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Photos by Kori Feener

Nearly 100 years old, Frances Crowe is every polluter’s worst nightmare

In June, Frances Crowe was arrested with seven others in Sandisfield, a small town in the Berkshires, for protesting the Connecticut Expansion Pipeline, a 10-plus-mile natural gas loop planned to run through three states, including Massachusetts.

As reported by this journalist in May, the potential consequences of that pipeline include construction and environmental complications in some Western Mass municipalities, as well as damage to Native American historical sites. Kinder Morgan, the Houston-based business behind the project, has been steadfast in protecting its investment; as was recently reported on the news and public information site MuckRock, the company has actually paid the Mass State Police more than $100,000 this year for “pipeline authority” and “pipeline security,” effectively blurring the lines between public and private interests, not to mention protection.

None of this is new, or comes as a complete surprise to Crowe, who has been fighting battles against war, nuclear power, and apartheid, among other real-life horrors, for her entire life. At 98 years young, the veteran protester is still a badass activist who stands up for the things that she believes in. With open white supremacy on the rise, along with concern over an all-out nuclear war with North Korea, it seems that the advice of an eternal activist like Crowe, who was born around the time when workers were still striking for the eight-hour work day, has more urgency in 2017 than ever before. To see what knowledge she could share, I went to interview the well-known activist, whose age got her in headlines following her last arrest, at her home in Northampton.

Crowe’s house is hard to miss. Signs defiantly stand in the ground: Black Lives Matter, War is Not the Answer, Ban Assault Weapons, to describe a few. Stepping into her home feels like entering the headquarters of a resistance movement. Posters of her past work—calls for disarmament, campaigns with the American Friends Service Committee—are carefully placed in each room and complement a wall-full of books spanning related topics.

Crowe lounges comfortably in a white seat, at stark contrast with her black clothing and Stop the Pipeline pin, which she proudly displays these days. Her arrest in June in Sandisfield made headlines everywhere; just Google “Frances Crowe,” and most of what you’ll find is clickbait along the lines of “98-Year-Old Activist Arrested…” Knowing that there’s much more to her action than her years, I asked Crowe to get right into the Sandisfield story.

“I thought I had one more arrest in my life, and that’s where I wanted it to be,” she says. “To try to stop fossil fuels from being taken out of the ground.”

Crowe goes on to explain the difficulty that her group had getting to the site. She uses a wheelchair or a walker, and the ground down by the pipeline is rocky (otherwise, she says the area is “pristine,” with “all of these beautiful wildflowers such as I have never seen before”). Crowe was pushed in her chair by some comrades from the Sugar Shack Alliance, meditating the whole way on her reason for being there: the protection of Mother Earth.

Looking back on the events that landed her on CNN, Crowe recounts that there were 13 state police officers brought in to arrest the nine protestors standing on the pipeline route. After handcuffing everyone (other than Crowe, who was left to fend for herself), she says the troopers walked back up the hill and waited for the demonstrators to follow.

“They were in charge then—why didn’t they help us?” Crowe asks. “Other people that I knew in the group gathered me up and tried carrying me up on my wheelchair, but it was not easy for them to get up the hill.”

Crowe has been arrested several times before, often under similar circumstances. Still, she was dismayed by what she felt was disrespectful treatment during intake at the Pittsfield police station.

“I had prepared my lunch, which is a corn fatilla with some almond butter in it, and the woman going through my backpack took it out and threw it in the wastebasket,” Crowe says, still bothered by the whole experience. “I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ and she said, ‘We don’t allow any food in.’ But that has never happened to me before—they put your backpack away, they check to see if there aren’t any drugs or weapons, and they leave it intact. But I sensed a little bit of hostility to us.”

Asked about their policy, a Pittsfield Police Department spokesperson confirmed that protocol was seemingly ignored. “We try to secure anything that they have,” they said. “I can’t think of a case when we would dispose of anything.”  

The Connecticut Expansion Pipeline is a relatively minor injustice on the long list of threats to the planet that Crowe has been chipping away at. As New England movement historian Robert Surbrug Jr. wrote in his 2009 University of Massachusetts Press book, Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990, Crowe was one of the very few individuals who played a significant role in several actions over multiple generations in Seabrook, where the Clamshell Alliance and other anti-nuclear fronts have stood against the power plant in that New Hampshire town.

Asked to describe what it is like to be involved in an action, and to offer some advice to millennials who are looking to get more involved, Crowe recommends focusing “totally on why you are there, and [on] what you are trying to do, and the way opens as you proceed ahead.” She continues: “If you are really focused on the injustice that you are trying to right by doing that, then I don’t think you think about yourself, you just follow the light that has led you there, and there is a very good feeling when you are finally arrested—you know that you have done everything you can and now they’re responsible for your body.”

As I sit on the floor in front of her, she talks about how once the cops have you in handcuffs, it is necessary to cooperate. Authorities, Crowe says, are just part of the system. I feel like she’s my grandmother, telling stories about the good old days—even if her memories are mostly about getting shoved into police cruisers.

Crowe is aware that there is worth in her deep recollections, and even published her own autobiography, appropriately titled Finding My Radical Soul. Her entire life is packed into the pages, from balancing her family responsibilities and a dedicated activism schedule to her family moving to Mass in 1951 so her second child, Jarlath, could attend the Clarke School for the Deaf. Mostly, the book is about her life as a rebel, with such highlights as a part describing the time she was put in solitary confinement after an arrest outside the office of a military weapons manufacturer.

“I was supposed to mop the floors in the hallway, and when I went to the closet where they kept the mops and the pail, I noticed a box of books,” she writes. “I got a couple of them and put them in my pail.” From there, Crowe placed the mop on top of the contraband, and returned to her cell. “Then I mopped the floors, so it was good. You try to be creative and take the opportunities you have.”

In her own life, Crowe remembers waking up politically in 1945, after America dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These days, she thinks that the white nationalist mayhem in Charlottesville, as well as escalating rifts with North Korea, might make for the moment that this generation needs for an awakening.

“Trump,” she says, “is scaring us all.”

I ask Crowe if she thinks that things have gotten better, worse, or remained the same in terms of progress.

“I think it’s worse,” she says. Her tone is somber. “I think as our society falls apart that people have been led to believe that they will have a good future, that they will have all the comforts, style, food, and retirement with an income. Healthcare, everything.” Nevertheless, Crowe says, “a certain segment of the population is unemployed, and they don’t see a future for themselves. They’re angry—they don’t know what to do with that anger.”

I ask if there is anything that people can do to help.

“We have to organize, take to the streets, put our bodies on the line, and do what we can,” Crowe says. “It’s the only thing they will respond to!”

Whatever others do to help, Crowe will keep on hammering. She recently introduced an article in the city of Northampton calling for no increases in the war budget. “I refuse to call it defense,” Crowe says. “No more funding of nuclear weapons!”

Before I leave, she takes me on a tour through her house and her office. In the latter, Crowe points to a folder that she has devoted to the Connecticut pipeline. It’s stuffed full of paperwork and news clippings, as are more piles of files. She’s been compiling these dossiers for decades, all with a common goal in mind.  

“Try to live simply, so that others can simply live,” she says. “As Dorothy Day said, try to build a new society in the shell of the old.”

Kori Feener is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and photojournalist from the Boston area. She has had work featured in the Associated Press, AJ+, and Reuters. Feener’s documentary work has been screened at festivals across the United States, and she serves as a member of the Non-Fiction Cartel in Boston, a collaborative focused on short form documentary storytelling. In 2016 she served as a screener at the Camden International Film Festival and is currently an adjunct professor at Emerson College.

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