Amidst the dawn of a new presidential administration and the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline issue, demonstrators, it seems, are a more frequent sight both nationally and in Durango.
To many, sign-wielding protesters are little more than nuisances, cliches and whiners. But Anthony Nocella, an assistant professor at Fort Lewis College, insists that it matters.
Nocella teaches sociology, criminology, gender and women’s studies, environmental studies, and peace and conflict studies, frequently instructing, literally, by demonstration. Last November, he led students to Standing Rock to join tribes across the nation in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to bring protesters warm clothing.
Since he came to Fort Lewis College in 2015, the assistant professor has organized rallies on and off campus focused on sexual assault, people with disabilities, the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental causes.
“I want to be a model of what efficient and effective activism looks like, and to help young people who want to bring about social change,” he said. “It’s important to foster and nurture that.”
Nocella is an adviser to the school’s Black Student Union as well as to the criminology, sociology and animal liberation clubs. And as the national coordinator for Save the Kids, a grass-roots organization focused on supporting oppressed youth, he volunteers twice a week at the DeNier Youth Services Center, La Plata County’s juvenile detention facility.
Nocella, 40, grew up in two formative cities. Philadelphia exposed him to social injustice in the black community, such as in 1985 when Philadelphia police bombed a compound housing the black liberation group MOVE, killing 11 people. Houston’s oil industry influenced Nocella’s environmental activism.
As an unfocused kid with attention deficit disorder and anxiety, Nocella was not expected to graduate high school. The feeling of isolation made him an advocate, he said, first for people with disabilities, then for multiple social causes.
He became a Quaker while in high school. The religion is founded on principles of pacifism and social equality, which appealed to Nocella and influenced his style of demonstrating.
“My parents were supportive,” he said. “They allowed me to express myself, though they were concerned when I would get arrested.”
Nocella said he’s been arrested about two dozen times, including in 2003 for hanging a banner over Interstate 10 in protest of the war in Iraq, and for giving food to the homeless without a permit for the organization Food Not Bombs. Usually charges against him are dropped, he said.
“You don’t ask to end racism. You don’t ask to end sexism. You demand it,” he said. “And there are consequences.”
Most recently, Durango marchers flooded Main Avenue on Jan. 20 in protest of President Trump’s inauguration. Police overlooked the protesters’ lack of permit and allowed the march to proceed.
Nocella said he had no part in organizing the event and attended only to ensure students protested nonviolently. But Durango police issued him a summons to appear in court this month for parading without a permit and obstructing the streets.
“I understand laws were broken,” Nocella said. “But I don’t think I did anything wrong. I was there to keep students safe, and I was given no warning to get off the street, but these are sometimes the consequences of protecting social justice. I teach this, but I am not responsible for everything that happens off-campus.”
Mark Seis, a colleague in the Fort Lewis College sociology department, said Nocella is energetic and motivating to students.
“His academic work and activism are one and the same,” Seis said. “He makes work real and practical. We say he puts theory into action – what we call praxis. He makes things applicable by showing students they can make a difference.”
Seis said Nocella organized students to identify places on campus that are not ADA-compliant. Since then, the school has taken steps to make improvements.
Nocella’s work is inherently opinionated, and he admitted that can deter some students from enrolling in his classes. But he works to make his classroom a welcoming place where he can inspire students to make positive change in Durango.
Durango is something of an ivory tower, but Nocella doesn’t think protesting is rendered invalid by a town’s insularity.
“I think Bernie Sanders but also Trump understood you need to start listening to small, rural towns,” he said. “Sometimes the perception is we don’t count, our votes don’t count, our voices don’t count. We’re marginalized, but that’s changing. We’re trying to be an example of how other small towns should act.”