Sgt. Wayne Drake, UMF Public Safety assistant director, drags student Julia Holcomb out of the road in Farmington during a sit-in Friday, Nov. 19. Holcomb and three other students were protesting fossil-fuel emissions on Main Street, one of the town’s busier roads, by blocking vehicular access. The protesters sat in the crosswalk for 15 minutes until campus and town police intervened. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Four University of Maine at Farmington students Friday, Nov. 19, staged a sit-in that blocked traffic on Main Street (Route 4) — one of Farmington’s busier thoroughfares. The students were protesting climate change and fossil fuel emissions in Maine and Farmington.

The sit-in lasted for about 15 minutes before campus and town police arrived on the scene. They issued a warning and then forced participants off the road. Protesters, led by organizer and UMF junior Julia Holcomb, planned to conduct the sit in from 12-1 p.m.

The sit-in ultimately raised discussion between the participants, bystanders and local activists about which kinds of protests are most impactful and instigate change.

Participants held up signs that read “We are living on stolen land and we still don’t know how to care for it,” “Fossil fuels are for dinos’,” “Wake up Biden” and “The climate is changing, why aren’t we?” — among others.

Holcomb invited over 50 people via email the day before, but only three others showed. She wrote that the point of the protest was to address Maine’s carbon footprint.

According to Maine’s Climate Council, “54 percent of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions” come from transportation. This is “the most of any sector” and a 10 percent increase from 1990, MCC reports.

Of those transportation emissions, “59 percent (come) from light-duty passenger cars and trucks” and “27 percent from medium and heavy-duty trucks.”

Holcomb, 20, stated that she wanted to send a message to politicians like President Joe Biden to “wake up.”

She wrote that she wanted the protest “to show how this issue has been silenced for so long.”

“We are not going to stay silent about this anymore, we can’t,” Holcomb wrote. “We are going to go BEYOND politics.”

She was targeting Main Street, specifically, because it is a highly trafficked road in Farmington. It serves as a thoroughfare for trucks heading north from Auburn and south from Kingfield.

Four UMF students block vehicles from passing on Main Street in Farmington Friday, Nov. 19. They were protesting fossil-fuel emissions in Maine and Farmington. The students specifically chose Main Street because it is a busy thoroughfare. From left are Maddie Legere, Rebekah Anights and Julia Holcomb, who were removed from the road after police intervened. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

“I don’t think any of us are really saying cars are going to go away anytime soon because we do need them,” said participant Rebekah Anights. “But at least this gets us one step closer to people realizing … what fossil fuels are and taking (pollution, climate change) seriously so that we can start to make a change”

At noon, Holcomb walked into the middle of the road and sat down in the center of the crosswalk. The other participants stuck to the sides of the road and then slowly joined Holcomb.

Holcomb planned for the protest to be “entirely peaceful.” She wanted to gather in the road and “have discussions about climate change during this time and our futures.”

Farmington resident Peter Hardy holds a sign highlighting Maine’s fossil fuel emissions at a protest on Main Street in Farmington Friday, Nov. 19. The sit in, organized by a student at the University of Maine at Farmington, sought to protest against fossil fuel emissions by blocking access to the road. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

By 12:05 p.m., cars and trucks were backed up in traffic that spanned around half a mile. Drivers were yelling at the group.

Meanwhile, Farmington-residents Doug Reusch, a geologist, and Peter Hardy rode a bike up and down the street with a sign that said “Transportation: 54% of Maine’s (Carbon) footprint,” “Protect our kids’ future!” and “Drive less, walk-bike more; Carbon emissions, stop the pour!”

They rode the bike with the sign to let drivers farther back know what was happening and why, Reusch said.

A campus police officer and officers from the Farmington Police Department arrived by 12:07 p.m. Officer Ethan Boyd issued a warning to the protesters.

“This is your first warning, or you’re going to jail,” Boyd said. “I don’t want to bring you to jail.”

After participants refused to move, Boyd handcuffed Maddie Legere, 20, and brought her to his police car. There, they spoke for an extended period of time.

“Please don’t put me in that position. I don’t think you’re a bad person. And I respect what you’re doing,” Boyd told Legere.

The other two participants, sophomores Anights, 19, and Matthew Dyre, 20, then moved to the sidewalk. But Holcomb remained in place.

