Elder Activists Join ‘Stop Cop City’ Protests as Valued Climate Movement Allies

Interview with Kendall Hale, a member of the group Rocking Chair Rebellion, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

On March 6, during the Week of Action in Atlanta to Stop Cop City, a group of elders calling themselves the Rocking Chair Rebellion took banners and flyers to the city’s headquarters of Brasfield & Gorrie, the general contractor that’s building the $90 million militarized police training facility, officially known as the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

The elder activists spent the day visiting five other Brasfield & Gorrie construction sites to speak with construction managers and workers. They discussed their concern about how the Cop City project will destroy part of the forest known as Atlanta’s fourth lung, which protects local residents — most of whom are African American — from high levels of pollution, while also mitigating climate change. Temperatures during the week of protests hit 80 degrees, unseasonably warm during winter. Cop City opponents maintain that the project promotes a militarized police response that disproportionately harms Atlanta’s Black population.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus, who was part of the elder activist team in Atlanta, interviewed fellow member Kendall Hale about her experience during the protest. Hale references Bill McKibben, the co-founder of the global climate action group 350.org and founder of Third Act, a climate and democracy organization aimed at engaging activists over age 60. 

[Editor’s note: The audio version of this interview was edited to fit broadcast time constraints.]

KENDALL HALE:  As a 73-year-old, I’ve been an activist since I was 18. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to contribute my leadership despite aging, which is very challenging, and that I have friends who are physically still able to do what we did here. It was very stressful and physically challenging, and people were coming from all over the place, but just the dedication of this collective group of people is enough to sustain me to do other things, maybe not here again, but just the fact that we did it and we might not ever function again as this particular group, makes me feel like we’re a model in some ways for what elders could be doing, or maybe are doing that we don’t know about. And I think McKibben inspiring so many people with this idea of the Third Act – even though they weren’t so much a part of this, but many of us are in Third Act as well – and I think the combination of knowing that we’re being welcomed and that we’re being valued as older people who have a special privileged role to contribute to social justice and the climate movement is very, very remarkable.

And I feel like if we get some attention from this, and if our filmmaker could make a documentary that others could see, maybe we could inspire others. Because there’s another whole cohort of people that are coming up behind us, people in their 50s and 60s, and if they can see “Wow, there’s some longevity!” And this country’s gonna need it, and I think the fact that we have support from young people, rather than the old discriminatory thing of well, they’re kind of checked out and they should all go to nursing homes or retirement communities, and retire is not necessarily the viewpoint in our culture right now. So that is really cool.

MELINDA TUHUS: Say a little more about what you actually did while you were down here. This is in support of the effort to Stop Cop City, so how did you fit into this effort?

KENDALL HALE:  Well, I’m really used to doing the street actions. I’ve been doing it for years, and I really like banner-making. I like the artwork that goes into it. I think it’s really effective when you have that skill and you can stand out in front of lots of cars and lots of pedestrians. There weren’t a lot of pedestrians, but Atlanta has a lot of cars, so we did get viewed by a lot of people. It’s safe for the most part. We were very careful about where we stood and we knew we might have to move.

But one of the best parts for me was figuring out how to actually go into the streets when the lights turned red with our banners and then quickly move out when the light turned green, so we never blocked traffic. That was just brilliant. And I’ll never forget it because we were racing out, holding the banners, and we weren’t aggravating anyone. They weren’t getting mad or being held up. And then we could quickly move away.

That kind of thinking about how you educate people quickly and then you could pass flyers out without irritating the public, because you don’t want the blowback: “Look at those nut cases, I’m trying to get to a hospital or I’m trying to get home or get to work.”

It took a lot of scouting to figure out where these sites were and who gives the money to this, and just having the courage to know we could get arrested, but we didn’t. And we were careful, and strategic, and maybe lucky. So it was all good.

MELINDA TUHUS: What do you think could come from this? Like what’s the next step? What do you think might be in store for elders?

KENDALL HALE:  Well, I think we need to keep ourselves very healthy and strong because it’s difficult to do this if you’re physically disabled and it can be very painful to do this sort of work on the street sort of thing. So I think we need to keep remembering that it’s possible and just assuming there’ll always be a role for us somewhere out on the street or in banners or going in like we did to try to talk to managers.

I think there’s a great role, maybe not with this particular type in Atlanta, but just to keep our ears to the ground and know where we can move in the future because young people are going to be facing a lot of challenges as things go forward and we need to just get some allies there and see if it’s worth it and try to analyze it and think about whether it’s a good thing for us to do and being cautious of our age and our limitations, but our wisdom and our experience. And particularly nonviolent civil disobedience I think is the only way forward.

Learn more about the “Stop Cop City” campaign by visiting Stop Cop City at stopcop.city and Stop Cop City Solidarity at stopcopcitysolidarity.org. Visit Defend the Atlanta Forest on Facebook at facebook.com/defendatlantaforest and Defend the Atlanta Forest on Twitter @defendATLforest and Defend the Atlanta Forest on Instagram at instagram.com/defendatlantaforest.

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