Extinction Rebellion Bridge Shut-down, October 7, 2019
Sitting on the Bloor St Viaduct, my ratty brown long-sleeved shirt folded up beneath me to use as a meditation mat, I closed my eyes. The woman leading us through the group meditation was talking about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, asking us to appreciate things like stress, and emotions, and fear, and the wisdom they give us — ‘embodied wisdom’. She got us to focus on our bodies, our viscera and organs, our sensory receptors — and be grateful. Grateful for the evolutionary wisdom they contain, for they ARE our informational input-systems; they tell us what is good and bad, right and wrong.
She told us that the grief, the helplessness, the rage, the anxiety, the love, the frustration, we feel as we learn about how the world is losing practically everything we grew up loving and thinking of as beautiful, is part of that wisdom-system. Our very feelings of grief and sorrow are a Message, a sacred teaching from our millions and millions of years of evolutionary instruction, that THIS IS IMPORTANT. It is not a bad thing to feel the horror of a dying world. It’s a beautiful, terrible thing. It’s love. It’s like the heartbreak you feel sitting at a loved one’s deathbed. It’s not to be shied away from or apologized for. It’s love, pure and simple. It’s love.
I became aware of the asphalt quivering, vibrating with the energy from countless cars passing far below on the Don Valley Expressway. This energy went through my butt, my ankle bones, the soles of my boots, and into my mind. I realized anew, I AM those cars, this asphalt.
My boots were once my brother-in-law’s. He died in a plane crash while on vacation a few years back. I’ve worn his boots ever since, whenever the weather is boot-friendly. They’ve been to parties, dances, bars. They’ve given TEDx talks, taught university classes, listened to spoken word poems. They have sat in an office and absorbed the energies of students’ tears and laughter and brilliance. They’ve heard my kids’ rambunctiousness. They’ve listened to the chaos of us playing Dungeons and Dragons together. They’ve held my drum many times. They’ve heard me sing, many times. I am those boots. And so is my brother-in-law. And now, they were the Bloor St Viaduct, and the cars passing underneath.
The rumbling never ceased, as long as I sat there. We did some basic breathing exercises. Then a short yoga routine, on the asphalt. Laying on the asphalt, holding plank on the asphalt, curling into Child’s Pose on the asphalt, trembling and rumbling all the while, was strangely profound. That asphalt, supporting my body, poking my skin with its rippled hardness, dirtying my pants, scuffing my brother-in-law’s boots, was me too.
At the end of the session, the woman leading it asked us to look to a person nearby and make eye contact. My person was a 30-ish guy, short brown hair, sitting about 15 feet away. I nodded as our eyes connected; we both smiled. Then looked away, seeking other people’s friendliness to connect with in that moment.
When the session was over, I walked over and said hi, sticking out my hand to shake his, telling him my name. I don’t remember his anymore. But I would recognize him if I saw him again. And I remember that he had just started waking up to the environmental crisis a couple of months ago. He was a total protest-virgin. He has an 18-month old little girl at home. When he learned about the facts of methane release in the Arctic, this summer, and first heard about the NONLINEAR nature of environmental catastrophe, this summer, it shook him to the core. He knew that he had to do something, because how could he say he loves his daughter, if he’s willing to sit back and let the world degrade into chaos, so that her future is terror and war and deprivation and violence and unimaginable suffering?
I remember the tears in his eyes as he choked up telling me this. He had to stop speaking for a few seconds, because he was about to break down and weep, in front of this complete stranger he’d just met on the quivering asphalt of a bridge. I hugged him and for a couple of seconds, he put his chin on my shoulder, and I could feel him quivering with barely suppressed grief, quivering not unlike the asphalt that I could still feel through my brother-in-law’s boots.
We were both glad to be there. And glad we had met each other.
I also talked to Anne, a 60+ year-old woman with a kind face. We laughed about the fact that neither of us much liked the angry, distortion-laden music they were playing over the speakers at the time. She much prefers world music. I told her I did too, that I liked the subtlety and diversity of it, the fact that you had to really listen in order to ‘get it,’ and she agreed. She invited me to a Toronto350.org meeting. I might go. I’m not sure, because I have other commitments. But I fully expect we’ll see each other again, somewhere. This was also her first protest, but I highly doubt it’ll be her last. I sat beside her on the sidewalk for about 15 minutes and we talked about how nice it was to see the age ranges of the people who came, and pondered together the mystery of how to get more people, the “mainstream,” willing to stand up in order to save their only home. To Anne, the fact that children were rising in greater numbers, was the most inspiring thing of all. It’s what got her, ultimately, to join up and come out.
I talked to another Anne, an Asian woman from Sydney Australia. We mainly talked about the Occupy movement of several years ago, and the difference between anti-globalization protests and this new, much more inclusive and ‘warm’ movement of integrated issues revolving around climate change.
