It is genuinely difficult for me to capture the surreal almost slow-motion atmosphere of the police raid of Riverdale. Someone suggested to me that because there was no use of force, this wasn’t really a raid. But there was a palpable threat of force, and I think that given that threat there is nothing else to call it but a raid. On the surface, what solicited the appearance of the police was our refusal to allow the volunteer firefighters to remove the barricades. They would remove a barricade; we would put it back in place. They would get one fence post pounded into the ground, and we’d be standing in front of another one.
We just weren’t making anything easy.
We were in the way.
Finally the hired gun security “crisis response” force guys got tired of this game, and called them. But truth be told, we were all engaged in a kind of dance, and it was abundantly clear from the fact that the police came with dozens of plastic handcuffs attached to their belts that they had simply been awaiting the call. They were prepared to arrest us; we were prepared to be arrested.
And I have to step out of the story for a moment: I was prepared to be arrested. But, it needs to be said, I was less likely to be so than many others. My job was to be the “legal observer” (as well as take pictures)—the person who documents arrests, and any details relevant to them for future court use. Indeed, part of the reason I took so many pictures (572 in four hours) is because there needs to be a record of the events—and a clear testimony of our commitment to nonviolent protest. I also tried very hard to listen to decisions being made in order to have a good understanding of the trajectory of this day. So, what follows is the product of that effort—but these are my observations and my judgment. Some of what follows will not resonate with all who were there, and some may well determine that I am wrong. I welcome that conversation.
It must have been around 1:30-2:00—about two hours into the raid when another of the heroes of this story, Deb Eck, Riverdale resident and balls-of-steel leader came out to plead with the activists to stand down, in other words, to end our resistance to the police efforts to evacuate us from the premises. Deb’s argument was that this was not the day to be arrested, that she was concerned for the safety of the activists she had come to care for greatly, that continuing to resist at this point would undermine the negotiations between Aqua America’s lawyers and the resident’s lawyers for a settlement that would allow them to move.
All good arguments. And, I think, unconvincing.
To be very clear: I have come to care loads for Deb, and for her beautiful twin daughters, Chevelle and Amanda. I have absolutely no intention of allowing this family to disappear from my life, and every intention of being there to help them move.
Let me make this even clearer: one night at the encampment, I found myself in my car recharging my cell phone. It was a dampish drippy evening early on. I had come earlier that day with a wonderful donation of food and copious quantities of cake from Reverend Leah Schade’s faith community. Can’t have too much cake, I think—especially when you are dealing with other stuff like sleeping on the ground. Amanda and Chevelle appeared at my car door. Pretty soon, we were all looking at pictures of my daughter Carley on my Facebook page’s photo albums. We laughed, we looked at some of the pictures I had taken of them—and I killed my car battery. Deb—just getting off a grueling day of work—came to my rescue ready to jump it despite the fact that surely the only thing on her mind was ratcheting down another day of worry about the park residents, about her own future, and about the future’s of these beautiful 10 year olds.
Beautiful 10-year-old children who are now living in what amounts to a prison replete with chain link fencing, construction machinery, the decimation of their community and its grounds, the loss of all of their new friends among the activists, and the loss of all of their old friends evicted from their homes. I can’t even imagine what this experience has been like for them.
But what I do know is that our presence in the park offered them a glimpse of what democratic decision-making looks like, what genuinely good intentions can accomplish, and what compassion and decency mean. Every day when I came to the park (or every morning when I crawled out of my friend’s tent thinking only of coffee), they ran up to hug me, to make me feel welcome in their home. They did this with all of us.
The stress Aqua America has created for them is one of the ugliest, most revealing, and most damning aspects of this story. Look at the pictures of their handprints on our barricades reconstructed after the former owner, Skip Leonard, mowed them down. Imagine what it must be like for them to see what remains of these brightly painted walls now that Aqua America machinery has destroyed them. Imagine what they are learning about being an American.
There is no story more important than what has happened to Amanda and Chevelle—and everything we need to know about corporate fascism, the valuing of property rights over human rights, and the crass drive for profits is contained in the fact that Aqua America is so determined to build their water-withdrawal-for-fracking-station that they’ll risk the lives of two little girls on their bicycles rather than wait until they leave. And we cannot forget that this “leaving” is naught but the forced ejection of children from their homes, their friends, potentially their school, and their lives.
That, Aqua America, is conscienceless.
Having said all this, understanding the sincerity of Deb’s motives, I think we should not have opted to stand down.
Here’s why: although we, the activists, were at the park to defend the resident’s fundamental human rights to the safety and sanctity of their own homes, there was no question at this point that there would be a settlement brokered by the lawyers. There was and remains a question about whether any such settlement will include compensation for the residents who have already vacated the park. I understand and appreciate that perhaps we want to save the precious dollars in our legal defense account for some future action relevant to our defense of those residents. I also really do get that we were the guests of the residents of Riverdale—guests—and that what that means is that we leave when they ask us.
And we did.
But I cannot help but feel like this might have been an opportunity squandered—an opportunity to make a stand against not merely the egregious violation of human rights that epitomizes Riverdale, but against the conditions that brought such a violation into being: fracking. After there was no more for the activists to do to defend the residents; after there was nothing left but to act according to the principles that brought us to 12 days which have altered our moral and political conscience—after Deb—bless her heart—made her plea, I am left to wonder whether we should have simply sat down on that damp ground with our arms braided together, sung, and then quietly allowed the police to carry us out and bracelet us in plastic hand-cuffs.
I get it that this would have been a very different statement than that of defending the park for the residents. It would have been a stand against the withdrawal of water for a process so destructive—fracking—that it should and must be banned.
That is worth arrest to me.
I do not doubt—and none should—that the anti-fracking movement will learn and grow from the events of Riverdale. We are galvanized by this injustice, and it is as burnished into my own conscience as are the cornucopia of images I have tried to capture in my photographs of the kids, the awesome rocket stoves, the garden, the composts, the evening fires, the games of chess and Frisbee and “you’re it,” the philosophical and political conversations over coffee and home-cooked food, the late-night chatting with a resident just getting off his truck-driving job for “the gas,” the Susquehanna River—and the washing of dishes.
All of these involve water—that resource we falsely think to be as certain as the sun’s rising. But that sun will not rise for us if we continue on our present course. We can talk a good game of “think of the jobs” all we want, but if we destroy the conditions of life, we destroy the conditions of work—and play, and love.
For that, I would have sat down.
Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University