On Tuesday, authorities in PR Springs — about an hour outside of Moab, Utah — arrested 21 people for blockading building equipment at a construction site on indigenous Ute land. The machinery in question belongs to U.S. Oil Sands, which recently began the preparatory work for what could become the first tar sands mine in the United States. Should the project reach completion, the 213-acre property stands to produce 184 billion barrels of bitumen — a tough, sticky fuel at extraction that needs to be chemically diluted by passing through extensive pipelines before burning.
For over two years, activists with the Tar Sands Blockade have fought extractive development incursions in the United States, with Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising — the groups that organized Tuesday’s actions — confronting the fossil fuel industry in Utah. Bitumen dilution makes oil sands extraction a construction-heavy process, and oil pipelines are notorious for spills, leaks and other malfunctions that bring with them considerable health risks and environmental destruction for surrounding human and ecological communities. The Keystone XL pipeline has been the most visible of these projects to face popular pressure, but direct action campaigns across the country have challenged a range of new extractive ventures.
Similarly to other recent anti-extraction actions, participants in the PR Springs blockade faced heavy police brutality; one protester ended up in the hospital. Several women reported being aggressively grabbed, and a police K-9 unit even let one its dogs off its leash. Many of those arrested face felony charges.
Deciding to risk arrest is hardly a decision to be arrived at lightly, particularly for trans, genderqueer, undocumented people, people of color and anyone holding identities that share historically fraught relationships with the criminal justice system. People choose to participate in actions for a variety of reasons: being personally effected by an injustice, a sense of deep solidarity with those who are, overwhelming despair, frustration, and maybe desperation. Offering oneself up to a legal system as brutal as ours for a cause as dire as ending extraction is an act of bravery. It is also brave and necessary for the friends, families and communities of those in jail to support them through the legal process.
Georgia Congressmen John Lewis — arrested some 45 times as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — recalled his first arrest in 1960 recently on Twitter: “I felt free. I felt liberated. I felt like I had crossed over.” Arrest can be personally transformative and often disorienting; the calm after a big action should also be a moment for strategic reflection, not only celebration or sorrow. Arguably in the climate movement, years of both direct action at sites of extraction and top-down approaches like lobbying and have staved off some degree of destruction. But what’s next? Stopping projects like those in PR Springs, let alone ending or mitigating climate change, will require something new — something popular! Confronting our dual economic and ecological crises will require everyone, or at least a whole lot of us, to get creative.