WASHINGTON DC — This August, well-known environmental writer and leader for action against climate change Bill McKibben, along with other leading environmentalists, environmental groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and religious organizations organized the “Tar Sands Action,” a massive civil disobedience protest to encourage President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The Keystone XL is a proposed pipeline that would link Alberta, Canada’s tar sands oil to refineries in Texas. This proposed pipeline route would cross critically sensitive areas like the Ogallala Aquifer that holds 30% of America’s groundwater and provides water to millions of people, and push through thousands of acres of farm and ranch land disrupting lives and livelihoods all along its route. Pipeline companies insist they are using “state of the art” technologies that should leak only once every seven years, but the precursor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times in the past year.
Tar sands construction has already stripped thousands of acres of boreal forests, decimating huge swaths of Alberta and wreaking havoc on indigenous communities. The even more frightening scenario is, as the Tar Sands Action organizers put it, that, “the Keystone Pipeline would also be a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet.”
NASA climatologist Jim Hansen has made the case that if the world wants to have any chance of getting back to a stable climate “the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.” The Keystone pipeline is essential to removal of tar sands oil; without it, extraction operations are irreparably hampered. Because stakes are so high, Virginia and Marygrace Kennedy of Dingmans Ferry, PA made the decision to join the Tar Sands Action. Following are their reflections on the experience.
Virginia: On Friday, August 19, my daughter Marygrace and I headed down to Washington DC to participate in the Tar Sands Action meant to convince President Obama not to sign on to the Keystone XL. The pipeline is an executive decision; Obama does not have to face Congress on this one. He makes the call on his own.
On Friday night we joined people from all over the country, all ages, all walks of life, gathered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. We were the first wave of over 2,000 people who signed up to participate over two weeks; the largest civil disobedience to protest climate change ever.
Many of these folks were not perennial protesters. They were grandmothers, teachers, moms and dads, college students, priests, ministers, people who had never participated in any protest before. They were people who understand that climate change is real and it’s now, and we are facing a historical challenge—the urgent need to transform our society away from a dependence on fossil fuels.
We were asked to dress professionally and conduct ourselves with peace and dignity so we would be taken seriously. We would quietly hold our “No Tar Sands Pipeline; Give us clean energy” banners in front of the Whitehouse and be arrested for not moving away when the National Park Service (NPS) directed us to move. A prior arrangement was made with the NPS that protestors would be arrested and then would “post and forfeit;” that is pay a fine and then go home. This is not what happened.
Marygrace: On Saturday, we gathered at the White House gate. It was a beautiful day. There were lots of media people, and many people supporting the first group of protestors. My mom and I were interviewed and talked about why we were there. I said, “It’s our planet, our responsibility, and though young people like me may not have caused the problem, we are going to pay for it if we don’t wake up and become part of the solution.”
The protestors walked to the White House gate and stood peacefully holding their banners. I stood with them, but separated, and stood with the supporters when the NPS police asked the protestors to move. My mom didn’t want me arrested. We cheered when protestors got handcuffed one by one. One of the NPS policemen teased me about my mom. The mood was celebratory; everyone felt good to be taking action on the pipeline. The friends we were staying with and I went to the Smithsonian and waited for my mom to call us and tell us to pick her up. When my mom finally did call us it wasn’t to say, “I paid my fine; come get me.” It was to tell us that all out-of-towners were to be held in jail until Monday, when they would go to court.
It didn’t seem real. These people weren’t anarchists. They were teachers, parents, grandparents, priests, college students. And they were being held in jail for peacefully standing in front of the White House and asking our president for clean energy.
Virginia: Someone of apparent authority thought they might discourage the waves of protestors coming over the next two weeks by holding us in jail. Even the arresting officers seemed surprised when this decision was made. We were taken to a holding cell in the DC prison system. I was with 12 other women from ages 20 to 70, a few of whom were politically active and some of whom had never protested anything, but every one of whom decided that this is the issue of issues because we are talking about the earth itself, the viability of human life on our planet, a planet we are irreversibly harming.