Public Safety Assistant Director Sgt. Wayne Drake issued a final warning, but Holcomb did not budge. He tried to remove Holcomb from the road. She remained seated and resisted. Drake then dragged her from the road.

When Drake brought her to the sidewalk, he did not move to handcuff or arrest her. Holcomb tried to return to the street, but Drake blocked her from returning.

“You’re not going in the road,” Drake said while lightly laughing.

Traffic had backed up on Main Street for over 0.6 miles by 12:15 p.m. when all participants were out of the road — either by choice or because they were forced to move by police. The traffic spanned from Front Street (near the intersection of routes 2 and 4) to at least the end of Meeting House Park, Drake estimated.

It was unclear exactly how far the traffic backed up toward the intersection. However, Drake reckoned that it ended near Front Street because there was the option for drivers to turn onto that road and exit the backup.

Holcomb was then approached by Farmington Chief of Police Kenneth Charles, who expressed surprise that Holcomb had blocked the road.

“What changed? We talked yesterday,” Charles said. “You can’t block the road … it’s against the law.”

UMF Public Safety Asst. Director and Sgt. Wayne Drake holds back student Julia Holcomb from blocking traffic on Main Street in Farmington Friday, Nov. 19. Holcomb organized a sit-in to block vehicles on the road in order to protest Maine’s high levels of fossil-fuel emissions due to transportation. The sit-in led to discussions about what kind of protests are most impactful and instigate change. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

“Do you see how many cars are there … after only five minutes there are all of these cars,” Holcomb said with a quavering voice. “I would do this all day, I would block traffic all day. But I will do this until 1 p.m. when those (hourly church) bells go off.”

“It’s unfortunate that they are sitting here idling. I hear what you’re saying,” Charles said.

“Where are they going that’s so important?” Holcomb said. “Because we’re headed for extinction.”

Police spoke with Holcomb for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, Boyd released Legere under the condition that she remain on the sidewalk like Anights and Dyre. She did.

Boyd told the Franklin Journal that in his time with the department and in Farmington, he had never seen a disruptive protest of this sort in town.

Holcomb was then approached by Vander C., a progressive activist and student at UMF.

Vander watched the situation unfold from afar. The two began a lengthy, lively debate about what kinds of protests and nonviolent action are most effective to instigate change.

Vander felt that a town this small with a conservative-leaning region is not the right place to do this kind of protest.

“The more radical that you go against someone, the more that they’re gonna stick in their little bubble, thinking that you don’t have any sort of point,” Vander said. “As soon as you are seen as radical, people don’t want to listen to you.”

Climate-justice activists should be sending a message to, “need to reach … the moderates,” not the “far-right” or “liberal left,” Vander said.

“A cultural change has to happen. You have to appeal to the hearts and minds of the middle of people,” Vander added.

Vander ultimately believes disruptive protests can be effective, but less so with only a few people taking action in a rural area.

“What you did would have worked in Portland. You probably would have been arrested, but it would have worked and other people would have joined you,” Vander said.

From left, University of Maine at Farmington students Rebekah Anights, Matthew Dyre and Maddie Legere protest fossil-fuel emissions on the Main Street sidewalk in Farmington Friday, Nov. 19. Before taking post on the sidewalk, the three stood in the road with organizer Julia Holcomb and blocked vehicular access until police intervened. Anights and Dyre said that before the protest, they did not realize the plan was to sit in the road and block vehicles from passing. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Vander also advised Holcomb to “lean into politics” and become educated on the political process to “gain legitimacy and show your power.”

Holcomb countered that politics have brought about no change thus far and that trusting politicians to end climate change without taking disruptive action is too unreliable.

Vander agreed with this point and the participants’ concerns about fossil-fuel emissions, however “all these cars idling is way worse.”

The location of the block (on a crosswalk in front of Old South Church First Congregational Church of Farmington) was also flawed, Vander said. This is because there were no nearby side streets vehicles could turn down. Additionally, Vander argued the location likely caused even more idling and fuel emissions.

Most of all, Vander didn’t want Holcomb “to end up hurt or arrested” and risk her future, career or the impact of her voice if she got a record.

Vander and Holcomb had an impassioned discussion for nearing 20 minutes, in which they both repeated the same points multiple times.

