They Chose to Arrest Us Rather than Meet with Us

By Jo CordonHill

I woke up at 6am on Wednesday September 21st with my mind, as the old song says, stayed on freedom—freedom from fossil fuels that is.

In an action organized by EQAT, I and seven others planned to go to Vanguard’s Malvern headquarters and ask for a meeting with John Galloway, head of Vanguard’s stewardship team. After a year and a half of denied requests for meetings, EQAT was ready to ramp things up, and the eight of us were prepared to risk arrest if that’s what it took to get Vanguard’s attention.

civil disobedience at Vanguard headquarters 
Photo Rachael Warriner

We ranged in age from 30 to 83, and had all come to the decision to play this role for different reasons. Personally, I have felt a calling to step up my commitment to climate action in the face of conditions worsening around the world. I know that arrest is not something that everyone can risk, but due to my identities and experiences, it is a role I am willing to play. Years ago I was arrested with an EQAT action and felt so well supported and thought about throughout the entire experience. Therefore, this was a pretty easy decision for me to make.

We had a solid plan (developed by the core team for this action) and had role-played a variety of potential outcomes. We considered the different ways we might be charged and handled by the police—ticketed and released, held overnight and charged with a misdemeanor, anything in between. We even planned our wardrobes with great specificity: “business-y” was the the term we settled on, or, attire appropriate for a meeting but also an overnight in jail.

We met at 7:30am, in a parking lot near Vanguard’s campus, for final preparations: we reviewed our plan, gave our valuables to the jail support team, grounded in spirit and set our tone for the action (focused, determined), and loaded into a couple of vans that would drop us near the entrance. Once we were all in one place, we began moving briskly forward in pairs. My buddy and I walked in front, ready to unroll the banner as soon as we had passed the security guard. Immediately behind us were the police liaisons, followed by the rest of the team.

The security guard REALLY didn’t want us to go any further. He got in front of us and spread his arms wide, yelling, “Excuse me! You can’t pass.” When Nancy Sleater and her buddy kept walking, he pushed against them. Nancy, who has balance issues, cried, “Please, don’t touch me!” This caused him to pause long enough for her and her buddy to keep walking forward, and then the police liaisons intercepted the guard, giving the rest of us room to pass. We left the sound of angry swearing behind us and unfurled our banner as we began singing: “Gonna keep on moving forward…Never turning back.” 

Before we knew it, we had reached our first goal: The John C. Bogle building. We rearranged ourselves with the banner and the signs we’d brought in so that we were spread in front of the doors without blocking entry to the building. A security guard came outside, and while our police liaisons and action lead conveyed our request for a meeting, the rest of us continued singing. About 15 minutes later, the first police arrived, and after that no one from Vanguard engaged with us. They did, however, station someone nearby to direct all employees to use a different entrance.

The usual back-and-forth communication between us and the police began, via our liaisons. While we waited, Action Lead Walter invited anyone who wished to speak to share why they were taking this action. Several people gave moving testimony, and then we sang another song before the police informed us that this was our last chance to leave before they began making arrests, at which point the few people not risking arrest wished us well and left. 

The Tredyffrin chief of police then came to address the group directly and gave us the chance to leave without being charged with trespassing. Simply “being arrested” was not the goal. The goal was to get a meeting with Galloway, and we decided we would not leave voluntarily unless that meeting was offered. Otherwise the police would have to remove us.

Walter communicated this to the police, then invited Nancy to hold space for worship before the arrests. She reminded us that we were here to bring Vanguard and Mr. Galloway the courage they need to stop business as usual and face climate change head-on, to do the right thing though it may be difficult. The worship we shared felt powerful and settled some of my nerves about the impending arrest. I was right where I was meant to be.

The arrests were quick and fairly straightforward. The cops were respectful to our all-white group made up of mostly middle class elders. The women who requested not to be handcuffed due to poor balance or arthritis were not cuffed. We were led into cop cars and divided up, and once at the station, we they took our IDs, asked us questions, and finger-printed us. One by one we were released, and our support team was outside to greet us with snacks and hugs. By 11:40am, our whole group had been released and we drove to a nearby park to debrief. We were reminded that the experience of being arrested can cause an adrenaline spike, and therefore we should find ways to release adrenaline and decompress throughout the next few hours and days.

I feel so honored and grateful to have been able to participate in this powerful action, and I look forward to the next escalation of this campaign.

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