A Friction to the Machine

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

Getting arrested is a time-honoured way to bring change.

“We need to get arrested more often,” Daniel blurts to the clutch of eco-types gathered in a Montreal bar. We had just come from another talk about how badly the earth was being abused. Some of us were feeling a little weary.

It sounded like an epiphany to me. I already knew that challenging the courts can change bad laws, set precedents, draw publicity to an issue, and free up one’s inhibitions to do what’s right. So why had it been so long since I had last been arrested?

The next day, my soulmate Angela and I discovered an abandoned sofa and moved it into the curb lane of sunny Boulevard St. Denis. The sidewalks were jammed with pedestrians strolling and sunning, cars belched and bumped, while we relaxed, talked and engaged passers-by on our couch, on the street.

It was street theatre, and it magically liberated a bit of asphalt from the autocracy of motors. Every passerby smiled. Except for the boys in blue. Les flics showed no sense of humour. They told us to leave. Angela got up. I stayed.

And got arrested, cuffed and tried. Thanks to my lawyer, I got off with only having to pay $400 or so in tickets. Since my lawyer generously offered his services pro bono, I indulged his giving me some advice: “You might want to choose your battles,” he said.

Since then, ample opportunities have arisen to put Henry David Thoreau’s dictum into practice. “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine,” he wrote in his classic essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau said he aimed to “wake (his) neighbours up”.

I take this as a license – indeed a duty – to push harder. To take chances. To be bold. To cross the line.

Everybody knows that the greatest threat to our species’ survival, next to all out nuclear war, is the massive experiment we are undertaking with the very air we breath, the atmosphere that cushions our blue planet from the frostiness of deep space. Through ignorance, greed and a perverse economic system, we are throwing more and more fuel on a fire that we all know needs to be extinguished.

The last thing this world needs is another huge pool of oil excavated and burned. But with tax breaks from the Canadian and Alberta governments to corporate swindlers, an unprecedented oil rush is underway. There is more oil in Alberta’s tar sands than in all of Saudi Arabia. So on the road to Ft. McMurray, north of Edmonton, a group of people working with Greenpeace blocked a giant piece of equipment from being shipped to the tar sands. One person locked onto a couple of oil drums filled with concrete. Two others locked on to the giant coker. I was a media contact person. The bunch of us found ourselves in jail.

In Calgary a few months later at the World Petroleum Congress, I joined thousands of people protesting the human rights violations and ecological crimes of the oil industry. I delivered a public and peaceful speech outside of the headquarters of Suncor, one of those tar sands enthusiasts, and for that they arrested me. At least they let me ride my bicycle the station, escorted by two cops on bikes.

Last November I found myself, along with people from almost every nation on the planet, at the World Climate Conference in the Hague, the Netherlands. The challenge was to reach an agreement on how to break the fever the earth suffers from. How to tame the climate crisis. How to move towards renewable energy and energy efficiency.

This was to be the meeting to finalize a key commitment made at the Earth Summit more than eight years prior in Rio de Janeiro. As small island nations pleaded for changes that would avert rising sea levels, a handful of countries stood in the way of an agreement. Canada was the worst nation present, according to the world’s environmental organizations.

Rather then agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Canada urged that nuclear power be promoted as an alternative, and that trees and crops be counted as offsets. Canada and a handful of other nations blocked consensus, like a stubborn kid, refusing to commit to a transition towards a fossil fuel free future. So I burned my passport. What else could I do?

A few weeks later, while camping out with peace activists in a forest next to a NATO base in southern Netherlands to protest the arsenal of nuclear weapons therein, I couldn’t resist joining them as they “knipped” through the fence onto the base. Ten of us entered the base and fanned out. I made it onto a roof, and shot a roll of film. Before long we were all rounded up. And arrested.

After eight days in jail I was deported back to Canada.

Why are we so reluctant to consider getting arrested? Which are the battles to choose, and how best to fight them? Is it more important to fight for a place to pedal safely in my city, or to push for my nephew Noah’s right to breathe clean air, free from poisonous tailpipe and smokestack emissions that nearly strangle him to death?

Which passions get you up in the morning? Which keep you up worrying late at night? Does any issue reach down and grab you, to the point that you’re ready to walk out the door and stand in the way of “progress”?

If there was a fire across the street, wouldn’t you break a window, or break the law, to save a life? Are we facing unprecedented crisis on planet earth or aren’t we?

The coral reefs, now in the midst of a massive die-off thanks to warmer ocean waters, have no voice but yours. Nor do the polar bears facing a bleak future as the Arctic ice disappears into water.

As the climate changes, so must our consciousness. And our words into actions.