Jailhouse Rock: Activists Score Victory Over Police in Tar Sands Pipeline Fight
If you want to know just how determined activists are to stop the proposed tar sands oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, listen to this:
Last Saturday morning, August 20th, more than 50 activists were arrested in front of the White House. They were handcuffed, stuffed into blistering-hot paddy wagons, and informed that they would spend two nights in a crowded, harsh DC jail. The U.S. Park Police – who have jurisdiction outside the White House — openly informed organizers of the police strategy: We’re going to go very, very hard on the first wave of protestors to discourage others from joining your planned 15-day action.
That action, organized by tarsandsaction.org, aims to get 50-plus people arrested at the White House each day, peacefully, day after day, till September 3rd. The goal is to pressure Obama to reject the 1700-mile tars sands pipeline, which is fully within the President’s power.
So did the police plan work? Hell no. Saturday night — as Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, and others were still packed 15-to-a-tiny-cell and eating baloney sandwiches – 45 new recruits were being trained at a local D.C. church to repeat the civil disobedience the very next morning. The second wave of volunteers, who came from all over America, fully understood that the police had gone hard core on the first group instead of offering the usual minor citation and fine for White House protesting. On Sunday morning August 21st at 11, right on schedule, the “Fantastic 45” sat down outside the White House fence. They too were handcuffed and led away to paddy wagons.
But that’s when the police gave up. They threw in the towel on the “hard way” approach. The Fantastic 45 were released by 3 pm Sunday and allowed to pay a $100 fine at the Park police station. No jail time.
Here’s what sources say happened:
The D.C. Metropolitan Police, tasked with actually housing arrestees turned over by the U.S. Park Police, said something like this to the Park cops on Saturday night: “What?!? What?!? You sent us 50-plus men and women environmentalists to be jailed on a Saturday night and there might be 50 more tomorrow and the next day and the next? We refuse!”
The DC police reportedly complained about this to the District Attorney’s office for D.C., which in turn told the Park Police late Saturday or early Sunday to stop it. The system can’t handle the number of arrestees who appear to be utterly determined to come to Obama’s House over the next two weeks nonstop. “Stop jailing all these people,” the message reportedly went from the D.A.’s office to the Park Police.
And so the jailing stopped Sunday.
Then, right on schedule Monday morning, another group of 52 protestors sat down at 11 at the White House and were handcuffed, fined, and released by 2 pm. Sixty more got arrested and fined Tuesday and another 56 Wednesday. That makes for a total of well over 250. The goal by September 3rd is to have close to 1,000 arrested over this disastrous and insane $7 billion tar sands pipeline proposal.
Who can name another environmental protest of this type and scale in U.S. history? Day after day. Wave after wave. It’s the first of its kind. That’s how big the tar sands issue is. And that’s why those arrested so far have all exited police custody with a similar message to supporters across the country: “We welcome your sympathy for what we’ve experienced here. But mostly we welcome your company. Please join us. Come to DC and be part of this history!” (www.tarsandsaction.org).
Again, special credit has to go to the “Fantastic 45” who got arrested Sunday despite the unusual threat of overnight jail time from the Park Police. (The vast majority of nonviolent civil disobedience protestors at the White House never spend a night in jail). The police strategy was completely dependent on the Sunday group giving up after the first Saturday jailings, thus causing the 15-day protest to crumble before it really got started. That threat – of a night or two on a metal bed with bologna and water and sleep deprivation crudely enforced by jail guards – is not a casual threat for protestors aged 18 to nearly 80. But the Fantastic 45 vanquished the strategy.
Yet the biggest thanks of all goes to the “First 52”. That’s the number of first-wave climate activists arrested Saturday morning – including McKibben, Speth, and former Army officer Dan Choi – who spent over 50 hours in custody. Even while refusing to incarcerate any more activists from Sunday morning forward, the police kept the First 52 until 3 pm MONDAY afternoon. More than two full days. And those people suffered. More will be written about this in the coming weeks, but it’s important to know that the hardships included enforced thirst, hunger, dangerous heat and poor ventilation in paddy wagons, and – for the women – a punishing concrete jail cell with cold temperatures. The arrestees finally staggered out of a DC courthouse Monday afternoon, squinting at the sun through red and fatigue-swollen eyes, many trembling from hunger.
These people did this for us!! They did this to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. They did this to stop runaway global warming and to show Obama the scale of grassroots passion still alive in America for justice and sane solutions.
One of those people was eighteen-year-old Lukas Burdick of Ithaca, NY. Just out of high school, having just stepped out of leg irons during the final minutes in police custody in the nation’s capital, a nearly faint Burdick said, “The purpose of life is to help other people. If that’s the result of what I just endured, then I have absolutely zero regrets.”
Said Mary Nicol of Chicago, who with 14 other women went 17 hours without food at one point and slept in the concrete cell with no bed at all or chairs or sheets: “It was really rough, but not nearly as rough as life will be for all people everywhere on the planet if Obama doesn’t stop this pipeline and halt radical climate change.”
Who on the planet right now is giving more to this cause than these protestors in DC? Please come to Washington right now! Come get peacefully arrested yourself any day through September 3rd. Come honor these brave people and this great struggle. Learn more at www.tarsandsaction.org. We need you!
– Mike Tidwell is a writer and activist based in Maryland. He was arrested and released last weekend as part of the tar sands protest. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org