The actress and activist outlines how fame and white privilege protected her after she was arrested at a climate protest

By Sam Gillette
September 09, 2020 10:27 AM
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Jane Fonda is arrested during the "Fire Drill Friday" Climate Change Protest on Oct. 25, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

Jane Fonda is well aware of her privilege — and she wants to use her star power to fight for environmental and social justice.

In her new book, What Can I Do?: My Path from Climate Despair to Action, which published on Tuesday, the star recounts the night she got arrested at a climate change rally. While the experience was unsettling, she writes that being "white and famous" resulted in very different treatment from the other inmates. 

The 82-year-old actress, who has been an activist since she aligned herself with the Black Panther Party in the late '60s, was arrested five times during Fire Drill Fridays, a reoccurring climate protest in Washington, D.C. that occurred in the fall of 2019. After one of her arrests, Fonda was taken to a cell block and asked if she'd ever been sexually abused while incarcerated.

"I answered in the negative. There were posters everywhere, it seemed, asking if you had ever been sexually abused while incarcerated and, if so, to call a hot line," Fonda writes. "I didn’t remember seeing such things the last time I was inside a jail in the 1970s and I found it spooky."

It got even scarier when Fonda was put into a cell.

"[I was] locked into a cell by myself with a female guard stationed outside all night to protect me…from who, I wondered," she writes. Throughout the night, a man in another cell "wailed" and the guards made noise by walking through the aisle. Fonda says that she thought about asking everyone to be quiet so she could sleep, but checked herself.

Jane Fonda demonstrates during "Fire Drill Friday" climate change protest on December 6, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

"I was more than aware that I was being treating differently because I was white and famous. A cell to myself, juice when I wanted it, a guard," she writes in What Can I Do? "I had heard just the week before, how when Greenpeace’s brave protesters had been arrested hanging from an oil rig at a site in Houston, Texas, the men and women of color had been badly mistreated."

She continues: "My friend, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has told me horrendous stories of how her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia, has been brutalized in prison in Los Angeles."

The next morning, Fonda was taken to another holding cell, which she shared with four Black women. She writes that they were shocked to learn that Fonda actually wanted to be there.

"They sat up and took a little more notice…but not all that much," writes Fonda, who explained to them why she was an environmental activist. "Clearly all of them had more pressing things weighing them down."

Fonda was moved again. There she encountered women who obviously didn't belong in jail, she writes.

RELATED VIDEO: Jane Fonda Arrested On Steps Of Capitol Building In Climate Change Protest

"They needed mental health care, decent jobs, freedom from abuse and a supportive community," Fonda explains in her book. "One of the women was shivering and I loaned her my coat. The moment she wrapped it around her she stood up straighter, held her head up and I could see how beautiful she was. Had her life been easier, she could have been a model."

By early afternoon, Fonda was released from jail. But the women she met and her experience in a cell stayed with her.

"Too many people suffer from the effects of racism and poverty," she writes. "Will we ever be able to get our country to do better at providing social services and proper mental health care? It is something worth fighting for. I couldn’t help thinking how all these problems will only be exacerbated as the climate emergency worsens –jobs, health care, services will all be impacted."