by Eva Westheimer, guest writer
Until September 3rd I had never been arrested. I’ll admit, there have been several times over the past year that I’ve considered risking arrest for civil disobedience. When I heard about the Tar Sands Action I was just coming down from my March on Blair Mountain high, and I was ecstatic to hear I may be seeing my activist friends again. Lately I’ve put much of my energy into anti-mountaintop-removal work, so I was a little hesitant to put my time and energy into something that I didn’t know that much about.
As college students we have many commitments and hobbies that often dictate our day-to-day life. Recently, three students including myself were arrested during the Tar Sands Action in Washington D.C. We each took time out of our daily lives to travel to D.C. and spend a minimal amount of time in discomfort. Each of us had different tipping points, but we knew that it was our time to do something. Some went against Obama because the tar sands are detrimental to the wolves in Canada. Others just came as support or to see old friends. Here is my reflection and a little background on the day of action, the days preceding and the days following it.
After doing some research, the subject of tar sands has become much bigger for me. For the nation this is bigger than just a reunion of activists. The action, culminating with 1254 arrests, was not a “reunion of activists,” but rather a very diverse representation of our country.
What are the tar sands and why the need for the Tar Sands Action? Tar sands, according to the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS, are a “combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques, or the oil is extracted by underground heating with additional upgrading.”
Basically, these extraction technologies are very harmful to the environment.
The Tar Sands Action (TSA), organized and sponsored by Bill McKibbin who visited Wilson last fall, started as an organized civil disobedience movement which took place over fifteen days. Its purpose was to ask President Obama to veto the Keystone XL permit (KYXL). The KYXL would be a 1,700 mile extension to a pipeline crossing the entire U.S. from Alberta Canada, where the tar sands reserve is located, to the Gulf of Mexico where the oil refineries lie. This pipeline would pass over the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies fresh water to millions of people. It would be a catastrophe if there were to be an oil spill over this aquifer.
The TSA was put together quickly and has grown in size every day since its inception. It was very well organized and included a mandatory nonviolent direct action workshop the evening prior to each day’s activities. Each day the action grew in numbers. From day one with seventy-five activists arrested to the last day, when I was arrested, with 254 arrested.
Before arriving in D.C. I knew that I was about to attend a very orchestrated and systematic protest. All participants were only to have their I.D. and $100 on them when they sat in front of the White House; this way, once arrested, processing would go much quicker. A big deciding factor for me to be arrested was how painless I knew it was going to be.
One can never know how police and the courts will react to civil disobedience. How the Action had taken place every other day was routine: participants were arrested, put in vans and transported to the police station where they proceeded to pay a $100 fine. On the first day of the Action however, participants were arrested and taken into custody for the weekend. One thing that one must keep in mind is that every action is different, every police officer is different, and every situation is different. If you plan to take part in civil disobedience, it is very important to take a nonviolent direct action workshop.
The last day of the Action there were 254 of us telling Obama that we were against the KYXL pipeline. Women and men of all ages sat and stood in front of the White House, something that has been illegal since 9/11. The police were prepared for us, already setting up their processing station. There was a line up of paddy wagons awaiting our arrest.
We sat in solidarity. The police gave us three warnings, allowing participants the choice to leave before we were put under arrest. Once we were put under arrest, they slowly started arresting older women, then younger women, older men, and lastly, younger men. We chanted, “What do we want? No Keystone pipeline! When do we want it? Now!” as well as other popular chants and songs of solidarity. When each person was arrested there was a round of applause. I was number ninety-six, the tail end of all the women.
Getting arrested was painless and somewhat informal. My arresting officer was nice and made casual conversation, asking me where I was from. I mentioned that I was from Cincinnati, and he went crazy talking about his college basketball days. The first processing officer was also very informal, asking if I wanted to “pay or stay” rather than using correct terminology. I was put in a paddy wagon, along with three other Wilson students, and we were transported to the police station. Never in my entire life would I have thought that I would be in a paddy wagon full of giggly young women, but there I was, and a little annoyed that some of these young women were so giddy. Once at the police station it was just a matter of waiting my turn to pay my fine.
In fact, it was so painless that we got in our car and drove back to Wilson that same day. This action was the largest environmental action since the 1970’s. In the ‘70’s environmentalists were fighting to get the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts passed. Now we’re fighting to uphold those standards we set, telling Obama that he cannot have loose standards on the environment. It was upsetting, but even more necessary to be a participant in the Action that day: Obama had halted ozone regulation for corporate businesses.
So what now? This is a call to action. As students we cannot permit ourselves to be apathetic. Our community cannot afford a non-engaged student body. This movement is real; it is not just another group of persistent environmentalists. It’s a movement made up of all demographics. All have realized that we’re at a tipping point, but what can we do? That’s the hard question. We’re busy at Wilson, but any school is time consuming. We have work, and studies, and service, and we still need time to hangout and time to ourselves.
So this is what I’m asking of members of our student body. If you voted for Obama in 2008, and were considering voting for him this time around, go down to the Obama headquarters alone, or better yet with a group of people, and announce that you will not support the Obama campaign unless Obama vetoes the Keystone XL permit. Become a part of the movement; environmental regulation is necessary. Looking at just the tar sands and the Keystone XL is not enough. We all know that. Don’t stop there. Get educated. If you like direct action then plug yourself into that community. If you like writing, write a letter to the editor. If you like to read, ask for information from your professors. Climate change is an interdisciplinary matter.