Colette Divine: Color Me Green
By Bill Moore
"If you're going get arrested, get arrested in Burbank," quipped Colette Divine.
When the little-known black actress climbed into Alexandra Paul's Toyota RAV4 EV and found herself in the middle of a news story that traversed the planet, it might have been her first run-in with the law over an environmental issue, but it wasn't without family precedence.
Because of Ms. Paul's higher Hollywood visibility, the media focused on her. EV World, however, wanted to find out who is Colette Divine and why she, as a woman of color, was willing to be arrested not once, but twice to make a statement about electric cars.
The day after being arrested with Paul for temporarily blocking the movement of dozens of GM electric cars, Ms. Divine took the initiative on her own, using her partner's RAV4 EV, to attempt to stop the final shipment of EV1s to Arizona where they would be, in all likelihood, crushed; absolving GM of any future liability lawsuits, or that's the argument the company offered in defense of its actions.
So, who is Colette Divine?
As she explained to me, her political activism has its origins in the Harlem section of New York City, where she grew up. Her mother, Beverly Clark Griggsby worked as a hospital administrator and is now retired. Today devotes her energy to stopping the eviction of renters from their rent-controlled apartments so the buildings can be converted to expensive condominiums or leased to new tenants for more money, a lot more!
"We're a family of rabble-rousers," she teased.
Divine moved to Los Angeles almost fourteen years ago and then got into acting some six years ago. She currently appears in a Showtime short feature entitled, "Gift For The Living", which won the cable network's black film maker's grand prize for its director Tamika Miller, this year. She also appeared with Ed Begley, Jr in "Life on Liberty Street".
Referring to Begley, she commented with obvious admiration that "He's the father of the environmental activist movement". Speaking of Ms. Paul, she said of the former "Baywatch" star "is generous, brave and brilliant".
Divine added that she's also appeared in "a bunch of commercials" as well as had small parts in the action sci-fi film "Time Code" and the second "Austin Powers" movie.
"I've just been out here living my life as an actor and activist and, you know, a concerned citizen, which I wish there more concerned citizens that took the time out of their day to put action behind concern. That helps you feel empowered".
Divine must feel very empowered after not only being arrested with Paul on March 14, 2005, but then came within a whisker of being hauled off by the police again the very next day.
As she and Paul sat in the locked RAV4 EV that first day refusing to move the electric SUV for the Burbank police -- Paul had given the keys to someone else after blocking the driveway -- or unlock the doors, GM's efforts to transfer its remaining EV1s took on the conspiratorial color of a company trying to hide what it knew was a serious public relations problem.
"These were big, black trucks [that] from the outside you couldn't see what was in them", she explained. "So, they were like Rock 'n Roll vans. Ordinarily, [car carriers] are out in the open and you can see what kind of cars are on them. By putting them in these black, covered vehicles, no one on the freeway would even know that there are these amazing cars going by to their ultimate doom".
It was after the arrival of three Pilot enclosed car transports that the Vigilers sense of frustration turned to anger and then action".
Alexandra Paul and Colette Divine face-off with EV1 transporter in Ms. Paul's Toyota RAV4 EV electric SUV on March 14, 2005 in front of General Motor's Burbank, California training facility.
"We were both just completely flabbergasted. I turned to Alexandra and said, 'Oh no, I think they mean to take all these cars out of here today... And who knows? Something happened and I yelled 'Go' and she drove and we both ended up in a sort of head-on [with a] little RAV4 EV up against this huge, big, black transport truck, [a] face-to-face, John Wu face-off. It was scary and exciting all at once.
"It was something that just sort of happened spontaneously out of our desire to not see these vehicles needlessly and wastefully crushed".
Both Paul and Divine agreed while sitting in the car that they wouldn't move until GM came out and talked to them. GM had, evidently, decided from the outset of the vigil to not comment or even acknowledge the presence of the protesters or their nearly $2 million offer to buy all the cars and sign waivers absolving GM of any and all future liability for the cars.
Eventually, the police called in a locksmith who opened the doors. Both women were handcuffed and taken into custody. They spent four hours in jail before being charged with a misdemeanor and then let go.
"There are just things that happen in life that you don't really plan on, but then there's a moment and we chose the moment as an opportunity to help bring awareness to what's going on to the average American [who] doesn't even know that their tax dollars have been spent already to create this wonderful technology of electric vehicles; and that this technology [is] ...now being crushed and dismissed in favor of fuel cells..."
