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Three Men Who Are Living a Life of Protest

From living up a tree to getting arrested, standing up for what you believe in takes some serious resolve

In a world where regular people’s voices are increasingly being silenced or ignored by those in power, it’s good to know that so many are still willing to go to great lengths to get their messages of protest out there, whether that be by throwing themselves in the path of chainsaw-wielding loggers or getting arrested outside NFL stadiums. And it’s also worth remembering that less extreme examples — say, a principled stand against a certain gentrification-adjacent coffee chain — are well worth the effort, too. Here, we talk to three men about why they’ve chosen to live a life of protest.

Getting Arrested for Civil Disobedience

Najee Ali, Los Angeles: I’ve been an NFL fan since I could crawl. I’m serious. My father played pro football — four seasons in the NFL. I played Pop Warner, and in high school and junior college, so football is in my DNA. I had season tickets to the Rams when they first moved back to L.A. from St Louis. I love pro football, and boycotting it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Our protest began when it was clear that Colin Kaepernick was being blackballed and not signed by any NFL team. In L.A., it was a really big deal — across Black America, in the activist networks and different chat groups and websites, it was the talk of the town. So we made the decision to protest the NFL before the season even started: The first preseason game, we had a protest outside the L.A. Coliseum.

We were demanding the NFL owners stop their collusion and give Kaepernick a chance to compete for a job, because clearly we believe he had enough talent to be signed by some team at least as a quality backup. Once it was clear he wasn’t going to be signed, we believe the NFL owners colluded and punished a man for speaking out against police brutality. Any time a corporation or business punishes an employee for speaking out against racism and exercising their First Amendment rights, we should no longer support that business — that’s why the boycott made sense.

Honestly, it was very difficult for me. A couple of times I almost felt like cheating, just wanting to watch at least part of a game. I was very tempted. But I have children who were aware of the situation, and I didn’t want them seeing that I’m protesting publicly but watching the NFL privately in the comfort of my own home.

When I put it into perspective, thinking about Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, the multiple numbers of black women and children, including Tamir Rice, who were all shot and killed by police, they’re not going to watch anything else ever. Once I thought about it from that perspective, it helped ease the discomfort I got from not watching the NFL on Sundays.

Getting arrested outside the stadium wasn’t pleasurable. No one wants to get arrested in 90-degree weather on a Sunday afternoon in handcuffs and put in a police car, but sometimes we have to sacrifice, as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks did, in the traditions of our ancestors — and use civil disobedience to draw attention to injustice. That was the least I could do, because Kaepernick essentially sacrificed his career. He’s done. He didn’t have to, he could have kept playing football and kept his mouth shut and not put himself in that position. But he chose to stand up for black men, women and children being slaughtered unjustly by police nationwide to draw attention to our plight. I couldn’t do anything but admire his courage and conviction, so getting arrested was the least I could do.

I was released a few hours afterward, and I don’t have any regrets whatsoever. My discomfort doesn’t amount to the fact that this man’s career is over for the rest of his life.

Once Kaepernick’s legal proceedings were settled, I was happy because it did take a toll on me. Football is a ritual for many African-Americans: We watch football on Sunday afternoon and then we have dinner. It was a ritual that I’ve had my entire life that I couldn’t partake in based on principle.

Nowadays, honestly, because I’ve not watched for the past two seasons — even the Super Bowl — I forgot football was back on. But it’ll feel different without question, because in my heart, I believe the NFL owners punished a brave man for speaking out against injustice in the same manner as Muhammad Ali. So I’ll watch the games, but I realize this is truly a business that punishes people when they don’t toe the company line.

Protesting was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, and those who participated refused to give in until Kaepernick’s case was settled. If nothing else, we know, across Black America, we raised the consciousness of many.

The Long, Solo Corporate Boycott

Panama Jackson, Washington, D.C.: In 2004, I remember writing on my first blog [before starting Very Smart Brothas] why I was out on Starbucks as a whole. I don’t drink coffee anyway, so it’s more of a passive boycott. But I do like chai lattes — and Dunkin’ Donuts has awesome ones! 

