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Let a Thousand Actions Bloom | Melinda Tuhus

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Melinda Tuhus reported for decades for a variety of national and local radio and print outlets, including Free Speech Radio News, WINGS, the New Haven Independent, In These Times and The New York Times. She is moving toward retirement and spending more time volunteering in the climate justice movement.

I’ve been arrested several times in DC doing non-violent direct actions (NVDA), protesting FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) as a rubber-stamp agency that is contributing mightily to the cooking of the climate and destruction of local communities and landscapes, but Nov. 5 was my first arrest in the Capitol. It was at a Senate hearing of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee to consider the nomination of James Danly to be the third Republican member of the five-member FERC.

The hearing room is small, so we had to get in line two hours early to guarantee our spots. (We took a break in the women’s bathroom to video record our statements, which is why it sounds sotto voce.) We took our seats and observed some of the senators greeting the nominee, at least one – ranking member Joe Manchin (supposedly D-WV) declaring his support even before the hearing began.

As I sat in that ornate room, each side of the aisle alternating in their questions and comments to the nominee, I felt viscerally that the plodding pace of the Senate is all out of whack with the scope and immediacy of the crisis. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I stood up and declared, “We’re in a climate emergency, and FERC is fanning the flames of the crisis. We need to convert FERC into FREC, the Federal Renewable Energy Commission.” I was taken out of the room, but let my demand echo down the hall, and I know they could hear me inside.

After being handcuffed, I was escorted down the stairs very gently by two officers who said they didn’t want me to trip. I don’t know if that’s because I have gray hair, or I’m white, or a female, or if they would have treated any other arrestee the same. (Somehow I doubt it.) I asked the young arresting officer what he thought of the climate crisis, and of course he didn’t answer, but he smiled seemingly sympathetically.

I loved that I wasn’t taken to a freezing cold holding cell! I was held for maybe an hour to 90 minutes before being released after paying a $50 fine.

There are many ways to raise the alarm, and disrupting a staid Congressional hearing is just one of them. We often don’t know what impact our actions will have until more time has passed. I’m hoping some of the senators, their young staffers, or some audience members – including the mom and three-year-old girl who were relatives of another nominee – will consider my plea for climate justice.

Update: Manchin was the only “Democrat” to join all the Republicans in approving Danly’s nomination and moving it on to the full Senate. Even though there is an opening for a Democratic appointee, and the Dems have what looks like a good candidate, Trump has so far declined to make that nomination. Minority Senate Leader Chuck Schumer had earlier pledged to hold up all legislation coming out of this committee unless they gave the Dem FERC nominee a fair hearing. Stay tuned.

Then two weeks later I attended an amazing NVDA action 90 minutes across the New York state line in Duchess County, in a last-ditch effort to stop the biggest fracked gas power plant in the Northeast from coming on-line, which would spew 279 tons of nitrogen oxides, 570 tons of carbon monoxide, and more than 60 tons of sulfuric acid pollution, plus a shocking 6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. People locked down to a tractor, above, signifying support from some local farmers. And four people scaled a 275-foot smokestack that’s part of the plant, and stayed there for almost 12 hours. They got on the property before dawn, and the company called out the few workers on the overnight shift, shutting down the plant for the day. The photo below of the smokestack doesn’t convey its height, except for a tree branch very low for comparison.

One of the protesters explained, “The longer they’re not doing construction the better. But the long-term goal is to hopefully awaken Cuomo’s conscience and get [the plant] shut down.”

The action was enlivened by the beautiful harmonies of the choir of the Church of Stop Shopping, as well as a big brass band.

I read one article saying this plant could replace half the power of the Indian Point nuclear plant nearby, which Cuomo plans to shutter in late 2021, but renewable forms of energy are available and cost-competitive with dirty gas. The plant is due to open in early 2020. Opening gas plants is not the way for Gov. Cuomo to meet his own stated goal of making New York’s grid carbon-neutral by 2040.

Twenty-nine people were arrested, charged with trespass or, for the climbers, criminal trespass. Let’s hope they touched Cuomo’s conscience.

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