They decided they had to join with all the other voices trying to make President Obama listen, trying to give him courage to take this stand against a fossil fuel industry that wants everyone to believe we only have the choices they give us. For a majority of the weekend, we were in a holding cell; a freezing cement cellblock with no windows and one solid metal door, no way to see out. No blankets. Nowhere to lie down. An open toilet in the corner. Glaring fluorescent lights that never dimmed. We were kept without food or water for 18 hours. And then given bread, cheese and water every 12 hours after that.
Marygrace: Until late Saturday night, we didn’t even know where the women were being held. When we finally found out we were told that we couldn’t see them. Sunday was the longest day. The friends of my mom I was staying with were on the phone with lawyers and cops all day trying to figure out what was actually going on. I went to sleep worried about my mom and not sure what the outcome would be.
On Monday, we arrived at the courthouse early. Family and supporters were there waiting. I heard every “what if” possible. What if they get 90 days? What if they have to stay in DC for three months and do community service? I was really worried walking into the courtroom. The “trial” lasted about two minutes. The judge was clearly annoyed that these people had been kept over the weekend and said “no papers” meaning “no fine and no violation.”
When my mom finally walked down the courthouse hallway toward me, I felt the tears I held in all weekend. My mom cried too when we hugged. She looked so tired. She was cold and hungry; she had a bad headache. There was a big group of people waiting outside the courthouse. They brought the protesters food and made them signs. They were so appreciative of every single person that was held in jail. The NPS police thought putting the first group of protestors in jail would discourage everyone else, but it did just the opposite. Seeing how much the sacrifice of this first group of protestors meant to everybody else made me more proud of my mom than I already was. I was proud of all the tar sands protestors.
Virginia: We didn’t sleep at all over the weekend; it was too cold to sit or lay for more than a couple of minutes at a time. They wouldn’t turn the air conditioning down, and we were wearing sundresses and flip-flops. During those long hours, I wondered how I could be in a jail cell with a group of women who were guilty of nothing but trying to get their president to listen to them, to listen to reason. Women who stood quietly with a whole group of citizens who said we want clean energy; an end to oppression by a fossil fuel industry that wants the world to believe we have no choices but the choices they want to give us.
I wondered about the 11 dead men killed in the BP Horizon disaster, the 29 coal miners dead at the Massey coal mine, the reports of negligence, the environmental decimation, all the lives and livelihoods destroyed. Not one indictment. No repercussions really at all. A few dollars lost, then back to business as usual. And then there is us, tax-paying, law-abiding folks freezing in a filthy jail cell for standing politely in front of the White House and asking for clean energy. I thought about my daughter, my sons, my husband, and how so many people I met who said they were doing this for their children, for everyone’s children.
Marygrace: We’re home from Washington now, but the protestors are still gathering every day as planned. All the arrests now are “post and forfeit.” My mom’s group was the only group to stay in jail overnight.
The fossil fuel industry is putting pressure on the Obama administration. Hillary Clinton supports the pipeline, and there is a big chance that Obama will approve it. To be honest, that scares me. It’s terrifying to think about where our addiction to fossil fuels has brought us. It’s terrifying to think about what tar sands oil will do to our climate, to think of the suffering of so many people from increased storms and droughts, to consider our future when there are so many powerful people who care only about their money and so many regular people who listen to whatever they say.
They listen when the fossil fuel industries tell them the only way to have jobs is stay stuck on these fuels. They are afraid of making change so they ignore climate change. I won’t cover my eyes. We are not going to sit down and accept this pipeline if it gets approved. The tar sands action is growing, and every day there are more and more people willing to fight for a way of life that’s less about money and accumulating stuff and more about our connections to each other and to our experiences. I’m going to be hopeful and so is my mom.