It’s been said that democracy is not a spectator sport. Last night, we took the field.

As reported on the front page of the Providence Journal:

PROVIDENCE — The meeting Wednesday on the Trump administration’s plan to open up coastal waters to oil and gas drilling wasn’t designed to be a public hearing, but opponents to the controversial proposal turned it into one.

A group led by Climate Action Rhode Island peacefully took over the meeting room in the Providence Marriott Downtown where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had set up information tables to answer questions about the plan and laptop computers for members of the public to type in comments.

While BOEM staff quietly looked on, speaker after speaker stepped up to express their objections to a plan they called dangerous, ill-conceived and a threat to Rhode Island’s coastline and ocean health. They read poems and sang songs in counterpoint to the “listening session” they described as a sham. In the absence of a microphone, supporters in the crowd repeated their words in unison for everyone to hear and also to emphasize their arguments.

“Our climate crisis is at such an advanced point that we can’t be developing new fossil fuel resources, especially in one of the wealthiest countries in the world that has the largest historical responsibility for causing climate change,” said nationally-known climate activist Tim DeChristopher, of Pawtucket. “All of our oil and gas needs to be kept in the ground and here in Rhode Island we’re going to make sure that happens.”

State Rep. Aaron Regunberg said the plan released by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to overturn Obama-era restrictions on drilling off the nation’s coasts serves only to further the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

“We’ve got all the information we need about any proposal to betray our communities to big oil,” the Providence Democrat told the federal officials in the room. “If you have come to Rhode Island to talk about offshore drilling, you have come to the wrong state.”

As well-reported as the ProJo’s article was, news reports cannot do justice to last night’s event.

We didn’t only make a thoughtful, heartfelt, diverse appeal to oppose offshore oil drilling.

We didn’t only put on a clinic for how to run a democracy, with open testimony and public discourse.

No, what came out of our action last night was a transcendent community experience. It was almost like a church service: the passionate speeches about justice, the call and response with the large audience encircling the speaker, the poems and songs, the voices of young and old, voices of integrity and defiance. I think everyone who was there felt that energy.

Tim Faulkner of EcoRI called it “a remarkable public event.” Steve Ahlquist of Uprise RI, who reports on essentially every protest in Rhode Island, called it “one of the best events I have ever covered.” State Senator Jeanine Calkin posted that she found it “So inspiring and I think I’ll hold on to these memories for a long time. I think I can say we are having our own 60s style movement right now.”

The core of our event was to hold space in a public meeting — to conduct the open hearing that the government refused to hold. We were exercising our free speech rights, but without permission. This required a degree of courage. We didn’t know if people would feel comfortable attending. We didn’t know if people would feel comfortable stepping up to speak. We didn’t know if the event would last two minutes, or five, or twenty.

We held the space for over two hours.

Speaker after speaker rose to the occasion. They included:

  • Tim DeChristopher, co-founder, Climate Disobedience Center [UpriseRI video]
  • Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence) [UpriseRI video]
  • Rosemary Powers, Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (Rosemary told me she would be willing to get arrested if necessary to convey the state’s message)
  • Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-South Kingstown/Narragansett)
  • Peter Nightingale, Professor of Physics, University of Rhode Island [UpriseRI video]
  • Carmen Boyan, 7th grader [UpriseRI video]
  • Baylor Fox-Kemper, Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences, Brown University [UpriseRI video]
  • Grace Gunter, 6th grader
  • Mary Pendergast, Sisters of Mercy [UpriseRI video]
  • Rebecca Kislak, candidate for State Representative, Providence
  • Angel Lopez, Indivisible RI
  • KristenIvy Moses, Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light
  • Bruce Charron
  • Lori-Ann Charron
  • Justin Boyan, Climate Action RI [UpriseRI video]
  • Norm Dudziak
  • Lauren Niedel, Our Revolution RI
  • Terri Cortvriend, candidate for State Representative, Middletown and Portsmouth
  • Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Warwick)
  • Lisa Petrie, Fossil Free RI
  • Robert Rak, Professor of Environmental Technology, Bristol Community College
  • Alan Hague
  • Kate Schapira, NoLNGinPVD and Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island [UpriseRI video]
  • Jen Long, Climate Action RI and The Whale Guitar Project [UpriseRI video]
  • Rev. Duane Clinker [UpriseRI video]
  • Connie McGreavy
  • Alex Kithes
  • Emily Gamage, Naturalist, Beavertail State Park
  • Jean McDonald
  • Logan Johnston
  • Steven Belaus
  • Sam Bell, candidate for State Senate, Providence
  • Jack Colby
  • Kate Champa
  • Lauren Maunus, Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition and Energize RI Coalition
  • David Brunetti
  • Jose Nunez
  • Jim Frain
  • Rebecca Doughty
  • Troy West
  • Marie

After Marie’s testimony, BOEM’s Chief Environmental Officer, Bill Brown, to his credit, stepped forward to engage with us directly. An open dialogue occurred between Mr. Brown and the public for over 45 minutes: now that is what democracy looks like! He seemed, understandably, a bit miffed that we had taken over his event, and eager to defend his team’s credentials as impartial public servants, not oil industry flacks like the people he reports to. He said that if his mom were still alive, she would have joined us in our protest. Unfortunately, in his defense of their science-fair meeting format, and his suggestion that we use their Internet-comment mechanism to try to whittle down the scope of the drilling proposal, Mr. Brown missed the point entirely. The government is deeply corrupt for even entertaining a debate on offshore oil drilling in 2018. We won’t legitimate that corruption by playing on their terms. And they, the civil servants entrusted to serve the public, must not be complicit in that corruption, either. They must treat Zinke’s proposal as the corrupt, scientifically and morally indefensible non-starter that it is.

We filed out of the room, led by Sister Mary Pendergast in song:

We and the sea are one.
We and the sea are one.
We and the sea,
We and the sea,
We and the sea are one.

The event was live-streamed by John Gonzalez, and covered end-to-end by reporters from Uprise RI, EcoRI News, and the Associated Press. Here’s a roundup of media coverage:

Hearty thanks to Tim DeChristopher for co-organizing, Kate Vander Wiede for press work, Kendra Anderson for game-day support, Amy Moses for promoting the event at the State House press conference, and Allyson Quay for legal services.

Complete video of all speakers, courtesy of Uprise RI: