The Coal Export Action in Helena Montana was endorsed by several environmental and social justice action groups including 350.org, Rising Tide and Greenpeace. It was scheduled to last for 8 days but after only 6 days, it was decided that the momentum was declining and closing ceremonies were performed. It was purported to attrack as many as 2500 participants but over the course of the 6 days, perhaps all of 200 people had come and gone as participants. Rather than the culmination of serious planning and widespread results, it appears to me that this action was a symbolic act of an initiation into a struggle over the long haul.
The Missoula contingent were the most prevalent in Helena. Several of the organizers from this group were college students. As with some of the other youthful organizers, their idealistic enthusiasm was a major factor in keeping this action going. The couple who ended up letting Mark and I tent at their place, Charyn Ayoub and Scott Wohlin were providing some food for the meals that were prepared twice daily and served at the Plymouth Congregational Church, the headquarters for this action. Charyn was especially disappointed that more people from Helena were not showing up for this action taking place on their own turf. (Mark and I received the finest hospitality possible from Charyn and Scott than we could ever have hoped for. )This was more than made up for by the people coming from as far away as Chicago, Illinois.
People came to this event for a variety of reasons but the most passionately expressed reason was climate change. There was concern for the increased rail traffic as expressed by a retired couple from near Glacier Park. Their home borders the park which is bordered by the railroad tracks where already there are 2 trains an hour going by. These tracks are also used for travel by wolves and other wildlife in the area.
The organizers did their daily planning at the church in the evenings after dinner. Frequently, there were workshops offered at this time also. There were also speakers doing educational workshops at the capital itself during the day. The days were tightly structured. The days began with breakfast at the church where the day’s activities were announced, marches etc. Then most people got in their vehicles and headed for the capital. Once there, signs and banners were set up and ‘camp’ was established in the shade of the trees outside and in the rotunda. Lunch/snacks were brought in from the church to the capital lawn. The marches were usually done right after lunch. Then there were discussions and guitar playing until the daily arrests took place. People started to gather in the rotunda of the capital at about 5pm. Some of us set our laptops up on the side walls in the rotunda and caught up on email, etc. This was also a time of more discussion and guitar playing and banners hung up with the help of the capital personel. The officials were all very respectful, approachable and helpful. There was no contentiousness at all except occasionally by those among the activists who were maybe feeling the need to appear more sure of themselves. The people were going to be arrested for that day were briefed by the legal and support team. After we had been politely warned that the building would be closed soon and anyone left in the building was subject to arrest, there was more singing and support from those present offered via hugging etc. Those not being arrested went out to the back of the capital building where those arrested would be loaded into police vehicles to be transferred to jail for processing and an overnight stay. They came out handcuffed, loaded into the police vehicles and were sent off with more singing and exuberant words/shouts of support from the rest of us.
We then went back to the church for dinner, workshops and socializing together. Some people camped at the church and others had found ‘homestays’ like Mark and I had and still others had hotel rooms. Some slept in their cars. This was the daily ritual.
One of the highlights of this trip was the networking. Mark was excellent at this and came away with addresses, phone numbers and excellent info about what is happening around the country. There was a strong contingent of West coast representation at this event making it evident that the lines of activism between the inland and the coastal groups are strong and developing in strength and connection.
There are a couple of suggestions I have for such actions in the future. I think an info table should be set up by the sidewalk where people pass by. So much of what was done this week was only visible to a few: the officials involved, the activists themselves and those witnessing the marches and the guerilla theatre performed at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. An effort to get more people from Helena itself and thus the locals wherever an action takes place would certainly be effective and help the activists involved feel more supported. Being mindful of the needs of those involved and those offering support is another area for further consideration. There were a couple of very inconsiderate incidents at the church that alienated the church officials from those involved in the Coal Action. There were only a handful of older, more experienced people involved and I think a stronger effort to achieve a collaboration between youthful idealism/energy with that of age and experience would make for more effective results.
Overall, I am grateful that Occupy Bellingham supported Mark and I going to Helena for the Coal Export Action. We added our bodies to the event and were able to network and form relationships with others who are concerned and want to work and be active in healing the injustices and injuries on the planet. What a beautiful place populated with caring enlightened people we have the privilege of knowing and working with!