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Williston protestors reflect on lifetimes of activism

Observer file photo by Al Frey Activists Doug Smith (left) and Ulrike von Motke sit chained to a replica pipeline in Williston in September.  The six arrested, all grandparents, said they were supported by a group of young protesters who stood with them.
Observer file photo by Al Frey
Activists Doug Smith (left) and Ulrike von Motke sit chained to a replica pipeline in Williston in September. The six arrested, all grandparents, said they were supported by a group of young protesters who stood with them.

By Kristina M. Goslin

Observer correspondent

Karen Starr’s first sit-in was in a potato field in northern Maine. It was getting dark, and the farmer kept right on plowing around the protesting pickers with his tractor. The pickers didn’t budge. Rumor had it the land owner wasn’t going to pay them their bonus at the end of the harvest season. The unpicked potatoes were going to rot and the pickers knew it. So did the farmer. They got their bonus. Starr was 12 years old.

Fifty years later, Starr, who lives in Plainfield, and five others ranging in age from 62 to 84 chained themselves to a metal fence before dawn on a chilly September morning, aiming to stop work on a controversial gas pipeline project in Williston.

“I’ve always felt a responsibility to speak up when I see things that need to change,” Starr said, reflecting on what has motivated her through half a century of protesting. Back on that potato farm when she was just a child, Starr felt the injustice of being stiffed fair pay for honest work, especially since many of her fellow pickers were children of indigenous people or migrants who depended heavily on the money to buy school supplies and other essentials. “That experience was the perfect example that people have the power we give them, and we won,” Starr said. “That made quite an impression on me.”

A variety of experiences and motivations over the decades brought each of the six protesters to that chain-link fence on Sept. 21, but a common thread tied them together: the desire to connect with all generations and share the responsibility for action. “Here we are, grandparents and great-grandparents, getting arrested,” said Fred Wolfe, the 84-year-old great grandfather living in Strafford, Vt. “But 20 young people in their 20s and early 30s were there supporting us. That’s very meaningful to me.”

Wolfe doesn’t have as long an arrest record as some of his fellow protesters. In fact, he didn’t log his first hours in jail until 2001. He had taken his granddaughter to Washington, D.C. to see him block the entrance of the Department of Energy in protest of the ANWR (Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge) drilling project in Alaska. Wolfe and 21 others were arrested. “As I was led away in handcuffs past my granddaughter,” Wolfe remembered, “she turned to me and said ‘thank you.’”

Wolfe, who sports a snowy white beard, said he cares deeply about kids, and has often played the role of Santa Claus in Strafford. Wolfe’s relatively new involvement with active protesting is inspired by his descendants when they question how his generation dealt with controversial issues. “I always say, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something,’” Wolfe said. “Now when they ask me, ‘Grandpa, why didn’t you do something?’ I can honestly say ‘I did.’”

And it’s this dialogue between the generations that serves as an inspiration for many of the older activists. Karen Starr feels there is an opportunity to bridge the gaps when people of all ages converge to represent a common belief. “We have a very strange society these days,” she said, referring to what she sees as an artificial separation by age. And yet both ends of the generational curve are being admonished by some sectors of society for participating in protests. “It’s lovely that we’ve found each other,” Starr said referring to the grandparents and 20-somethings. “They’re being told that [the activism] is a stage and they’ll grow out of it, and we’re being told we should act our age!”

As for growing out of social activism, it seems for these folks it was more a matter of growing into it. Nina Swaim, 77, of Sharon, credited her mother with introducing her to the power of demonstrations in the 1970s. “My mother was very active in the Vermont Yankee protests,” Swaim said. “She got to know the police very well.”

Swaim was also quick to point out that the local law enforcement have always been understanding and respectful of the protesters, while still enforcing the laws. When reflecting on how Swaim felt about her own arrest record, most recently during the pipeline protest in Williston, she said she was not afraid of being arrested. “I didn’t do this for fun,” Swaim said. “It was pretty scary. But Vermont police are very, very thoughtful people.”

Nina Swaim is arrested following a September protest in Williston.  Protesters said they have always found Vermont police to be thoughtful and caring.
Nina Swaim is arrested following a September protest in Williston. Protesters said they have always found Vermont police to be thoughtful and caring.

For her, participating in protests that articulate her strong beliefs on a variety of environmental issues helped her feel she was making a difference; “I want to keep Vermont a strong and courageous state.”

Strength and courage were not lacking among the grandparent activists that turned out among much younger supporters that September morning. Douglas Smith, Swaim’s husband, is legally blind. “We all have our ‘maturity issues,’” Smith joked. “But why should that stop us?”

Smith has been touting environmental protection since his time as a teaching fellow at Harvard University in 1968. In the early 70s, he started his shift into the world of international energy consulting. “I realized we need to do things sustainably,” Smith recalled. “And that term wasn’t as overused then.”

The protesters also credit each other with being sources of inspiration. Ulrike von Moltke found her way to activism when she met Nina Swaim at a rally for the recent Occupy movements. Swaim was giving a training on non-violent civil disobedience. “I have not been a protester for most of my life,” von Moltke said. “I was very depressed by what I was seeing and when Occupy came around it was my chance to join that movement. Nina trained me for civil disobedience, I got arrested and before I knew it I was an activist.”

Nina Swaim of Sharon credited her mother with introducing her to the power of demonstrations in the 1970s.
Nina Swaim of Sharon credited her mother with introducing her to the power of demonstrations in the 1970s.

So, at 71 years old, von Moltke and her five friends willingly chained themselves to a replica gas pipeline, which in turn was chained to the fence surrounding the worksite. Sitting in fold-up lawn chairs and covered in sleeping bags and parkas, the grandparents kept up their spirits and did what many had been doing for decades. And despite a variety of health concerns, the protesters held their ground. Fred Wolfe has problems with both rotator cuffs, which the police were made aware of. “They handcuffed me in the front instead of the back,” Wolfe said. “They were very caring.”

For all of these protesters, the thought of advancing age being a hindrance to activism was far from their minds. “With age comes wisdom,” Wolfe said. “We can all be involved. You can be in a wheelchair and still do your part.”

Editor’s Note: Nina Swaim passed away suddenly, a few days after she was interviewed for this article. Her family feels this is a fitting tribute to honor what Nina felt so passionately about.