I was more of a conspiracy theorist back then than I am now — I was full-hog on the idea that Starbucks was a government op and sent in to flip a community. You send in Starbucks first, then all of a sudden property values increase. The thing is, none of that’s untrue: Starbucks have been early adopters in neighborhoods that were effectively ground zero for gentrification. But I was even saying that they got Magic Johnson on board — Magic had a string of Starbucks he bought in communities in L.A. and Atlanta in particular — and all of a sudden, now Magic Johnson has HIV in untraceable levels, so there was this big government conspiracy. I’ve fallen back on that — that’s kind of ridiculous.

But still, if a Starbucks is in a disadvantaged neighborhood, it’s effectively going to be the catalyst for change. That part is all true. And displacement, absolutely. I saw it when I went to Howard University and even more so today. All of a sudden there are marks of a city in transition, and now people are fighting a battle that’s already lost. I’m not going to say you can trace it all back to Starbucks, but I will say that Starbucks was right there when it all started.

Some friends and I were in New York City for New Year’s around 2005, and it was freezing outside. It was really, really cold — like 10 degrees. There was a Starbucks right there, and everybody decided to go inside to get warm. I, though, just stood outside, because I was like, I can’t do this. My friend came outside and was like, “Wow, you’re really serious about this — I thought you were joking before. I’m gonna support you, let’s go find another place to go.”

I’ve talked to everybody about it. Literally everybody that knows me knows how I feel about Starbucks. Nobody asks me to go, nobody tries to pressure me, nobody gives me Starbucks gift cards. I went to a wedding once, and the gift at the wedding for everybody was a Starbucks mug. The groom pulled me aside and said, “Listen, I know you don’t do Starbucks, but it’s a Washington, D.C. mug that we all liked, so we gave you one, but if you don’t want it, I understand.” So people know. I haven’t found a group of supporters or anything like that, it’s been a solo boycott. I’ve been perfectly fine with this being my own personal mission.

Everybody usually agrees with me when I talk about it. They understand where I’m coming from: “I see what you’re saying; you’re not wrong. I’m amazed you care this much, but we see your point.” A few of my friends joined in, but I haven’t converted a lot of people. People definitely care about overpriced coffee more than they care about my opinion about Starbucks!

The first time I actually went inside a Starbucks was 2015. One of my former coworkers used to go, and I walked in with her. I was like, “Whatever, I can go inside. I’m not buying anything; I’m not giving them money.” It looked like… a quaint little coffee shop, with tons of menu items and foods that looked like they’d be awesome to eat if I’d be willing to give them my money. 

I’m going to make an odd comparison, but I think it works: A lot of people distrust police as an institution, but individual police officers are fine: When you meet them, they’re good people. So the institution of Starbucks I still have a problem with because of gentrification and how it affects the displacement of citizenry, but when you go into an individual Starbucks, that Starbucks isn’t hurting anybody on purpose, it’s just there to make money. You’ve got regular employees there, people working there who could be displaced by Starbucks. And there happens to be one every two blocks.

I even went into a Starbucks and bought something once, only because it was convenient. It was a very sad moment for me, especially because I was disappointed in the product. I haven’t been back and purchased anything since. It was like I put my whole stance on the line here for some crap — like, I was really sad about the fact that it ended up being disappointing.

Everybody cares about gentrification now, but I’ve been talking about this forever. So I’m fine with my decision, my principled stand against it. I’m just disappointed that I eventually did give Starbucks five bucks or whatever it was.

The Tree Sitter

Anthony Villagomez, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon: I’d moved from Ohio, where I originally lived, out to the Pacific Northwest, and was blown away by mountains and forests. I grew up in an area where, in hundreds of miles, it changed maybe 200 to 300 feet in elevation. Mountains reminded me that you were this small, semi-insignificant speck on the earth. Then seeing old-growth trees did the same thing: This is a living being that’s been around since before the country was founded, and I realized these are more of a treasure than I’d realized previously.

Up to that point I’d wanted to go to forestry school because I love the forest, then I learned that forestry school isn’t about that! When I started seeing clear cuts, I decided to get involved. A picture of a clear cut looks bad, but when you’re out there on the ground and see one for yourself you’re like, “Whoa why are we doing this?” It feels inherently like a bad decision.

