Home > Uncategorized > The Confessions of Mike Trapp. Chapter VII: Questioning Activism

The Confessions of Mike Trapp. Chapter VII: Questioning Activism

 

When we got back from our epic hitchhiking trip we had been gone about six weeks. It had really been kind of a transformative thing.

Mike Trapp bike bag

It was empowering to be thousands of miles from home with very little money knowing that you can rely on strangers to help you out, putting yourself in a situation where people were offering you help. We read some books on it, but the biggest art of hitchhiking is to be patient and not have any expectation of ever getting a ride and enjoying where you’re at and having joy standing around the sunshine. We liked to stand at the top of the exit and write signs while waiting to get picked up.

We got home and just being in a house seem really weird. I spent the first night in the backyard.

The next day I called Mike Leonardi, my activist buddy. We were talking about getting an apartment together and I wanted to see where we were at with that seeing as how I had come back early. We had planned on being gone longer, but we were getting on each other’s nerves.

He was down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which was the national headquarters for SEAC, the student environmental action coalition, the group that we had been active with. He was down at their national meeting and so I hitchhiked out the next day and left that morning. My mom was a little disappointed, but I was at this point: Now I’m ready to be on my own. That was my first solo trip. I met some great people.

George Moseley, this truck driver from Alabama that I corresponded with for a long time, just couldn’t believe that somebody in a master’s program who was intelligent and articulate and a good conversationalist would be out hitchhiking. Usually it’s people with mental illness or people who are really down on their luck. He just found me to be a lot of fun and always wanted me to come down and visit. I’m sorry I never followed up with that.

I also got picked up by Al Gore’s next door neighbor and this guy who had a gentleman’s cattle ranch next to Al Gore’s gentleman’s cattle ranch and had some great stories. When he found out I was a sociology master’s student, he hit me up for some free counseling and I got a long ride for him. That was really helpful. When he dropped me off, I felt like I should have invoiced him for counseling services. I felt like he had gotten more out of it than I had, which is cool.

I got picked up by some guys who gave me a beer. I made it to Chapel Hill and kind of dropped in and on the national meeting and plugged in at that level, which was kind of new. I had been involved in kind of regional organizing, but going to national meetings and participating. It was a little bit of a faction. There were these kinds of more organizational, internationalist types. There were Earth First direct action, radical types. And that was more of my cup of tea. Looking back on it now, I can see that we might have been overly exuberant with some of our idealism, questioning the value of organizational infrastructure, which history points out we might’ve not been on the right side of history on that one, but you make the best decisions. It was vital and it seemed passionate and it seemed right at the time.

So, I caught rides back most of the way and hitchhiked home and then started my last year of grad school. I finally got a teaching assistantship. I had been a poor student as an undergrad because mostly I worked in the group homes and nobody in my family really went to college and I didn’t live even in the same city that the college was at as an undergrad. My self-identity was more of a working person. I thought the goal of school was to obtain a piece of paper with as minimal amount of investment and cost as possible, but really what you’re supposed to do in college is make your life-long friends and figure out what tribe you’re in. I finally did that.

Originally, kindergarten was pretty fun. I mean, there were scary and anxiety provoking times, but Mrs. Nutter was really sweet and kind of motherly in a way that my mom was not, who was still pretty broken at that point.

Now, graduate school. I enjoyed it. Overall I got some nurturing there and it was good. I enjoyed my last year of grad school. Every other year of school I hated pretty intensely. I mean, I got some things out of it and it was transformative and I learned some stuff, but, it was just unpleasant and I didn’t enjoy it. But I really enjoyed my last year of grad school.

I got a 4.0. I had an apartment near campus. I was active in the environmental group, which led me to just be active and meet the other student leaders. It got me over my shyness. I stayed active in SEAC and regional organizing and a couple of different regions. John was active and in a chapter in Monroe County Community College, which was in the Michigan, Illinois and Indiana region. And then I was active in Toledo and we had a lot of overlap and joint activities because they were real close. But Ohio is like Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. I helped organize that whole area of the South and Midwest through grad school.

I had a teaching assistantship and was really kind of a political radical. I started to go to some more kind of pagan events and went to some solstice events near Athens, Ohio. That was neat just to be able to see that there’s this organized religious experience I could take part in that felt natural and comfortable. After I got my master’s degree, I had my first serious relationship. Christa and I had planned this trip to go to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. It was a comedy of errors. We were so ill-prepared. I was busy doing other things. I’ve never been one into trip planning. Anyone who’s ever traveled with me knows: I bring an agreeable spirit and am open to anything, but do not do a lot of trip planning. There were some struggles. We did five weeks in Mexico. We got robbed and got sick and ran short of money and broke up over the course of the trip.

