Good Trouble


Editor’s note: This is our second essay from Mara Eve Robbins. You can read the first, “Outrage Fatigue,”
here. We’re pleased to offer our readers her unique, blessedly subversive insider’s view of fighting those who put profit over life and the land and water that sustains it.

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By Mara Eve Robbins

There’s a petition brewing. 

It’s likely going to be directed towards the typical hierarchy of decision makers: Governor, Attorney General, Departments of Environmental Quality or Protection, Advisory Boards, the Army Corps of Engineers and such-like. 

This is the way these kinds of things are done.

Six years worth of puzzle pieces primarily related to the ways in which our agencies and leaders have failed us regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a dangerous 42-inch high pressure fracked gas transmission pipeline. I’m building a new case when the old cases tend to repeat themselves, creating a particular type of cognitive dissonance that can often lead to cynicism. 

I tell myself I’m just jaded, that as long as we have people willing to live in trees for over 2 ½ years I refuse to indulge in cynicism. 

Gazing at the jade tree on the kitchen windowsill, I remind myself that it’s a lot more difficult to write a petition when you’re living in a tree or providing ground support for tree people. 

I told myself I was giving up this kind of thing back in late 2017, when the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) approved the 401 water quality certifications. 

I told myself I was giving this kind of thing up in late 2018/early 2019, when the State Water Control Board (SWCB) said they would revisit the revocation process for the permits in December and let us spin our wheels for over two months thinking we’d finally made a viable case and instead being subject to yet another legal explanation from well-trained lawyers who knew exactly what to say in precisely the right legalese to legitimize yet another stab in the proverbial heart of the movement. 

I told myself I was giving up this kind of thing.


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Robbins with Easement flag: Credit: Dave Perry

It’s exhausting, discouraging and perhaps less productive — or disruptive — than creating good trouble. It encourages “clicktivism” which is ultimately necessary — especially in the current pandemic world — but with virtual participation so crucial it also amplifies the necessity to make our demands viable, accurate and achievable while not falling for the trap of political feasibility. 

There’s another cup of coffee brewing. 

We have five ways to do it in our household: 

  • Pour-over 
  • French press 
  • Italian percolator 
  • Classic Mr. Coffee automatic drip
  • Espresso maker that pretty much stays stuffed in the back of a cabinet. 

I need another cup of coffee in order to keep showing up for this task. 

There’s a petition brewing. The water is hot. I’m pouring it over the grounds. Whether the grounds are viable, stale or effective may help me go back to the keyboard energized or at least caffeinated. My heart’s in that hot water, though. Troubled. Simmering a bitter brew. 

My favorite part of this petition, at the moment, is how on March 16, 2018, Gov. Northam announced additional powers to expand the Commonwealth’s ability to protect clean water, stating: “From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, and all the rivers and streams in between, our water quality is of paramount importance to our health and our economy and I will protect it as long as I am Governor.” VADEQ Director David Paylor promised “we will use these tools to exercise rigorous enforcement to ensure our water is protected and our natural areas are preserved.” 

I like that part because I wish it were true. It’s not. It’s spin. Public relations. What “they” want us to believe. Instead, profit is of paramount importance and protection of petro-colonization is most of what I’ve noted about our “climate leader” governor’s approach to “leadership” in regards to our water, climate or rural communities. At least the VADEQ admits that its purpose is to permit pollution and they don’t even bother calling themselves a Department of Protection (DEP). Protection? Rigorous enforcement? Of what? Of the fines that are not a drop in the billion-dollar-bucket of fossil fuel? All I’ve seen reliably enforced are things like 24-hour surveillance of people living in trees to stop what the politicians and regulators won’t stop. 

This petition was brewed up with collaboration from three states: North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. North Carolina’s DEQ recently denied the 401 water permits in their state. Prompted by a North Carolina Riverkeeper who is fighting the MVP’s Southgate Extension wanted to demonstrate solidarity, I jumped on board and sought wise counsel from several friends who are indigenous women and excellent organizers. I asked my favorite radical lawyers for some badass advice and researched politicians who had assisted us in the past. I consulted with some citizen scientist water protectors from Pennsylvania and talked to a geologist who specializes in caves and karst before deciding that the karst argument, though relevant, was not focused keenly enough on the NC DEQ decision. 

Cognitive dissonance can often lead to cynicism. 

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I tell myself I’m just jaded, that as long as we have people willing to point out the truth, at least we know? We know so much. But what can we DO about it? Other than climb up into the trees marked to be murdered so that they will survive? 

There’s a petition brewing. 

It’s homespun, like wool sheared from the alpacas that live on a farm in the pipeline’s path of destruction. It’s grassroots, flung into the air from the ground up rather than being dictated from the top down. And it’s honest. Which is more than I can say for most of what we are “supposed” to obey, believe or honor. 

