September 10, 2011

Why I Went to D.C. to be Arrested at Age 64. ~ Ellen Gunter


A few weeks ago I was looking through the Huffington Post…and an article caught my eye.

It was a piece by environmental writer and 350.org’s creator Bill McKibben. Its headline read, “Tim DeChristopher is going to jail. Now it’s our turn.” Something ancient stirred in me. I immediately began to read.

It opened with a quote by Ed Abbey:

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.”

That’s what  Tim DeChristopher did when he showed up in the fall of 2008 to bid at an oil and gas auction of 14 parcels of land in a pristine section of Utah being conducted by the Bureau of Land Management. Robert Redford wrote about the details here, but suffice it to say that although the auction itself was later deemed an illegal one, Tim is now in federal prison for 24 months for his action of civil disobedience.

McKibben was using Tim’s example to bring attention to another egregious and far more serious assault-in-waiting. It’s called the Keystone XL Pipeline, and its job is to bring the filthiest carbon loaded petroleum substance called tar sands not just out of the ground, but also in transport across 1,700 miles of North America. Most of it is taken right across our central breadbasket states to its terminus at Houston, Texas. On its way it will cross some 1,800 streams and rivers, including one most critical to our agricultural well being, the Ogallala aquifer, which crisscrosses eight states in our High Plains from South Dakota to Texas.

What we need to halt this, he said, is the same thing Tim employed: acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Other supporters of these means were Martin Luther King and Gandhi. At a time when corporations rule the roost and have bought off the consciences of the vast majority of our political representatives, this is what we have left- and it definitely has a power of its own.

McKibben’s piece was a thinly veiled invitation: it would take three days of our time and a visit to Washington D.C. We would most likely be arrested. We were told to bring $100 apiece for bail money and an outfit of business casual clothes. This would be a thoughtful and respectful action. Many of us would wear our Obama ’08 buttons to show our support of this man who had inspired us so significantly three years ago.

I showed the article to my husband, John.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Two weeks later I was standing and he was sitting outside the White House fence on Pennsylvania Avenue listening to a police lieutenant explain that we were violating the law by standing there, giving us and 141 other people our second warning to leave. It was a beautiful day. Hurricane Irene had rolled through a little more than a day before, leaving the area relatively unscathed, with broken branches and blown trash but no flooding in its wake. Weather had extended our visit by an additional two days and the hurricane’s potential wrath had been the deciding factor in the cancellation of the long-awaited dedication of the memorial sculpture of Martin Luther King that now stood a short distance from where we now attempted to mimic his actions. The irony was not lost on us.

The sun was warm but the storm had broken the oppressive heat that had burned the necks and shoulders of the people who had stood here before us. A couple more minutes passed before the final announcement which said now no one could leave.

You are under arrest!”

At 64, I’d never been arrested before. I was bricked and egged during anti-war protests in the Vietnam War days, even shot at in a high-speed car chase during the sixties because I had the audacity to be a car with black friends. But I had never been handcuffed and taken to jail until that day.

A total of 143 of us were arrested that day, including my 71-year-old husband, as well as James Hansen, NASA’s lead climate scientist (handcuffed, they swapped stories in the same transport van), Mae Boeve of Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, and a few dozen spiritual and religious leaders from around the country.

It is difficult to quantify or even overstate all the horrible implications that this pipeline entails.  I had read about the tar sands the year before when putting the final touches on my book Reunion in a chapter I dedicated to oil’s centrality in our lives, so I knew we were already getting 18% of our oil and gas from these toxic Canadian tar sands. However, I had not even heard of the Keystone XL, the tar sands superhighway project, until reading McKibben’s piece in the Huffington Post.

Besides the dangers implicit in its construction and operation, the massive amounts of fresh water and natural gas it will require to process and move the sands through their long journey to port, are its destructive qualities that are literally earth shaking. The tar sands represent the filthiest carbon known, their levels of toxicity dwarfing anything else out there. NASA’s James Hansen has called the tar sands such a dangerous direction for our national energy policies to go that if the pipeline is approved, it is essentially “game over” for any attempts to stop the escalating rate of CO2 now in the atmosphere. It is Hansen who first posited that that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere need to be brought back to 350 PPM (parts per million) to optimize the atmosphere’s breathability and give the surviving species a chance to adjust to the damage already created by the current real-world level—now around 392. (McKibben’s organization 350.org is dedicated to heightening awareness of the dangers and solutions to this planetary peril.)

With all this in mind, the next question is how do you stop this hideous thing from happening? This is where it gets interesting. Because the pipeline would transverse a shared border with Canada and basically slash across the entire central landscape of our country, the State Department has to issue an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to signal the likely risks associated with the pipeline, and basically whether the people at State think it’s a good idea, which they do, according to the report that was released in the middle of the 15-day civil disobedience action.

