Is it Okay to Miss Class to be Arrested?

By Bronwyn Oatley

This week, I had a hard time writing my story for the news section. On Monday evening around 6 p.m., just as we were about to begin layout for the newspaper, we received word that four students had been arrested while attending a protest at the TransCanada northeast U.S. office in Massachusetts. The students had handcuffed themselves together outside of the TransCanada offices in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Why couldn’t they have gotten arrested a few days ago?” I mused, knowing that the story would usurp the better part of the next 24-hours, as I worked to fact-check, get quotes for and copy-edit the piece.

From the WordPress site of the protest’s organizers, I learned that 21 other students had also been arrested by police — individuals from Green Mountain College, Tufts University, Brandeis University and Brown University. The students were joined by 80-or-so others at the demonstration, and used a tactic that indicated a “sharp escalation” in the New England-based protests.

As I began to type, I turned to Kelsey Collins, a co-editor of the news section. “Other than the students themselves, who else should I get a quote from about this?” I asked. “Maybe a professor? Is it a big deal that they’re missing school to get arrested?”

Throughout the evening, I worked to piece the story together. As I wrote, I thought about a protest that I had attended over the summer, a similarly public display of displeasure for a government-led climate policy. I had been working for a local news organization in Toronto at the time, and had learned of the “national day of protest” online. Seeking to “break” the story for the publication I was working for, I pitched it to my editor. Sensing my excitement, he obliged, but warned that the story wouldn’t run if the protest didn’t turn into a national story.

When I arrived “on scene” that afternoon, 40 or 50 protestors carried a coffin — a visual representation of the symbolic “death” of our future that would result if the government’s climate policy passed. I listened, took a few photographs and did interviews before my sister came to pick me up. She had driven across the city earlier that evening to join my mother and me for dinner to celebrate my birthday.

Arriving home, I headed straight into the den and began work on the story. Heart pounding, I added details, increased the saturation of the color photographs and spiced up the story as much as I could. “Just three more minutes,” I called, as my mother brought the curry to the table. A few minutes after, my family began eating; I hit send, and passed the story along to my editor. Triumphantly, I slid into a seat at the table beside my mother, proud to have helped add the voices of Canadian protesters into the public discourse.

When I got into the office the following morning, I realized that the story never ran. National news outlets hadn’t picked it up. The number of protestors “wasn’t large enough,” my editor said.

On Monday evening, as I typed about the 100-person protest in Massachusetts, I felt a growing sense of apathy. “This is kind of cool, but won’t make any difference,” I thought, “What is a few more students’ getting arrested going to do?”

Around 11:30 p.m. on Monday night, having finished layout with the other editors, I packed up my books and prepared to leave the Campus’s  office. With one strap of my backpack over my shoulder, my phone rang. It was Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’15.5, a friend, and one of the students who had been arrested. She and the three other students called from their hotel room in Massachusetts where they would stay until their hearing on Wednesday.

Grabbing my recorder, I headed for the back office and began to interview the four students over the phone. It was then, and only then — when I was three hours deep into the story — that I remembered what it had felt like to be at the protest that summer. It was only in that instant that I realized why the students’ actions were important, why the voices of all of those who protest misguided government policies matter.

“Over 40 percent of all the communities that the pipeline would go through are African-American communities and Native American communities,” said Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13, a friend, and one of the other students who had been arrested. “The U.S. population for Native folks is less than one percent, and is approximately 13 percent for African Americans.” It’s environmental racism,” he said.

Typing this op-ed while playing the recording of last night’s interview, I’m close to tears.

Unlike the four students, the tears I shed are not for the frontline communities, for I struggle to emote with such depth for those whom I do not know. Instead, they are a reaction to the actions of four students who decided that there was something more important than class on Monday. They are tears of hope, compassion and frustration. Tears, because using their voices and their bodies, these students forced me to let myself feel their passion and to experience, with a portion of the intensity that they carry regularly, why these actions matter.

On Monday, 26 students were jailed for “trespassing” and “disorderly conduct,” for a protest on the private property of a company that seeks to lay an 875-mile pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast — a company that intends to drive an oil-fuelled stake through indigenous territory, harming communities, contributing to the destruction of the planet and encouraging global climate apathy in the process.

If that isn’t representative of a backward judicial system, then I don’t know what is.

To the four students: Thank you for making me feel. To President Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper: Stop Keystone XL. And to the Middlebury College Board of Trustees: Make this College proud. Do the right thing on divestment.