My mind has been a jumble the last couple of days as I’ve tried to think about what I would be saying in this column. I knew I would be writing about the historic and amazing Tar Sands Action in Washington, D.C.
I am literally smiling as I embark on this writing journey. There was so much positive energy, so many wonderful experiences, so much hope for the future in and around the two weeks of sitting-in and standing-in in front of the White House, August 20-September 3.
One of the things I will never forget is how, day after day, new people kept arriving at Lafayette Park in the morning prepared to walk across the street and get arrested, 1252 of them. Wave after wave, daily, this kept happening. And over the last four days, from August 31 to September 3, the numbers kept getting bigger and bigger each day. On the last day, 243 people crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and stood and sat, first in the rain—most without rain gear–and then in the hot sun, some for four hours, before being arrested.
The vast majority of those arrested had never done so before. They were from all over the country, just about every single state. They ranged from teenagers to grandparents in their 80s, predominantly white but racially diverse, people of faith, landowners, movie celebrities, climate scientists, elected officials and more.
Then there was Kandi Mossett of the Indigenous Environmental Network and North Dakota, speaking Friday morning in Lafayette Park before she and others crossed over and got arrested, speaking from the heart, speaking of the many people close to her who have died of cancer at young ages because of the fossil fuel industry’s poisoning of her community’s air and water. Was there anyone in the audience of hundreds not moved to tears?
There were the young people Saturday morning and afternoon who sang and chanted for hour after hour on the Lafayette Park sidewalk to keep up the spirits and energies of those across the street in front of the White House who kept waiting for hours for their turn to be handcuffed and put into police wagons or buses.
There were the sobering things I learned about the tar sands throughout the two weeks, especially from the Indigenous people from Alberta province in Canada who have been leading this struggle for years: The second-largest area of (extra-dirty and thick, tar-like) oil in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. The ethnocide of Indigenous people taking place as their land, water, health and millennia-old culture are being devastated as the forests are destroyed and massive strip mines moonscape the land. All of the toxic chemicals that must be added to the thick tar sands oil in order for it to be able to flow through pipelines, which increases the likelihood of corrosion and leaks. The plan for the pipeline to be built over the Ogallala Aquifer, water source for many millions in the US, and the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills of Nebraska.
There was the statement by our nation’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, that if the Keystone XL pipeline is built and the tar sands is fully exploited, it’s “game over” for the planet as far as surviving climate change.
There was all the news coverage, this issue becoming all of a sudden a major national story. In retrospect, the decision of those who called this action for the “dog days” of late August, when Congress and the President are out of town, turns out to have been very prescient. There was lots of press coverage in the first week which then led to even more and more extensive coverage in the second week, including Bill McKibben being on the national PBS news program. Tim DeChristopher reported to friends that the protests were one of the three national news stories on the late night television news he saw in the Nevada jail where he’s currently housed.
There hasn’t been an action like this in the United States for a long, long time. The last ones I know of in terms of comparable numbers were the 1414 people, my late ex-wife and excellent political artist Peg Averill among them, arrested in Seabrook, New Hampshire in 1977 outside the site where a nuclear reactor was beginning to be built, and the many thousands arrested over several days in early May of 1971 in Washington, D.C. in a Vietnam war protest.
But neither of them went on for two straight weeks.
I know that some of those not in touch with what’s been happening within the climate movement in recent years were amazed to watch the Tar Sands Action unfold over these two weeks. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
Two and a half years ago thousands of people were prepared to be arrested at the Capitol Coal Plant action in Washington, D.C. Then, more recently, there was the 10,000-person Power Shift conference and actions in mid-April in D.C. and the powerful, week-long March on Blair Mountain of hundreds, and a thousand on the last day, in early June. There was the example and leadership of Tim DeChristopher, who publicly called for just this kind of day-after-day, provoke-a-political-crisis type of action from the stage at Power Shift, three months before he was sentenced to two years in prison. And, without question, there was the exemplary, day-to-day leadership given by Bill McKibben. Without Bill, without his passion, his tireless work, his writing and speaking, this action never would have happened.
But it wasn’t a one-man show, not at all. Scores of mainly young people worked hard leading up to and during the two weeks of the action doing all of the things needed to make this be such a success. When Bill and 51 others were unexpectedly kept in jail for 53 hours after the first day’s action, there wasn’t an iota of letting up or hesitation. On the second day, as those 52 sat in jail, 45 people crossed over to the White House sidewalk, all of them knowing they could receive the same treatment. As it turned out, the willingness of those 45 to not back down, to show the police that we were serious about our plans for scores to get arrested each day for two weeks, led to a dramatic pull-back by the police. They went back to their original plan to use “post-and-forfeit,” essentially a $100 fine on everyone arrested, and then let them go within a few hours of their being arrested.
At the rally in Lafayette Park on September 3rd, it was announced by Bill McKibben that there were plans being developed to keep this movement going. It has to; Obama is supposed to make a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline by the end of the year. One big upcoming date is October 7th, when the last of a number of public hearings around the country on that pipeline will be held in Washington, D.C.
Bill also reported on an action taken in Seattle, Wa. where 40 or so people paid a visit to the newly-opened office of the Obama re-election campaign. A repetition of that tactic would be a way to keep getting the attention of Obama and his people: public visits to such offices all over the country, especially by people who worked for and/or voted for him in 2008, so that the Obama campaign understands that we are serious, that we expect Obama to finally carry through on his promises during the 2008 campaign.
“Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.” That’s one of the things Obama said, along with this big applause line, that his election was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
He hasn’t yet delivered. Worse, he and his administration have opened up public lands in Wyoming for coal mining, allowed most mountaintop removal permits to proceed forward, done nothing to stop natural gas fracking, supported the expansion of deepwater ocean drilling beyond the Gulf of Mexico and, so far, given lots of indications that he will approve the Keystone XL pipeline. These methods of extreme extraction of fossil fuels are exactly the wrong direction to be going.
Michael Marx of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign gave an excellent speech on Saturday in Lafayette Park. He called for us to help Obama find his “inner lion” so that he can finally begin to do what he promised he would do in 2008, which will only help his chances of reelection. He went on to say that if that is going to happen we need to find our own inner lions and we need to “bare out teeth.”
For those who want to see Obama reelected, for those who are turned off by all of his administration’s many betrayals of his campaign promises and unsure of what they’ll be doing about the Presidential election, and for those who have had it with both Republicans and Democrats, the campaign to defeat the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic unifying issue, an urgent issue. The next few months are key. Let’s keep building the Tar Sands Action momentum and win one for the people and the earth this year. Si, se puede!!