In Protesting Climate Change, Jane Fonda Brings Hollywood to Washington

WASHINGTON — This holiday weekend found Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin standing in front of an empty Capitol building, debating the environmental hazards of fresh-cut Christmas trees.

Ms. Fonda and Ms. Tomlin star in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” where they play two women in their 70s whose husbands have run off together. The two women have been a buddy act since the 1980 film “9 to 5,” and on Friday they teamed up for Fire Drill Friday.

The weekly protest against congressional inaction on climate change began 12 weeks ago, billed as something of an adult “atta girl” celebrity cheering section for the youth climate strikes of Greta Thunberg. Ms. Fonda was told that Congress is rarely in session on Friday afternoons, but she stuck to the schedule because throughout the world, youth climate actions are also on Fridays.

And though Congress has almost never taken in one of Ms. Fonda’s curtain calls, her Fire Drill Fridays have become something of a place to see and be seen in Washington, a challenge to the adage that the nation’s capital is “Hollywood for ugly people.” Ms. Fonda, in fact, has been bringing Hollywood to Washington. One week it’s Ted Danson and the next brings Catherine Keener. I’ll see your Diane Lane and raise you a Sam Waterston. Oh, look, there’s Sally Field.

There are teach-ins, and birthday parties, and lunches at fashionable Washington restaurants for the climate activists and celebrity friends drawn into Ms. Fonda’s orbit, all of whom have the routine down pat: rally, get arrested, get released, and repeat.

The focus of Friday’s fire drill — “The Way Climate Change Affects Our Forests, the ‘Lungs of the World’”— featured experts addressing the dire state of rainforests and the plight of indigenous people dying in clashes over their native lands.

Ms. Tomlin took the stage.

“Indigenous people and their supporters chained themselves to their trees to block bulldozers,” she said. “They have saved many fragile forests in Canada from new pipelines. Together with the oceans, the trees are lungs. We must save them.”

“No more petro-fertilizers!” a woman shouted.

“Yeah and no cutting down Christmas trees, even!” Ms. Tomlin urged. “Don’t cut any more down! You want to be able to go and pull out that fake tree and put it right up, wouldn’t you, with ornaments on it and everything? That’s what we do in our house. It’s too late for moderation!”

Ms. Fonda hugged her friend, then took the microphone.

“Let me just say a few things about meat and Christmas trees,” Ms. Fonda said. She and other activists “had a discussion last night at the teach-in about the issue of Christmas trees. It’s O.K., because tree farms for the most part are put in kind of degraded land.”

Turning to Ms. Tomlin, “You’re wrong!” she said, to laughter. “I love it when Frankie’s wrong!” she added, using the name of Ms. Tomlin’s character in their show.

This week’s fire drill — the year’s last — was sparsely attended. Congress is gone until next month and President Trump — who has helped publicize the events by publicly jeering Ms. Fonda — is in Florida. A couple of hundred people turned up for the rally, including tourists in packable puffer coats, activists with jewel-toned hair and a man in a T-shirt with Ms. Fonda’s Vietnam-era mug shot on the front.

More than 100 participants have been arrested at previous Fire Drills. But on Friday only a dozen people volunteered to kick off a holiday weekend in handcuffs, and Ms. Fonda was not among them.

“She’s not going to get arrested this time,” said Ira Arlook, a veteran spokesman for grass-roots causes and promoter of the event who has protested with Ms. Fonda since “the Indochina days” in 1972. After five previous arrests, Ms. Fonda was concerned about the jail time that might come with a sixth. She starts shooting the last season of “Grace and Frankie” on Jan. 11.

Ms. Tomlin had a shorter rap sheet, so she volunteered to be Friday’s celebrity bust.

Ms. Tomlin and Ms. Fonda, wearing a red felt hat with a gold star and a striped feather on its wide brim, arranged themselves behind a banner, and led the demonstrators to the Capitol steps.

A man with his phone mounted to a selfie stick led a chant of “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Climate change has got to go!” as the protesters approached a phalanx of Capitol Police officers, who smiled and waved at the ones they knew.

“Hope you had a nice holiday,” a police officer said to protesters. “I came back to work for some peace and quiet. Thank God I got a demonstration. No hosting, and I’m not cooking or cleaning up after people.”

Mr. Arlook expressed his appreciation for the Capitol Police’s efficiency in making arrests. In comparison, the city’s “Metropolitan Police and the Secret Service are waiting people out,” he said. “So you end up spending two and a half, three hours standing around and nothing happens.”

On Friday, the police offered two warnings by bullhorn. After the second, a weary-sounding officer at the top of the steps said, “All right, guys, if you’re not looking to get locked up, you’re going to want to proceed down the stairs to the outer perimeter.” After a few more selfies, most in the group obliged.

The police had brought with them a couple of buses, but Friday’s detainees fit comfortably in a minivan.

Jacqui Wenzel, a fashion industry executive in Manhattan, watched the officers secure a couple of grizzled demonstrators with zip-tie handcuffs. “It’s my first time being an activist,” she said, brandishing a sign that read “”

“Saving the rainforest is huge,” she noted, but she is more focused on stopping “an ugly beige Marriott Hotel and a Wawa gas station” from being built near her weekend home in Ocean Township, N.J.

Ms. Wenzel said she promised her husband she would stay on the sidelines Friday. “He doesn’t want me to be a criminal while we’re fighting for our trees,” she said.

If she got arrested, “They could say we’re nutty people.”