I was going to wrap hardened steel chain around my waist until the police cut it off.”
My road to engagement was very long and gradual. I saw a presentation from a climate scientist my freshman year of high school, and got involved in recycling club and stuff like that. I remember bringing copies of the hockey-stick graph to class, and making speeches about industrial agriculture to the student body. My senior year I took an enviro science class. I remember reading an Orion article on mountaintop removal with some pretty intense personal accounts. I also remember around this time reading a quote from a climate scientist in a new report, that was something to the effect of, “It’s not quite time to chain ourselves to the state house, but we are getting close” — and I remember thinking, “It sounds like it’s time to me.”
And I think that decades from now, people are going to say, “Of course you were going to chain yourself together inside a TransCanada office. Why wouldn’t you?”
But for me, the whole time during the Westborough action, I was thinking, “I can’t believe that I’m the one that’s doing this.” I love rules. And I love following rules. And I’m compulsively helpful. And for the month before, I spent all my free brain time thinking about how I could make it as hard as possible for them to remove us, and how to make it take as long as possible, but as soon as I got into the office, and as soon as there was a person in front of me, I was offering up suggestions, like, “Can I take my belt off? Maybe if I take my belt off you’ll be able to shimmy the chains over my legs.” [laughing] I think a couple times people said, “Uh, I don’t think we need to offer them information when they’re not even asking for it.”
I think people have an idea of the activist, like, “The activists are taking care of it, and I’m not an activist.” And that the activists are born to go and challenge authority. And for some of us, I think that comes naturally, but for a lot of us, it doesn’t. I was very uncomfortable. I mean, I did want to get out. As soon as the lock clicked, I was like, I want this to be over.
But the fear that I felt around the action pales in comparison to the fear I feel around climate change. I’ve spent sleepless nights and had panic attacks at 4 a.m., thinking about, you know, reading reports, and just thinking, like, are we really doing this? Am I really expected to read this and then go do my studies? Like nothing’s happening? This is insane. And so I don’t know if that fear helps extinguish the other fear.
I remember freshman year in college, there were incredible droughts in Australia, and they had wildfires there that were measured not in acres or homes lost, but lives lost. And I remember one story really hit me hard, where there were some people who must not have heeded the call to leave, and then there was a knock at someone’s door, and they opened the door and there was a man there and he was holding a baby, and the skin was sloughing off his body, and he said, “I just lost my home, I just lost my wife, and I lost my daughter, will you please just save my son?” And that really hit me. I was just disgusted that my silence could have led to that, or could lead to that in the future. And that I’m a member of the society that did that, and I continue to benefit from it. And so I think that was a really radicalizing moment for me.
I think our only asset as a movement is that we have everything on the line, and that leads us to be willing to do more. That’s our only asset. I’m willing to risk my life for this. And a lot of people today are willing to do a lot more than people working on other issues. And that’s our only asset — and we have to take advantage of it.
Dorian Williams is a 21-year-old senior at Brandeis University, where she majors in anthropology. She grew up in Chicago, both of her parents college professors. Her freshman or sophomore year at Brandeis, as she was beginning to get involved in climate issues, she remembers a screening of the documentary The Freedom Riders. “I found it really inspiring, and that’s actually been one of those reference points in the back of my mind,” she told me.
Williams has been arrested four times for committing acts of nonviolent resistance. The first was in April 2011 at the Department of the Interior, protesting mountaintop-removal mining and other extreme fossil-fuel extraction, while she was attending the Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C. “Like, 80 people rushed the doors and filled the lobby,” she remembers. “And I was in this huge room surrounded by all this energy, and thinking what am I going to do right now? Am I going to get up and leave, or am I going to stay?” She stayed. “It was a huge identity shift for me. Like, if it’s not me, who is going to do this? The people in West Virginia can’t afford to travel to D.C. and get arrested. You know, I’m white, I come from a privileged background, if people like me aren’t willing to take this risk, then who on earth can afford to take these risks?”
Williams’ next arrest was in front of the White House in August 2011, along with 1,252 others protesting the Keystone pipeline. Her third was in July 2012, on a mountain in West Virginia, where she and others, organized by the RAMPS campaign, locked themselves to a truck at the largest coal mine in the state. She spent 10 days in jail, unable to make $25,000 property-only bail, awaiting her trespassing sentence and $500 fine. Her fourth arrest was at the TransCanada office in Westborough, Mass., on Jan. 7.
The DOI was my first arrest and that was really scary and a huge decision, and then West Virginia was also a really scary, difficult decision, because the stakes were so different.
It was not an easy decision to make, at all. Walking onto a mine site and locking to a piece of machinery was unlike anything I’d ever done before. I mean, it was a level of personal risk, it was a newness. It wasn’t in D.C. It was actually where things can go wrong. It’s where you don’t know how the cops are going to respond, how the miners are going to respond. You are confronting people who have every right to be pissed off at you, you know?
Basically they had people come a couple days early to do training. So we were all on the property of somebody living in West Virginia for a couple days. And then they took us to the largest mine site in West Virginia, Hobet mine, in Lincoln County. During those couple days of training people had self-organized into different affinity groups, and each group decided what risk level they wanted to take, what kind of action they wanted to take, and then they took us all in cars and vans and dropped us off at the mine, and we broke off into our individual groups and just went and did our thing. And we were there for, I don’t know, not too long, before the police showed up.
