Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Lee Smithey was arrested on March 29 for failing to disperse during a protest calling on the Philadelphia Electric Company to transition 20 percent of their energy distribution to rooftop and community-owned solar by 2025.
Smithey stood outside PECO’s Philadelphia headquarters with around 60 others, including former Lang Visiting Professor George Lakey, as a part of a three-day campaign co-hosted by the Earth Quaker Action Team. According to its website, the grassroots, nonviolent action group challenges beneficiaries of the current energy system to turn away from fossil fuels.
Smithey became active in the group in 2015 because of his belief that energy companies should invest in local communities and decentralized solar power, especially given the pace of climate change and extreme levels of income and social inequality in the country.
“Emissions rose in 2017 and are predicted to rise again in 2018,” he said. “That means civil society has to step up and spur change in the institutions in our own communities, especially in the absence of sufficient political environmental leadership.”
Smithey called nonviolent action and conflict transformation his primary fields of teaching and research for over two decades. Smithey was compelled by environmental justice and climate change concerns to become more active. Now, he supports Sunrise Swarthmore and fossil fuel divestment on-campus and participating in EQAT off-campus.
“We feel that many institutions must take responsibility for a clean energy transition that meets the challenges of climate change endangering vulnerable populations here in the United States and around the world,” Smithey said, adding that about 0.5 percent of PECO’s current distribution is solar.
March 27, EQAT’s first day of action, was called a “Day of Mourning” over the impact of fossil fuels on communities, during which seven demonstrators were arrested for failure to disperse. The next included a “Day of Vision” planned by local youth, which involved drawing sustainability-related pictures outside the headquarters with chalk.
The final day on March 29, entitled a “Day of Reckoning,” involved a symbolic modeling of service through a foot washing ritual. After the service, the group attempted to enter PECO’s lobby, but security guards locked the doors. Teams of EQATers occupied multiple doors to the lobby, resulting in 18 arrests and citations, including Smithey and Lakey.
“We were engaged in the tradition of necessary civil disobedience, and the police response was professional and respectful,” Smithey said.
Lakey expressed mixed feelings about police giving citations instead of a night in jail.
“Relief, because I don’t like jail — that horrible clang of metal-on-metal when the cell door is shut. And disappointment, because it’s a lighter sanction, and reduces the degree to which we’re showing the depth of our conviction,” Lakey said.
Lakey added that an action campaign is all about “putting skin in the game,” which is why he joined 200 others in walking 100 miles around PECOs service area in March—to show the company that the cause was not going away.
“Our demand is really common sense — anyone can see that, except those more enthusiastic about profit than about people and the planet. We’re on the side of history,” Lakey said. “My wish is to accelerate the process and step up the militancy of our action to incentivize an opponent who is so very, very stuck.”
EQAT Communications Director Greg Holt called on PECO to revamp how it does business. In particular, the company must take responsibility for the jobs it could create with the profits it takes from local communities, the sickness and climate change caused by its electricity distribution, and to employ its influence to empower neighborhoods to build their own sources of power.
“What’s powerful to me is that after two years of asking PECO to turn to local solar, what we’re doing now is refusing to acquiesce when the company says it won’t,” Holt said. “When PECO requires the backup of police to open its doors, it starkly reveals that the utility’s commitment is to its profit, not its people.”
Smithey stressed that the campaign is centered on climate change and the needs of local communities — not just arrested professors — and hopes people will continue to join the movement in urging PECO to become a model corporate leader.