When committing civil disobedience, Jane Fonda told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, “You’re aligning your body, your whole self, with your values, and you feel very integrated and empowered.” She told The New Yorker, “Activism is…better than Prozac. It lifts you out of despair.”
Barbara Bash of High Falls was among the estimated 140 people arrested with Fonda in Washington DC on December 20, one of the activist actress’s Fire Drill Fridays, organized to protest the Federal government’s failure to address global warming. For the majority of participants, white women immune from the dangers people of color face when arrested, the act of civil disobedience was not scary, carrying only a $50 fine as punishment, but Bash said the experience was far from comfortable.
Moved by Extinction Rebellion and the efforts of other youthful demonstrators who have been trying to draw attention to climate chaos since the visit to the U.S. by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, Fonda decided last fall to offer the force of her own celebrity to attract protestors. For two months, Fire Drill Fridays (“because our house is on fire,” says Fonda) mobilized small groups to endure arrest each week. Then she sent out a plea for a larger contingent — at least 82 protestors — to gather on the eve of her 82nd birthday.
Bash, a calligrapher and illustrator, was invited to the demonstration by former Woodstock resident Roberta Wall, who has moved to Asheville, North Carolina. The two friends have joined forces over many years to teach workshops in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and use NVC techniques to facilitate conversations in New York and the West Bank. “Roberta and I have these adventures together,” said Bash, “and they’re about showing up in various ways. I thought, I need to do this, I want to show up and see what’s going on. I’ve never done a lot of demonstrating, and I’ve never been arrested, but I wanted to put myself out there and see what it felt like.”
At 9:30 a.m. on December 20, the demonstrators met at a Washington church for orientation. Organizers described what to expect and fed the protestors, “which was great,” said Bash, “because it was the last food we got till 11 p.m.” Then they walked to the front of the Capitol building, where a crowd of about 300 heard speeches by activists including Gloria Steinem, Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, Reverend William Barber of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee, and Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax, all speaking about health care and climate change.
The next stop was the Hart Senate Office Building, where protestors planned to break the law by making noise in a government building. They entered the atrium, where a huge Calder stabile sits in the center. About 100 people who did not want to be arrested went up to the balcony, overlooking the others, who sat on the floor and began to sing and chant. “We sang gospel songs, old folk songs, ‘This Little Light of Mine,’” recalled Bash. “Within five or 10 minutes, the police came in to arrest us. It took over an hour for everyone to get arrested, one by one.”
Following protocol, police officers asked each demonstrator, “Do you want to be arrested?” before handcuffing them with plastic restraints. “Then things got very slow,” said Bash. “We waited to be put in the paddy wagons. We were hanging out talking to each other, slowly being moved to a warehouse, a half-hour drive. The handcuffs were uncomfortable, and each time we moved, a policeman or policewoman held your arm quite firmly. The warehouse wasn’t heated. We were told to wear layers, since they took away our scarves and gloves. There were about 110 women and 30 men, and they processed us one at a time, over the next seven hours. But the energy was good.”
Bash was struck by the presence of a number of women in their upper 70s and 80s. At moments, she found herself questioning whether the action was really worthwhile. “I went through, ‘eill anyone notice? Why does this make any difference?’ But I was with people who were genuinely upbeat, and it affected me gradually. Things are depressing, but look at these women, older than me, and look what they’re doing.”
She spoke to a woman who works with mentally ill prisoners and was one of two protestors who had been arrested more than three times and would therefore be confined overnight. Fonda, since she gets arrested each week, had spent one night in jail, “but they don’t send her anymore,” said Bash. “They give her a pass. And she always shows up in court the next morning for the hearing.”
During the long wait, Bash was tempted to go over and speak to Fonda, but she felt shy and didn’t know what to say. For some inexplicable reason, she was the last of the protestors to be processed. Bash was brought before a policeman and required to answer a few questions. Despite the handcuffs, she managed to sign the release document with her usual calligrapher’s flourish, impressing the officer. Then there was a further wait to pay the $50 fine and get her possessions back. Gradually the place emptied out and, because Fonda always stays to the bitter end, it was finally just the two of them. “We were so ready to get out,” Bash said. “We looked at each other, hugged, said, ‘This was great.’ It would’ve been a good moment for a selfie with Jane, but it didn’t occur to me. I was just there with her, and that was enough.”
Outside the building, she was offered snacks, drinks, and handwarmers by Fonda’s staffers, who had been stationed there since 3 p.m. Her friend Wall and other Ashevillians had been waiting for two hours since their own release to greet Bash. Behind her came Fonda, saying, “Best birthday ever!”
“I have to hand it to her,” said Bash, “she’s got a positive attitude. She’s so girlish, but you feel her fierceness and strength.”
Fonda’s co-stars on the series Grace and Frankie, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston, have all been arrested at Fire Drill Fridays, which are now over. On The Late Show, she told Colbert she has to fly back to Los Angeles to begin shooting the series in late January, but Greenpeace is taking over and will be organizing similar protests in New York and LA.
Looking back, Bash is glad she got arrested. “It’s a heartening act that I believe is carried forth from each person who’s there. Did Trump notice? Probably not, or else he made a joke. But every time I told someone about it, I had a little shift of view, and every person I told was inspired and often had a story of being arrested themselves years ago. It’s the old nonviolent resistance — you can’t do this and be bringing anger into it. It’s good for the heart and the spirit, and I believe the good expands out to others.”