I started by doing your classic environmental activism, getting people to sign postcards to send to the governor, that kind of thing. I realized in certain circumstances that was effective, but it wasn’t 100 percent effective, and it was getting less and less so with the George W. Bush administration. It seemed like you were just putting your name on something that was ignored. Like, this timber sale and preservation area received 2 million signatures. How is that not enough?

So I started getting involved with environmental direct action groups and figuring out what we could do, nonviolently, that would still create enough of a spectacle that the media would cover it. Because there are two mindsets when it comes to tree sitting, both totally valid: One is we’re directly stopping as many trees getting cut in this area. The other side is that we’re trying to get news stories so the public learns about it, becomes aware and hopefully active enough to where they have to stop the logging — let’s create as much of a spectacle as possible to where people might cover it and it’ll get stopped. It might become the story of the week.

Tree sitting is generally safe — you’re tied in and all that stuff. But you’re also putting your life on the line. The idea is that they can’t cut these trees down because there’s human life in there — if they did, it’d be murder. Often we’d have what’s called a traverse, which are ropes that go from the tree you’re in to adjacent trees, which meant loggers couldn’t cut those adjacent trees if you were on those ropes. So if anybody would come around, you’d go out and hang on those ropes so they couldn’t cut those adjacent trees or they’d be risking a life.

I’ve spent time in six tree sits, and I’ve helped in some way, whether it’s bringing food or setting up, another four or five. The longest amount of time I’ve spent in a tree was three and a half weeks. There were definitely people staying in tree sits way longer, so it was a long time but it wasn’t considered a long time within the group.

What it’s like to live in a tree depends on the weather a lot, because you can’t get away from the weather. Your shelter is minimal. You might have a donut platform, which is basically a platform that goes around the whole part of the tree, not just a little thing that hangs on the side. So if you had that and some tarps set up, you were pretty elaborate.

If it was raining, it was kind of miserable — you’d be hunkered under your tarp in front of a sleeping bag and trying not to move much. But if it was nice weather then you were out climbing trees, and it was this beautiful, romantic experience. Nobody was around, and in old-growth forests, most people don’t know most of the life is up in the upper canopy, because that’s where the sunlight is. I’ve had many experiences with flying squirrels landing on me.

If there was logging activity or law enforcement around, that changed the dynamic. Loggers sometimes messed with us. Some were really aggressive, and called you all the bad names and told you to get a job and all that stuff — your classic tropes. There were occasions where crews were hired to set up spotlights, play loud, awful music all night, or set up campfires underneath you that were smoky so you’re just getting smoked out. I’ve seen trees that people were in where a logger came and started cutting on the tree — probably not enough to make the tree fall, but enough to make you think somebody down there is crazy and is going to kill you, all in hopes of you coming down.

Your conviction does sometimes waver. Sometimes you feel like you no matter what, they’re never going to get you to come down, and in other ways, there’s reality! You tell yourself you’re undefeatable, and then things get hard. I think most people, if they’re telling you the truth, would say at some point that was going through their head: I’m running out of water and the authorities aren’t letting people bring me water, or there’s a windstorm that comes through and makes you think, what the heck am I doing up here?

Success was a mixed bag — some places were saved, some places were lost. I’d say more often than not places were lost, because tree sitting is a last-ditch effort. You don’t do it right when the comment period is happening, it’s when you’ve exhausted all of the other options, and you’re trying to create some more time for lawyers to win in court, or the public opinion to be loud enough to stop it.

Probably the biggest tree sit that I was part of was when George W. Bush came to town when he was trying to open up roadless areas that Clinton said he wasn’t going to log in. We were one of CNN’s five rotating stories for the day. We even had a Secret Service guy come to our tree-sit in town to try to talk to us and get information. I figured once Secret Service comes, you’re making a difference a little bit.

Eventually I just kind of burned out. I’d given 10 years or more of my life to do it, and I felt like I needed to focus on being sane! And making money, so I can live my life and spend time with my wife and those kinds of things. But with that being said, if there was a forest activist campaign that started up near me and I believed in it, I’d probably be out there with everybody doing the same thing.