I’m hopeful about this petition fueled by passion, solidarity and maybe a little bit too much coffee. It may do something. It may not. I console myself about the potential fruitlessness of my labor with fruit. An apple for the teacher, shall we say. The idea that at least it will educate some folks. It’s educated me. That in itself is an accomplishment. It’s one that feels cowardly to me at times when I am sitting in my office typing these words while many friends of mine are starting supper in the woods over an open fire and later will make sure the plates they send up into the trees are secure enough not to spill. Hope someone brought them an apple pie tonight. 

A petition is a request to do something, most commonly addressed to a government official or public entity. Petitions to a deity are a form of prayer called supplication. Jim Morrison once said that you cannot petition the lord with prayer. If I fell to my knees in the creek at the foot of a tree the MVP was about to cut, if I wailed the full catastrophe of this abuse, if I pleaded with whatever deity or “official” might be listening, would it matter? How much good trouble could we make?

As the Yellow Finch Blockade celebrated two years of a successful tree-stand and support camp, we got comments back from lawyers as to the viability of our proposed petition. As we reviewed those comments, this report on the Fusion center was released, reminding us that risk is subjective, we are being monitored and have been since at least 2017– probably a whole lot longer. That we are on lists and listed as threats and threatened with legitimized terrorism. 

It is terror, you know. To walk around with a target on your back? 

It’s terrifying.

Mountain Valley Pipeline protesters are targeted by a Virginia anti-terrorism center and “protester” does not equate to “protector” and one can be targeted for petitions as well as for climbing up into trees and living there, vulnerable to ice and wind and heat and chainsaws, all the while petro-colonizers crowding the 125-ft pipeline right-of-way unmasked and arrogant, putting everyone in the rural communities they terrorize at risk for not only the destruction of so much they hold dear but also further viral contagion. And the Department of Health refuses to do anything, so I guess we could petition (or FOIA) them too at this point. 

I need another cup of coffee. 

This time I brew strong Italian espresso in the tiny percolator that only takes up half the eye of my electric stove. I add chocolate syrup to half a mug of steamed milk. Right now I’m not jaded. I’m pissed off. All I can think about is good trouble. How we can truly trouble “them.” There are more and more of “us,” certainly, and we still need those lawyers and their boxes of prerequisites and precedents and feasibility. I’m glad for their help and try to actually consider feasibility rather than replay the message offered to me years ago from one of the very few politicians I actually trust: “It’s not your job to demand what’s politically feasible. It’s my job to figure out a way to MAKE it feasible.” 

Meanwhile? 

The coffee is hot. I’m pouring it into the chocolate, hoping this cup won’t keep me up too late brooding over abuse and fatigue. And I’m doing this myself, though I couldn’t do it without other trusted voices advising or relied upon for perspective and pushback. We do it ourselves. We are stronger together. This dichotomy is not so difficult for me to encompass  since adopting the identity of Grace Paly, a self-described “combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” 

If I really want to do this with love, I decide, then the chocolate may help

Over six years worth of puzzle pieces primarily related to the ways in which our agencies and leaders have failed us are still failing us. I feel like I’ve identified and constructed the borders, though, and that makes the rest of the picture easier to see. There’s certainly a much bigger picture here. The SWCB in Virginia had the ability to respond to citizen insistence and they chose instead to try to mitigate extinction. You cannot mitigate extinction. You cannot remediate or repair priceless, pristine unmapped upland wetlands that are already gone. 

And I refuse to continue to have a polite conversation about our extinction. 

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I were to show up at the door of somebody “powerful” with some chocolate–maybe even a homemade mocha–would they be more likely to consider my petition? Could I supplicate my supplementary info through the moral argument, seeking to be down-home, homespun and so fervent in my appeal that whoever read it could not help but be moved in a similar manner to which “We Shall Not Be Moved?”  

Perhaps. 

I’ve been told things like “honey not vinegar” or “don’t sacrifice the good for the perfect” so many times I can only hope that my small, often paper, rebellions can brew enough coffee that this latest petition will wake up those who can help us if they chose. I can only hope that by creating good trouble, whether we are sleeping in trees as we claim them as sacred or creating these petitions to wail the full catastrophe of this abuse, it will ultimately bring us together. I can only hope that you, dear reader, will find the best thing you can do, yourself, to protect, preserve and defend the fragile planet of which we all are a part. 

Soon there will be a new petition. 

You can sign it in less than a minute, clicking on the autofill button as you wish, or you can sign it and then ask yourself what ELSE you can do. Please do. Once you decide to make good trouble you will find there are so many others alongside your efforts who will uplift and elevate your gifts and your passions, whether you could bake a really good lasagna for those who are sleeping in trees or write a really good petition that does not necessarily rely on feasibility. It’s up to you. 

© Mara Eve Robbins, 2020. Mara Eve Robbins is a short-a Appalachian author, activist and organizer. She protects water, loves trees, and cares for those who defend both. Her book, “Seeing Red,” will be released this fall through Propertius Press. ‘Resist’ photo by Mara Eve Robbins.

This essay replaces an earlier version. Sorry for the confusion. An incompetent editor screwed up. He’s been sacked. — MMB