I was treated fine. Some of the other people I was arrested with were not treated fine. And I saw some of it, not all of it. I mean, the stuff that I saw, I don’t think was the worst that it got. There were two male folks who they basically just, I don’t know — the part that I saw was them taking them into the processing center. And I heard it got a lot worse once they were behind closed doors and no one could see them anymore. Part of it was they were being noncompliant, which means they weren’t walking or standing or helping them out in any way. So the process of pulling them out of the van, and then bringing them into the processing center, was the most violence that I’ve ever personally witnessed. It was really distressing to see. Because they were just really not careful with their heads. They were yanked out of this van that’s like several feet off the ground, so you know, the guy hit his head on the metal van, and then again on the ground. And they dragged him to the processing center, so then his elbows are bleeding and his shirt was torn up and stuff, and they were like trying to get him to stand by twisting his shoulder. And then a bunch of them were trying to pull him through the door and he hit his head really loudly on the door frame. And that was really scary. I thought they’d knocked him unconscious.
So, I’ve been lucky that I’ve never experienced violence, and lucky that I’ve never had to witness it before that point.
I think leading up to that action was even scarier — I mean, there were a couple points that were really new degrees of fear that I have not felt before. The first one was before the action, because I had no idea what was going to happen. That was, for me, the scariest thing. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I mean the night before was terrible. I was desperately trying to find reception to contact my parents and my support people from home, and trying to figure out whether to go through with it. I guess I was less worried about my personal safety at that point and more just, like, I didn’t want to be a burden on my family, and I didn’t know how this was going to affect them.
And eventually it came down to the same thing as at the Department of the Interior, that these risks are not easy for anybody, and if someone who has as much privilege as I do can’t take these risks, then who’s going to stand up for this stuff?
I think every time you start hitting your boundaries, and West Virginia was a kind of emotional experience and put a lot of strain on my support systems. I’m really hesitant to go back to that kind of place for a while. At least until I’m financially independent and can really take these risks on my own.
I’m absolutely going to keep doing what I’m doing — I want to be supporting and inspiring other people to take that level of action. I’m trying to take the lessons of my experiences to really engage other youth and really help them take action.
But I want to be careful not to glorify those who get arrested. You know, there are so many roles and so many ways to engage, and so many things are so important, and every time I’ve been arrested there’s been twice as many people behind me, allowing me to do that, and those roles are so important, and I just want to make sure that everyone out there who can’t get arrested — because not everyone has that ability — still feels like they have every bit as much influence and ability to be powerful in this movement.
In some ways, the beauty of this whole thing is that because it’s the greatest challenge that we’re facing, it’s also the greatest opportunity to come together and reclaim community, and a global community, and allow people to think beyond themselves. And I think that my generation hasn’t had enough of that. I think that we’re really atomized and separated and segregated from ourselves, and there’s a hole, and an absence. And feeling connected and feeling a part of something — that’s why people are addicted to Facebook, you know? It’s not because they enjoy Facebook, it’s because they know they’re missing something.
And I’ve not felt so connected to the people around me as I have in this movement.
I think my motivations have really begun to change. I think climate change is not something that anyone wants to take on the burden of understanding, because it’s terrifying. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know how it’s going to affect you. You have ideas, people have educated guesses. But it has the potential of being the single most trying thing for our species in thousands of years. And it’s falling on our generation to transition to whatever that’s going to look like, that great unknown, in a matter of, like, our lifetimes and our children’s lifetimes.
And I think when I started out in this movement, it was because of the injustices I was seeing. The first time I was arrested it was because of hearing more about the injustice. Going to West Virginia, that was in solidarity with people who — our government is basically allowing a war to take place on them. These companies are blowing up their homes. If another country had done that, that would be an act of war, but they’re companies so they get to do it.
But I think something has really changed for me recently, and just my deeper acknowledgment of what’s at stake, and what’s on the shoulders of my generation. And I don’t feel like I’m fighting purely, anymore, against those injustices. That’s still part of my motivation, but I think it’s gotten a lot more personal for me. I feel like I’m fighting for the right to have children. I know a lot of people who have given up on that.
That’s why I’m really inspired by a lot of the women in this movement. The moment that I give up on my right to have children is the moment that I acknowledge the world is going to be so hideous and horrendous and horrifying that it’s not even worth being alive in. And I can’t do that. So I’m fighting to make this planet literally livable and worth experiencing for my children.
The fear I’ve experienced in my activism has never been greater than the fear that I have of climate change. It’s visceral. It’s very real. And to a degree that, on good days, it makes me fight — it gives me a fighter’s instinct, which is not something that I would naturally have. But on bad days, it makes you want to run away. I know people who want to run away and build isolated farms in the middle of nowhere to try and escape it all. And sometimes it’s paralyzing. I’ve gone through literally bouts of, not depression, but very serious, very low states of being for hours to days to weeks at a time. And it comes and goes, and you kind of have to wade through it, because it’s never going to go away. You just have to work through it so that you can keep fighting.
Wen Stephenson, a writer and climate activist, is a contributor to Grist and the Boston Phoenix and has written about climate and culture for the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter.