Jane Fonda on the climate fight: ‘The cure for despair is action’

Sometimes the only way to get attention is to break the rules. Fifty years after my first arrest, I’ve embraced being locked up in the name of the planet. As Cop26 nears, here’s why it’s time to rise up

The good fight: the climate activists risking everything

The first time I was ever arrested, I was picked up for smuggling drugs into the US from Canada. They were vitamin pills, but that didn’t seem to matter to the police officer in Cleveland, who mentioned that his orders had come from the Nixon White House. It was 1970. I had just started a campus speaking tour protesting against the Vietnam war, and was under surveillance by the National Security Agency. I raised my fist for the mugshot, and after a night in jail, they let me go.

I think the idea was to discredit my opposition to the war, and maybe get my speeches cancelled. Instead, students turned up in their thousands. My first arrest wasn’t for an act of civil disobedience, exactly, but the lesson I took away from that surreal experience was just how powerful it can be to set your ideals against the machinery of the state. Half a century later, it still works. And, as the extraordinary activists who tell their stories here attest, it remains an indispensable means of being heard by those who would prefer to ignore us.

‘I raised my fist for the mugshot’. That police photograph of Fonda’s 1970 arrest in Cleveland, Ohio.
‘I raised my fist for the mugshot’. That police photograph of Fonda’s 1970 arrest in Cleveland, Ohio. Photograph: AP

Today, the climate crisis requires collective action on a scale that humanity has never accomplished, and in the face of those odds a sense of hopelessness may occasionally descend. But the antidote to that feeling is to do something. The question is: what? Changing individual lifestyle choices like giving up meat and getting rid of single-use plastic won’t cut it when time is not on our side. We need to go further, faster. Instead of changing straws and lightbulbs, we need to focus on changing policy and politicians. We need large numbers of people working together for solutions that work for the climate. Nonviolent civil disobedience can help to mobilise that movement. At 83, I’m still ready to get arrested when the occasion demands it.

In 2019, for example, I was arrested four times. I had been inspired by the global rising of Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and Greta Thunberg. Young people like Greta were calling on older generations to step up, and, well, I’m definitely older. It made sense to me: why should the burden of fixing this problem be on those who didn’t create it? In the same year, almost 400 scientists from more than 20 countries called for civil disobedience, arguing that “the continued governmental inaction over the climate and ecological crisis now justifies peaceful, nonviolent protest and direct action, even if this goes beyond the bounds of the current law”. I thought: maybe if I could get arrested in my 80s, it would get noticed. People might say: if she can do it, so can I.

With the help of Greenpeace, I launched Fire Drill Fridays. For four months we held weekly rallies in Washington DC followed by acts of civil disobedience including standing on the Capitol steps with banners, chanting, and blocking roads. We started small: about 16 of us walked up the steps of the Capitol, and turned to face the crowd of supporters and media that had followed us. There was something routine, almost ritualistic, about it: a line of 10 police officers had parted to let us take up our position. Then, as we had been told they would, they gave us the first of three warnings that we had to leave or face arrest.

Fonda being arrested during a climate protest in Washington DC
In 2019, Fonda was arrested four times during the Fire Drill Fridays protests in Washington DC. Photograph: John Lamparski/Getty Images

We kept chanting and waving our signs. After the third warning, they stepped towards those of us who had stood our ground, and began to secure our hands behind our backs with white plastic cuffs. They stayed silent, almost stoic, as they led us to the vans. But we felt energised. I wasn’t scared: this was what I wanted to do, to put my body on the line, align myself fully with my values. There is something powerful about not knowing what’s about to happen, knowing that for a period of time you will have no control, and then to go ahead, and do it anyway.

I don’t mean to cast myself as a hero: the simple calculation is that my age and celebrity secures the kind of national and global press attention that the cause needs. That’s why I invited friends like Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette to join me. Another time, I shouted my acceptance speech for a Bafta while they led me away in cuffs. My publicist had hoped I’d come back to Los Angeles for it, but I’m told they liked the video in the auditorium.

Every Friday, people travelled to join us from all over the country. Most had never risked arrest before, and many told me they found the experience transformative. But as a famous white woman, I am under no illusions that my experience had much in common with that of a Black person without the international press in tow. We have to grapple with that dreadful reality if we want to be sure that what we’re doing is something more than tourism.

After a certain number of prior arrests, the police take a firmer line, and so, after my fourth, I wound up spending the night in jail. They shackled my hands and feet, and led me to a cell of my own: just me and the cockroaches. I got a baloney and cheese sandwich on white bread (I happen to like baloney). They stationed an officer outside “for my protection”, which freaked me out a little bit: given the lock, who could they be protecting me from but themselves? I used my sweater and scarf as a pillow, and put my coat over me, and tried to get some rest. When the officers were clanking up and down, making an awful lot of noise, I summoned all my upper-class-lady powers to ask if they could please be quiet so I could go to sleep. It didn’t make any difference.

