Local activists continue to leave their mark.

Going to jail as an act of non-violent direct action is completely different than going to jail under other circumstances. First, you are prepared to risk arrest, and you’re willing to face charges, if necessary, for a reason. Typically, people get arrested because they committed a crime, and their plan for NOT getting arrested went wrong. Second, you are arrested and jailed with friends who share a common purpose—so there is a sense of solidarity. Third, another group of friends is prepared to get you out of jail, so you don’t have to fear rotting there forever.

The March 28th action at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C., was well-planned. Twenty of us from the Resist Rockwool group were willing to risk arrest if the Danish Ambassador refused to meet with us or answer our questions. We formed a blockade of the gates of the Embassy of Denmark in D.C. and refused to move until we received an answer. We were all briefed the day before by a volunteer attorney on what to expect if the Danish Ambassador chose to have us arrested and removed. Another group was trained on how to act as “jail support” for us. About a hundred people rode down from Jefferson County (WV) on buses, or met us in D.C., to participate in the rally.

The reason we made the trip that day was to protest Rockwool’s plan to build a heavily polluting factory in the county. We took the issue to the embassy of the country that Rockwool comes from.

Environmentally friendly Denmark needs to know that this corporation is not planning a green factory in West Virginia. To the contrary, the factory would burn 84 tons of coal and 1.6 million cubic feet of fracked gas per day. The factory would belch out toxic pollutants right across the street from an elementary school in a working-class neighborhood.

As Shepherdstown resident Lynn Yellott, who was arrested that day, put it, “Denmark is significantly reducing their country’s carbon footprint, but there seems to be a double standard. Why should a Danish coal-burning, fracked-gas-fueled factory be allowed to burn fossil fuels in the U.S.?”

©Benita Keller

Staying Put

We arrived in D.C. around 11:30am that morning. Scores of folks from the Eastern Panhandle—from little kids to grandparents—got off the buses and held a rally and sing along right there on the sidewalk. Then we marched to the embassy, carrying our signs and banners, chanting and singing all the way.

Those of us willing to risk arrest marched, chanted, and sang, too, and the feeling of anticipation made the crisp, spring day electric.

At the embassy, several Resist Rockwool members spoke about the injustice and abuses of the Danish manufacturing giant. Mother of two, Morgan Sell, said Rockwool had assumed the people of Jefferson County couldn’t read or use the Internet and therefore would not be able to resist.

After the speeches, the group of us willing to risk arrest went to the embassy gate. David Levine, one of the leaders of Resist Rockwool, attempted to reach Acting Ambassador Henrik Hahn for responses to the following three questions that had been communicated earlier by letter and during an in-person meeting:

  • Do you believe that the people of West Virginia deserve the same rights and protections as the people of Denmark?
  • Do you believe Rockwool should have to meet Danish standards in its international operations?
  • Do you believe that Rockwool should be able to build a factory in Jefferson County that violates those standards by endangering the air, water, health, and future prosperity of our community?

When the Ambassador refused to speak with us, we took our places in front of the gate—all 20 of us sitting in a row on the pavement with our backs against the gate—holding hands or linking arms. The police put up caution tape to keep the rest of the group away from the sit-in.

The D.C. police had to send for Secret Service officers to arrest us, since the embassy is under Secret Service jurisdiction. Once they arrived, they warned us three times to leave the area or we would be arrested. We all stayed put. The officers then approached each of us one after another, told us we were under arrest, asked us to stand with our wrists crossed behind our backs, and cuffed us with plastic zip ties.

Then the Secret Service took our belongings from our pockets and patted us down thoroughly. They jotted down contact information from our IDs, and also took our shoestrings, belts, hoody ties, and anything else resembling a string.

As the officers made the arrests, the rally continued. As each of us was cuffed, the rest of the group chanted our names and said, “We love you.”

©Benita Keller

No Better Place

We had to wait a while in cuffs for the police vans to come and take us to jail. While we waited, we noticed some of the discomforts of not being able to use our hands. As arrestee Benita Keller observed, “If your nose itches you have to depend on the other arrested people to let you rub your nose on their shoulder.”

One man in our group had to be taken to the hospital for a pre-existing health problem. The Secret Service kept him under guard and cuffed to the gurney at all times.

The arrests were done professionally. Some of us had pain from the zip ties, but no one was purposely injured by the police.

Two vans arrived around 1:30pm and the Secret Service loaded us in. Each van went to a different jail. Our view was out a back window, and as the van pulled into a building, we saw a garage door shut behind us.

Once at the jail, guards checked in the ten of us women from the first van and put us into a 10 x 20 cell with a large steel picnic table in the middle. The cells were in a stinky basement—there was a toilet in the corner with only minimal privacy.

Shortly after we got there, a woman with mental illness was placed in the cell across from us. She was in a state of anxiety about being separated from her iPhone and about her decaying teeth. She yelled to the guards to bring her iPhone and her medication from her purse. After trying to explain the process to her a couple of times, they ignored her. Over the next few hours, she raged continuously about the injustice of her situation.

It took a while for them to fingerprint us—we each required a background check. The guards told us if any one of the 20 had any outstanding warrants, then we would have to go to court in the morning. This made us worry they would keep us overnight.

The guards brought us water when we asked for it, and after some hours had gone by, we mentioned that we were hungry. They said food would have to be sent from another jail and that it would take a few hours.

With no way to tell time and no view of the outdoors, we were disoriented. When we finally had an opportunity to ask the time, we were surprised that it was 7:30pm. We passed the time telling stories. As 10:30pm approached, we were all very hungry and concerned that we would not be released until morning.

I found out later how those at the other jail had spent the time. Long-time activist Stewart Acuff, of Martinsburg (WV), told me, “Long ago, I learned there’s no better place to sing freedom songs than in jail, so we did. We told stories, talked about music, and talked a whole lot about the work of justice.”

©Benita Keller

A Clear Answer

The whole time, our jail support person waited for us in the lobby. She sent a written message letting us know they had arranged for either rides home or a place to stay for the night.

Finally, around 11pm, a guard came and told us he had some bad news. A long pause followed, then he laughed, and got out the key to release us.

What a relief—out of the stinky cell and into the fresh night air! Then, in the lobby, our jail support had food and water for us all. She had waited there patiently for more than eight hours. The bologna sandwiches from the other jail arrived as well—but most of us passed on the mystery meat.

“Would we do it again? I asked the group. The answer was a clear, “yes.” As Shepherdstown resident Leslie Carter said, “Considering the stakes, it was worth it. Eight hours in jail to preserve clean air and water? My forbears, who lived in the Kanawha River valley and watched beautiful farmland destroyed by industrial pollution, shout YES—it was worth it—from beyond the grave!”

 

— ARTICLE BY: Tracy Cannon

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