It was weird and awkward.

We had a lot of trouble getting across the border with our bus tickets. How we going to pay for extra tickets? Turns out, you can’t buy an out-of-town bus ticket with a Discover card. Who was going to get the money to buy the ticket? Then, we missed the bus. It was just a bunch of misadventure.

We went to sleep on the bus. I woke up and I looked up and there were mountains. Where we were, I had no idea. I realized I didn’t know the language and didn’t know that geography and didn’t know the history and there was hardly anybody who spoke English and I was reliant on a woman who is really questioning whether she wanted to be with me at any level at all. It was a neat experience and culturally opening. For most of our trip, survival was the prize. We limped back dirty and broken and flat-broke. I’m out of school. We wrapped up our trip early. I don’t have a lot of money and don’t know what I’m doing.

I applied for some jobs and had three choices in front of me from offers that I had put out and had offers on.

  1. I could have went to a wilderness adventure camp for at-risk kids in Pennsylvania. And then after a year of that, you could either go on a wagon train or you could go out on tall ship sailing for and become an adventure camp counselor; or
  2. I could move to Lima, Ohio to be a child abuse investigator; or
  3. I could take a job with SEAC, the group that I had organized with but now in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Some kids in Ames, Iowa had created a job as a field organizer. That one was the least paid. The grant didn’t come through, so even I was offered half of what had earlier been offered. I said yes.

Before I arrived, even that half had evaporated, because they hadn’t raised the money. These kids were plucky and they promised to do their best. My mom gave me a couple of hundred bucks to get started so I hitchhiked to Ames, Iowa and became a field organizer for the Student Environmental Action Coalition. I had a heck of a time, did some stuff with the locals who were supporting me and then went on to Nebraska to organize against NAFTA. It is the biggest place to export corn to Mexico and would have the biggest benefit of NAFTA in all of North America. I had a heck of a time trying to sell people on opposing it. So there was a house district that seemed like it was swing and that was the strategy, but Bill Clinton bought them a bridge and he voted for it.

I went to a series of places. My housing had evaporated. I didn’t have a lot of support and had trouble making it on my own. The Ames kids ran out of money to pay me so I hitchhiked home. Then, the kids in Ames raised some money to get me on the road and before Christmas I went to St. Louis and worked with some kids at Washington University and had some success. We organized a little city-wide network in a couple of weeks and really hit it off with Sarah Bantz and Eric Hempel and people who are still my good friends today.

I went home for Christmas and stayed a little longer while they tried to raise some money to get me on the road. I couldn’t hit my mom up for a starter steak because I’d never paid her back from the last one. They finally raised the money.

In the meantime, there was this Klan rally in Columbus. I caught a ride with these communists out of Detroit who were going down to protest the Klan, figuring that I could catch a ride from someone else from another direction and end up closer to where I was going. I generally don’t go to those kinds of events. I think it’s better to not draw a lot of attention, but it was interesting. In the ride down, the guy giving me a ride is like, “I’m a gay, Communist Jew. This is an existential threat to my survival.” That helped me open my eyes to what we would call Antifa now, the alliance of communists and anarchists who organize and try to not allow fascists to have an organizing space and in our open society. It really raised questions that I don’t have answers to about what to do about that kind of dangerous ideology in a land where we prize and protect free speech.

I caught a ride to all this closest I could get to Columbia, Missouri, which is where I was heading, I’d never been, was Springfield, Ohio. And I caught a ride there with some friends at Wittenberg University and a stayed and I stayed an extra night because this snow storm hit and then it looked like the snow was breaking for the day and I set out, but it got immediately cold and it was like 10 below zero. I’m walking through the snow and I only made like 50 miles in my first day. I had to get a hotel room because there’s no way I could camp in 10 below weather. The next day, I had a terrible time. I was on bad highways and the roads where I was, hardly anybody out there. I kept saying I would only stand at exits that had services, but as soon as someone would pull over, I would be so cold that I would jump in the car and they would go one exit and there would be nothing at the exit. I’d start walking down the highway and I’d hope I get a ride before I die. I hope I get a ride before I die. This old man picked me up, it was so funny. He’s like, “Oh, you think it’s cold now? You should’ve been in the trenches in world war one.” He was that he was that old. He took me to an airport thinking that I could get an airline ticket with what I had. They didn’t have any flights.

