My Time in Jail with Extinction Rebellion: One of the Most Meaningful Experiences of My Life
Why nonviolent ‘love in action’ is the most powerful and transformative force we have and why it’s our only option.
Wow. I have such a feeling of deep, deep gratitude for Extinction Rebellion New York City (XR NYC). I never thought that spending eight hours in a cramped chilly jail cell with forty other people would turn out to be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.
Not only that, but the experience of sitting together with all of my new brothers and sisters, linked arm and arm, on the street in Times Square, was extraordinarily empowering. It was amazing to know deep down that our cause was truth and our cause was justice: we were there, quite literally, to save humanity from climate-driven extinction. We knew in our bones that it was worth putting ourselves, our bodies, on the line for that. The degree of warmth and care and protection we felt for each other was so profound.
Now I understand more; My experience was just a small taste of what I know is the practice of so many people engaged in standing up to and resisting oppression around the world. This is something that people of color and other oppressed peoples have been doing for so long. I’m humbled that this is the first and only time I’ve had a chance to add my body in this most direct way to the powerful path of nonviolence, this path of ‘love in action.’ Of course, our position of privilege protected the majority of us from any real risk of harm that day — though I sense that as actions increase, this risk may increase as well.
Looking down, feeling into my feet, I remembered to touch gratitude for the Earth below me. Walking on the Earth became a miracle.
I can see in my mind’s eye the communities surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, Buddha, and so many others — all these people walking on the pathway of truth and justice. I have now a better sense, in my body, of the mission and the power of their commitment and love.
At 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 10, 2019, some 60 of us gathered at our agreed on meeting place. I could feel the nervous energy in the group, the buzzing of tension and excitement resonating through our nervous systems — in our body language and our tone of voice. This was a big moment. It was clear to me that I wanted to invite the small action group that I was part of to do some settling and grounding before our moment of blocking Broadway at W 44th Street.
Our small group settled in, sitting on paving stones near a fountain. We took time just to sit and notice our bodies, to feel the sunshine on our skin, to listen to the fountain, and to be together. It was an important moment for me. It gave me the strength to remain calm when we walked across the sidewalk at 44th and linked arms, beginning to chant, “This is a climate emergency!” It helped me hold space for the woman next to me whose tension I could feel through the tightness of her grip on my arm. I breathed deeply and let the feeling flow into and through me, holding in my heart compassion and gratitude for her courage. Just now, writing this has brought a deep crying release to my body, with tears flowing, and I’m holding tenderly my own face and chest in my hands.
As more friends arrived, I turned to join the group behind me, encircling the boat we were using to call attention to rising sea levels. As we linked arms, we settled into the warmth of each other’s presence. I found myself easily relaxing into stability and following the rhythmic movement of my breathing, feeling a deep sense of purpose and connection to life.
Soon the police arrived and surrounded us. We did not feel threatened. We weren’t there to disrespect the police or anyone else, and I sensed this was understood. The pulsing music of our supporters brought a rhythm of celebration to the moment, as marchers from our nearby demonstration at Fox News arrived.
You are unlawfully blocking the roadway, if you do not move, you will be arrested…
The police loudspeaker blared in our ears over and over, but we were unphased. We were prepared. We weren’t doing this on a spontaneous whim. Thanks to the organization of XR, all of us had earlier attended training in Nonviolent Direct Action and had practiced for this moment. We knew what to expect and how to respond. We began to sing together:
The people gonna rise like the water,
Gonna calm this crisis now.
I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter,
Singing, “Stop this extinction now.”
I saw my good friend, and fellow Order of Interbeing member, David Viafora, walking calmly toward the police bus, led by an officer, arms restrained behind his back. The group I sat with was one of the last groups to be arrested. The police officer arresting me was respectful. We were lucky, yes. For most of us, our privilege protected us — and for me, likely the robes I wear as well. But also, our attitude of nonviolence and calm was essential in creating this space of respect.
Walking towards the police bus I reminded myself to look up to the sky and touch gratitude for the sunshine above me. Looking down, feeling into my feet, I remembered to touch gratitude for the Earth below me. Walking on the Earth became a miracle. Walking with my brothers and sisters around me, I felt my teachers walking with my feet.
How does whatever we are doing to contribute to the beauty, meaning, and wellbeing of the world, make any sense unless we are doing that in the context of ensuring that there are humans left on Earth to celebrate, receive, and carry it forward?
Inside the police bus, we exchanged stories, feeling a sense of joy and accomplishment. We listened to the officers in the front of the bus — two of the women officers were tapping their feet and moving to the rhythm of the music outside! There was a lightness and some laughter — I sensed they knew, they felt, that we were there to celebrate and protect life. But not everyone’s experience was positive that day — some of us had the sense of being intimidated and harassed.
It took several uncomfortable hours for each of us to be processed one-by-one into the jail. Our hands and arms were aching from being restrained behind us, and we could not sit back. I thought it was a small discomfort to undergo, given the pain of so many dying at that very moment from the climate crisis — from a lack of food, water, or shelter.
