Missoula Woman Inspired by Jail with Grandmothers after Megaload Protest
Debby Florence sat on Reserve Street staring up at the megaload in the middle of the night. It was a monster, nearly 750,000 pounds, on its way to the oilfields of Canada.
Florence had gone to other rallies before, but this one was different. The activist had been reading about the destruction of land in the tar sands and about families becoming ill from the toxins.
Long a believer that voices matter in a democratic society, she decided to take a stand against the destruction of wilderness and allow herself to be arrested for the first time.
That evening, she took a hot bath, bundled up and wrote on her arm phone numbers of people who could help her should she land – phoneless – in jail. Then, she departed for the Indian Peoples Action demonstration.
It was March 14, and some 80 people had gathered to call for different energy policies, conservation and good health. They danced a round dance, and then a handful of demonstrators sat planted in the street, close enough to touch each other, Florence among them.
They sat face to face with the megaload, the object of their protest. At night on one of the busiest streets in Montana, the supersized truck lumbered to a temporary halt.
“That was awe-inspiring, just sitting there seeing it,” Florence said. “It felt so futuristic and weird. How is this real? And how is this really us? And how is this really our world?”
Florence, who is studying for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Montana, told her story just before Thanksgiving.
She said going to jail with a couple of grandmothers was an inspiring experience, but she wanted to be certain the arrest of three white women didn’t obfuscate the identity of the organizers, who are Native American.
Naomi Odermann, media liaison for Indian Peoples Action, said Thanksgiving is a good example of “mistaught history and setting the Natives’ story aside.” In the protests of megaloads, though, Native voices are center stage, growing, and powerful.
Indian Peoples Action has put on a number of blockades in Montana as part of its mission to address social, economic and racial inequities. The events aim to halt the transport of refining equipment from Oregon to Alberta and shed light on the environmental and human consequences of crude extraction.
“We are fighting for everybody, for our health in our near future as well as our long-term future,” Odermann said. “We need to stand together and recognize that the future of humanity is closely related to our Mother Earth, and we need to respect our Mother Earth or she will not take care of us.”
The group’s message resonated with Florence, the mother of a 12-year-old son. She had always feared arrest, but she began doing the research to find out exactly what would happen if she went to jail.
Florence became interested in the blockade because she had been reading a lot about the tar sands. She learned about people “getting weird cancers” and saw pictures of places where “a giant brown and gray crater” had replaced old-growth forest.
“I love nature as a Montanan and love the wilderness and love that we have that privilege to be able to go out into that wilderness and would hate it if I was living in an area that had once been so beautiful and is being destroyed,” Florence said.
As a mother, she opted against being arrested as an activist in the past. This time, the scope of the problems compelled her, as did the success of other First Nations blockades.
Florence started asking questions about being jailed, and longtime activist Carol Marsh, who would land in a cell with her, told her how long she might be in custody and how high the fine could run.
“I didn’t just run down there and get arrested. I asked what all the possible consequences would be,” Florence said.
The day of the protest, Florence prepared to take action. She shares custody of her son with his father, Diego Bejarano, and she already had warned Bejarano of her plans.
“I just said to not tell our son. He didn’t argue with it. He was OK with it, (but) he was concerned about my safety.”
Florence told him she felt safe. Before the event, she credited Indian Peoples Action with planning a measured and purposeful demonstration; afterward, she also credited the Missoula Police Department with acting professionally.
That day, she checked in with the organizers, and she got ready for her journey. Her son already was at his father’s place.
She took only a credit card to get herself out of jail and an ID so police could identify her. She wrote phone numbers of people who could help her on her arm since she planned to leave her phone behind – it would only be taken away if she were arrested.
Late that night, a friend picked her up, and they navigated the enormous piles of snow that remained in the road from a winter storm.
“I actually wasn’t nervous because I had looked into all the things I was afraid of,” Florence said.
