Standing Up to Tar Sands

Melinda Tuhus
I Was One of More Than 1,000 People Arrested to Prevent the Expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline
It began raining in Lafayette Park just as 243 of us crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to sit in front of the White House fence and risk arrest. We were urging President Obama to veto the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring an oil-like substance from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Texas, in another desperate scheme to produce more fossil fuels — this, from a process that some charge uses more energy to produce it than it creates as a final product. It’s destroying the boreal forest in Alberta, Canada, creating a hellish landscape that’s destroying the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous community there, and the proposed path of the pipeline runs right over the Ogalalla Aquifer, the main source of water for much of the American heartland. (An existing TransCanada pipeline already runs from Canada to Oklahoma, but along a different route.)

September 3 was the last day of the two-week protest, and, in a well-rehearsed scenario, the police arrested older women first, then younger women, then older men, then younger men. So, lucky me — I was number eight. We were told to have nothing on us but our ID and cash to pay our $100 fine. Organizers asked us to even remove their wedding rings. Mine hadn’t left my finger in more than 25 years, and I thought I couldn’t get it off, but a combination of sunscreen and rain drops made my hands slippery and I was able to twist it off and pass it to Gabriel, one of the organizers, just before being arrested. The arrest included having my hands cuffed behind my back and getting a very thorough, invasive, though polite, pat down. Being applauded and cheered by a big crowd as I walked to the police van was a thrill. The van was divided into two compartments, and I was the first one to climb into my half. In the five minutes or so I waited for companions, I got a tiny taste of what solitary confinement must feel like when you’re at the state’s mercy, and it was horrible.

But Deirdre Evans soon joined me, and my spirits rose again. She’s from Omaha, and came to D.C. because she’d already been active locally and wanted to take the next step. This was her first arrest, as it was for a majority of the 1,252 folks arrested over the two weeks. “It’s important to try to bring attention to this issue,” she told me. “So many people are complacent. We’ve done a lot in Nebraska — from renting bus benches to taking 500 people to the governor’s office at dusk and shining flashlights in his window to try to get him to see the light. We had a human oil spill where people wore black garbage bags and rolled down the hill. We did get a little coverage for that.”

She said a grassroots group called Bold Nebraska has brought together many organizations — the Sierra Club, Nebraska Wildlife, the Farmers Union, Nebraskans for Peace — to fight the pipeline. And something caused Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman to declare in late August that he now opposes the proposed pipeline route over the reservoir, though not the pipeline itself.

Deirdre likened the potential impacts if the pipeline is built to war’s collateral damage. “People have the same mind set about all these oil pipelines — some people will die, we’ll lose some land, but the greater good is that we’ll have fuel for our cars and can go wherever we want.”

Was it worth the time and trouble — and the $100 fine — to come to D.C. to protest the pipeline? “I feel it was worth it because it brought it to national attention,” Deirdre said. “People on the East Coast don’t always know what’s happening in the Midwest, and hopefully Obama even noticed. People who know me — a lot of people thanked me. If they think this is so important to me that I’d do this, that says something”

We were released around 1 p.m. and I found Gabriel outside wearing five rings, which he was happy to return to their owners. We went back to Lafayette Park to cheer on the remaining men waiting to be arrested. The day before, in the training for the action, organizers asked people to stand according to their age by decade; they got all the way to the 80s and two octogenarians rose to great applause. One was the Rev. Albert Cohen, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council. He was arrested long after I was, and I didn’t see him later in the day, so I called him after he arrived home, and asked him why he would travel from coast to coast to be arrested, inconvenienced and fined for this cause.

“I’m glad you asked,” he said. “There are two dimensions to my concern; one is a theological concern; it seems to me that God gave us this beautiful creation and charged humanity to take care of it, and when we abandon that responsibility, I believe it is a sin. To me, it’s a theological no-brainer, that religious people should be concerned for the care of creation.

“The other [dimension] is that I have an engineering degree. I know the world is made up of natural laws, and those laws are being violated to our peril; 350 parts per million (ppm) CO2 is what will sustain the biosphere that we’re part of, and we’ve exceeded that already [to 392 ppm]. In addition, there’s this alarming rate of extinction of animals; the melting of [polar] ice caps. All of this means the natural world is unraveling and we are part of it; part of the problem is the petroleum industry, which is damaging the atmosphere, and we’re burning coal, which is even worse. It seems to me that civilization is heading over the cliff, and I feel desperate about that. So for those two reasons I thought it was incumbent upon me to show up.”

He was definitely glad he came. “I’m renewed by being in the midst of all of these young people: wonderful, dedicated, bright, knowledgeable young people,” Rev. Cohen said. “On one hand I feel I’m responsible for their future and I’ve let them down, and on the other they are so hopeful and so energetic, it’s wonderful to be with them. So whatever Obama does, I’m energized by having been there.”

Melinda Tuhus
There were native Americans who came down from Alberta to share their stories, too. Gitz Crazyboy, a Dene/Blackfoot from northern Alberta, says he’s from “ground zero of the tar sands extraction — it’s a wasteland. It looks like a desert. We’re tied to the land; if you destroy that, you destroy our identity.” Still, he says, some in his community support the process for the jobs and the short-term benefits it provides. He says the protest is “a wake up call, hopefully for the rest of America and Canada, that we don’t need this addiction — that this is what will kill us in the long run.”

Visit Tar Sands Action to see what’s next and what you can do to help.