March 24th, 2012

A Birds-Eye View of the Historic March 22nd Anti-Nuclear Rally At Entergy’s Vermont Headquarters in Brattleboro; or, How VDB Wound Up Doing Time in The Spitters’ Cell, and Related Sordid Tales

by Philip Baruth

Near the end of this story, I will find myself sitting in a small jail cell at the far end of a row of cells, dimensions about 5 feet by 7 feet by 6 feet, with four other male anti-nuclear protesters (no coed cells allowed), grouped around the stainless steel toilet and talking over the 40-year history of the drive to shut down Vermont Yankee. That cell is not the most pleasant the Brattleboro Police have to offer.

Its bars are fronted by a huge, airtight slab of smudged plexiglass, and it’s used for “protective confinement,” that is, to protect the police from the occupants.

Hence the name: the spitters’ cell.

The cops will be apologetic about the need to assign us the spitters’ cell, but with 140 or so arrested, they’re at their wit’s end for space. They’re doubly apologetic because the plexiglass allows no air to pass into or out of the cell, except through a small six-inch gap at the bottom.

So every 15 minutes or so, a Brattleboro cop will stroll by the plexiglass and wave at us, and we will wave back, one big happy family. But after an hour and a half or so, we slowly realize that he’s not being friendly — it’s an abnormally hot March evening, around 75 degrees, and he’s simply trying to make sure no one is in danger of passing out.

So we stop waving, and almost immediately we are transferred out of the spitters’ cell.

But it’s during that first hour and a half that I will find myself looking around at the scarred plexiglass, the concrete bed platform, the tiny messages scrimshawed into the bars (”I want out,” “Joanie 4ever”) and wonder: What precisely am I doing here again?

How It Started

VDB has opposed Yankee’s continued operation since its inception — or rather, since it joined forces back in 2006 with Steve West’s “Live and Local” radio show on WKVT in Brattleboro. Shutting down VY was a core principle of Steve’s show, and after doing an hour a week on the air with him, it’s fair to say I got religion on the issue.

When I decided to run for the State Senate in 2009, as an anti-nuclear candidate, I did so because I was convinced that the State Senate was the key to shuttering the plant for good. And for a while, during the 2010 Senate debate on the issue, and for nearly a year afterward, that seemed true enough.

Then came the Murtha decision, and suddenly the Senate was not just sidelined, but admonished for having ever mentioned the safety considerations involved with nuclear power generally, and the issues of trust and radiation at the Vernon plant specifically.

So last month I found myself again, as in the beginning, on WKVT with Steve, and Newfane activist Dan DeWalt, talking over the Murtha decision and trying to figure out where things go from here. And it seemed to me that if citizens had taken their cues from the Legislature on the nuclear issue for the last year or so, it was now time for the Legislature to take its cues from the citizens and the activists again, at least for the foreseeable future.

So I asked Dan what was coming up in the way of citizen activism at VY in the near term.

Funny you should ask, DeWalt said.

What It Was

Entergy’s original design and authorization package called for a 40-year lifespan, with March 21, 2012 as the drop-dead shut-down date. Of course, over the years the various owners have attempted to extend that interval, with Entergy only the most recent and the most aggressive. March 22, in other words, would be the first day the company would be in breach of that original agreement, putting aside the convoluted attempts to extend the plant’s life over the last five years.

So the SAGE Alliance was in the planning stages for a massive rally at Entergy’s Headquarters in Brattleboro. The event would feature a long march from the Brattleboro Commons to the HQ, some three and a half miles away — nearly single-file all the way, as the route traversed some high-traffic roads. There a series of small affinity groups — all trained in civil disobedience — would risk arrest, one after the other, in a very gentle but persistent wave.

Crucially, the event would be timed to coincide with actions in Louisiana, at Entergy’s corporate home base, and at other nuclear facilities in the Northeast. It was a very well-designed agenda, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to take part.

The catch: SAGE is smart enough to require non-violence training for all the affinity groups that risk arrest under their banner. Puts everyone on the same page, and it dramatically lowers the risk of provocateurs or non-like-minded freelancers taking the event in a counter-productive direction.

