Reflections on privilege and penitence

Michael Bagdes-Canning from fracked northwest Pennsylvania was one of six BXE activists to risk arrest last week by blockading for several hours the doors of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC. Read about that action at our blog and here. This blog post is an email he sent the day after the action. 
Michael Bagdes-Canning (left) spoke of the 50 families in Butler County, PA, who have relied on donated water for more than five years — because of fracking. [Photo by Eleanor Goldfield at ArtKillingApathy.]


Thanks to the BXE family for welcoming me, once again, into one of your actions.

It was great to be “locked” together with you, so rewarding to be included in the planning and execution of the trio of actions. Most of all, it was a much needed recharging.

As I shared with many of you over the course of the two days I was with you, I have been frustrated with the pace of resistance at my home place. As I shared during the lock down, we still have 50 families in Butler County that are relying on donated water, 25 gallons a week supplied by Water For the Woodlands, as they have been for 5 and 1/2 years. We still have a governor that includes gas and coal in his “clean energy” plan. We still have communities that supply the raw data that backs up much recent research that links proximity to fracking sites and low birth weights, problem pregnancies, cardiac admits, asthma, decrease in property value, tainted water, and a host of other problems. Infrastructure build-up (pipelines, compressor stations and the like) have ramped up over the last year and, now, so has the drilling.


Mike in Philly on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. 

That’s why it was so important that I spend time with you. That’s why it was so important for me to “lock” myself to you for 3 hours. You were a tonic. I am not only talking to the people on the “porch” of the DNC. I’m talking about the folks who went into FERC and the folks who have been blue dotted by FERC. I’m talking about the people who went to visit [then DNC Chair Debbie] Wasserman-Shultz. I’m especially talking about the raucous crowd on the street at in front of the DNC and the people who confronted the sacrificial lambs sent out by cowardly puppet masters in the corner offices and at the Capitol and White House, the Governor mansions and state capitol buildings.

My buddy (I hope she feels the same way), Angela Vogel posted an interesting comment on Facebook recently – “Please stop thanking economically secure white people who make their careers around activism for getting arrested. Where is the sacrifice?” I know that some people took that as a rebuke, but I took it to heart, as a statement of the obvious.

I’m not someone who “makes my career around activism,” but I am economically secure. When I go into these things, I know that I’m standing in for folks who would like to be confronting the folks who have been harming them but cannot. Some have impaired health, some can’t afford to travel, some can’t get off work, some fear losing the work they have. For some, participation is too dangerous. I can do what I do because I am privileged.

I also do what I do because I have a debt — I could have done more earlier in my life but I was oblivious, too wrapped up in other things to notice what I should have noticed. And now, my children and grandchildren, Angela, and people I don’t know are stuck with the fruits of my inaction. I don’t need to be thanked. I want to be forgiven for my past sins. I want to be forgiven for the harmful things that I still do (and the ones I am not even aware that I am doing). At this point, it is far more important that I be forgiven than thanked.

It’s this last thought that I was contemplating after I dropped Maggie [Henry] off near her home last evening. I still had 90 minutes to decompress, I was on a caffeine high (I don’t usually stay up past 10 p.m.), it was well past the time when I turn into a pumpkin, and I was thinking about my frustrations.

I was frustrated because people were behaving in ways that mirror the ways that I behaved before I became aware. I blame people for acting like I did for most of the first 58 years of my life.

What was it that caused me to become more aware? I often point to people who mentored me (including many young people on this list). I point to the March on Blair Mountain. I point to Tour de FRACK and the 2013 Walk For Our Grandchildren. However, I think there are some things that actually predated all of this and other things that have helped my understanding that came concurrently with some of the others.

Becoming a grandparent (or, actually, contemplating the notion after our daughter, Jennifer informed us that it was imminent) caused me to look around more critically. Getting to know the people who have been harmed, like my friends in the Woodlands (the community without water) and Maggie also woke me up. Visiting the Navajo and Lacuna peoples, hearing about uranium extraction and fracking and exploitation for centuries — connecting the horror stories with people I now know. Seeing the people in coal mining communities in West Virginia as we marched through. Standing close by when [photographer] Tom Jefferson dealt with a racist idiot. So many other things.

The human connection.

It dawned on me that I am standing in, too, for the people not ready to resist; I’m standing in for the people like me.

I, as I said, certainly don’t want to be thanked for what I did. Some people were calling us climate heroes — which I also reject; I see myself as someone who contributes to the climate chaos (and once contributed even more). What I came to realize on the way home is that I am a penitent (my Catholic upbringing), atoning for my past sins (and my future sins).  I also, now, feel privileged to be standing in for the people I was formerly frustrated with.

What I came away from the action with (after several hours of driving and talking to Maggie) was the realization that my frustrations are misdirected. I need to own the fact that I have done a lousy job of mentoring the people around me. The teacher in me should have recognized this basic fact. One of the principles I used as a teacher was scaffolding — “I do, we do, you do.” I never (shouldn’t have, but I sometimes did) expected my students to do things until they had been mentored in the process, supported as they tried the new skill (or behavior), and cheered on when they put it to use.

I’ve been really good at leading people in Butler County to try some really daring things but then I expect (and expected) them to pick up the ball and initiate the next daring thing. Instead of scaffolding, I show them (I do) and then expect them to pick it up, leaving out  the other two steps (we do, you do). I’ve been a lousy teacher.

So back to yesterday’s actions. I’m so pleased that you, and I’m talking about the entire BXE community, provide the scaffolding. It was so empowering to be part of that amazing collaborative process. I thank you for your role modeling, your physical support (insisting I drink, writing the stories, intervening with the police, chanting, singing, testifying, transporting, and up lifting), and your potential support (Heather [Doyle] and Jail Support – what a comfort to know that someone so attuned was looking out for us). I also thank you for your loving embrace of me, your sometimes partner.

So, anyway, yesterday’s actions helped me in some powerful ways, ways I did not expect. I hug you for that!

[Photo by Eleanor Goldfield at ArtKillingApathy.]
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