Actor James Cromwell was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the hit movie “Babe,” and throughout his career for numerous Emmys. But on a cold December day in 2015, the drama he participated in was no act. Cromwell and five others were arrested in upstate Wawayanda, New York, protesting against the construction of a 650-megawatt fracked gas power plant. He and two others refused to pay their fines and were sentenced to a week behind bars. On Friday, July 14, the 77-year-old actor, along with Pramilla Malick and Madeline Shaw, a grandmother, surrendered themselves to the Orange County jail.
Cromwell is no stranger to protest. He was inspired by Southern civil-rights activists, and joined the anti-Vietnam War movement. He provided direct support for Black Panther activists targeted by the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program in the 1960s. A vegan, he has been arrested protesting the mistreatment of animals. This latest action and subsequent jailing, however, mark an escalation in his commitment to bring about revolutionary change.
“We are, all of us, engaged in a struggle, not to protect a way of life, but to protect life itself,” Cromwell told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour the day before he was to report to jail. “Our institutions are bankrupt. Our leaders are complicit. And the public is basically disillusioned and disenchanted with the entire process.”
The Wawayanda gas-fueled power plant is owned by Competitive Power Ventures (CPV), which touts itself as a leader in “clean energy.” CPV is, in turn, owned by the multinational Global Infrastructure Partners, which has fossil-fuel projects around the globe. The Wawayanda plant is not complete yet, and Cromwell and others want to make sure it never is.
“We chained ourselves together with bicycle locks, and we blocked the entrance to the plant for—according to the prosecution, about 27 minutes. The judge and the prosecution seemed to imply that it made absolutely no difference. … But it does make a difference,” Cromwell told us. “We’re trying to get out the message that this is one instance, but it is happening all around this country and all around the world.” The image of their arrest is chilling, with Cromwell surrounded by New York state troopers, one of whom is applying a massive bolt cutter to the lock around Cromwell’s neck.
“There is a direct link between that plant and the Middle East,” Cromwell said. “We’re at war not only with Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Yemen. We’re at war with Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the gas comes from, with Wawayanda, that uses the gas, with Seneca Lake, where it was to be stored, and with Standing Rock.” Cromwell explained why he risked arrest that day: “Most people can’t put their finger on the cause of it, but everybody perceives the threat. Capitalism is a cancer. And the only way to defeat this cancer is to completely, radically transform our way of living and our way of thinking about ourselves. And I call that radical transformation revolutionary. So this is the revolution.”
If the revolution Cromwell describes comes, it will erupt, in part, from the work of the countless local grass-roots groups that are springing up around the globe to address the growing catastrophe of climate change. Protect Orange County, founded by Pramilla Malick, is one of those groups, and is the organizing hub against the CPV plant.
Malick joined Cromwell in our studio, and described their strategy: “We actually can stop this. There’s one permit left. … We are calling on everybody to demand of our governor, Governor Cuomo, to be a real climate leader and reject the permit for that last pipeline, the lateral pipeline, and to pull the plug on this plant.”
The protesters were released from jail on Monday, after three days of their seven-day sentence. “Going to jail is a statement about how we have to lift our game. It’s no more good enough just to picket and to petition, because nobody is listening. The way people get the message out is you do an act of civil disobedience,” Cromwell told us. “We have to change our relationship both to the planet and to the people who live on this planet, including the people who are opposing us.” James Cromwell has a commanding presence on the big screen, and will certainly continue practicing his craft. But the primary stage for this towering actor will be the streets, in what will likely be his life’s most demanding role.