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Turning up the Summer Heat on Coal

It’s an impossibly beautiful summer morning in Vermont – and I’m leaving the state on the last Saturday of July to go sit in a dirty church baseBrayton green jobsment in Providence, R.I.

My travel takes me south through the mountain towns of Jamaica and Townshend along Route 30. There’s a farmer’s market along the way, and in another town they’re getting ready for a parade.

On the shortcut through Brattleboro I pass the old ski jump on the edge of town, near signs protesting a skateboard park.

I’m leaving all this summer sweetness for a different kind of protest – against the Brayton Point coal plant, in Somerset, Mass. It’s the biggest coal plant in New England and also the region’s biggest polluter.

Climate-changing carbon continues to pour unabated from Brayton and other coal plants. And the science around climate change is clear: If we don’t stop burning coal, the planet will be cooked.
I’m traveling south to join one of a series of actions around the country under the banner of “Summer Heat.” Hundreds of us are spending the weekend organizing and marching to call for the shutdown of the plant in Somerset, Mass., near Fall River.

With the protest planned for Sunday, we’ve set aside Saturday to provide training for several dozen people who plan to symbolically trespass at the plant gate during the Sunday rally.

As I pull up my car outside the church in Providence, someone drives up beside me and a voice shouts, “Get a real job!” It’s my old friend Tom, who has traveled from Montana to join the protest.

We spend the afternoon in the church basement with perhaps a hundred very dedicated people. Tom and I have decided not to participate in the civil disobedience, so we’re there to provide support for those planning to make a larger point by being arrested. I’m struck by how many other white hairs I see in the room.

As we sweat together through the hot afternoon, I’m reminded again that while demonstrations are fun, activism as a whole can be hard work. It takes a belief that what we do individually matters – and that the way to make an even bigger difference is to act as part of larger, likeminded group.

Sunday morning dawns wet and cloudy. But the rain clouds lift as hundreds of us gather in the shadow of the coal plant’s two gigantic cooling towers. After the speeches, we’ll march to the plant gate.

Around me are signs bemoaning “Coalmaggedon” and announcing “For the Record: I got it. I acted.”
A couple dozen other Vermonters have come to the event, too, and two UVM students are carrying a “Shut Down Brayton Point” banner.

A retired coal miner from West Virginia gives a speech about the toll that coal mining has taken on his state. Paula Swearengin, from the Keepers of the Mountain organization in West Virginia, moves many to tears by talking of how the lovely mountains around her homeland – she is the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners – have been blown up to extract the coal that’s burned at Brayton.

Now her children and others in that next generation are suffering the harsh environmental effects of coal mining. “There’s no reason,” she says, “that I should have to give up my children to fire up that coal plant.”

Brayton Point is “a killing machine, “ in the words of 350.org organizer Craig Altemose. “Nobody should have to die to supply us with electricity.”

At last the fun part begins, as we march several blocks toward the plant. Organizing for a march is hard work, but rallies themselves are inspiring events. We’re chanting, waving banners, full of the purpose.

Near the plant we see a gigantic mountain of coal, ready to be burned. It makes the stakes of our action that much clearer.

“Show me what democracy look like,” goes the call as we are marching. And the response: “This is what democracy looks like.”

Sometimes, too, democracy means putting your body on the line. The symbolic moment arrives as we near the plant gates. Anyone beyond a certain point is trespassing and will be arrested.

We’d been told the police were planning a strong presence at the event, and the Somerset police chief has announced his department bought riot gear in preparation – huge overkill for this crowd of polite, well meaning liberals on a Sunday morning.

The police have gone to ridiculous lengths. There are a hundred cops on hand – one for every five marchers — and some of them are SWAT team members in camouflage.

Cops and marchers get along just fine, as the police handcuff the 44 people who have decided to symbolically block the plant gate. They’re charged with simple trespassing, processed, and released later that day.

It’s the arrests that get the most media attention, with stories about the July 28 rally in the Boston and Providence papers, on the AP wire and WBUR radio and in the Huffington Post.

After the rally and a late lunch, I bid my friend Tom best wishes for a safe flight back to Montana. , and I head back north. I swear that as I drive over the border into Vermont, the air begins to smell noticeably sweeter.

In the Massachusetts courts the next day, the arraignments begin for those arrested at Brayton Point.
At home that day, I call the solar company and make a down payment to have solar electric panels put on the roof of my house.

For now, they are still burning coal at Brayton Point.

But I’ll be damned if they’ll be generating any electricity for me. I plan to make my own.

– 30 –

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