Be the Cavalry, Join a Direct Action

Evelyn Ford, Scarlet Staff

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When I heard about a group of students planning to block a coal train, I joined the direct action as a reporter. By the end, I was an amateur climate justice activist. 

Guided by climate activists Tim DeChristopher and Jay O’Hara, a group of twenty Clark students organized a direct action to protest the last functioning coal plant in New England, Merrimack Station.

The direct action, which took place in December, was part of a series of blockades over the train’s route to the plant. The blockades took place in Worcester and Ayer, Massachusetts, and Hooksett and Bow, New Hampshire, where the plant is located. 

The goal of Clark’s protest, which was supported by Clark Climate Justice, was to bring attention to the issue of climate justice and how the coal plant impacts frontline communities. 

The coal industry often impacts rural regions, whose communities are devastated by the impacts of mountaintop removal, poor air quality, and toxic water. In the town of Bow, NH, the residential hill downwind from the plant is nicknamed “Cancer Hill.”

“I want to act in solidarity with the people in Appalachia and the people in Bow and people on the frontlines of climate change everywhere,” said Ari Nicholson (‘20), a member of Clark Climate Justice. “I have the privilege to be able to put my body on the line to stop the destructive burning of fossil fuels and I intend to use that privilege.”

On a Saturday morning in December, we got the call. The train had stopped in Worcester for a crew change. 

We scrambled to collect our supplies for the day and arrived at the train tracks at 9am. The tracks were covered in a thick layer of snow, which our group of ten trudged through for ten minutes before arriving at the predetermined spot where we would block the train. 

The train moved at 8pm. I was sitting in a car with Ari Nicholson. Nicholson was napping in the back, although their version of a nap was closer to a conference call during which they coordinated the action’s next moves. 

When Jay O’Hara, a member of the Climate Disobedience Center, called with the news, we leapt out of the car, ready to stop a coal train. 

I climbed down a snowy hill and waited next to the tracks for the train to come. The train’s headlights glowed from around the bend in the railroad tracks. I raised my red flag and flashlight and began to wave, signaling the train to stop. 

As the coal train approached, I could feel the earth tremble. I felt dwarfed as the train towered over me, it’s horn blaring as I waved my flag. I felt the power of standing up to something bigger than me and I understood what it meant to be part of a direct action. 

When the front of the train disappeared from view, I ran up the hill to the road bridge. I watched eighty train cars filled with coal pass beneath. 

“Nobody is listening and a good way to get people to listen is get in front of them and do direct action and physically, with our bodies, stop the fossil fuel industry,” said Nicholson. 

Later in the night, when we spoke to the police and watched the train’s police and the PAN AM Railways’ police bring back our team, I realized the impact of what we had accomplished. We stopped the train for four hours, helping groups farther down the line to do the same. 

We were cold and tired and scared, but we used our bodies, our time, and our privilege to stop a coal train. 

The cavalry is not coming. I did not fully understand that nobody is coming to our rescue in the face of the climate crisis until I stood in the dark beside a colossal train that represents an industry that should be obsolete in 2020 . 

Maya Egan (‘21), a Clark student and member of the action said, “I am so angry that it has come to a point where young people who are trying to get an education have to be in the cold, at night, flagging down a coal train. That’s so messed up. And of course I would do it again, it’s not a sentiment of ‘Ugh, why do I have to do this?’ it’s ‘I have to do this’ because the people in power are not doing what they need to do.”

The cavalry is not coming. Stopping a coal train is not the solution to the climate crisis or the disenfranchisement of frontline communities. The solution is participating in direct action in any capacity you are willing.