August 9, 2019
Toward the end of this hideous week of gun massacres and Presidential tantrums, I found myself manacled at the ankle to a bench in a holding cell in the basement of a police station in the upstate New York city of Glens Falls, wondering if it was a useful place to be.
On Thursday morning, I’d left my house in the Adirondack forest and driven an hour out of the mountains to Glens Falls. It’s not a glamorous city—it built its prosperity on paper mills—but I’ve always felt at home there. My daughter was born in the Glens Falls Hospital; I researched parts of my first book in the stacks of its fine Crandall Public Library; it is “town” in this part of the world. But it’s not Vermont, where I now live most of the year, or Brooklyn, or San Francisco, or the other sorts of places where people are more likely to engage in civil protest. Warren County, which it anchors, is classic rural red: Trump territory in the 2016 election, and by a fairly sizable margin.
So, when friends told me that there’d be a protest in support of the immigrants being held in detention centers on the southern border, I wondered if anyone would show up. About seventy-five people were gathered in leafy City Park when I arrived, which seemed to me a good turnout, even if many of them had driven north half an hour from the considerably hipper city of Saratoga Springs. For an hour, people listened to earnest speeches—including one from a Skidmore professor recently back from Texas with grim tales of separated families—and to folk songs, and to a rabbi blowing a shofar with considerable vigor.
And then we walked three or four blocks through the center of town, chanting, “No More Hate!,” until we were outside the office of Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican, who represents New York’s Twenty-first Congressional District. When we arrived, a crowd perhaps a third the size of our group was already in place, carrying Trump banners and chanting their own slogans: “Americans before illegals,” “Build the wall,” and “Four more years.” (One woman was holding a sign that just said “CAPITALISM,” and only because she was wearing a MAGA hat could I be sure of her politics.) It was tense, especially since the local police—unaccustomed, I think, to this sort of thing—simply stood by and let the two sides face off. There was a certain amount of middle-fingering from the Trump contingent and tut-tutting from our side. Mostly, it was noisy, because the leader of the Trumpists had a bullhorn that he could (and did) set to siren mode, largely drowning out the earnest attempts to sing “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful.” After a little while, our group decamped back to the park, and mostly dispersed.
Six of us, however, went back to the Stefanik’s office and sat in the reception area, telling the pleasant receptionist that we were planning to stay until we could talk to the congresswoman—over the phone, or via Skype, or some such. She said she was phoning Washington, and then told us that Stefanik was unavailable, and then announced that the office was closed, and then that she was summoning the police, which was more or less what we’d guessed would happen. While we sat there waiting, I ate a number of butterscotch candies that had been put out in a bowl on a side table, and admired a map of the district, which runs from Saratoga to the Canadian border and west across the mountains to Lake Ontario. I know that country as well as I know any place on earth, and I love it more deeply than any other—it is the great wilderness of the East, bordered by cities, rivers, and farms, and set somewhat apart from the bustle of the rest of the world.
A detective in a sports jacket soon arrived, and, after huddling with the receptionist and a nice young man spending a college summer as an intern, he told us that we would have to leave, or we would be put under arrest. “I don’t see why it would do you any good to be arrested,” he said, which, actually, was a reasonable point. I doubted that it would change anyone’s mind if we were carted away. And yet it seemed, somehow, like a necessary, if modest, gesture of solidarity with the people sitting for months on end in holding pens in the desert.
For me, immigration, in particular, has become a larger and more pressing issue over the years. That’s because I mostly work on the question of climate change, and it’s become very clear that a rapidly heating planet is already driving many people to move. In Central America, for instance, recent reporting has made it clear that drought and heat have made it hard to grow food in the highlands of Honduras and Guatemala, starting many farmers on the journey that eventually takes them to the U.S. border. These people did not pour into the atmosphere the carbon that raised the temperature, causing their woe. (That was us.) And, as this week’s report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) makes clear, there will be infinitely more of them as the century grinds hotly on. The U.N. estimates that we can expect somewhere between two hundred million and a billion climate refugees on the move around the world. We have to try to slow down that heating, of course, but we also have to come up with ways to help our fellow-humans endure this new world. Cages and walls—and ranting about “invasions”—are as ugly as they are pointless.
And so the perfectly professional Glens Falls police officers cuffed us and took us to the station, where we were chained by the ankle and, eventually, processed and released, and told to return to court in a couple of weeks to answer to charges of criminal trespass in the third degree. A legal-aid lawyer said that the possible sentence was a term of three months, which I devoutly hope is not the case—a few hours was dreary enough. But it’s a good reminder that there are many people effectively sentenced to terms like that on the border—people who can’t find their children, people who have no real home to go back to. We can’t be like them, those of us who have options and resources and connections. But we can, in some small way, be with them.
McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College. His latest book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”