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The Police Raid on Riverdale: To Defend a Drop of Water is to Defend Life, Home, and Dignity

Photo by Wendy Lee

To tell the story—or at least one story—of the raid and forced evacuation of the Riverdale Mobile Home community’s guest activists…to be able to explain what that raid was about, I need to begin with a story about washing dishes. I need to make real the life of this vibrant, optimistic, experiment in a sustainable, democratic, and marvelously inventive community whose people—whose collective will—has changed something in me. What I need to explain first, in other words, is why I—stalwart aging activist warhorse is working so hard to hold back tears. What follows is thus not primarily a report of events—important to be sure—but rather a far more personal chronicle of what, for me at least Riverdale was and is—and thus why the police raid should be understood as an absolute clarion call to action for the anti-fracking movement. I will follow this up with a set of vignettes tethered to some of the people whose actions—some heroic, some just too funny to ever forget, some simply despicable—epitomize this incredible moment called “Riverdale.” And that begins with washing dishes. So, here goes…

I had been shuttling back and forth from my house and critters in Bloomsburg almost every day of the activist encampment, and staying every night I could. I missed one day for the Billtown Blues Festival, and it took the likes of Johnny Winter to distract me for even eight hours from that center of the universe. There was a kind of magic being made in this place—a magic called “dignity” and “justice” and “hard work” and “laughter” and “music.” All this amidst circumstances far less than anyone would chose for, say, a vacation. But we all did choose these twelve days; curious thing, when you are involved in the physical construction—the literal instantiation—of a worldview whose aim is to challenge prevailing institutions and to offer an alternative, even the otherwise tedious becomes the magical.

So on this particular morning, Tuesday, June 12th, I am washing a prodigious number of dishes with a lovely young man out under a bleary morning sky. We are chatting philosophy. I am having a fucking blast—despite having just come off the 3-6 AM security shift, despite being cold with my hands in cold dishwater, despite the escalating anxiety that you could feel like a force field around everyone in the park—that you could see in each of our faces. We were strangers who were not strangers; we were engaged in the work of the community. We were cleaning up after a morning breakfast made by our fellows on the rocket stoves built by community members out of the bricks abandoned as a now-homeless patio for an evicted resident.

Photo by Wendy Lee

The food was donated, but just yards from us folks were busy planting a garden. We were doing something that mattered, that was deliberate and purposeful—and profoundly inconsistent with a society that would make of us competitors and unequals.  That moment in this place under that mid-day sun just emerging from a night of heavy rain, corporate truck surveillance, and pervasive uncertainty epitomizes Riverdale. Even though we all knew that this moment would not last—we also knew beyond the pale of doubt that, were it up to us, the community we were building was not merely sustainable, but good. Good in that fundamental, deep-going way that threatens every goddamn thing about corporatist culture, corrupted government, and that equally deep-going complacency in folks that makes a community like this one the greatest danger on the face of the earth—and it is indeed the earth that is at stake. And, as such, what better metaphor could we imagine than what’s contained in so simple a thing as “washing the morning dishes.” Cooking, eating, talking, thinking, laughing. Food, water, ideas.

That’s how my day began…

We got word that a security force—Huffmaster Security Services, Crisis Response—was coming to clear the park. We had about 20 minutes to determine our course of action. Palpable anxiety. Resolve. A call number written on everyone’s arm in case of arrest. Clarity—and that, I think, is the single most important word I can utilize to describe what best characterizes this moment. Clarity.  We were here to defend the human rights of the residents unjustly and coercively being ejected from this park, from their homes and their lives. Our defense was to be non-violent to be sure. None of us worried at all about any one of us not cleaving to this basic principle. Responsibility, compassion, dignity, fellow-feeling–that was the plan.

Non-violent does not mean complacent; it means that when you are prepared to stand up for something, you are willing to sit down and be dragged away for it too.

The security force arrived. A group of very substantial African-American men, and a white team leader. There is much more to say about this—men who were clearly outsiders, much like frack-industry workers—and black, unlike the residents of Piatt County. But were they sent, I’d argue, because a troop of black men were likely to be more intimidating than their counterpart white guys is, in this case at least, a ridiculous and patently racist miscalculation.

The activist community at Riverdale is composed of young and old, black and white and brown, more and less college-educated—not to mention women, gay men, lesbians, and transgender folks. We are a motley band of what I affectionately referred to as “dirty hippies” replete with a busload of skills, ideas, and commitment.

Please look at my hundreds and hundreds of pictures—we look like the world if the world could be a little better.

Photo by Wendy Lee

One of the heroes of my story is a young man named Jonathan. It was his job to interface with the Huffmaster guys. Jonathan is a soft-spoken, reserved, comparatively slight fellow with a wicked capacity for remaining collected under stress. He was simply magnificent—all the way from about 11:20-3:30—in his endeavor to negotiate with the invading force.

He knew—like we all did—than “negotiation” was something of a game and a charade. The “security” force was going to get in. I say “security” because the security in their charge was not the protesters, and not the Riverdale residents. It was the only thing that matters to Aqua America/PVR, namely, the “property.” And I say “property” since what is a commodifiable profit-generating resource for Aqua America is home to the residents of Riverdale. Home.

Jonathan just kept the security guys talking. Talking about where we could stand. Talking about what their responsibilities were. I don’t even know what all—but what I do know was that no one bought us more time to strategize, to think, and to act than this young man. And when the police descended upon us, Jonathan talked to them too. What do they take their responsibilities to be? What are we allowed to do? Jonathan seemed to have a way of making the questions he had asked many times over sound brand new. And he’s disarming. I think the security force, the fence-construction volunteer fire department guys, and the police must surely have been as mesmerized by Jonathan’s quiet charm as anything he actually said.

He’s one of the most tenacious and courageous young people I have had the pleasure to meet—and I have met a raft-load of excellent young adults.

Eventually, of course, the police did come.

And despite the fact that they came prepared with the usual assortment of plastic handcuffs, guns, tazers, billy clubs and the like, they would have no opportunity whatever to use them. I would count about a dozen or so local and state police and their cars, with their lights flashing. This in no way meant that we were just going to get up and go, but it did mean that we were going to hold up our banner, sing, play music, pass out rolls for people to eat, talk with each other—and prepare to be peaceably arrested.

We sang “Happy Birthday” to one of our community members, and pinned dollar bills to his shirt.

Some of us cried—perhaps out of the anxiety of the day, perhaps because this beautiful experiment in community was coming to an end, perhaps because the evacuation seemed to mean that Aqua America had won. But nothing could be further from the truth.

____________________

Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University

 

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