“We’re going to have to be very brave and very united and very determined”
By Linda Pentz Gunter
When at last she raised her fist in a trademark salute, then held out her hands to be zip-tied by police, it was the end of another long day for Jane Fonda, 81.
The two-time Academy Award and BAFTA winning actress has spent four of the last five Fridays getting herself arrested in Washington, DC, protesting for action — or against what she sees as inaction — on climate change.
It’s a script for which this long-time activist needs no rehearsal. For Fonda, this is now the most important role of her life.
Fonda is participating in a weekly protest she has dubbed Fire Drill Fridays — in a nod to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s warning that our house is on fire. She has moved temporarily to Washington, DC and, sporting a fiery red coat, has vowed to demonstrate and face arrest every Friday until mid-January when she must resume filming her hit television show, Grace and Frankie. The first Fire Drill Friday was October 11.
Celebrities and activists join Fonda each Friday for a rally on the lawn outside the U.S. Capitol featuring speakers and musicians, before choosing a venue to occupy where they await arrest.
On November 1, Fonda was joined by friends and fellow actresses Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener. The previous week, actor and oceans activist Ted Danson came. The week before that it was Grace and Frankie co-star, Sam Waterston.
After her third arrest on October 25, Fonda was given a November 27 court date. But because she chose to be arrested a fourth time on November 1, with the court date pending, she was held overnight in a grim, Washington, DC jail.
“One night. Big deal,” Fonda shrugged beforehand. After emerging the next day, however, she told reporters “my 82-year old bones hurt.”
On November 8, Ben (Cohen) and Jerry (Greenfield) of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream fame joined Fonda. On this occasion it was decided in advance that Fonda would not risk arrest as she would then be incarcerated for potentially 99 days. Everyone agreed she was more useful outside jail than in. But as it turned out, the sit-down outside the White House gates was allowed to run its course without any arrests.
Fonda, who will actually turn 82 on December 21, knows she is the draw and indeed a scrum of photographers surrounded her as she entered the Hart Senate building during the November 1 action on Capitol Hill, where she and 44 other activists later sat down before being removed and arrested.
“I’m a celebrity so this is a way for me to use my celebrity and get the message out that we are facing a crisis that could determine whether or not our children or our grandchildren have a future that’s even habitable,” Fonda told reporters.
“There are climate strikers all over the world. And I am trying to stand in solidarity with them, help lift their message, help lift the sense of urgency and I think, well you all are here, so I guess it’s working!”
Fonda is particularly intent on supporting and drawing attention to the Green New Deal, an inclusive climate mitigation blueprint that tackles inequality and injustice along with energy policy.
“The empathy that’s embedded in the Green New Deal I think is the most powerful thing about it,” she said, adding that it’s important to be “making the changes that are needed equitable, not leaving anyone out. Making sure that the vulnerable front-line communities that have been the most exposed to toxic poisons and Super Fund dumps and pipelines and fracking that’s ruined their water and their air, that those communities are the first to be repaired and healed.”
Activism isn’t new to Fonda of course. She is still perhaps best known for her early opposition to the Vietnam War, making her the target of vitriol and earning her the nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
But she has also campaigned for civil rights, the Black Panthers, and women’s equality. She has a special affinity for Native American causes, beginning with her support of the American Indian occupation at Alcatraz in 1969, and in 2016 joining the pipeline protesters at Standing Rock.
“We should take our inspiration from the people who’ve been telling us how to live in harmony with the Earth for hundreds of years,” Fonda said. “We haven’t listened. We have to start listening now. That’s why we are here.”
Fonda won’t say who she is supporting in the next presidential race — one of the Democratic candidates obviously — but notes that whoever takes the White House will need to be held accountable.
“Even if they’re really great we’re going to have to hold their feet to the fire and that may mean getting arrested over and over and over again and putting our bodies on the line,” she said. “Suffice it to say it’s too late for moderation.”
Fonda is haunted by the dire predictions. “I have a hard time going to sleep when I think of the species that are dying,” she says, “I mean 2.9 billion fewer birds in North America since 1970. It’s tragic”.
But she remains an optimist. With energy building in her voice, she starts to sound more like the youthful activist she once was than an octogenarian.
“We’re going to have to be very brave and very united and very determined in this and we’re just getting used to it,” she said, gesticulating to the gathering crowd inside the Hart Senate building. “We’re going to get arrested much more! We’re going to fill the streets much more! We’re going to close down the government if necessary!”
When asked how much longer she could keep doing this given her age, Fonda exclaimed, “Nobody’s older than me here! I’m going to be 82 soon and I think I’ll celebrate.”
But an insistent voice at the sidelines interrupted her. “I’m 85!” said a gray-haired woman protester. “Come here,” Fonda said. “Give me a hug. I thought I was the oldest, shucks! I’m 82, you’re 85, how much longer are we going to do this?”
There was a pause. Then the woman whispered: “Maybe a hundred years?”
The original version of this article first appeared in The Morning Star. Headline photo by the author. Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.