Risking Arrest on Martin Luther King’s Birthday

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Jason Miller, FAN Director of Campaigns and Development reflects on his recent act of civil disobedience in opposition to the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline.

It seemed like an innocent question when my boss asked me what I was doing the following Wednesday. My mistake was telling him that my calendar looked relatively free. So he gave me an option for that day: either lead a conference call or get arrested in an act of civil disobedience during a rally in protest of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline going online. I didn’t hesitate for long, and I told him that I’d risk arrest. It seemed like the obvious choice: the Keystone Pipeline is one of the shameful legacies of the Obama administration. It’s harmful for the environment and for future generations. And what better way to honor Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday than to risk arrest? It was a no-brainer, with some obvious potential consequences.

In the days leading up to the climate rally, I didn’t tell too many people that I had decided to risk arrest. I wasn’t sure how some would react, especially family members who would be concerned for my well-being or others who might not quite understand why I was taking such drastic action. For me, in addition to taking a stand against a pipeline so detrimental and as a way to honor Martin Luther King, I also decided to risk arrest because a friend and collaborator of the Franciscan Action Network, Tom Weiss, has dedicated his whole career to environmental protection, which includes trying to stop the Keystone Pipeline. He recently biked the entire length of the pipeline to draw attention to it. He came to DC and, in addition to collaborating with FAN on climate issues, joined us in the Fast 4 Families tent in support of comprehensive immigration reform for a week. I figured the least I could do to support Tom after he went without food for a week was to risk arrest with him. And it helped that it was for such an important cause.

Leading up to the day of the rally, the implications of my decision started to sink in. No more so than when we went to training the night before. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be in control of the situation and had to trust that cool heads could prevail, and no matter what happened, that we would be treated justly. I had heard from friends that the Park Police were sometimes unpredictable, but on the day of the event, they were professional and did their job. As I stood in front of the White House fence with our banner, slowly moving back and forth to try to buy Tom and me some time, I used the banner to hide my shaking legs. And while I was nervous, I quickly found strength in the members of the rally who decided to stick around and support us. Not only were friends and collaborators from faith communities there offering encouragement, some singers from the rally leading up to the direct action had decided to stick around and continue singing. They gave me the strength I needed to continue.

After a few minutes of doing our two-step and speaking our piece about the dangers of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Tom and I decided it was time. We allowed the Park Police to read us our three warnings and to do their job—we were handcuffed and put into the back of the police wagon. The arresting officer asked if the cuffs were too tight, and as I said no, he locked them, and they immediately became too tight. As I was led away, I felt a sense of peace and determination; I knew that we did what we could and took a stand—and that perhaps this was just another step in the long journey for social justice. I felt at that moment that perhaps my own journey was still just beginning.

As they helped me into the wagon, I hit my head as I struggled to get inside with my hands cuffed behind my back. I naively slid into the middle of the wagon, only to wonder why Tom wasn’t being put in alongside me. When I heard him ask if I was OK, I quickly realized he was on the other side of the wagon, unseen, but able to communicate through the vents. I wondered if the police officer driving us to jail could also hear us, as we sped down the highway, without a seatbelt, as a police car blared its sirens directly behind us.

I quickly realized that although I had joked all week that I needed to be out of jail in time to use my basketball tickets that night, I had no control over the situation. It was up to the Capitol Police as to what would happen next. They processed Tom and me, and we were put in separate cells, and I was unsure in which one he was. There was no air vent to communicate through this time. I was alone, pockets emptied, and shoelaces out of my shoes. While I was in my cell I prayed and reflected on our actions. I was at peace with my decision to risk arrest, despite the consequences, and I realized that this was a lesson in patience that was sorely needed. I wondered what it would be like to be locked up for any extended period of time, especially unjustly, like Nelson Mandela was. For me, even when sitting in the cell, such a concept was inconceivable.

After spending part of the afternoon in a jail cell, and just as soon as I was starting to wonder if they forgot about us, the cell door opened and my arresting officer asked me if I wanted to forfeit and post bail. He let me out of my cell, and as he gave me my possessions so I could post bail, I waived to Tom, who was still in his cell, which was certainly a surreal moment. The officer told me he’d get me a receipt and then Tom and I could leave, but I had to go back into my cell for the time being. Not too long after, he came back with a receipt, let us both out, handed me my shoelaces, and we were allowed to go. Thankfully, it was still light out as Tom and I made our way to the metro, as we discussed what actions we would take next to ensure that our planet survives for future generations.

Photo by James Salt.

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Published in: on January 28, 2014 at 10:33 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks Jason, how indeed “Acting Franciscan”. As Franciscans we are called to be people of prayer and action–they go together! I have been arrested twice, once against apartheid and once in a labor dispute. But that is nothing compared to the prisoners of conscience like Father Louie Vitale and Fr. Roy Bourgeois and so many others. Now many are risking arrests to stop deportations and like you to stop the Keystone Pipeline. You are in my thoughts, my prayers, and also have my respect and admiration.   Peace and all good,   Roger Yockey, OFS


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