(Image: Lisa Fithian)
At this time last year, many of us were clamoring for the end of a terrible year. As 2018 comes to a close, we are no less discontent, but I have seen far less enthusiasm about the new year as a means of leaving the old. Instead, there is a subdued grumbling afoot -- a sense that we are all simply going through the motions, as we stumble through a world beyond our control. After all, what does it mean to celebrate the arrival of a new year, amid so much darkness? Celebrating the passage of time, when we have only 11 years left to stop the clock on climate change, feels a bit counterintuitive, and yet here we are, poised to celebrate the arrival of 2019 with toasts and noisemakers and fresh resolutions, as if it were any other year.
These may sound like the musings of a person who has given up hope, but I assure you, they are not. I am a tremendously hopeful person, and I am very disciplined in the maintenance of that hope. As a writer, an organizer and a direct action trainer, I also back my hope with action. But there is no denying that the arrival of 2019 brings us closer to a damning deadline -- one that we are presently ill-equipped to meet.
People tend to think of the end of the world in nuclear terms -- a cataclysmic event occurs, and we are snuffed out en masse. Scientists have already concluded that we are living through the sixth mass extinction event, and if you review the facts (as we all should), it’s easy to feel discouraged, as though the things we do now may not matter. But they do.
We must fight for the future, but how we live now matters, regardless of what’s to come. We must admit that to ourselves, and allow the possibility, and even the likelihood of oblivion to sink into our bones, and we have to make a conscious decision to do good in the world, regardless of what’s to come.
Time is the most finite resource we have. It always has been, though we certainly feel its scarcity on a more visceral level when we are confronted with our own mortality, the mortality of those we love or, in this case, the mortality of the natural world itself.
In early December, climate correspondent Dahr Jamail, told Frances Madeson, “I believe the question of hope versus hopelessness is a false choice at this time.” In his new book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, Jamail laments that the planet is most likely “in a hospice situation.” But even in his awareness of the gravity of our situation, amid his well-researched knowledge of the violence we have inflicted on the Earth, and the price being paid, Jamail works to reduce his own already-small carbon footprint and to broaden awareness of climate change and the science behind it. In short, he believes that we are experiencing a slow motion apocalypse, with the odds heavily stacked against us, and he suggests that we “do the right thing anyway,” as he himself aspires to. Because we get to decide how we live now, and that matters.
I am a fighter by nature, and I have no intention of surrendering the future, but I do think it’s worth considering the question: If this is humanity’s last century on Earth, who do you want to be as that story unfolds?
* * * *
Two days before Christmas, I was laying in bed, feeling empty and exhausted. I was dealing with some health issues, including chronic pain, and missing the hell out of my father. It would be my second Christmas without him, but at this time of year, the pain feels brand new. Nonetheless, I was ready make my way through the holidays, albeit languidly, neither expecting much nor offering much. Then, I got an idea.
I wanted to bring a lighted message to a local juvenile detention center and hold a noise demo for the children inside on Christmas Eve. As an activist and an organizer, I have visited the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center many times, and helped orchestrate a number of visuals for the children inside. Usually, the event doubles as a rally, or follows the end of a march, in which state violence and the violence of incarceration are highlighted. Powerful speeches are made, campaigns for justice are uplifted and large crowds of people are moved by their engagement with it all. But on Christmas Eve, I knew there would be no large crowds. Finding enough people to hold up the lighted letters that spelled out the words “WE LOVE YOU” would be enough of a challenge. There would be no spectators. Only messengers. My original plan was to blast Christmas music through a tailgate speaker, but my friend Atena Danner, a brilliant movement songstress, agreed to lead the night in song, and once she had, I knew something beautiful would happen.
Atena Danner sings to incarcerated children on Christmas Eve. (Image: Kelly Hayes)
It was a simple action. We held the letters up, so the children could see. We cranked the speaker and Atena sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and numerous other songs. Sometimes, we all sang together. As the children inside waved and made the shape of a heart with their hands, I became tearful, as I always do.