A few of us talked about how we might support the energy of brotherhood in our group. Since the jail segregates men, according to state perception of identity, we knew it would be a kind of ‘men’s circle.’ We knew we wanted to be together in some way to support each other, and to deepen our connections and commitment. And also to address our privilege, power, and woundedness as men. David Viafora led some of us in an initial meditation, which helped us settle. After that, we had time to connect informally and eat the sandwiches offered to us.
Later, Greg Schwedock, one of the early organizers of XR NYC, gathered us again in a circle and invited us to share our names in a playful way, identifying our name with an animal. It felt good to laugh and to play — it was also an act of resistance to that heavy confining space. Then, we sat down together in our circle and set some intentions. There was an intention to really be there for ourselves and each other; to welcome our experience, whatever it was. We set the intention to step out, as much as we were able of the ‘man box’ — the set of societal norms that often prevent us from feeling, being vulnerable, or expressing ourselves. Next, we sat and allowed ourselves to get in touch with our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts, and the emotions flowing through us. We took time to really welcome and begin to hold space for our experience, grounding it in the soothing sensations of the weight of our bodies, the breath flowing in and out of our lungs, the rhythmic movements of our bodies. Faintly, in the silence, we heard singing coming from our XR sisters in neighboring cells.
Next, we turned to one person beside us, and from this space of being embodied, we began to look into each other’s eyes in silence. Closing our eyes, we reflected on the experiences of the other person. We did this for several rounds. We looked to see both the happiness and suffering in each other, and to notice how that felt. We took the time to feel what it was like to be deeply seen by another human being. Then, we took turns to speak to our partners, to tell our stories — what was alive for us, what we were feeling, and what was important. We listened to each other, holding space, making contact. The connection, the intimacy, the trust, was profound. We felt love for each other and we felt loved.
Turning back to the larger circle we continued to welcome and hold space for each other’s truths. Some of us wept. All of our voices were honored. One of our brothers shared how he’d recognized the chief arresting officer as a high school classmate: he wanted to tell him that he was doing this for him and his family too.
We took some time to rest and to connect more informally, and a little later, we came together to sing. One of our dear brothers, Richard McLachlan (read his story here) shared about his practice of speaking to people on the subway about the climate crisis and Extinction Rebellion. He modeled his talk for us and then coached us a bit on how to speak our own truths and tell our own stories to help the world wake up. Linus Roache, an actor from Law and Order, was also with us and shared a few tips from his acting experience. A few days after being released, I tried speaking on the subway — I was terrified. But I recalled our empowering experience in jail, and told my fellow passengers a few words about our experience there and what we were doing to protect life on Earth.
Around nine in the evening they began to release us one by one — and each time we applauded. I was released with one woman whom I’d sat arm-in-arm with on the street. The sense of siblinghood, of connection, was powerful. It was clear that this would be something we’d remember for some time to come.
Even though it was just a very short time in jail, it was such a relief to be out. We were aware, being mostly people of privilege in our society, that our arrest experience was nothing compared to the treatment often experienced by people of color, homeless people, or other marginalized peoples. I’m grateful that being held together with fellow ‘rebels’ gave us a chance to turn this unpleasant situation into an empowering one.
We also knew that some of our friends would be transferred, to spend the night in another location, the infamous ‘Tombs,’ the detention center of New York City. They had attached themselves to the boat and were expected to be charged with higher offenses. Their experience, including that of my dear friend and fellow Order member, Shea Riester, would not be as easy. They were held for thirty-six hours before being arraigned and released.
For me, reaching the street outside the jail was such a joy and relief. There was a group of friends waiting — the XR jail support team — to offer us smiles and care, some snacks, and to walk with us down the street, where they had a space prepared with hot food and drinks. A lawyer met with us to explain the legal process and what we had to do next. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more grateful for receiving such thoughtful care.
I shiver to remember the whole experience. We had become a community, a power, a force to be reckoned with. The bond between us was strong. We had reclaimed something, witnessed something, touched a profound sense of being and purpose.
We have the power to stand up and to resist the forces that are dragging us toward extinction. But we must stand up and we must disrupt business as usual if we want things to change. As George Monbiot of The Guardian, wrote recently — ‘Today, I aim to get arrested. It is the only real power climate protesters have.’ What else will wake us up?
The clarion call to justice is sounding clearly all around us. In light of this, I want to ask you: How does whatever we are doing to contribute to the beauty, meaning, and wellbeing of the world, make any sense unless we are doing that in the context of ensuring that there are humans left on Earth to celebrate, receive, and carry it forward?
I ask you to consider participating in what may prove to be the greatest and most powerful mass movement in human history: a movement of movements. I invite you to get involved, to add your voice and your contribution, in your own unique way — to participate in perhaps the greatest single historical moment of our species, as Joanna Macy calls it, The Great Turning.
If you are engaged in the work for justice in any place, with any group, then I trust you can see that this is a movement for justice on the largest possible scale. All threads of justice must weave together if we are to have enough collective power to turn the tide and make any kind of just future possible. Please engage in the work to preserve and protect life for us all. Now is the time. This is it.
Footnote: Dear friends there are so many ways to be involved and to support Extinction Rebellion that don’t involve getting arrested! This is a movement built on love, connection, resilience, and community. We are about resisting oppression and ecosystem destruction right in our neighborhoods. It’s open to all and welcomes all.