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'I think it’s working': At 81, Jane Fonda is proudly protesting and going to jail

Jane Fonda at 81 Source: The New York Times

Jane Fonda, who is 81, moved to Washington in September to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis by staging protests. She has been arrested every Friday for the past four weeks.

The night before Jane Fonda was arrested here again last week, a member of her social media team asked whether she would consider writing a letter from jail. “With what?” Ms Fonda replied. 

“I’ll be without my phone.” She paused a beat, “Or adult diapers.” Also, Ms Fonda continued, musing out loud, it was one thing for the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr to write a letter from jail. But her? The plan was nixed.

Ms Fonda, who is 81, moved to Washington in September to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis by staging protests at the Capitol, where, wrapped in a bright red coat, she has been arrested every Friday for the past four weeks, often with a famous friend or two in tow: Sam Waterston, Ted Danson and, on Friday, Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette.

Jane Fonda, in hat and red coat, brought Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette, right, to Friday’s protest.
Jane Fonda, in hat and red coat, brought Catherine Keener and Rosanna Arquette, right, to Friday’s protest.

Ms Fonda plans to keep protesting until mid-January, when production of her Netflix show, “Grace and Frankie,” resumes, and expects to turn 82 in jail, on 21 December.

“I said to her, ‘Are you really going to make me do this?’ ” Ms Keener recalled on Thursday night. “She said, ‘I won’t if you don’t want to.’ ” The next day, Ms Keener, Ms Arquette and Ms Fonda were among the 46 people the police led off in plastic handcuffs for occupying the soaring atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

Ms Keener and Ms Arquette were fined and released a few hours later, but Ms Fonda, who had a court date because of her prior arrests, spent the night in jail, as expected. “One night, big deal!” Ms Fonda told reporters minutes before the sit-in began.

Ms Fonda is hale, but being arrested at her age brings challenges, like staying balanced with bound hands while clambering into a police wagon. Last week brought a respite of sorts when police led those arrested, whose numbers have tripled since she began protesting, into an easier-to-board short bus with low steps, as onlookers cheered, “Yeah, Jane!” Upon her release the next day, Ms Fonda told The Washington Post that she had used the coat as a mattress and that her bones hurt.

Celebrity protesters make for soft targets, and Ms Fonda said that there was no question she benefited from her white privilege and fame, but that she was using what she had. She drives an electric car, eschews plastic, eats less red meat and has cut down on air travel — celebrities often opt for private jets, while Ms Fonda said she flies commercial — but said she was protesting out of a need to do more.

“Why be a celebrity if you can’t leverage it for something that is this important?” she said.

She hopes to inspire others to flood the streets and compel lawmakers to force fossil fuel companies to keep trillions of dollars of remaining oil reserves in the ground. Whether this lofty goal is reached, she has at the least made pop culture inroads. Her recent acceptance of a Bafta Award while getting arrested went viral, and Buzzfeed’s suggested Halloween couples costumes included dressing as Ms Fonda and her arresting officer.

Though Ms Fonda has been an activist throughout her life, the only other time she has spent the night in jail was in 1970, when she was 32, on a speaking tour protesting the Vietnam War. That’s when she was arrested in Cleveland for possession of what Ms Fonda says were vitamins; charges were dropped. Two years later she visited North Vietnam, landing the nickname Hanoi Jane, and went on to apologise repeatedly for causing any insult to US soldiers. The nickname has stuck, though, and at the protest Friday at least one detractor, wearing a MAGA hat, repeatedly shouted it her way.

Fonda speaking at Fire Drill Friday. The actress helped hatch the event in response to worsening climate news.
Fonda speaking at Fire Drill Friday. The actress helped hatch the event in response to worsening climate news.
The New York Times

Her demonstrations and arrests now are productions unto themselves. There are speakers and musicians, weekly topics (the ocean, women, militarization) and, each Thursday night, an hourlong teach-in that is streamed live on Facebook.

The most recent one included Ms Fonda’s close friend playwright Eve Ensler, and policy strategist Emira Woods, as Ms Arquette and Ms Keener sat cross-legged on the floor. “You look so cute!” Ms Fonda told them. “My fearless leader!” Ms Keener replied. Ms Fonda had just flown in from a speaking gig in Detroit, where she appeared with Lily Tomlin, her “Grace and Frankie” co-star, and shortly after the teach-in ended at 8pm, Ms Fonda yelled, “Let’s go to bed!”

The protest and arrest plan began to take shape over Labor Day when she was vacationing in Big Sur with Ms Keener and Ms Arquette. Ms Fonda had been fighting what she described as deep-seated physical malaise and depression that she ascribed to ever-worsening climate news.

That weekend, she was reading an advance copy of Naomi Klein’s new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” and it hit her like a lightning bolt. “It was just cooking, cooking, and then she was on the phone,” recalled Ms Keener (who worked with Ms Fonda and Ms Arquette on the 2012 film “Peace Love & Misunderstanding”).

During a conference call with Ms Klein, Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, and environmental activist Bill McKibben, the plan was born. They called the events Fire Drill Fridays, inspired by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s cri de coeur, “Our house is on fire.” The plan called for protesters to wear red, and Ms Fonda said her new coat, bought on sale at Neiman Marcus, would be the last item of clothing she would ever buy because she does not need more stuff.

“I think she took just the right message from the example of the young school strikers,” Mr McKibben wrote in an email. “It’s good that kids are leading, but it’s not OK to take the biggest problem on earth and assign it to 15-year-olds.”

There have been hitches. Moving to DC meant missing time with her three-month-old grandson. And Ms Fonda’s plans to bring along her dog, a 15-year-old Coton de Tulear named Tulea that she describes as her “soul mate,” were scotched after she became too ill to fly.

There was also the matter of “Grace and Frankie.” Production of the show’s final season is scheduled to begin in January, so Ms Fonda asked Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix, if it could be delayed for one year. Mr Sarandos said no. (The exchange was confirmed by Netflix.) Ms Fonda also had several speaking commitments related to the show. “I tried to get out of everything, but I couldn’t because I signed contracts,” she said.

Friday morning dawned bright and cool in Washington, and in a church basement near the Supreme Court, dozens of Fire Drill Friday protesters gathered to eat pastries, drink coffee and strategise.

After finishing an interview with NPR, Ms Fonda, wearing her red coat and a tilted olive fedora, flitted among them like a mother bird, delivering greetings and long hugs. Then they marched toward the Capitol, Fonda leading the way, camera crews and other journalists hustling to keep up.

A stage with a Fire Drill Fridays backdrop was set up on the lawn, and among the hundreds gathered were alumni from Ms Fonda’s high school, the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York; members of Elders Climate Action, and someone dressed in a plush polar bear costume. Ms Fonda greeted them all, and invited up speakers; among them Ms Keener, Ms Arquette (“Every human life depends on honouring our planet”) and Ms Ensler, who recited a poem about the Earth that left listeners misty-eyed. Then it was off to the Senate building, where, shortly before her arrest, Ms Fonda was asked if her civil disobedience was having its intended effect.

“You are all here,” she said, indicating the swarm of camera crews and journalists. “So I think it’s working.”

By Cara Buckley © 2019 The New York Times

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