Solar Flares: Into the Streets

The Strike was scheduled to start at noon, but a crucial pre-strike meeting occurred offsite at 11am. There were two organizers, one marshal (responsible for keeping everyone safe and non-aggressive), one “arrestee supporter,” and four “arrestables.” Most of us were strangers outside of email, and it felt a bit surreal introducing yourself to the people with whom you plan to get busted in a few hours.

One arrestable was a retired Acadian woman who’d taken Non-Violent Direct Action training two weeks earlier; one was a regenerative-culture hippie who’d recently decided “enough fuckin’ around,” it was time to rock the boat; and one was a monastic from the Buddhist abbey on the far side of the island. I was the fourth.

I had to laugh inwardly. It felt like a Monty Python parody of a heist film. But the meeting also had a melancholy edge to it; we were here because we felt like we were out of other options.

We firmed up our plans, double-checked our gear, wrote the phone number of a sympathetic lawyer on our arms with a Sharpie, and then walked to the site. Last time I’d organized a major action, it included a 40-minute march through the streets, but this time I’d told demonstrators to meet up at our destination, the CBRM Civic Centre. It was the same building in front of which we’d drawn with sidewalk chalk in May, earning an accusation of “disrespect” from the Mayor. This time, we didn’t bring any chalk, but neither did we care much about being respectful.

Stumbling blocks arose to meet us as soon as we arrived. The microphone and speaker we’d requested from the city was not set up, but there was a rental shop one block up, so that was easily fixed. Not so simple: when we went inside the Civic Centre to ask the Mayor to come join us, we learned that he was not in the building. Nor was the Deputy Mayor, nor any city councillors (except for the two sympathetic councillors who’d already joined the rally). This felt like a big setback, although I’d known it was a risk. I’d set my goal very publicly: meet with policymakers to demand immediate climate action. Now I had to adjust my expectations on the fly.

By this time, the crowd outside the building was 150 strong and growing. About half of the demonstrators were youth—mostly high schoolers, but some very young kids with their parents, too. To buy myself more time to plan, I shifted the rally’s structure from speech-based to open-mic, inviting the kids up to voice their fears and rage and hope about a post-climate future.

This turned out to be a much better choice. No disrespect to the councillors or federal candidates who did speak early in the afternoon, but their politics clearly meant very little to the young crowd. Whereas hearing their peers speak courageously and honestly about their own stakes in the issue gave the kids more energy and authority over the event. These kids were not there to observe and listen; they’ve got school for that. They were there because they wanted to act.

But meanwhile, another group was observing us very carefully. The police had shown up in force. Each time I walked back inside to check on the Mayor and councillors (status: still absent), it seemed like there were more cops in the lobby. At one point, I invited the demonstrators to join me inside the lobby, but the police immediately surged forward, crowing the shocked kids back out onto the plaza. This, I realized, was a worthy new goal: help CBRM’s youth gain ownership over their own civic space.

Next on the schedule, though: A “die-in.” Demonstrators lay down in the plaza, holding up grave-shaped black placards reading “R.I.P. Biodiversity,” “R.I.P. Food Security,” “R.I.P. Amazon Rainforest,” and so on. I’d hoped to join this macabre tableau myself by standing beneath a gallows, a noose around my neck, balanced upon a big block of ice, and carrying a sign: “We are on thin ice.” But my gallows-maker got confused about the drop-off time… and just as well, really, since I needed the time to talk with the other organizers.

We discussed sending demonstrators into the lobby in groups of 2-3, to create a gradual critical mass which the cops might find harder to stop. But then Geoff (who had also graced us with a jig earlier, when a demonstrator was playing the fiddle) suggested something even more ingenious: why not use the authority of the two sympathetic city councillors? So Kendra Coombes began taking kids inside, in small groups, to give them tours of the Civic Centre.

