Climate Action Peer Support in a Police Van Outside the White House
By Dr. Jim Driscoll, Executive Director, National Institute for Peer Support
4151 East Boulder Springs Way, Tucson, AZ 85712, USA
Septermber 18, 2011
From August 20 to September 3, 1253 human beings, mostly from the United States and Canada, were arrested outside the White House in the largest act of civil disobedience on an environmental issue in a generation, the “Tar Sands Action,” (www.TarSandsAction.org). This Action sought to educate the broader public to pressure the US President Barak Obama to refuse to sign a permit allowing the construction of An “extra-large” thousand-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Texas in the US to carry sand containing petroleum for further refining. Besides the direct damage to the environment caused by the extraction of this tar sand in Canada (it takes five tons of earth and four barrels of freshwater to yield one barrel of oil), the tar sands would release almost as much carbon into the atmosphere as the oil fields of Saudi Arabia causing what leading climatologists predict a catastrophic effect on global warming.
In 2004, I formed a small nonprofit organization to encourage the use of peer support in various efforts to make the world a better place. After returning from combat in Vietnam in 1969, I had found peer support, primarily in the co-counseling network of Reevaluation Counseling and the various addiction-recovery programs very helpful (I had switched from binge drinking to manage the stress of returning from war to binge eating.) The essential components of peer support as I took them from these two experiences—and three decades of sitting quietly on Sundays in Quaker meetings were encouraging two or more people (1) to give each other confidential, uninterrupted turns listening to each other and (2) to express whatever feelings came up, even strong ones. Thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and one large hedge-fund manager, David Gelbaum, I focused for the first seven years on bringing peer support to US veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in a highly successful program called Vets4Vets (www.Vets4Vets.US.) I eventually hired a staff of 11 returning veterans in four states and led or trained these veterans to lead 85 residential, peer support weekend workshops for over 2500 returning veterans. These veterans went home to set up ongoing peer support groups in more than forty local communities. According to a series of outside evaluations using standard measures from the psychological literature, veterans who participated in these workshops experienced less PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), developed stronger bonds of social connection (a key inhibitor of suicide) and were more apt to take powerful action in their lives as civilians. V4V was honored for our work by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is widely recognized in the medical and veteran communities as a key program for returning veterans.
However, any successful application of a new model is subject to criticism as only working in that one area. Therefore, earlier this year, I decided to launch another new program, this one devoted to bringing the skills of this basic form of peer support to the movement to limit further climate change. From August 12-14, I led my first residential weekend workshop in Tucson, Arizona, USA, using the same model to teach peer support to more than a dozen leaders in the statewide climate change movement. While I have not analyzed the quantitative evaluations of that workshop, the subjective evaluations were very positive and I am seeking funding to repeat that workshop in other regions and establish ongoing peer support groups for climate change activists in every local community globally. Based on the reports of the activists who participated in this workshop and at the Tar Sands Action, there is a great need for peer support to deal with the stresses of activism which so often lead to discouragement (burnout), criticism of other activists and self-medication (is there any group in the world that does not complain about the abuse of alcohol and other drugs to deal with stress?) More generally, I see everyone on the planet as members of a potential peer support group who are not taking necessary actions to preserve a habitable planet due to the stress and confusion caused by our current society. I hope to encourage large numbers of new activists to give their friends and acquaintances uninterrupted listening turns about climate change and what we need to do about it. The experience of the peer support world predicts that more of us will recognize the dangers we face and take effective action if we are listened to rather than if we are argued with.
As part of this new program, I flew (with apologies for this increase in my carbon footprint) in response to a call for civil disobedience to prevent the Tar Sands pipeline primarily by Bill McKibben, an environmental writer and professor, and other community leaders. Originally, I had hoped to spend a week in Washington, DC, doing outreach for this new program, but a climate-change aggravated Hurricane Irene delayed my trip. On Thursday, September 1, I took part in an excellent training in nonviolent direct action conducted by four members of the Ruckus Society and three indigenous members of First Nations whose health (cancer and other diseases) and environment (water, plant and animal life) were directly affected by the Tar Sands extraction. By coincidence, I would risk arrest as part of the day within the Tar Sands Action devoted to indigenous people and supported by the global Indigenous Environmental Network. Various groups had agreed to protest on specific days. The training prepared us to remain nonviolent even if provoked and described tactics carefully designed to obtain maximum media coverage, since that media coverage, rather than the disruption of government activity or any of the many other potential objectives of civil disobedience was the purpose of this action.