In an interview following the conversation, Vander said that they spoke with Holcomb for so long (longer than planned) because they wanted her to understand that “lone-wolf tactics” don’t work.

“What I was trying to get (Holcomb) to understand is that she’s not alone. I understand that she had not intended to be the only one. But the moment that you are the only one, you end up with … a martyr complex. And people don’t listen to that.

“If you want to do something extreme, before you can do that, you have to do a lot of education … and get a lot of people in,” Vander said.

Vander also added that the protest might have been more effective if Holcomb had gotten a permit.

Anights, another protester, briefly joined the conversation between Vander and Holcomb. She suggested that this kind of protest might not have been the group’s correct format right out of the gate. They should have marched (rather than remaining stationary) or built a bigger base before this action, Anights said.

Away from the discussion, Anights and Dyre said that going into the protest, they did not realize they were going to be blocking the road. Holcomb’s communications via email beforehand did state the plan to block the road. However, Dyre said it “did not register” at the time.

He did not expect the escalation — neither the road blockage nor the police intervention — and thought the group would be “standing on the sidewalk or marching around.”

“I wasn’t expecting Julia to go on the road,” Anights said. “I definitely wanted to stick up for this.”

Nevertheless, Dyre still considers nonviolent disruption via action like standing in the road “a good idea.”

“I wanted to begin a fight at UMF (for climate justice). I know that we do have one. I just wanted to give more awareness of everything and be there for people,” Dyre said. “I totally back (Holcomb) up on it, but this is a small town and we need to build the movement up, get more people on board.”

A sign is left abandoned after a UMF student-led protest against fossil-fuel emissions in Farmington Friday, Nov. 19. Following the sit-in that blocked Main Street traffic, the organizer and a local activist had a 20-minute long debate about the most impactful ways to protest. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Not all participants regretted the format. Reusch and Hardy were in support of the action and the cause.

“We are at a tipping point. It’s not the future, it is now,” Reusch said. “Young people like this are waking up.”

“I understand their frustration,” Hardy said of Holcomb’s choice to sit in the road.

“I think you’re very brave and courageous,” Reusch told Holcomb before leaving.

Coincidentally, just down the street, local activists were holding their weekly anti-war, pro-peace vigil. This vigil has been held every Friday at noon for nearly 20 years on the sidewalk in front of the Farmington Post Office.

Local activist Jon Rosenwald, who has participated in the vigils nearly since the beginning, spoke with The Franklin Journal in a phone interview following both protests. He expressed his support for the students and disagreed with the argument that it was not effective.

“The students were saying, ‘This matters to us and we’re concerned about our future, we’re going to draw attention to it by taking passive (disruptive) action that tells people we are concerned and we’re willing to confront the powers of authority to make that point,'” Rosenwald said.

He did not agree with the point that this action was too radical and alienating. Rosenwald referenced Greta Thunberg, an 18-year-old Swedish activist who began protesting for climate justice in 2018, who has spoken before the United Nations and is known for civil disobedience and “challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation.”

Ethan Boyd, an officer from the Farmington Police Department, approaches UMF students staging a sit-in that blocked traffic to protest fossil-fuel emissions Friday, Nov. 19. Boyd issued a warning and then handcuffed Maddie Legere, far right. She was ultimately released from police custody. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

“Sometimes the smallest chip, when it falls, (it starts) the domino effect, one thing leads to another. And eventually, something may or may not get changed,” Rosenwald said. “So many times, in so many places, people who take action because of their deep beliefs cause responses … which initially might be negative. And then eventually, somebody might say, ‘Yeah, I guess they have a point.’

“But it matters, one has to espouse one’s beliefs and state them clearly. And I’m all in favor of that,” Rosenwald said.

Rosenwald, 78, said that he’d consider joining participants for future actions. However, he would not be willing to put himself at risk of arrest or injury given his age.

“I’m very, very deeply moved by young people who are willing to take those stances,” Rosenwald said.

When the Franklin Journal returned to the scene of the protest at 12:50 p.m. all four participants were gone.

Following the protest, Holcomb wrote to the Franklin Journal that she thought “what we did today was a success – if all that happened was start a ripple effect then I’m glad I got to put my drop in the puddle.”

She said this is not the end of her protests and civil disobedience “because the fight isn’t over.”

“You will definitely see more from me in the future,” Holcomb said.

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