Why I Risked Arrest for Democracy

Sierra Club President Aaron Mair under arrest
Sierra Club President Aaron Mair under arrest at the Democracy Awakening rally outside the U.S. Capitol.

For the second time in the Sierra Club’s 120-plus-year history, on April 18 representatives of the Sierra Club allowed themselves to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

The first time was just three years ago, when Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Sierra Club president Allison Chin, and Sierra Club director Jim Dougherty stood alongside influential leaders like civil rights activist Julian Bond and handcuffed themselves to the White House fence, protesting the then-proposed, now-rejected Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This simple act of defiance, which landed our fearless leaders in jail that day, ended the Sierra Club’s 120-year embargo on civil disobedience. They did this because they had to. They were arrested to evoke the urgency of the need for President Obama to reject this dangerous project that would have been disastrous for communities throughout the country, not to mention irreversible damage to our climate.

This Monday, I allowed myself to be arrested for another cause vitally important to the Sierra Club: a democracy where every voice is heard. In this organization’s history, we’ve learned that in order to protect our environment—our clean air, clean water, and wild places—we must have a fully functioning democracy. This means all eligible Americans have access to voting. This means money from the super wealthy and corporate polluters does not drown out the voice of everybody else. This also means we need a fully functioning Supreme Court, with all seats filled. All three branches of our government must be fully functioning for our rights to be protected.

Aaron Mair in the Democracy Awakening demonstration in Washington D.C., on April 18, 2016
Mair with fellow citizen activists at the Democracy Awakening demonstration in Washington, D.C., on April 18.

When our democracy is not working, it is our most vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of dysfunction. Low-income communities and communities of color that already face disproportionate impacts from pollution also face disproportionate disenfranchisement from assaults on voting rights. Obstruction that blocks progress on health care, immigration, or climate action often shuts out people of color. This includes polluters pouring unprecedented amounts of money into elections and Senate Republicans purposely not doing their jobs and intentionally blocking efforts to fill a critical vacancy on the Supreme Court. All of these roadblocks are barriers to better environmental policies, because when our democracy suffers, so does our ability to protect ourselves and our environment.

Put short, to protect our environment, we must protect our democracy.

Charles Strickler, Matt Gravatt, Aaron Mair & Lena Moffitt
Virginia Sierra Club volunteer Charles Strickler, Washington, D.C., Sierra Club chair Matt Gravatt, Mair, and Dirty Fuels campaign director Lena Moffitt.

There is no Republican or Democratic environment. We are all connected. We must transcend barriers and come together to build the movement.

That’s why I cannot sit by and watch Republicans in Congress push an agenda of inequity, injustice, and inaction and I'm willing to stand in solidarity with hundreds of others in risking arrest to demonstrate the urgency and need for action. If it takes risking arrest to make my voice heard to help every voice be heard in our democracy, so be it. The Sierra Club stands all our allies from civil rights, workers rights, racial justice, environmental and many faiths and anyone calling for a just society because fighting injustice -- knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong -- must be at the heart of our work.

I’m not alone in this. Among the hundreds of passionate activists who allowed themselves to be arrested to ensure that every voice is heard in our democracy are a couple of dedicated Sierra Club representatives I’d like to highlight:

Lena Moffitt stands up to big polluters in her day-job as director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels campaign, an initiative aimed at keeping polluting fossil fuels in the ground, but she also volunteers her free time to advocate for better environmental policy in her community as a member of the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C. chapter. The same fossil fuel corporations that are polluting our air, water, and climate are also poisoning our democracy, pouring toxic amounts of money to sway elections and policy decisions that protect their profits over communities’ health. Big Oil spent more than $104 million in 2014 alone to influence elections, backing climate change deniers despite overwhelming scientific and public agreement that climate change is man-made. Lena knows that her efforts to protect the environment—whether it’s cutting emissions of methane pollution or fighting to stop new fossil fuel extraction—are dependent on getting dirty fossil fuel money out of politics, so it’s no surprise she’s risking arrest on Monday, too.

Matt Gravatt is the chair of the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C. chapter, where he leads efforts to protect the environment and advance sustainability in the District of Columbia. The Chapter’s work focuses on expanding access to clean and renewable energy across the District, reducing waste, increasing recycling and composting, and ensuring healthy communities through improved access to high quality public transit and smart growth. Through community organizing, public education, and advocacy, the chapter leads community-driven efforts to make the District a better place to live, work, and play, and amplifies the voices of District residents seeking bold action to address climate change. Recognizing that our political system has for too long been held hostage by dirty money from big polluters and our democracy threatened by attacks on voting rights, Matt is risking arrest to stand up for what’s right, both from a personal standpoint and in defense of our common home.

Mair, Charles Strickler (Virginia Sierra Club volunteer), Lena Moffitt, and Matt Gravatt (chair of Club's DC chapter)
Mair with Virginia Sierra Club volunteer Charles Strickler, Moffitt, and Gravatt.

There’s so much you can do to support these folks—including NAACP’s Cornell Brooks, AFL-CIO’s Tefere Gebre, Communications Workers of America’s Chris Shelton, and Greenpeace’s Annie Leonard. To help empower voters by defending and expanding voting rights, you can take action here. To help reduce the power of polluter money in politics, you can sign this petition. And you can call on Senate Republicans to do their job and hold a vote and a hearing on the Supreme Court nominee.

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