On Friday morning, we gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House for a rally led by indigenous leaders. We formed into two lines and walked solemnly across Pennsylvania Avenue and either stood or sat in long lines in the sidewalk in what is known as the “postcard” zone in front of the White House for our own “photo opportunity” thus disobeying the orders of the U.S. Park Police which directed us keep walking and not block the view. After three warnings, the Park Police cordoned off the area and announced that all 166 of us that day were under arrest. Then began a slow process where the police pointed to one of us to come forward, get handcuffed and be led to small tent where we were patted down, photographed, loaded into vans and a bus and taken to a Park Police Station across the Potomac where we paid a $100 fine and released (except for the first day’s arrestees including McKibben who were detained for two nights under stressful circumstances including frigid temperatures, bright lights and little food in what was described by some officials as an initial attempt to discourage participation in the action.) However, by the time of my arrest, the police were beyond courteous, to the point of accurately singling out participants who appeared to be suffering from the long wait in the sun for early processing. As always when circumstances permit, the action organizers had negotiated all the steps in this procedure with the police.
So, in time, I was arrested and with some difficulty (I am six foot, 210 pounds) helped into one narrow and short side of a hot van with five other men with our hands cuffed behind our backs, unable to extend our feet and no idea how long we would be in that situation. What to do?
Peer support! I leaded forward as best I could to make eye contact with the other men (having the good fortune to be the last in this sardine can and next to the temporarily open, caged window. I suggested to the men the basic steps in peer support and why it would be valuable to all environmentalist, but especially to us six currently experiencing definite stress. They immediately accepted the idea and we began to take uninterrupted turns listening to each other—handcuffed, on a long bench, side-by-side, in our half of a small police van parked outside the White House!
The men quickly grasped the idea and the first set of turns introduced themselves and talked a little bit about our lives. One man talked about his work restoring a river and his love for nature. Another described an environmental book he was publishing. Another talked about his own gay marriage. Then we took a second round of turns. I asked them how they were feeling. Some talked about their physical discomfort, others about their psychological state. When it was my turn I cried about the despair I sometimes feel about our chances of saving this planet in a state suitable for large-scale human habitation, at least at the level we have enjoyed as a species to develop as far as we have.
By the time we finished the second round of turns, we had arrived at the Police Station and were shortly allowed to get out of the van (and stand up!) Our “police van peer support group” had lasted about an hour and was favorably reviewed by all the participants who commented. One said “who would have thought I would have enjoyed my time in a police van so much! Another emphasized how wonderful it was to get to know so much about such a great group of men in such a short time.
So this is an extreme example, but I hope it makes a point. In the broad peer support world, we have learned a few simple skills which make a huge difference in how people interact. It is always possible to take the lead and turn a chance gathering of human beings into a support group where people take turns listening to each other rather than acting out whatever patterns of interaction, e.g. dominating by making comments, asking questions and interrupting or submitting by sitting quietly while the more dominant patterns fight with each other for air time. People enjoy and benefit both from getting to hear from everybody and from the chance to speak what is on their minds without the direction and distraction from the questions and comments of others. It is silly not to take advantage of these simple skills as we build this, or any movement, to do good in the world. All too often participants in a social movement turn on each other when the pressures from outside are to great—or turn to various addictions and distractions.
I hope you don’t end up in a police van, unless you choose to be there, but if you do, or if you find yourself in some other stressful situation, I hope you will consider making this resource available to yourself and others. If you want more information about how to use and spread peer support to make the climate change movement stronger and more effective, please contact me at the National Institute for Peer Support (JimDriscoll@NIPSPeerSupport.org) or 520-250-0509,