Photo: Mike Graeme
By Keith Cherry
Greenpeace volunteer, organizer and activist in Victoria, BC
The Not-so-calm Before the Storm
Last Sunday, I boarded the community action bus in Victoria to catch a ride to Burnaby for a blockade at Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Marine Terminal. In order to make our action feel peaceful and non-violent, we had decided to blockade the road by setting up a pancake breakfast for protestors, employees, neighbours and police officers alike. It was a whimsical, but pointed affair. A significant group was prepared to face arrest should anyone try to pass our syrupy line. More than 50 activist crammed onto the re-purposed school bus, along with papier-mâché marine animals, banners, and all the makings of a pancake breakfast. On the bus, organizers went over the plan once again, even though there had already been two training sessions. Once on board the ferry, we promptly took over the upper deck for a community potluck as strangers got acquainted. That night, we sleep on a church floor in downtown Vancouver, passing the evening role-playing every possible scenario, from arrests to belligerent protestors, from agents provocateurs to assaults on elders, training ourselves in how best respond. By the time we turned out the lights, there was a palpable tension in the air. Despite our peaceful intentions, we had no idea how the next day would go. How would police react? Employees? Who else would show up to join us, and how would they act? The church air was thick with uncertainty.
Photo: Kym Hines Credit Mike Graeme
Singing in the Rain
Whether it was tension from the night before or sheer Christmas-morning excitement, I don’t think any of us really slept. 4:45 came early the next day, but we wanted to be in place before employees began arriving for work. Running on pure adrenaline, we piled back into the bus. It was pouring rain when we arrived at Kinder Morgan’s gates, but we sprang into action quickly. Within minutes, tents were up, tarps were in place, tables were blocking the road and volunteers were busy churning out pancakes.
It kept pouring all day long, but the crowd’s spirits stayed high. We sang and danced and ate and laughed while the puddles around us turned to rivers. Elders spoke, members of local first nations welcomed our gathering and lifted our spirits with their words of resilience and resistance. In the end, not a single employee tried to cross our line and the police didn’t attempt a single arrest or make a single demand. We declared victory, stopped by the nearby protest camp called Camp Cloud to celebrate, and piled back into our now very damp bus for the ride home.
Photo: Murray Bush
The blockade had held, and without a single arrest. The action was, in that sense, a total success. What I was struck by most on the bus ride back though, was not our effect on Kinder Morgan – it was our effect on each other. Between the two training sessions, the bus ride, the sleepless night on a church floor, the preparatory role plays, the potluck and the pancake breakfast, and the hours huddled together in the rain, we had build a lot of trust, a lot of love – a lot of community. A vehicle that was full of strangers yesterday was full of comrades today. Going into our action, we had no idea what the world might throw at us, but we knew we had put in the time and built the skills we needed to support each other, now and in the future. On the way back, it showed. There was an electricity in the air that was totally different from the ride over. Nervous whispers replaced by bold talk of the next action, and the one after that.
The Fork in the Road
Looking back, what I’m most proud of isn’t shutting down the Westridge terminal, it’s the sense of empowerment we helped build in our community. Nearly half of our group was participating in their first direct action. Hell, key members of the organizing group were new to this sort of action. Many were not seasoned political actors. They were ordinary people who were tired of casting votes and never seeing results. Helping these people step into an unpredictable situation for the first time, taking that leap from words to actions, that will make an impact that dwarfs any work stoppage or political pressure.
It reminds me of my first direct action, not all that long ago. I remember the day after. I felt… changed. Awakened. Empowered. I felt like I didn’t have to wait around for government to act any more, like I could take action myself. Produce change myself. I felt like I had found a way out of the frustration and depression that come from watching a world gone to hell before my eyes. Most of all, I knew that I could never go back to the way I had been. I knew I would keep taking action, again and again.
Watching our group, ranging from elders to preteens, from radicals to white collar workers, I found myself wondering how many would start approaching their life, their work, their politics a little differently. All around me, I saw an idea spreading like ripples in a Vancouver puddle – the simple but profound idea that we don’t need to wait for politicians to save us, we can save ourselves. I like to think that, at least for some of us, eating pancakes in the middle of the street was a fork in the road, in more ways than one.
Photo: Kym Hines
Marianne Williamson once said “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”. By the time we arrived back in Victoria, the sense of empowerment was palpable. We were soggy, tired, and sore, but we were excited. Moving forward, I’m grateful for the reminder to never reduce an action to its impact on the establishment. Activism isn’t just about changing policies, it’s about changing people. As I continue to organize and agitate, I’ll be paying closer attention to this aspect of my work – who are we involving, what skills are we imparting, what experiences are we creating, how can our actions be sites of empowerment and awakening? How we can involve the people we care about, how we help them take their next step?
In a world that seems to grow stormier every day, I can think of no policy change, no election, no investment decision more meaningful than this.