I think it was just a ruse to get me used to the idea of taking a bus. I Greyhound-ed back to St. Louis to touch base with those kids again. I didn’t even try to hitchhike to Columbia while it stayed in the negative degrees. I spent the $200 I had to get started doing this two week gig in St. Louis where this retired, activist kid, Jeff Pavlik had a place on North Eighth Street where I could stay and do my organizing. We were thin on the ground in Missouri outside of St. Louis. He had been to a national conference and agreed to host. I got off the Greyhound. I had $6. I had spent $194. It would have been cheaper to have just bought a bus ticket to Columbia. But, you never know.

I had $6 and two weeks to stay in Columbia with Jeff Pavlik and his housemate, Trevor Harris and Jonathan Yates. I stayed with this great group of activists and we dumpster-dived and got a big box of tortillas and ate tortillas and beans. I lost my $6 in poker. I lived on nothing for two weeks. I lived well and I fell in love with Columbia. I was staying on North Eighth Street and I was walking downtown and in the second week I was there, I walked downtown to try to hustle up some activity and I ran into somebody I knew and I stopped and talked to them and I ran into somebody else I knew and I stopped and talked to them, too. And I thought, Man, this doesn’t happen in Monroe, Michigan. This doesn’t happen in Toledo, Ohio. It really felt at home, you know?

Being a college-town field organizer made me a college-town afficionnado from just visiting a lot of them and understanding the college life. I was in the third year of my master’s program. It was neat. I liked the college schedule, enjoyed college towns and what they had to offer.

I fell in love with Columbia. Jeff Pavlik and Trevor Harris and I came up with this idea of Ozark Summer, which would be like Mississippi Summer or Redwood Summer where we would have a summer-long camp-out with environmental education and community organizing and direct action. We organized that out of Columbia. We had this great summer-long camp-out that was pretty transformative of creating our own culture and doing activism and really getting committed to it. It was transformative for other people that had been involved with it, even if it never lived up to the dreams we had for it.

At the same time this was going on, protests had really taken off in my town, Monroe. There was the Fermi2 nuclear power plant there. And on Christmas day, 1993, a turbine threw a blade that smashed around and that led to millions of gallons of water becoming contaminated with radiation. The plan was to pump it into Lake Erie because the solution to pollution is dilution. And we opposed that. I wasn’t in town then, but my brother organized some protests and they became this grassroots phenomenon where hundreds of people showed up. It was the biggest protest ever seen in Monroe in history. It goes back to the Newton steel strike of the 1930s to find anything closer. Never been any history outside of some labor activism in the 1930s that had ever happened in our area and maybe the Indian Wars of the 18th century. After that it had been pretty quiet there. A great protest movement arose. When I was in town, I would organize on it and provide support.

Over the course of Ozark Summer, we also organized along with SEAC what we called the Grassroots National Action Festival. We had found that we could organize a conference and get a hundred or 200 people to come and then we could do a protest as part of that conference. Those were the biggest protests that we had because normally we get maybe 50 people to a protest, but if we had a conference with 200 people from out of town, suddenly we have a 250 person protest!

So we used that trick and got people to come in from all over the country. We got Earth First and Greenpeace, which never worked together, all together on this great coalition. We threw everything at them that we had. Before they reopened the plant – because we thought if they’re going to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to bring up this broken plant – if we could hit them with this grassroots protest, then maybe we could change that calculus and they would just abandon the whole thing and stop making all of this nuclear radiation and putting the Great Lakes at risk. The first day we did protests in Detroit and we chained people to the front doors of Detroit Edison’s headquarters including this guy who had paraplegia. It was just a great event.

Monroe is the hometown of General George Armstrong Custer. And we had this big statue of him on a horse that it’s in the central part of town in a big community gathering place. We covered him in yarn and we did this protest on reweaving the web of life. On the second day, we brought this woman activist from the Mescalero-Apache tribe where they were trying to site a high-level nuclear waste facility. Detroit Edison had been part of a consortium of these power plants. We’re able to bring this critical examination of this thing that was happening under-the-radar and we brought it and she was just this amazing, powerful presence and gave this great speech. It was this huge thing. There weren’t any or arrests although We had messed with the statue, they said. Claimed we had covered it with toilet paper. There was a lot of people in Monroe that have pride for Custer. That allowed us to highlight how he was a touchstone for militarism.