Which was how I found myself at the Montpelier Grange, the weekend before the Brattleboro rally, working my way through a day-long training session in non-violent thought and action. It was a day full of role-playing and simulated marches — some of which would be interrupted by trainers playing police or provocateurs — and it drove home the point that peaceful arrest was the goal, as a way of forcing Entergy and the system undergirding it to acknowledge the ongoing costs of its actions.

But the best moment was when I walked through the Grange door and saw a huge banner that read, “Remember Fukushima,” and below it a much smaller red-and-white sign with the words, “We stand with our Vermont state legislators.” (Full props to Eric, Diane, and Er!k for their guidance on that afternoon.)

Still, when the day was over, two more things were still missing before I could feel comfortable risking arrest: legal counsel, on the question of whether the arrest of even a single Senator could compromise the ongoing appeal of the Murtha decision, and permission from my daughter, whom I’d promised to take to the long-awaited midnight premiere of The Hunger Games at the Palace 9 cinema on the exact same day.

Legal counsel took about a week, but the various people I consulted — people with top-shelf knowledge of the case and its implications — were all of the opinion that I could exercise my rights as an individual, and as a Vermont Senator, without impacting the ongoing litigation.

But permission from Gwendolyn was tougher to come by: she was adamant that a promise was a promise, so it took two weeks of domestic back and forth before she finally came down unexpectedly one night before bed and agreed to give up the midnight show, if need be.

For which she was hugged very much.

How It Came Together

So when I got to Brattleboro the morning of the 22nd, everything was in place, including my own support team: Steve West, and his girlfriend Jen, who got me to the Commons while Steve pumped the rally for the last hour of his slot on WKVT (podcasts available here).

From the start it was clear that this would be a massive gathering; there were already about 600 in the park, with more streaming in as each speaker came to the microphone. And then, remembering my social media manners, I started tweeting and kept tweeting, until such time as my phone was confiscated later in the day. (The is archived here.)

It was that particular mix of politics and circus that New England generally, and Bread & Puppet specifically, have perfected over the decades: women on stilts dressed as Fukushima angels, paper-mache nuclear plants with bubbles leaking from their domes, many people painted, everyone wearing bright colors and sun hats, and everyone on one page: the time for the plant to close was now.

It was a globally-weird morning in March: temperature slowly climbing into the 80’s, and everyone dressed for late July. I’d come with no hat, and halfway through the long, winding, 3.5 mile march I realized it was a serious mistake — could feel my face burning, and the crown of my head cooking.

So I turned to my right, and there it was: True Value Hardware. Five minutes later I was back in line wearing a $1.98 white painters cap, with the words “True Value” emblazoned in red across the front. Which just seemed, you know, metaphorically fitting.

How I Got Busted

Once we reached the Safety Zone — a staging area across from the plant, owned by a sympathetic local — there were more speeches and performances, but mostly everyone got serious. Affinity groups formed up, and checked their roles and supplies; I was grouped in with some folks called Sun-Dew, over from Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts, as lovely a group of individuals as you could find in any state anywhere. (Many thanks to David Detmold and Court Dorsey for taking in a stray on short notice.)

And at a certain pre-determined point, word was given for those not willing to risk arrest to head out and form a welcoming crowd outside Entergy HQ; those of us who were risking arrest stayed put for a final briefing.

Then the various affinity groups were put into sequence, with mine as number six in line. And off we went.

But not before the appropriate tweet, with a quote for Gwendolyn, repurposing a phrase from The Hunger Games: “Civil disobedience commencing now — last transmission until it’s over/may the odds be ever in our favor”

The first group made their approach to the thick line of yellow “Private Property” tape and nylon rope used to cordon off the entrance to the Headquarters, and there was that moment of maximum tension when everyone realizes that all of this planning has now come to a head, civil disobedience is occurring now. Like pressing your forefinger against a soap bubble, the way that first group pressed slowly up against the rope.

Then a visual pop, and they were inside. And almost immediately the first group were read the riot act and hustled away. Again, and again, the affinity groups came.

Until it was our turn. Leslie Sullivan Sachs, who was the SAGE emcee as the non-violence got underway, posted this sharp little clip and it gives a real feel for the atmosphere.