This felt like a symbolic win, but there was one more tactic we still had on our list. I gathered up the other arrestables for a quick parlay. “We don’t seem likely to get Mayor Clarke here, even by blocking traffic. So the only reason to do it is to prove that we’re willing to break the law for our cause. Is that worth it?” The others were still game. The police were distracted with Kendra’s tours. Now was the time.

We donned bright orange reflective vests and whistles. We began to cross the Esplanade, the road in front of the Civic Centre. But when the cars had stopped for us, we also stopped. Three of us linked arms, while the fourth began to walk down the row of cars, handing out flyers to the baffled motorists. When the “walker” got to the end of the block, she blew her whistle twice. The “blockers” heard the signal, and cleared the crosswalk, allowing cars to move again. In a minute, we’d do it again.

A minute was all it took. This time, when we blocked the crosswalk, police were all over us. They didn’t try to move us, but they had no qualms about getting right up into our faces (although I noticed they were less inclined to yell at the old lady in Buddhist robes). The “walker” moved as fast as she could, but this time she only got halfway down the block before the police caught up to her. She exited the roadway when instructed, and blew her whistle so we could leave, too.

The system was pretty clever, if I do say so myself. Arresting the “walker” would not be effective in clearing the traffic blockage. But arresting the three “blockers” would put the “walker” at risk, because the cars would be moving again. The cops were unimpressed: “If you go out there one more time, you will be arrested.”

Of course, by this time, the demonstrators in the plaza were watching. Media was nearby, too, and I’m sure all this attention must have put a lot of pressure on the cops. That wasn’t our intention, but it certainly helped to dissuade them from what might have been their automatic response (i.e. “bust the crazies”). Instead, as we were gearing up for our third (and likely final) act of civil disobedience, something totally unexpected occurred.

They let us win.

Or rather, they agreed to negotiate. A sergeant approached, and calmly, reasonably, asked us how we can work this out. “Your idea here is to hand out your flyers to motorists, right?” He asked, “How can we help you do that quickly and safely?”

“You could block the traffic yourselves?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound too facetious.

“Let me make a phone call,” Said the sergeant, and three minutes later, we got our wish. The Cape Breton Regional Police held up traffic during rush hour so that we could distribute pamphlets in the street. With all four of us now working as “walkers,” it went much faster; in less than 60 seconds, we could paper the entire block’s worth of cars. The cops would let them pass, then stop another group, and so on.

For about 20 minutes, we worked with the police to disrupt the status quo.

Afterwards, I spoke to the crowd of demonstrators—over 200 by this point, plus plenty of looky-loos—and tried to explain what I thought had just happened. “When you care about a cause, and you’re not getting what you need from your government, you practice civil disobedience. But the keyword today was civil, and because we were polite and willing to talk, the police responded in kind.”

It was another symbolic victory. But it was tempered by a loss on the other front: inside the Civic Centre, some bureaucrat (the building manager maybe?) decided enough was enough, and told security to stop letting the tour groups through. This was the second time we’d met opposition from unelected officials (after our first march, in May, the Chief Administrative Officer called the cops on our chalk artists)—all the while the elected officials, the ones with power to make real changes—were hiding from us.

At the end of the day, I was pleased with the turnout and relieved that I hadn’t been arrested (this time). I was impressed with the kids, for their courage to speak up, and also with the cops, for their willingness to bend their own rules under pressure. But my strongest sentiment about the strike remains indignation, righteous or otherwise. Why are our politicians so cowardly, to hide from a group of their own citizens, mostly kids, who want to voice their very understandable fears?

While our little drama was going on in a remote corner of Canada, 7.6 million people around the world were demanding a swift and just transition away from a lethal carbon-based energy infrastructure. Rich and powerful men, entrenched in their ideologies of limitless growth, have been content to ignore the science, but they can’t ignore the sound of protest—not for much longer. I’m not the only one willing to go to jail for this cause. And there will be more and more of us, until jails can’t hold us.

As Greta says, “Change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

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