We had promised ourselves weeks ago that we were going to barricade the plant at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. We had blocked the gates of the plant a number of times in probably seven or eight protests where people had gotten arrested using nonviolent civil disobedience. During a previous arrest I had really gotten injured by the police. We would set in front of the gates – there were two sets of gates – at the plant. Whichever gate had the least amount of people, they would arrest and pull those people out, drag them to police cars and arrest them and then re-open the gate.

They didn’t care if we blocked one gate, we just couldn’t block two gates. This was in case they needed one for their operations, a shift change and so forth. So they were expecting us to do that.

I joined in a blockade of the gates. Rather than drag me off and put me in a police car – I would go limp and non-cooperate. We had done nonviolence trainings and it was pretty standard – instead they decided to use pain compliance techniques to get me to move and obey. They put their thumb under my ear and they lifted me off the ground by having their thumb under my ear. When I touch it, it’s still tender now 30 years later. The police have nothing in their repertoire, when people tell them no, and when they say, you need to move now. I just said, “No, I can’t.” And so they stood me up and they had gotten me up and I realized I was on my feet and I was holding my own weight.

He was giving me this pain pressure technique and it hurts so bad and there were two of them. And then I just kicked my feet out. It was one of the braver things that I’d ever done. I was committed and I was not gonna move, even if they killed me. My cause was just. If they did, it would just bring attention to the issue. That is how you do nonviolent direct action: you’re so committed to your issue that you’re going to do whatever it takes. When they saw that, they just dragged me to the car and pushed me in. And that was that.

They expected that same because we had done that technique about seven times and they were lined up and had all the cops out. What we did instead is we had worked with a lot of folks from Earth First and we used a tactic from forest activism. Instead of going up to the gates where the police were posted up and waiting to drag us off and to paddy wagons, we tried another approach. We probably had 400 people camping. We probably had 500 to 1,000 people scattered all around. There was no great place to gather. People were all over. So we borrowed a school bus that these other more moderate anti-nuclear activists had. We didn’t tell them what we’re going to use it for.

We had cut three 30-foot trees and we put together these tripods, like you’re putting together a tipi. We chained activists at the top of the tripods and blocked the highway leading up to the plant’s gates. I was in the second group. So we dropped those people off and we set that up. We had practiced that and we could do it in a minute. Before the police got there, we had our activists chained and we had support people and the bus was rolling down the road because we didn’t want to get the bus seized seeing as how it was a borrowed bus. We also dropped off cement-filled barrels in which we handcuffed ourselves to rebar that we had ran through the center of the barrel. Our barrels would have been much stronger if we had had an extra $100 to buy stove pipe, but we couldn’t afford the stove pipe. They were able to get in with the bolt cutters into our arm holes. They didn’t have to blast through the cement to get to the handcuffs.

We were there so long that the police cars that they had left with all their lights going, well, their batteries had died. The police cars didn’t start.

We’ve created this mega traffic jam, which was part of our message. For the folks who live in the beaches area, that’s the only way to get out is the highway that runs by the plant. If there was any even a car accident than all those people would not be able to evacuated. We wanted to point out the problems with their evacuation plan by making this major traffic cluster and mission accomplished. That protest was off the hook.

Organizing constantly all through the summer had just worn me out. I was so relieved to be taken to jail. As people got to jail, they were macing and beating people. They had pushed over the tripods and maced the people when they hit the ground. There was a police riot and the police just started macing and grabbing people. My brother had a set of handcuffs in his backpack. We had organized by affinity groups. So we didn’t know what everybody was doing. So we knew about the tripods and the barrels, but there were other groups who had other plans. My brother was going to wait until they loaded up the first car with protestors and then handcuffed himself to the chassis of the police car, but he just got randomly maced and beaten, grabbed up, and then they were surprised to find the handcuffs, which was funny how we got our handcuffs. My friend Steve Merrick worked in a porn store. We bought porn store handcuffs because we got the employee discount. We had to do everything on the cheap. We organized this total fuck you protest with thousands of people from around the country for $2,000 or $3,000, including our cement filled barrels. It was amazing what we would do.

Sixteen of us ended up getting arrested. They arrested some media people. There was a Detroit news photographer who had got snatched up and beaten. When the police beat you, they charge you with assault. My friend Roger Prunty had gotten the hell whuped out of him and he came in and he was just all maced. I not just a squirt of mace in his face, but they’d shot it up his nose, down his throat and his ears. They had beat him with batons and it was all on tape. He was standing by the side of the road and they said, if you step one foot in the road, you’re going to be arrested. And he’s like, “Okay, I won’t.” And then the cop pulled back and just hit him with the stick and knocked him back on a ditch and six of them are swinging sticks at him. He was ended up getting convicted for because the police testified that when he said, “Okay, I won’t”, that spittle had come from his mouth and hit the police and that that was the assault. The whole time he’s laying in the fetal position and saying “I’m not resisting, I’m not resisting” while the police just beat him with clubs.