The next day was an object lesson in how differently the state treats you depending on your race and position in the world: before I left, I was held with a number of other women, most of them Black, many seeming as if they needed proper care, not incarceration. I walked out, but they did not.

I hope that my disobedience can be a small contribution to the fight to press our governments to make immediate, bold policy changes that end all new fossil fuel development, ensure a just transition for affected workers and communities, and invest in the green energy systems to replace them. Hundreds of millions of lives hang in the balance with every half degree of warming we either enable or avoid, and right now world leaders are going in the opposite direction.

There is plenty of evidence that nonviolent civil disobedience can change the course of history. Think of the Boston Tea Party, Gandhi’s salt march and its role in securing India’s freedom from British colonialism, and the Montgomery bus boycott. Climate activists have spent years petitioning, writing articles and books, exposing officials to evidence, generating hundreds of thousands of texts and letters to officials, marched, lobbied: all to no avail.

Photograph of Jane Fonda holding a placard saying: End Fossil Fuels Now!
‘Civil disobedience must be nonviolent if it is to secure public support.’ This image and top: Hair: Jonathan Hanousek at eamgmt. Makeup: David De Leon. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

This is what justifies nonviolent civil disobedience today – and it must be nonviolent if it is to secure public support. Research by the Yale Project on Climate Communication has found that 11% of Americans are alarmed by the climate crisis, but haven’t campaigned because nobody has asked them to. Around 10% of Americans aged over 18 are ready to engage in nonviolent disobedience, but have never been asked to do that, either. Well, it’s time to ask. Fire Drill Fridays started with a handful of arrests, and ended with hundreds: since then, we have continued to reach out with virtual Fire Drills during the pandemic. We had 9 million viewers across all digital platforms in 2020; viewers we are educating about climate and inviting to action. It is the “Great Unasked” that must be mobilised now worldwide.

We have all seen documentaries of activists willing to break unjust laws, face hoses and police batons, and asked ourselves what we would do if put to the test. Now’s our time. This is our moment. We don’t all necessarily need to face the hoses or get arrested, but unprecedented numbers of us need to rise up and put relentless pressure on the leaders who will attend next month’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow. We are the last generation that still has a chance to force a course change that can save lives and species on a vast scale. Remember: the cure for despair is action. And if you can put yourself on the line, who knows who you might inspire?

Jane Fonda

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Wrong side of the law. Right side of history: the activists arrested in the name of the planet
From grassroots campaigners to Hollywood actors, 21 climate rebels tell their stories

Interviews: Elle Hunt, Sam Wollaston

23, Oct, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Jane Fonda on joining the climate fight: 'It's back to the barricades'
Veteran actor and activist has been arrested four times after being inspired by Greta Thunberg and disgusted by Trump

Emily Holden in Washington

06, Dec, 2019 @10:55 AM

Article image
Beyond Extinction Rebellion: the protest groups fighting on the climate frontline
With the survival of our species at stake, meet six activist groups who refuse to go quietly

Will Coldwell and Kimi Chaddah

30, Oct, 2021 @8:45 AM

Article image
Greta Thunberg: ‘I really see the value of friendship. Apart from the climate, almost nothing else matters’
The world’s most famous teen activist opens up about how she’s been transformed since she started her school climate strike in 2018

Simon HattenstoneHarry Fischer

25, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
'Nobody works like Jane': hundreds join Fonda at latest climate protest
Activists of all ages join actor in Washington for her fifth ‘Fire Drill Friday’, focused on the military

Emily Holden in Washington

08, Nov, 2019 @9:30 PM

Article image
Jane Fonda is white, wealthy and privileged – and she’s using that power for good | Jonno Revanche
Getting arrested is no performative act for a woman who has proved her courage and integrity over and over

Jonno Revanche

01, Nov, 2019 @7:00 PM

Article image
Jane Fonda: ‘I'm very rarely afraid. Maybe emotional intimacy scares me’
After 50 years of getting arrested, Jane Fonda is still protesting at 82 - this time over the climate crisis. She talks Hollywood, husbands and activism now

Hadley Freeman

05, Sep, 2020 @8:30 AM

Article image
As young climate strikers, we are sick of conference upon conference. The clock is ticking | Ella Simons
Australia’s policy at Cop26 is weak and unacceptable. It doesn’t give me any sense of hope

Ella Simons

04, Nov, 2021 @12:21 AM

Article image
‘It’s the protests which are giving me hope’: activists descend on Glasgow
Campaigners from around the world are uniting to disrupt the Cop26 conference and put pressure on political leaders

Matthew Taylor

30, Oct, 2021 @8:39 PM

Article image
'Hijacked by anxiety': how climate dread is hindering climate action
A growing school of psychologists believe the trauma of the climate crisis is a key barrier to change – and can be treated with therapy

Jillian Ambrose Energy correspondent

08, Oct, 2020 @6:00 AM