While the official Climate Ride was over, there was still work left to be done. Of course, in activism, there’s eternally Work Left to Be Done, but I actually had specific appointments. Following up on the 300 miles, beneficiary 350.org invited Riders to walk a few extra steps up Capital Hill to meet with their elected representatives. Judging from some participants in our training, it was a lighter lift to bike 60 miles in a day. However, because I’ve lobbied several times at the state and national levels and am constantly writing talking points at work, I felt pretty prepared. Probably the most difficult part was trying to figure out what I could say to my representatives’ staff members, as they are some of the most progressive on climate change in all of Congress. One of my senators, Ben Cardin, spoke at our rally the day before and my representative, Chris van Hollen, has spoken at previous climate change rallies. What do you say then? “Good job!” [goofy 1980s grin, thumbs up]?
My first meeting of the day was with one of Barbara Mikulski’s legislative assistant (LA). I showed up barely on time – damn you, Metro – and breathing hard, having dashed from Union Station. Much to my surprise, neither of the expected other Climate Riders were there. I checked in with the administrative assistant and waited…and waited…for 15 minutes. Giving up, I told the assistant that I was ready to meet with the staffer. It rather threw me off my game, but I later found out that they had good reason not to be there. One of the two had left the Ride part-way through because of a major family emergency and I just hadn’t connected the event to the name. Maya, the other one, had double-booked appointments with her home and Maryland senators. As her home Senator was far more conservative than Mikulski, he was more valuable to speak to as a constituent. Despite this unexpected circumstance, I still had a good meeting. The LA was relatively young – not that much older than me – but looked very interested in what I had to say. As coached by Josh from 350, I started by talking about who I am, how my community and family supported me in the Ride, and why I personally care about climate change. I then transitioned into talking about how Americans want and deserve more healthy, sustainable choices than $4 gasoline and dirty coal that gives kids asthma. I’m really big on the idea that while climate change is a huge deal, you don’t have to “believe” in it to benefit from the solutions, including walkable/bike-able communities. The aide allowed me to do most of the talking, but asked some thoughtful, engaging questions too. I didn’t feel like I was overtalking, which I particularly tend to do if there are long, awkward silences.
After this meeting, I met up with Chris for brunch. I came in with him on the train, and he spent the time I was in the meeting finding this little diner on Capital Hill we had gone to once with his parents. It was Pete’s Diner, which had the perfect combination of good, hearty food and a friendly atmosphere. While there, I found out that they are known for their quality Asian vegetarian platter, which made me a little disappointed that we weren’t there for lunch. But it was really good to hang out with Chris after being away for a week. As he works nights in a restaurant and the only time I normally see him is on Sunday/Monday, missing that time for the Ride was painful. Being able to just hang out with him was a soothing relief.
My second meeting of the day was with two of Ben Cardin’s staff members. I was happy to see that Maya was at the meeting, as me with two staffers would have been rather intimidating. They were a rather interesting pair – one was young and quieter, while the other was older, talkative, and rather cynical. Being as he used to be a staff member for Patrick Moynihan’s, who stepped down in 2001 to be replaced by Hillary Clinton, his time spent on the Hill probably justified his attitude. Rather than allowing us to do all of the talking, Cardin’s staff members talked a surprising amount themselves. We kept throwing things to do at them – being a leader on climate change, pushing to end oil subsidies, etc. – and they kept throwing new tasks back at us – volunteering to elect more Democrats, talking to more conservative members. It reminded me of many activist group meetings, where one person suggests something and then immediately hears back, “That’s a great idea! Why don’t you get started on it right away?” (I see a similarity in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process, but that’s a blog post in and of itself.) I particularly had to hold my tongue on one suggestion, which was to contact a new Tea Party representative from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I had just dealt with an extremely frustrating inquiry from this particular member at work, so to suggest talking to him was laughable. Even if I could hold my temper, the fact that I couldn’t talk about what happened at my day job (because it would violate Federal lobbying laws), would make the conversation a parody of itself. Overall, the conversation with Cardin’s staff was somewhat odd. They didn’t seem as interested in listening to what we wanted – because Cardin is giving it to us already – so much as giving us assignments. It was also a little odd lobbying with someone who had rather different priorities. We obviously both cared about climate change and clean energy, but she had some geographically-specific concerns that just weren’t on my radar. I think our combined talking points were a little all over the place as a result.
After hanging out with my Chris some more, I had my final meeting of the day with one of Chris van Hollen’s staff members. Unfortunately, I had to wait about a half-hour to do so. In the meantime, I read a really fascinating portrait in the Washingtonian of a minister who does poverty outreach in Montgomery County. After waiting, I was eager to talk to the staff member. Although I started off with my usual spiel, part-way through, I started to feel rather uncomfortable. It may have just been my perception, but I was having a lot of trouble reading his body language. He just didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. I found the whole thing awkward and disappointing, considering how big of a climate change advocate Chris van Hollen is. In fact, I still believe he’s a good leader on and don’t think less of the representative or his staff member as a result. Personality-wise, we just didn’t click.
Returning home to Rockville, I got ready to get back on my bike. (I was astonished too.) That night was the annual worldwide Ride of Silence, to memorialize all of the cyclists who have been killed or hurt on the road. It’s a similar sentiment as the painted-white bicycles that are placed where people have been killed – it is vowing both to remember victims and help prevent future deaths. Organized by a member of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee, the one in Rockville had almost 20 attendees. It included a police escort, with officers in both cars and on bikes. It was a little ironic to see that we had an escort for about 18 people and couldn’t for 140+ the day before, but I do greatly appreciate the Rockville police force’s commitment to bicycle and pedestrian safety.
In addition to those killed by motorized vehicles, our group was also remembering Carl Henn, a passionate local bicycle and environmental advocate who died last year. Tragically, he died in part because he had ridden his bike to the local community garden. While he was there, a hideous storm that left us without power for a few days swept through, and caught in the storm, he was hit by lightning. To me, he was one of those people you only hear about after their passing and wish so badly that you had known them in person. I hope that we are carrying on his work in a way that honors him.
The Ride of Silence’s pace was appropriately slow, more funeral march than pleasant jaunt. Although I’m used to silence, having a vow of it was a bit odd at times. One person yelled, “What are you biking for?” and Nancy, the RBAC chair said, “For silence.” A kid watching us pass by commented on and counted us very loudly. Not responding took far more effort than not beginning a conversation would have. Despite my outward silence, my inward monologuing ran as quickly as ever for most of it. However, about ¾ of the way through, I realized that perhaps my inner state should reflect my outer one. So I meditated, focusing on the weather, the environment, and the people around me. I heightened my senses to take in as much of it as possible. I also contemplated those who had died and prayed for us to be able to keep accidents from repeating themselves.
Besides the silence and the pace, the ride was also different because I was completely dependent on fellow riders. I had no idea where we were going and wasn’t familiar with many of the roads. But I think this dependence was appropriate – on this occasion, it bound us together as a community of riders, none able to doi t without the others.
The Ride ended by going down Rockville Pike, a horribly busy state highway with three lanes in each direction. Even crossing it on foot is a vaguely dangerous pain in the butt. But with the police escort, we were safe. Like riding down Constitution Avenue the day before, pedaling on such a car-centric road was empowering. Taking the Lane as a phrase never seemed so appropriate.
Overall, it was an excellent day of activism. Encompassing both completely verbal and completely physical forms of advocacy, it was a worthy end to the Climate Ride.