In 2013, when Jay O’Hara blockaded the largest coal plant on the East Coast in 2013, he did so as an act of faith and courage. He and Ken Ward were arrested for using their lobster boat to block the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal to Brayton Point. O’Hara and Ward, charged with conspiracy, disturbing the peace and other violations, expected to face jail time, but the night before their trial, District Attorney Sam Sutter dropped the criminal charges and reduced the other three to civil offenses – on the grounds that climate change is the gravest crisis our planet has ever faced. The impact of that one act continues to reverberate today, and is especially important to New Englanders, few of whom have any idea that any portion of their power is generated by coal.
O’Hara, who recently moved to Portland, has continued his pursuit of environmental justice through the Climate Disobedience Center, and has been a fundamental leader in organizing the Bow protest of September 28th, which led to the arrest of 69 people. The action followed Global Climate Strike week, the largest climate mobilization in history, when four million youth around the globe hit the streets to demand action from government leaders in addressing climate change. The Bow action was part of the #NoCoalNoGas campaign which believes in halting the use of coal and other non-renewables that are causing ecological collapse.
Jay O’Hara – Faith in Action
West End News caught up with Jay O’Hara for an interview on October 21st. We discussed faith, courage, unmasking the way the fossil fuel industry has leveraged our government for power and profit, the potential for social collapse, and about the necessity for thoughtful, compassion-based civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action to face the climate emergency and propel humanity to act.
O’Hara, who is a minister in the Quaker tradition, experienced a revelation of sorts while living in Washington, D.C., what he phrased as a “scale falling away from the eyes” moment, when he saw how enormous the climate crisis was.
“I saw how impactful it was going to be on my generation, and how clearly it was going to affect the world I was living in, that it wasn’t some distant thing. And that was juxtaposed to my experience of how D.C. politics operates, which is the art of the ‘possible,’” said O’Hara. “The politically possible is untenable right now,” he said. “We need the art of the necessary.”
The Bow 69 and the Work of Unveiling
I met Jay during a 6-hour NVDA training in Portland, and then again a month later in New Hampshire. What began as a small group of activists committed to taking coal out of Merrimack Station bucket-by-bucket grew exponentially during the 10 weeks leading up to the Bow protest, which represented the largest environmental action in New England since the 1970’s. I asked how he mobilized so many so quickly.
O’Hara said that one of the things that was different about the Bow action was that “it wasn’t difficult to mobilize that many people. New Englanders were totally shocked to learn there was a coal plant and wanted to shut it down.”
That disconnect and lack of knowledge is the way things work in our culture, said O’Hara. “By isolating individuals from the supply lines, we don’t know where anything comes from. We turn on the lightswitch, but we don’t know where our electricity comes from, where the power plant is, or where the coal comes from, whose mountain that was, whose stream got polluted. We don’t think of whose water was destroyed or whose lives were destroyed because we’re so disconnected from the things we use everyday. We are alienated from our lives. We’re not integrated into them… they’re integrated into us.”
“I think that’s a common theme,” said O’Hara, “whether it’s the Bow coal plant, or the fracked gas pipeline through Western Mass and New Hampshire, or the tar sands pipelines or what have you. This work is about unveiling the things that are hidden in plain sight. And pulling back that mask from reality, is a necessary step in getting to the solution.”
Faith, Risk, and Finding Courage
Jay’s approach is a gentle one that places value on “helping people find their own vision, a very Quaker principle,” he says. “You can’t just stamp out a vision. You need to bring people in so they are able to find their own vision and power and capacity. And my job – our job – is to set that on fire; and then for people who are on fire to proceed out into the world with their own vision, direction, and clarity.”
Helping people find the impetus for change is something activists think about deeply, and O’Hara’s approach is one of quiet determination, conviction, and strength.
“Sometimes looking out this window is really grounding,” said O’Hara, as he steepled his hands and took a long pause to look out at Congress Street. “Yup,” he mused. “And life carries on. There’s something so emblematic about the status quo of this traffic. The thing that I want most is to help people who have found some modicum of comfort in the routine of the way things are, to find something that they can rest their heart on, or come to peace with, that enables them to step out and take risks; whether that’s the risk of going and blocking a coal plant, whether that’s the risk of running for office…or deciding you’re going to sell your car and just bike everywhere.”
O’Hara sees the way forward as finding that place of courage “to step out where you don’t have all the answers and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out… but you’ve found some trust in both the universe and yourself to change and to transform and to be big and live in a way that can or does push against that omnipresent status quo that we’ve all in some ways capitulated to.
“That’s part of why a big part of my life is doing spiritual work in my faith community. I’m just trying to experiment within my own faith paradigm about how people find that source of courage. And my hope is that people who found the courage to stare down that coal plant are thinking about how we – how do they invite others into that place of humble boldness and firm vulnerability?”
For O’Hara, it’s about finding and accessing that internal strength that “allows us to [discover] an orientation from which to step out from – that isn’t based in the dominant social, political, and economic understanding and values that surround us. We’re all going to have to cultivate some other ground to stand on that helps us make sense of ourselves in relation to the world around us.”
Please look for West End News’ upcoming, “Cause Blog.” Our interview series, “The Bow 69,” will explore the motivations, convictions, and lives of the people who put their bodies on the line to protest against the fossil fuel industry in Bow and beyond.
Merrill is an activist, artist, and journalist, and can be reached at merrillWEN@gmail.com.