At the arranged parking lot, the group gathered in a circle for a prayer. When they got the call the equipment was close, they headed to the crosswalk near C.S. Porter Middle School.
“When we saw the lights coming down the road, we got in the road. I’m pretty sure the driver of the megaload was notified,” Florence said.
The driver could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday through a public relations firm for the transport company, Omega Morgan; Omega Morgan also did not offer comment on the protest through a spokeswoman.
In the street, the protesters did a round dance to celebrate community. Florence said police gave the group 10 minutes, and then, the participants who chose the symbolic act of risking arrest sat down in the middle of the circle.
The participants were deliberate about their action and conscious its target was the megaload, not law enforcement, Florence said; they sat to visually indicate their willingness to be jailed.
“It seems funny that it was so cooperative, but it’s civil disobedience, and we know the police are there to do their job, and we’re there to do our job,” Florence said.
Five or six people sat in the street, and officers approached them for a question: “Do you realize if you don’t move, you’ll be arrested?”
Soon, Florence was handcuffed, patted down, placed in a car and taken away.
“I was surprised by how unafraid I was, and I actually felt really liberated because I had used my voice in something that really meant a lot to me,” Florence said.
In custody, Carol Marsh and Gail Gilman joined her.
“We were three generations of mothers, 70s, 50s, and I’m in my late 30s,” Florence said. “It was incredible. Three generations of women.”
Together, they talked about the action, speculated about why a couple of other protesters weren’t arrested, acknowledged the police had treated them well, questioned whether dark-skinned protesters would be treated differently, and discussed the reasons for their action.
“We just started talking about our lives a little bit and how to us, polluting the Earth in such a way that it’s killing (people) and giving them cancer and giving children cancer, to us, it’s a very violent act,” Florence said. “And our conversation started tying that to our experiences as women, domestic violence, different things we know women experience very commonly.
“For all three of us, we felt what we were doing had everything to do with our experiences as women and mothers, caring about the future, being able to identify with families who are suddenly getting sick.”
Marsh, 72, has a history of activism that goes back to the Vietnam War. She’d been arrested before, and she said climate change is an important reason to take a stand.
“I was absolutely determined to get arrested blocking these megaloads,” Marsh said.
In jail that night, the women kept each other’s spirits up, and they ushered in a new generation of protester.
“We felt glad to have (Florence) with us, glad she had decided to do that. … It was inspiring that she had chosen to join us,” Marsh said.
“So we were getting acquainted with her and sort of welcoming her to the struggle.”
Indian Peoples Action is doing important work locally and in Canada, Marsh said, and it has been the mainstay of the movement against the tar sands. Fossil fuels are extracted from tar sands.
“Humanity has never, ever in its history faced a problem, a crisis on the scale of climate change,” Marsh said. “And whatever it takes to focus people’s attention on it, to get past the denial, it’s got to be done, within the limits of nonviolence, of course.”
The following day, Florence posted bail. She was found guilty of a misdemeanor, and she was fined $150; she is grateful to supporters who contributed to the payment.
A while later, she and the women arrested with her had coffee, and Florence said she’s certain the shared experience made them friends. Soon after, her son talked with her about civil disobedience, and she disclosed her own participation in the local demonstration.
“I just explained to him why that’s an important thing to me and how civil disobedience has made changes throughout history,” Florence said. “So he became more OK with it. He still was like, ‘Please don’t ever do that again.’ ”
She isn’t sure whether she will. She isn’t interested in building a record, but she wanted to add her energy to a cause she believes in.
“I do think it’s morally wrong, what they’re doing. So I feel like it’s my moral obligation to raise my voice about it,” Florence said.
Odermann, with Indian Peoples Action, said the organization’s actions started out small, but the blockades have gained supporters every time. The ripple is turning into a wave, and just last week, members met to talk about future actions they will take to protect the planet.
“Environmental issues are about now,” Odermann said. “We’re past the point where we’re going to damage it; we’ve already damaged a great deal of our environment.”