The sit-in ran from August 20th through September 3rd . And now the decision goes to phase 2: President Obama’s desk. At the end of the day, he has the final say on whether or not this pipeline goes through. The buck stops with him. He says Yes or No. There is no way to blame Congress for its intransigence, or lobbyists for their heavily funded influence, or for the President to dither about the lack of information. This is bad, quickly advancing to terrible. It signals many things. It sends a firm signal about the direction of the future of our energy policies as we stand at the crossroads of which fork to take in this road: backwards to the destruction of every element that sustains life or forwards toward energy that is limitless and clean and available to everyone everywhere. It also signals whether there is any reason to hope that this president’s original appeal can be salvaged, and whether those of us who voted for him can believe in him as a leader. This is a clear invitation to President Obama to walk his talk on an issue that is critical not only to us as a nation but also to the future health of a planet as a whole.

Prior to assembling in front the White House fence, a number of us at the deployment area in Lafayette Park were treated to small lectures by Dr. Hansen as journalists jockeyed to get their questions answered. One point he made stuck with me: the State Department EIS described the likely impacts primarily from the lens of what damage might be caused by ruptures in the pipeline. Those weren’t the environmental impacts he was concerned about, he said. He wanted the statement to address details on the impacts beyond the spills—the vastly increased amounts of CO2 in the air, the devastating effects on our clean water supply because so much water is needed in the conversion process, the need for massive amounts of natural gas to process every barrel, the sheer inefficiency of spending the equivalent of three barrels of oil to gain five, the dangers to the critical waterways the pipeline would transverse to name a few. This doesn’t even include the losses the Canadians are suffering and will suffer in much greater proportions: the loss of their pristine majestic arboreal forests (the tar sands are underneath these carbon-capturing forests), the contamination of many of their water resources, the rising levels of illness the contamination is already causing among indigenous populations that are already on record.

What’s perhaps most troubling to many of us there is that this was supposed to be an enviro-friendly administration. Three years ago, the scenario that played out those two weeks in front of the White House would have seemed unthinkable. The truth is that much of the hope attached to President Obama’s election is on life support. That’s the bad news. The good news is that productive, respectful protest is still alive and well in the U.S.

A famous story was running through my mind the five days we were in D.C. During World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt was meeting with civil rights leaders in the White House years before the mainstream had heard about civil rights. They pressed their points with the President, talking about the horrors they endured, the injustice of it all, and how overdue equal treatment for all Americans was. FDR agreed with them and in parting said famously, “Now go out there and make me do something about it.”

We know the President’s in a tough spot. We know he inherited an economic mess, a runaway debt and a Congress bent on destroying his credibility and dishonoring him as Commander-in-Chief. But if there was ever a reason to not sit back and just take it, this pipeline is it. If ever President Obama needed us to go out there and make him do something about it, it’s now. This was how we came to be sitting in front our national house, hoping he would look and listen.

Each of us who lined up in front of the White House knew that arrest would be the outcome. Even though it is arguably a more frightening thing to be arrested in this country now than it was before 9/11, we were well prepared for the day after four hours of training the night before. We even had detailed instructions about exactly what to do when even a a real-world recommendation to wear adult diapers because of the long time stretch from the time we gathered around 10 a.m. to actually getting to a toilet later that afternoon (Many of us took that advice). Within two hours after we had assembled in front of the White House fence, all of us had been loaded into hot, cramped transport vans for the 20 minute ride to the Anacostia station, the processing center where we were held for another hour or two until we had paid our $100 fines and had our handcuffs removed (I kept mine).

After we were released, we had a half mile or so to walk to a holding area where a support group waited for us with clapping hands, shouts of encouragement, water and energy bars. From there we either walked to the Metro, or hitched a ride with some of the kind folks who had shown up in cars and vans to take us where we wanted to go. If you are going to get arrested for a good cause, this was the way to do it—with highly organized, smart, tireless, clear-eyed, courageous advocates who provide an infrastructure that make it as painless and unterrifying as possible.

There was an energy present in those days we were with other protesters in D.C. All of us felt it. It was the energy of hope and action, of feeling again that we were actually doing something, of stepping out of lassitude and flexing old muscles we had forgotten we had, of rising to the level of risk for our country, no matter how small that risk actually ended up being. When Tim DeChristopher was being sentenced and was allowed to make his statement, he ended it this way.

At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.

That’s what was begun in Washington, D.C. this summer. Hope, patriotism, love. Thank you, each and every one of the other 1,251 people arrested with us in Washington, D.C. and the magnificent team of trainers and leaders who showed us how it’s done. This is just the beginning.

This is what a movement looks like.

We’ll be back.


Ellen Gunter is a journalist, environmental advocate, author of REUNION: How We Heal Our Broken Connection to the Earth and most recently a Tar Sands Action arrestee.

Facebook and Twitter: @ellengunter


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