Appleton Boy Makes Trouble. In a Good Way.
Will Neils, the enfant terrible of Maine politics, tells a story about one of his numerous encounters with the law.
"It's weird," he says. "You never think, when you're a kid and you want to become a political activist, you're gonna end up getting heckled by an ATF agent. And then you're out there at 1:30 in the morning and they're pulling you out of a truck, and this guy's walking up and saying, 'Hey, Will, you havin' fun yet?' And this guy looks like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2. And you're going, 'Do you know, we don't wear cowboy boots in Maine. And also don't really wear jeans jackets like that, either. And we don't have mullets. So, where are you from, Bubba?"
Try to picture this: facing off against the Mel Gibson character is a stocky, long-haired, 34-year-old Mainer who looks like an Indian trapper. The gleam in his eye is wild yet strangely serene. Buddha on ecstasy.
"It doesn't matter where I'm from," Gibson replies.
"What do you mean, it doesn't matter?" says Neils. "Do you know where you are?"
They are somewhere in the wilds of western Maine. Which, as far as Neils is concerned, means he is on home turf. Federal laws may technically apply here, but this dime-store cowboy from Utah is not the guy to enforce them.
Everything worked out happily, as Neils recounts. Local law enforcement officers on the scene "ended up snickering as I walked off, and I thought, Well, that situation ended up the way I wanted it to."
Two months later he was arrested for something else. Another story. "This is the kind of life I lead," he says philosophically.
Neils has been making a name for himself all over Maine for going on two decades now. An early member (and eventual co-chair) of the nascent Green Party in the mid-90s, he soon tired of the glacial pace of conventional politics, turning instead to direct activism via Earth First!, which proved a much better match. He's remained on what he calls "the radical side of things" since 1997, aligning himself with causes ranging from forest protection to unfair trade practices, from national security to local control and development.
One of the highlights of Neil's singular journey through the outlands of Maine politics came in October 2009, when he and several of his allies — "my girls and boys," he calls them — staged a peaceful but disruptive protest at a public hearing in Bangor on the proposed Plum Creek development. A video of the incident appears to show Neils standing quietly in the background while protestors attempt a sit-down at the center of the hall. Suddenly, he's being forcefully ejected by a trio of security guys. The camera follows as Neils, one arm pinned against his back, is pressed against a wall, handcuffed, and led down a hallway. He doesn't go quietly. "I am a citizen of the state of Maine!" he shouts. "I came here to speak!"
It's funny how stuff comes back around. Not many months afterward — I heard this story from one of the legislators involved — Neils was at the State House in Augusta, doing God knows what, when his presence in the visitors gallery was noticed by a couple of younger representatives. Feverishly they drafted a hand-written script to be read out by Hannah Pingree, then Speaker of the House, recognizing the presence of "the honorable Christopher William Neils, a citizen of the state of Maine."
"It was totally embarrassing," he says.
"Did you really just do that?" someone asked Pingree later.
This is Maine; she really did.
Populist hero, activist, radical ... none of these really constitutes a job description, and certainly it's no way to earn a living. I asked Neils how he would characterize himself and what he does.
"I'm a boy from Appleton," he says simply. "I do whatever it takes to get by. That's what people from Appleton have always done."
This is not, I don't think, just a glib or long-practiced reply. It's a theme Neils came back to many times in our hour-plus conversation. Born in 1976 to a couple of classic back-to-landers — mom from Colorado, where she'd been hanging with "hippie bikers," dad from New York, where he'd managed to escape being drafted — he grew up on a 28-acre homestead in Appleton, and he credits everything about himself to the lessons he learned there.
"I wouldn't have been like this if it wasn't for my elders," he says. And he names three of them in particular: Roland Gushee, Joe LaMontaigne, and Harold Wadsworth — respectively a farmer, a logger, and "Jack Redneck."
"They never really abided by the laws of the general society. They lived the way they did, and they provided for their families, their children. And you know, they really belonged to that community."
This being an interview, I posed two journalist-style questions: What issue affecting Maine is of greatest concern to Neils right now? How does he see things playing out over the next couple of years?
His first answer took me by surprise. With the very concept of environmental protection under daily assault in Augusta, this longtime eco-radical is worried about the Gateway 1 project, a regional planning initiative aimed at planning rationally for future development along Maine's scenic but threatened Midcoast. Neils is skeptical of any governmental effort to decide anything, and suspicious of the motives of those involved. So he finds himself in an odd, de facto alliance with tea-party types, some of whom see Gateway 1 as a UN plot.
As to the near future, Neils is quixotically hopeful.
"I believe we have more people today in the state of Maine than we have in a long time who are willing to say, 'Wait a minute, I don't like this, I don't like that, here's what I want to see.' And I believe our communities are capable of a respectful dialog. I believe we are going to realize that we are going to float or fail based on our collective capability. I don't know if we are better placed to converse [than people in other states], but I do know that Mainers have always respected the right to self-determine, that self-determination is the goal for everyone.
"I believe that part and parcel of the success that awaits our state — and I believe it's going to be a hard, hard road, there's not anything rosy or peachy about it — but the success we're going to find at the end of that road is built on the fact that Mainers have respected each other for a long, long time. They've tried hard, even when they couldn't understand someone else, to respect that that person had the right to be who they are. And if we can bring that sensibility into the political dialog, then I think we have a really good chance to communicate respectfully. And I hope that our community is going to rise above our differences and realize that, you know, we have to succeed."
So here's to hope. And to respect. Both of which lately have seemed in short supply.