I had some court fines for my part in the Insulate Britain (IB) protests in 2021. Previously I refused to pay fines, all resulting from peaceful protest. Eventually, after dealing with some moderately stressful visits from bailiffs attempting to enter our house and take away property, I spent a few weeks in prison here and there for refusing to pay up.
This time, however, things were different. For an assortment of reasons, I did pay the fines. The support networks for climate change activists who might have helped me pay the fines, did not do so. I knew why. The IB motorway blockades I had taken part in were highly controversial. Some of the groups I had been involved with had disowned these actions. Others followed suit and would not support those experiencing the costs and consequences of taking part.
This raises some questions. What does solidarity mean, and what are its limits when there is honest disagreement on tactics or principle? Dorothy once reported someone saying, “these Catholic Workers will protest with anyone”! If we only act with those we fully agree with, we will be left to act alone, whereas “Unity is Strength”.
Over the years, I have been part of anti-war marches organised by the Socialist Workers Party, where I have disagreed with their ultimate (but not immediate) aims and their methods of organising. I have been on Poll Tax, Anti-Racism and Reclaim the Streets protests where some started fighting with the police, or threw ‘missiles’ at them. I was happy to benefit from their organising efforts, and only left when I felt unsafe. Some peace movement friends have intervened to prevent violence in such circumstances, rather than leave and vacate the space.
On the annual May Day march, the Kurdish Workers Party used to have banners of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin, which I kept well away from. In recent years, there has been tension for a number of friends of the Catholic Worker (CW) in relation to this question of unity, solidarity and diversity of actions.
One example is that of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya. In 2016 and 2017 they damaged machinery and equipment as part of the “Dakota Access Pipeline” protests in the USA. The pipeline was built to bring oil from the shale oil fields to a refinery in Illinois. Part of it affected Native American land and sacred sites. So opposition came from environmentalists, Native Americans and allied rights activists. Jessica and Ruby’s actions are estimated to have stopped the flow of 30 million barrels of oil. Despite being connected to the Des Moines CW community, their actions were controversial within the CW movement.
Property damage as part of nonviolent protest is not new to the CW. There is the anti-nuclear and anti-war Ploughshares movement, for example. Locally, there has been the annual Ash Wednesday witness at the Ministry of Defence in London and others. These actions have included targeted property damage while retaining a focus on non-violence and accountability.
Perceptions that Jessica and Ruby did not follow this practice of accountability led some CW-ers to critique, rather than support, their action. I myself had some doubts about their methods. But I admire their courage and sincerity and the rightness of their cause. I also recognise how the shock of the ‘new’ can create a negative reaction which changes on further reflection. I think of Dorothy Day’s first, and then later, reactions to the draft board raids in Vietnam War-era America. So I wanted to offer Jessica and Ruby what solidarity and support I can. Especially since they received multi-year prison sentences.
Friends close to home have also needed solidarity following controversial actions. Richard, a former member of this community, stayed here recently during a trial at Wood Green Crown Court. Richard, Nick and other friends were charged with ‘conspiracy to commit criminal damage’ for actions taken with the group ‘Beyond Politics’ (later ‘Burning Pink’) in an effort to motivate political parties, NGOs and campaigning groups to actively support mass civil disobedience on climate change. Criticism this time was due to the organisations targeted, rather than the methods. Again, I too had doubts about the wisdom of some of their actions. At the same time, I wanted to offer support and solidarity, especially when facing the possibility of extended time in prison. Some were already on remand, tagged, or under restrictive bail conditions, with a very real impact on daily life.
When Tom and I went to support them in court, they were so grateful. It reminded me of how little support they had outside their own circle, and how important that support can be. They were acquitted by the jury, as have many other groups in recent years, thank God. Juries at least have often recognised the need for drastic action to respond to the climate emergency.
I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘those who love community, destroy community. Those who love those around them, build community’. This does not give easy answers or clear rules. It is that love, that care for each and every person, especially those who suffer, which is at the heart of what we do, of the Christian life. And especially those who suffer for conscience sake, because they had the courage and faith, in God or humanity, to do what is right. And—for us as Christians—especially for those whose courage comes from that deepest and most secret place in the heart, the place where we meet God, where the Divine Voice speaks heart to heart, where ‘deep calls unto deep’ as the psalmist says.
This is unconditional love, agape, this is living God’s Reign, the true revolution, in every moment. As Jesus said, ‘blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’.
Reflections, music and scripture as well as opportunities for sharing on this World Aids Day online service.
Dec 01 2023
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fr Rick Frechette has been the cornerstone of a Passionist community all giving their lives for the beleaguered nation.
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An exclusive extract from Rev'd Sue Parfitt's new book on Christians, Civil Resistance and the Climate Crisis - out soon via Lab/ora Press.
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