Nine years ago today I went to prison. Along with hundreds of other people in Philadelphia, I had engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience when the US launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, and a year later we received our summons to appear in court. Those of us who refused to pay the $250 fine were sentenced to a week in maximum security federal prison and kept in lock-down in our cells 24 hours a day.
When we stepped through the doors of the prison on that sunny April day, with Philadelphia’s blossoming springtime in full swing, we entered a world unto itself, cut off from the outside by its thick concrete walls, locked doors, and glaring florescent lights.
We went through several hours of intake, including two strip searches, before we were finally issued our orange jumpsuits and escorted handcuffed to our cells. (My cellmate, Janeal Ravndal, was a Quaker woman who later wrote about our experience in her booklet, A Very Good Week Behind Bars, published by Pendle Hill Press.)
Our only connection to the outside was a narrow vertical frosted window, and a day or two after our arrival I discovered a tiny pinprick of clear glass where the frosted glaze hadn’t adhered. Smaller than the head of a pin, it was my only view to the out-of-doors. Peering through it I could make out the basic outlines of buildings, cars, a distant highway.
I realized that for me the most cruel aspect of imprisonment would be to live for months and even years cut off from the natural world, never seeing a moonrise or a flower opened to the morning sun, never feeling the breeze on my skin or breathing in the smell of the woods after a rain, never hearing birdsong, or touching the rough bark of a tree, or feeling the earth beneath my feet. Ripping people away from the web of life and caging them in a world of artificial lights and harsh, unyielding surfaces was inhumane.
It was Earth Day when I went to prison, and today I’m thinking of someone else who is, at this very moment, sitting in a jail cell for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience on behalf of the Earth.
Sandra Steingraber has spent her life studying the links between environmental toxins and human disease. A biologist and author (her latest book is Raising Elijah:Protecting Our Children in a Time of Environmental Crisis), she became dismayed at legislators’ and environmental regulatory agencies’ imperviousness to the scientific data demonstrating that many industrial toxins are wreaking havoc on our health, from cancer to early childbirth to asthma to contaminated breast milk.
Finally, she put her own body on the line on the shore of Seneca Lake, blocking a drilling truck that was going to prepare an abandoned salt mine for storage of high pressure gas obtained through fracking.
She herself was diagnosed with bladder cancer in her 20’s and has spent her entire life dealing with the consequences. Her cancer was most likely caused by toxins in her own drinking water growing up and she is fiercely determined to do whatever she can to protect her own children from a similar fate. (To learn more about her and the issues of environmental toxins, see Bill Moyers’ April 19th interview of Sandra on PBS.)
In my blog last week I said, “the fundamental spiritual truth is that all things and all beings are interconnected, part of one body — Love — that animates the Universe.” Yet for the most part our economy — and especially our energy policy — is based on the denial of that truth. By decimating the environment, pumping deadly toxins into the soil, air and water, we are waging an assault on all the life forms currently inhabiting the planet, on ourselves, on the Earth, on the future, on Love.
I see this assault on the Earth as the most dangerous violence happening on the planet in our day. When you consider the lives at stake, all of our political wars and acts of terrorism pale in comparison.
I ask myself frequently, how shall I respond to this crisis? What role shall I play? Shall I do as Sandra did? Is it time again to put my own body on the line, this time in solidarity with the Earth and the generations to come?
I haven’t yet answered that one for myself, though the question continues to tug at me. For now though, on this Earth Day, I am feeling indebted to the growing numbers of people such as Sandra who are putting themselves on the line to stand in solidarity with the future and the interconnectedness of life, who are standing in solidarity with Love.