Divine told me that she's very skeptical about the benefits of fuel cell technology, which she regards as not only immature but wasteful, saying, "it takes twice as much energy than it does to have an electric vehicle. It's just completely problematic and not available. And here's an answer [electric cars] right now that can end our dependence on foreign oil. Here's an answer to help get America to work at a time when American workers are being displaced and losing their jobs. Here's a job for them to do; and we could be the leaders in this technology, but GM, for some reason, is being quite short-sighted".
Burbank Face-Off II: The Sequel
The day after her arrest, Divine was back in front of GM's training center, this time fated to play a starring role in the tragic conclusion of the EV1 saga.
"The first day I was really upset," she told me, "and they didn't take all the cars. So, then I thought, 'Yeah, they didn't take all the cars'.
"The second day, they had even more transporters and by doing quick calculations, we figured out that they were going to take all of the cars, which, I guess, fired me up even more to think, 'I can't believe it's going to end like this, that these poor, defenseless cars are just going to meet their doom. I had to stand up for them, and really stand up for all of us, because it's not just about a car. It's about the principles of being lied to and bamboozled; and the American people need to know what's going on".
Divine used her partners RAV4 EV and repeated the tactic of the previous day.
"It wasn't really pre-mediated. It was just, 'that worked yesterday. Maybe this will work today. Maybe for some magical reason, it'll work better'. But alas, it did not".
For her efforts, which were tinged with even more drama because it was initially thought she may have bumped a police officer while trying to maneuver her vehicle into position, Divine got off with a lecture from the police sergeant in charge. She credits the female police officer who arrested her and Paul the previous day with putting in a good word for her. Recalling the previous day's arrest, Divine says she and Paul had a spirited debate about EVs with the Burbank police at their headquarters. Ironically, as they arrived at the station, the police pointed out an electric vehicle charging station in their parking lot, which will get a lot less use now that there are even fewer EVs on the streets of Southern California.
She added, "We were friends with our captors. We didn't have anything against them. They were doing their job and we were doing ours. They carried themselves with dignity and they treated us with respect at all times. If you get arrested, get arrested in Burbank".
We All Breathe the Same Air
I asked Divine why she, as a woman of color, cared about this issue.
"We should be concerned," she replied, "because people of color are like white people in that we all need to breathe air, drink clean water, live the same life as white people do. In this country, they started this term 'the environment' and I think we need to take 'the' out of it and replace it with 'our' because... 'the environment' is [not] some thing like 'the mall' or, you know, 'the gas station'. 'Our environment' is something that sustains us and it's up to us to help sustain it, because we have a shared relationship here.
"People of color historically have not had the same access to green space, being in cities mostly, so they may not have as much [of] a passion for wide-open spaces because they may not have experience with them. More and more, that's changing.
"But people of color care about their environment, their immediate environment may include other things that are more pressing to them. Don't confuse a lack of representation with a lack of concern. I believe people of color are concerned with their environment. They'll be the ones who end up paying more at the gas pump and [in] economically deprived areas, certain things are more expensive. If I drive down by South Central [LA], the gas is more expensive there then it is in West Hollywood or Beverly Hills. So, they are impacted greatly by environmental issues".
Divine pointed out that quite often environmentally undesirable projects are often located in economically depressed areas.
"Being economically depressed leads one to being apathetic, in general, because life is just such a hard struggle on the day-to-day that thinking about the issues of trees and grass seem not as important because there aren't trees and grass around you. I would like to work to bring more green space into those areas and let people of color know that this issue is their issue, it's everyone's issue".
Face-to-Face With GM
Because GM refused to acknowledge the vigilers, much less meet with them, I asked Divine what she would say to GM is she had the chance.
"I would like to say to GM, 'Be the leaders that you already are. Don't crush the future. Continue to be in the forefront; support these electric vehicles the way your customers have supported you. Look towards the people like Tom Hanks, Tony Shalhoub [the star of "Monk"], Steve Martin. Look towards people that are supporting you, that are out there speaking for you. And be the strong leaders that I know you can be'".
There's no question in my mind, at least, that if GM shows half the courage and leadership has Colette Divine demonstrated, they can recapture America's imagination as the leaders in sustainable transportation technology. The only question is, will they?