I had been really into the idea of direct action and I had been organizing bigger and bigger protests and I had plans to use the success of this protest to build other protests and build a protest movement. The whole purpose of SEAC was to take kid recycling club members and turn them into radical, direct action environmentalists. The threat to the environment seems like it’s an existential threat to our very survival. What we’re seeing now is with the climate change activists, a sense of urgency. It’s not like there’s this qualitative or quantitative difference, but that it’s been creeping on us and there has been these issues. We felt that passionately and we’re ready to do it by any means necessary.

But when I saw the results of it and doing all the court support for all the people who got arrested, who are from out of town, and you’d go to court with them and all of the, the grief and trouble and seeing Roger end up with an assault conviction, which could have affected his whole life outcome really made me question if that was the tactic that I wanted to invest in. I went on to do a few other direct action protests, but I really started to question whether that was a great tactic and whether I was believed in it.

Part of what Jesus did is he organized a mass movement against a corrupt religious and political state that didn’t take care of the poor and didn’t provide justice. This had become part of what I had felt had been my mission, that is, organizing this kind of movement and bring in this direct action movement that would restore some kind of participatory democracy and environmentally sustainable society that we were going to organize out of the ashes of the fallen state and that we were going to put ourselves on the line to stop the most egregious and threatening behavior until we could build that perfect world in the future. I questioned whether that was really the strategy that I was going to be able to do and would I be able to live with those consequences? I’m 24, 25 years old and I’m responsible for someone taking a serious beating. People could have been killed.

The next year some other activists organized a similar style protest event. I participated in that, but with less enthusiasm. I did it because I had gotten this thing started and I didn’t want them to do it on their own. I participated, but it didn’t have the passion and fire for it.

One other thing happened in that era. A farm family had reached out to John at Monroe County Community College River Raisen-SEAC about some wetlands that were under threat by a development project. We turned out a bunch of people for a couple of public meetings and we ended up saving these small wetlands. It was really the first success besides speaking truth to power and raising the cost to do things that we didn’t agree with, we had never really won anything.

When you have a radical agenda and you’re young and you’re not following the system, you get in late and you have don’t have an achievable end and you end up with less victories than you might. But we had that victory and that meant more than a lot of the other stuff. That informed my thinking.

I stopped working for the regional group and started to book my own trips because I realized that I was raising all of the money that my host groups would have to raise. They’re local, unpaid volunteers who had a cost and expense. I just decided that I could just book my own with other states and regions. I did trips to New York and I did a notable trip to Utah.

I had a month field organizing trip in the state of Utah. And when I got up there, I had one good contact at a school. I just worked the phones and identified contacts at other schools. We picked an issue, which was the Utah Wilderness Act. When they did the roadless and wild area act from which the wilderness areas were created, they did this study and looked at everywhere that was roadless and they identified it as preemptively wilderness and they put it under protection while they did more detailed studies and analysis and the political process in DC did its thing about about what would actually be named wilderness and protected forever.

In Utah, there were 20 million acres that have mostly red rock desert that had been identified as potential wilderness because of its lack of roads. There was a proposal on the table to preserve 4.5 of it as wilderness. Earth First said, “Let’s preserve all 20 million”. Sierra club said, “Let’s try to preserve 8 million.” There were adult groups working on it, but the students hadn’t been engaged. And so we engaged the students and we turned out, we generated hundreds and hundreds of postcards by moving around to all the college campuses in the state of Utah. And then we turned out several hundred people in Logan, Utah for a public meeting. And the Utah delegation flipped on it. They were supportive of it and then they opposed it and as a courtesy they wouldn’t pass things that only applied to that state without the support of the local delegation. It was defeated in that month. It was just great going from an idea to building, to jumping onto an existing campaign and then adding this incredible amount of organizing energy and and then having a victory.

The next year they passed a 5.7 million acre designation. There was a newspaper article where the Utah delegation referred to the number of postcards they had received and the number of people that had turned out at this public meeting that I had packed. That was kind of my second taste of victory. I realized that maybe there is something that can be done in electoral politics that has real consequence. Maybe it is more than just direct action and maybe it’s best to engage when you have the chance of actually changing and making some real wins on the ground instead of just speaking truth to power.

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