Carolers hold up a lighted message that reads "WE LOVE YOU" outside a youth detention center in Chicago on Christmas Eve. (Image: Kelly Hayes)
The youth are always very communicative with demonstrators, but there was something unique about that moment. Perhaps it was because it was 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Perhaps it was because of the music, though we can’t really be sure they could hear it. Whatever it was, the children were definitely engaged, jumping up and down, dancing and communicating with their hands. We stayed later than we had planned to, because they were still waving and we didn’t want to disappoint them. After a while, Atena and I served hot chocolate to the volunteers. It was 30 degrees outside of that detention center and the youth were our only audience. As we stood out there, shivering, singing and choking back tears, I had the distinct feeling that we were all exactly where we were supposed to be. That feeling gave me hope. Not the big “we’re gonna stop climate change” kind of hope, but the kind of hope such sentiments can’t exist without. As the world went about its business, here was a group of people who were willing to drop everything, on a very inconvenient, freezing night, to have a moment of connection with caged children. To me, that gets to the very heart of who we are and who we can be, and just maybe, what we can turn around.
A young person in the detention facility makes the shape of a heart with their hands as the carolers sing and hold up lighted signs. (Image: Kelly Hayes)
* * * * *
Not long after our visit to the detention center in Chicago, I came across some striking photos of another solidarity action outside another facility where children are incarcerated.
On December 23, an occupation began at the gates of a child detention camp on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tornillo, Texas. Organizers of the Christmas in Tornillo encampment say 3000 children between the ages of 13 and 17 are being held in the facility. Described as a ten-day “creative resistance encampment,” the occupation is an “emergent space,” meaning the day-to-day activities of the camp are shaped by those in attendance. The photos I saw, which first made me aware of the camp, were posted by my friend Lisa Fithian, an organizer like myself, who had spent some time playing a supportive role at the camp. Seeing a puppet as tall as the fence peaking over it, toward the children, I was mesmerized by the beauty and thoughtfulness of the moment.
Supporters of the children incarcerated at the Tornillo detention facility gather at the facility's fence with puppets. (Image: Jimmy Betts)
I soon called my friend, eager to hear more about the action, in which Indigenous medicine drummers lead a march to the facility’s fence, with giant puppets in tow. “You could see them,” Lisa said of the imprisoned children, “and they could see us, and when we arrived with the puppets, you could see their hands go up and hear them cheering and there was this moment of connection.”
I knew exactly what she meant.
While the camp’s focus was on creative resistance and solidarity, with a number of art installations planned, participants with medical training and translation skills were also needed in El Paso after ICE dropped off hundreds of migrants at a Greyhound bus station, late at night, without alerting area shelters, just before Christmas. Alex Cohen, who was among those who headed to El Paso to provide assistance, described his experience on social media:
"The stories from inside the detention camps are horrific. Moms with babies being denied water. So much so that one woman's breast milk was drying in detention. One guard wouldn't let a woman with a 2 year old baby sit down. Then hit her in the face with a pencil and said ‘you are the reason I am not home on Christmas.’ It's freezing cold here. The government just dumped families on the street, some with ankle bracelets, some without, no explanation about if there are court dates that they need to be at, legal obligations, or what the ankle bracelets are for. If the local community that is organizing here didn't step up, there would be many more deaths.”
As state violence at an already militarized border continues, as more children and families are funneled into a system that has killed two children in recent weeks, there are exhausted people doing everything they can to help. Today, participants are creating more artwork for the Christmas in Tornillo encampment. Soon, they will march to the fences with their creations. They will likely square off with security, as they have before, to ensure that as many children as possible see the art they bring. They will collect soccer balls the children have kicked over the fence, scrawl messages on them, and kick them back. They will bear witness and offer what hope they can, because in dark places, hope is like any other waning fire -- if you want to keep it alive, it must be stoked.
Even on the edge of oblivion, there are cages that must be emptied and kindnesses to be shared. This New Year’s Eve, I will be fundraising for local bond funds around the country, to reunite families in the new year -- an effort I invite all of you to join. Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people have spent the holidays in US jails because they cannot afford to pay their bail. For the cost of a NYE drink, you can help bring some of them home. How hopeful is that?
Our best defense against our own cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. So, in 2019, let’s march to the fences and declare our love for the caged and kidnapped. Let’s offer every kindness we can muster. Let’s live now.
Author’s Note: If you would like to join us today in raising bail funds, check out the hashtag #FreeThePeopleDay on Twitter or donate here.