Another guy — Marvin? Martin? Marlin? (I’m terrible with names….) — anyway, another guy’s interest was in how to establish an economic system not based on principles of perpetual growth; we talked at length about the seeming futility of much of what has been tried in the past, and the profound resistance of “the system” to change.
Then there was a long-curly-haired dude with the greatest smile in the world, who came with his wooden-block-instrument-thingy (dunno the name), and caught my eye a bunch of times, playing off my drumming with his own rhythmic accompaniment. We met each other’s eyes probably 15 times in the 4+ hours of singing, and it was always the same — the warm smile, the dancing joy. He was cool.
The elderly lady with the half-finished homemade sign (she ran out of time, but came anyway, half-finished sign better than no sign, she figured). It was absolutely beautiful, intricately detailed, a colourful collage of Nature like a little Garden of Eden stuck onto a rectangle of white paperboard and carried on a piece of kindling. She thanked me for drumming and providing a rhythmic foundation to the singing, the constant singing.
The skinny blond-ish guy with a toddler and a baby on a picnic blanket.
The curly haired young woman with her dog who barked at all the police bikes.
The older woman with the walker.
The balding dude who gave me a thumbs-up, pointing to my t-shirt of Uncle Iroh and the caption “Make Tea Not War”. I asked him if he was an Avatar the Last Airbender fan and he sported a huge grin. “Of course!”
The 20-ish young dude with the super-long, straight, light-brown hair, unkempt beard and soft eyes. He looked stoically introverted, and when I said hi, he responded with a voice that sounded like what I imagine gold would sound like if it could sing. He is between jobs, working part-time for his dad, trying to find his way in the world. He writes poetry, and hands it out to people in little mini-pamphlets, but he isn’t interested in trying spoken word, not enjoying the experience very much of being on stage.
The former UofT student who came over to say hi. I haven’t seen her in about two years, but know she’s active, always, in arranging lakeshore cleanups and community events and pouring herself into making the world a better place. I was mid-drum in a song, and I am nowhere near capable enough to talk and drum at the same time. So our exchange was only momentary, but I hope she realized how happy I was to see her again.
The super-tall, short-haired dude who came over to clap beside me for awhile. We exchanged just a couple of words and a handshake. He was radiantly happy and I felt sure that he’d be a great friend.
The around-my-age guy with the dimples who is going to email me with the meeting times of his drumming group, in case I want to hang out and jam.
The strikingly pretty girl, about 30, with long-black hair, singing her heart out beside me for about an hour. She knew every word to every song we sang, not looking once at the piece of paper her friend was holding that had the lyrics on it. Her eyes were bright as she watched people getting arrested.
And on, and on, and on — I remember few names, but many stories, many things that people loved, many reasons they were there.
When the police told us it was time to clear the bridge, most people moved to the side of the road and continued singing and talking on the sidewalk. About a dozen or so maintained their blockade of the roadway. I didn’t have a chance to talk to them, but they looked calm, resolute, respectfully smiling at the police while they refused to do what they were told. Some were older and had clearly done this before. Some were young and it was harder to tell.
The crowd cheered wildly in support — my voice box is now ragged — as each person was escorted, or carried, into the police van. Chants of “let them go” and “we love you” accompanied each person’s Walk of Shamelessness.
One person started a shout of “shame shame!!” to the police. Quickly, a tall dude behind me shouted over everyone else, reminding them of Extinction Rebellion’s guiding philosophy of “No Shame, No Blame”, and everyone took it up, reinforcing the fundamental respectfulness of this movement, the fact that they know we are all in the system, all of us from the protesters to the police.
We were reminded, and instantly responded to the wisdom that this movement is for every single person, because we are all animalistically identical, all children of this planet, all destined to return our bodies to the Earth and the air, all recipients of our Billions-year ancestry, all journeying through our evanescent moment in the karmic web, all of us passing on the good and bad of our Being to those who will come after us. And all of us suffering, now and in the future, as the planet evolves into one that no longer accepts the footprints of our species.
When I left, about 8 people randomly thanked me for bringing a drum. I shook a lot of hands and exchanged a lot of smiles. Every person who was there was hoping for a better world, a better future.
I can’t wait to see them again.
I didn’t talk to a single person who wasn’t uncomfortable with, or unaware of the fact that we were inconveniencing people who were “just trying to get to work”. But, The System IS killing us. We’ve spent literally DECADES trying to – do good science — raise awareness — establish dialogue — pass laws — change lifestyles — inspire people — work with governments — etc. etc. etc. etc. And it has not worked. Things are worse in the ecology of our Collective Life Support System than ever before in the history of Homo Sapiens. Everything “normal” has been tried. A thousand times over.
It’s time to misbehave. So these are some of the people I met today who, reluctantly, joyfully, were misbehaving.
This is what you don’t see on the news.
THIS is what going to a protest can be like.
This is what it ‘accomplishes.’