“I think I may be in jail for my 82nd birthday,” Jane Fonda said recently, and it sounded almost like a wish. Her birthday is on Dec. 21, so we’ll find out soon enough. As I write this, she’s been arrested three times in the past three weeks for unlawfully protesting inaction on climate change on Capitol Hill in Washington. She’ll probably have been arrested again by the time you read this.
It’s been almost 50 years since she was arrested for the first time, at a protest by Native Americans hoping to turn an old fort into a cultural centre in Washington state. Now that’s she started her own climate protest, called Fire Drill Fridays, she will probably continue to reap scorn for her activism. I’m pretty sure it will roll right off her magnificent blonde head. I mean, if anyone is used to criticism, it’s someone with a closetful of ex-husbands.
Her own father, Henry Fonda, threatened to turn her into the authorities if he thought she was turning into a Communist. One of her terrible ex-husbands, the film director Roger Vadim, called her “Jane of Arc,” and not in a complimentary way. She’s been accused of treason, investigated by the FBI and pilloried for posing with an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi in 1972 (a misguided decision she has repeatedly apologized for). A Vietnam vet once told her that he would go into video stores and turn her famous exercise tape backward so it faced the wall. That must have hurt.
And yet, here she still is, lifting her plastic-cuffed wrists in triumph as the police lead her away, sticking out her tongue in defiance. These are grandma goals. You can have your grandma goals, and I will happily defend your right to celebrate your well-earned retirement in any way you choose. Take a cruise. Learn to samba. Spoil your grandchildren as vengeance upon your own children. But the elders who are out there right now, protesting and advocating and being arrested, are earning a special kind of reward. They’re trying to rebuild a bridge between generations, one that’s in terrible disrepair.
The kids who are marching right now are resentful, as they have every right to be. They’re angry at a generation that has wiped its feet on the Earth and then shrugged at the mess. They’ve responded by taking to the street, and with the casual savagery of the phrase “OK boomer,” which The New York Times describes as “Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids.”
What possible comeback is there for such deserved criticism? Apologies for the flights we took, and the idiots we voted for, and the months-long retirement in sunny condos that we’re currently enjoying at their expense? Sorry, kids. Better luck next planet!
Then there’s Ms. Fonda’s path, which is one of humility and partnership. She says she’s been inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, and by Naomi Klein’s new book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. Ms. Fonda talks about seeing the climate crisis as an interrelated series of problems to be addressed, including racism and misogyny, colonialism and corporate greed. She’s brought her famous older friends to be arrested alongside her: Ted Danson, 71, was there last week, zip-tied in solidarity. We can only hope for Lily Tomlin to show up with a martini glass, and complete a Grace and Frankie bingo.
Of course, older citizens have long been a central part of any social-justice movement. They single-handedly keep the nuclear-disarmament movement afloat. Indigenous elders are at the centre of environmental-protection movements in Canada and the U.S. and around the world. The Raging Grannies, born in Canada, rampage for justice wherever there is injustice. One of them was recently arrested at a protest in Virginia, after chaining herself to piece of construction equipment next to a banner that said, “Pipelines blow.”
What’s changed lately is that there seems to be a new urgency, and a sense of a debt owed, an obligation unfulfilled, a deadline pending. The Extinction Rebellion movement – the people British Prime Minister Boris Johnson likes to call “crusties” – teems with retirees with time on their hands and no boss to call if they have to spend a night in a jail cell. They carry signs that say, “I am a rebel so I can look my grandchildren in the eye.”
One of the Extinction Rebellion protesters, 91-year-old John Lymes, sat down (on a folding chair) in the middle of a road in Dover as an act of civil disobedience. “It’s great that the younger ones are protesting,” he told a reporter from the British broadcaster ITN, “but it’s my generation that’s caused all this trouble, so here I am.” He was interrupted in mid-interview by a polite police officer who’d come to arrest him.
Ms. Fonda actually accepted a lifetime achievement honour from BAFTA on behalf of the British film industry while being arrested. “I’m sorry I’m not there!” she called, as she was led away. “I’m very honoured!” Maybe you have to be arrested a certain number of times before you learn to multitask on your way to the hoosegow.
In her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far, Ms. Fonda talks about the need to think of a life as a series of acts, as in a play, and to plan meaningful achievements for each one. The last act can be as vital as the first. She writes about wanting “to practice conscious living, be there as fully as I can for my children and my grandchildren, contribute in whatever ways I can to healing the planet.” Maybe, without knowing, she’s also helping build a bridge.
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