Environment: The Poetry of Tim DeChristopher’s Climate Disobedience

Since April is both Earth Month and National Poetry Month, I thought it would be fitting to write a piece on environmental activism and poetry. In the civil disobedience of Pawtucket resident Tim DeChristoper against the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, I have seen poetry and activism converge in a profound way. Together they illuminated the harm of continuing to expand fossil fuel infrastructure in a warming world and influenced a pivotal court ruling – the ruling of not responsible by reason of the necessity defense.

The ruling happened on March 27, and it exonerated DeChristopher and the other 12 protesters who laid down in the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline’s trenches and thereby obstructed its construction for hours until they were arrested and physically removed.

The defendants were to face criminal trespassing charges and a trial by jury. But shortly before the trial date, the government reduced the charges to a civil infraction, which reduced the trial to a juryless hearing. Andrew Fischer defended them, and Judge Mary Ann Driscoll of West Roxbury District Court acquitted all defendants by reason of the necessity defense, which argues that the harmful threats of a situation are so serious and imminent that breaking the law is morally necessary to avert them. In this case, the threats included the potential for deadly leaks if the pipeline malfunctions, the threat of explosions caused by the pipeline’s proximity to a blasting quarry, the lack of a safety plan by Spectra Energy and the contribution to global climate change if the pipeline functions as planned.

Judge Driscoll found that the defendants met all the stipulations of the necessity defense, including  proof that there were no legal alternatives to the infraction. This was evidenced by the fact that all locally elected officials, including the mayor of Boston, opposed the pipeline, but couldn’t stop Spectra Energy, a fossil fuel corporation whose complicit federal political and regulatory interests outstripped all local power. After allowing each of the defendants to speak for two minutes, Judge Driscoll gave her ruling.

Judge Driscoll’s ruling marks the first successful use of the necessity defense in a climate case. This ruling also means that a precedent has been set. And though it is not a legally binding precedent, it is influential and referential. Although the civil disobedience action ultimately did not stop Spectra Energy from completing and operating their pipeline, the ruling may reduce the public fear of consequences for civil disobedience. With less to fear, more people may be inspired to come together to form the critical mass necessary to transform US governance back to “We the People” from its current state of “We the Corporate Profiteers.”

Relevance in Rhode Island: In RI, we have two ongoing battles against the climate impacts of fossil fuels: the people of Burrillville have been fighting Invenergy’s proposed Clear River Energy Center, a $1 billion fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant, and residents of the South Side of Providence have been battling National Grid’s Proposed Fields Point Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) liquefaction facility. Much like in West Roxbury, the power to effectively oppose the building of fossil fuel infrastructure has been stripped away from citizens and localities by the unholy power trinity of fossil fuel corporations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and complicit politicians at the federal level. The successful use of the necessity defense may offer groups like Fight Against Fossil Fuel (FANG), NoLNGinPVD, The Burrillville Landtrust and Keep Rhode Island Beautiful more people power to fight fossil fuel profiteers and their currency of climate change.

The Necessity of Poetry

When I began to research Tim DeChristopher and the West Roxbury action, I stumbled across something poetic just as I realized it was poetry month. I was listening to DeChristopher’s Climate Workshop Podcast when he began to talk about a gravedigger in Pakistan who he read about in the news. Tim said something to the effect of “what makes gravediggers happy is rarely good for the rest of the people.” And indeed, the gravedigger had been expressing happiness that his city prepared for an expected heat wave by digging anticipatory mass graves. The year before, an unexpected record-breaking heat wave caught them unprepared, and there was no place to put the bodies. To be prepared this year was a blessing in the gravedigger’s view.

DeChristopher was astounded and heartbroken by the realization that our unchecked consumption of fossil fuels had delivered us into a time of global record-breaking heat waves and the era of anticipatory mass graves.

Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher

I called DeChristoper and he agreed to talk with me while he was headed back home to Pawtucket on an hours-long train ride. What he said in that conversation broke my heart.

“When I saw the pictures of the long trench they dug in Pakistan for that mass grave, I realized it looked just like the trench that Spectra is digging through West Roxbury for a new high pressure fracked gas pipeline. I felt powerfully called to connect the dots between those two trenches and climb into the one in Boston to reflect on this new age of anticipatory mass graves.”

Therein, beyond the mechanics of the action of the defendants’ civil disobedience action, lies the poetry that made it so compelling: the realization that one thing is another unlocks profound meaning.

On June 29, 2016, DeChristopher and the defendants planned to answer the call to lie in the mass graves. They held a ceremony eulogizing those who had already perished in the Pakistan heat waves, as well as those who would die in the future and fill the anticipatory graves.

“The spirit of this ceremony was one of heavy grieving and grappling with a traumatic world.  I spoke about the need to combine that grief with resistance and hold both at once. “

Sometimes the heart and hands cannot hold both things. The resistors couldn’t maneuver through the police blocking the trench, so they had to retreat for a few hours, pocket their grief and re-energize their resistance. They returned to an unprepared police force, and easily climbed into the symbolic graves, where they could again grieve and reflect until they were arrested.

At the civil infraction hearing, the heartfelt testimony of the defendant Nora Collins, 21, addressed the graves plainly and poigantly “… we wanted to connect the fact that building trenches like this creates more trenches like [those in Pakistan] and understand that our consumption is connected to other people’s suffering.”

In “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” WC Williams says:

It is difficult
To get the news from poems
Yet men die miserably every day
For lack
Of what is found there.

I believe the profundity of this action’s poetry spoke to the judge’s heart and influenced her ruling beyond the mechanics of the necessity defense. And I hope that what is found there inspires us all to make both the personal and political reforms that slow the digging of these trenches to a stop. May no one die from climate misery and may gravediggers and pipeline workers find a new happiness in planting flowering green Aprils and cooling trees.

Please visit climatedisobedience.org for the stories of Tim DeChristopher and the defendants of the West Roxbury Pipeline action.

Whale Guitar Player: Bryan Cahall

In my conversation with Tim, I told him I noticed the music on the podcasts and wondered if it was the same guitarist who appeared on a video of the opening of an Interfaith Power and Light Conference where Tim was speaking. Tim confirmed that it was, and put me in touch with Bryan Cahall, who has been playing music for Tim’s events for several years now.

Turns out Bryan lives in Tim’s house, just a few blocks from me, and was happy to have me stop by with the guitar and record him playing it.

Bryan has an amazing voice and you can catch him performing at Three Sisters Ice Cream and at the Providence Farmers Market at Hope Artiste Village on Saturdays.

We took turns playing the guitar; you can check out his performance on You Tube!

A little later that day, I was scrubbing through Tim’s websites again, and I found a link to Folk Songs for Climate Justice on his old Peaceful Uprising site: music.peacefuluprising.org/album/folk-songs-for-climate-justice

And I also found these words:

Tim often expresses his own deep faith in the power of song, to unite people and empower them to act without fear. Referring to environmental and climate justice advocates in America, Tim summed up his own perspective: “We will be a movement,” he frequently stated, “when we sing like a movement.”

Upcoming Earth Day Event

Sunday, April 22, 1 to 4pm: Please join NoLNGin PVD and Monica Huertas for a fun and informative block party at the south side’s Washington Park. Enjoy music, art-making, food and kids activities in support of the ongoing fight against National Grid’s Proposed Fields Point Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) liquefaction facility. Climate Action Rhode Island and Sierra Club will be there in support of NoLNGinPVD!

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