“Here we are,” I thought, crouching in the trees as a lookout as my comrades drove their shovels into the coal. It’s a feeling that came in waves throughout the summer; standing outside an ICE facility with my walkie talkie and vest, watching my friends blockade the street. Or kneeling on the floor and looking at the teary smiles and determined eyes of a direct action training. “This is who we’ve got. This is the team.”
The team of Diggers, supporters and scouts who carried out August 17th’s principled removal of coal
I used to write stories about the end of the world. About fascism and concentration camps and rebels who flew hot air balloons and built new worlds in the mountains. Heroes. And I thought there was a magic formula, a perfect scheme or action that could save everything. The right words would convince those in power, perhaps. Or maybe we just needed enough people in the streets. The correct plan would come, a final showdown. And the numbers would calculate victory.
Instead the Amazon burns, and the Arctic, and Angola and the Congo. Instead kids are dying in cages. This summer, I talked with people who’ve been hit by cars in ICE blockades, seen white supremacists tag our offices and cops push a man to the pavement. I watched coalitions fight and form, ate carrots and fresh baked bread at potlucks. And I’ve sat by campfires as veteran climate activists explain how history repeats itself, read articles about politicians or billionaires or technologies that won’t save us, that aren’t transformative enough. And meanwhile continents of ice plunge into the sea, and ordinary people join hands for miles and sing. And the heroes are not coming.
New Englanders fill buckets with coal, ready to carry it away and stop the burning
Instead of heroes we get buckets. So last weekend a group of New Englanders grabbed white tyvek suits and shovels and went down to the Merrimack Generating Station. It’s the last big coal plant on New England’s power grid, completely unnecessary, and scheduled to keep operating. One hour of use releases more carbon than I have in my entire life, poisons the air, costs taxpayers money, and could be easily replaced with wind and solar energy. Yet, even though coal burning is a death sentence, the plant doesn’t have a shut down date. Instead it has huge heaps of fuel leaching in to the banks of the Merrimack River. So, we decided to take the coal away.
“Here we are,” I thought, as I watched them dig. The generating station was all steel and looming cement behind them. My friends looked so small, swinging their tiny buckets against the piled carbon. We don’t get the authority to regulate the plant or the money to buy our politicians. But if no one will stop the burning, we’ll do our best. We have hands and shovels and strong backs. We have the messiness pesto potlucks and google docs and flipchart paper diagrams. We have nervous determination and clasped hands. And we can remove our consent from oppressive systems.
Tim DeChristopher fills his bucket with coal from the Merrimack Generating Station
Instead we are real human beings. We are not perfect. This summer, I’ve seen activists crack each other with anger and arguments. I have seen the moments of panicked doubt before an action, the snappishness and exhaustion. The things we are up against are so large, and we must fight them with quiet “are you alright?”s and hugs, and everyone. After all, we’re just humans who decided to block ICE data centers or drop banners. Because someone has to and, here you are- the imperfect people who stand in a circle in a wooden yurt, throwing maps and code words at the walls. Scared people who paint banners or plant permaculture or fire up video calls. Courageous humans who stare down police or fill out spreadsheets or meet with legislators to throw coal dust at their feet.
Activists dump coal removed from the Merrimack Generating Station at the steps of the New Hampshire Statehouse
We used our buckets to take as much fuel from the fire as we could that day. And we’ll just keep coming back. We dropped our coal on the statehouse steps as a promise. Yes, politicians and governments fail to act. But we won’t. We’ll take things into our own hands, and in September, hundreds of people will descend on Bow for a mass action. When the plant is running or refueling, we’ll disrupt. We’ll keep it up until the plant shuts down. Then we’ll move on to the next one.
It’s terrifying to realize there’s no one coming to save you. There is no political candidate or author or entrepreneur who will save my future, or bring back the people who have died in hurricanes or heat waves or wildfires. Instead there are ordinary, determined people on this Earth. And there are many of us who can sing or plot or strike or walk or shovel or support. This is who we get. Me, and you, and ragtag bunches of people with white tyvek suits. We stand in tiny towns and megacities and state capitals, in forests and farmlands. Just miles from pipelines and corporate headquarters, and coal plants, with gates of destruction hanging open. We have each other. Who needs heroes, when you have love and buckets. When there are teams ready to carry, and coal that can’t be burned.
Emma Shapiro-Weiss raises her shovel in front of the Merrimack Generating Station coal piles, ready to remove the fuel from the fire