Tar Sands Blockade provides training grounds for creative tactics

“You’re at Middle Earth,” said a figure clad in full camo, with only eyes peering out between a hat and mask. “Your mission is to distract. Stay with your group, keep moving and make a lot of noise.”

Soon, about 50 masked figures leaped out of the woods into the clear-cut, whooping, hollering and howling. The cops sprung to their feet, while the people in the trees above them, living on narrow platforms anchored with rope, scanned the moving throng for familiar eyes and bodies. “We love you!” the strange voices called up to them.

This was the scene last month at the Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas, where activists and landowners have joined forces for a campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen (tar sands oil) from Canada to Houston. But for those of us from other parts of the country, it was also important practice for the coming battles with extreme energy on our own turf.

Several of us visiting the blockade that day had come from Utah, where the first tar sands mine in the U.S. is set to open next year. Through our groups, Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance, we’ve been working to stop U.S. Oil Sands — the company that’s opening the mine. But our portfolio of tactics is going to have to expand and become more creative if we’re going to win. That’s why we came to the blockade: to build solidarity between groups working to stop tar sands mining and pipelines, and to learn from experienced activists from around the country.

The blockade’s tree-sit, which had been going strong for several weeks when we arrived (and is now in its 52nd day), sits on the property of David Daniel, a landowner who had spoken out for years against the pipeline until TransCanada — the company building it — threatened to sue him for all he was worth. Although Daniel could not legally speak out against the pipeline after TransCanada bullied him into an agreement in 2010, protesters had formed strong bonds with him and knew he was on their side. They also knew that the well-being of millions of Americans was at stake, not only because the pipeline would be contributing to climate change in a colossal way, but also because a leak could poison America’s food and water supplies.

All that stands between the American public and imminent disaster is a rudimentary cluster of tree platforms and the people inhabiting them. And to make matters more precarious, their food supply was running out — especially fresh produce, as they’d been living on military rations and other packaged goods for weeks. They also needed equipment to document their efforts, and letters from friends and supporters that shared news, ideas, and gratitude.

To bring them these much-needed supplies, a dozen of the masked people charged across the easement, into the trees on the other side, where the sitters watched from above. They grabbed the rope their friends had lowered, scrambling to tie on one of the backpacks holding crucial supplies — broccoli, strawberries, cameras, words of support and solidarity. But the TransCanada-hired police were on their heels. The group was forced to retreat, but would return again and again in an attempt to get supplies to their friends.

This was the biggest action since the Tar Sands Blockade campaign began on September 14, and the first tree-sit blockade in Texas history. But grassroots resistance against the pipeline had actually begun five years earlier, in 2008, when landowners such as Daniel realized that TransCanada workers were trespassing on their land to place survey markers. At first, many of them were coerced into signing away their property rights and tricked into believing it was just an ordinary oil pipeline. But when they found out it was to be tar sands oil flowing through their land, they were outraged and started community groups like Nacogdoches STOP Tar Sands Oil Pipeline.

It was this outspokenness that drew activists to their cause. Members of the climate justice collective Rising Tide North Texas, along with activists from around the country, joined together with landowners for an initial day of action on August 16, soon after TransCanada began construction. A little more than a month later, on September 24, eight activists climbed into the tree village of Middle Earth, which is the name activists have given to the forest area clear-cut by TransCanada. Meanwhile, others have chained themselves to machinery and endured torture tactics encouraged by TransCanada, including tasers, pepper spray, the cutting off of circulation in their arms, and other forms of pain-inducing pressure.

Activists who were arrested or were believed to have a prominent role in the blockade were repeatedly hit with a TransCanada SLAPP suit (“strategic lawsuit against public participation”), or charged with outrageous offenses like a felony. Although most participants believed the charges would be thrown out in court, many also started donning masks and clothing such as camo suits that allowed them to better blend into the landscape.

An activist shows her solidarity with the blockaders in the tree village. (Flickr/Elizabeth Brossa)

The anonymity of the mask, often accompanied by uniformity of dress, is a black bloc tactic most commonly seen in urban demonstrations and actions. This tactic prevents any participant from being easily identified and asserts the leaderless nature of the action. Although black colors are more commonly used, camouflage and neutral colors made practical sense in this rural setting. A number of participants commented that while they had never masked up before, they had also never participated in a rural direct action, much less a rural action with such potentially serious consequences.

They realized that the same tactics that worked in an urban setting may not work here. For example, in the city, a protester could easily blend into a crowd to escape from police, whereas in the woods, she must blend into the forest to get away safely. With protesters being tased, choked into unconsciousness and otherwise brutalized by TransCanada-hired cops, the ability to disappear into the surroundings held immediate safety as well as legal implications.

The use of such clothing has pushed many participants and supporters to question their own civil disobedience tactics. Was it necessary to show one’s face and accept the ensuing legal trouble in order to win the hearts and minds of the public? Was it unethical to run away, or to aim not to get caught? And could the seemingly contradictory strategies of revealing oneself and accepting the consequences and evading arrest, work hand-in-hand in a moving and effective way?

These were not easy questions to answer, but those who had played cat and mouse with TransCanada police left with high spirits, feeling their tactics were justified and necessary. After all, how many times could a person get arrested? The campaign needed much greater numbers for mass arrests to be effective.

For those of us visiting from Utah, seeing how unfamiliar tactics played out on the ground provided a tremendous education. And learning from activists who had been doing this work for many years was a huge confidence builder. The whole experience prompted us to question what direct action should look like, inspiring ongoing conversations among our community. Plus, our comrades promised that when we needed them in Utah, they would be there.

Still, we — and organizers — knew that just a handful of people, no matter how dedicated, could not stop the pipeline or tar sands. Building our movement base, creating a sense of common purpose around diverse communities like hunters, ATV enthusiasts, bike-riding urban activists, ranchers and river guides, is the most effective thing we can do right now. That’s why vegan animal rights activists in our community are reaching out to hunters who frequent the mining area, just as vegan activists in Texas reached out to hunters and ranchers.

“We need to break people’s hearts this winter,” said Peaceful Uprising director Henia Belalia when we talked with her after arriving back home. By this, she meant that we need to show people in eastern Utah how their hidden paradise would be destroyed by tar sands mining. We need to show people that it’s not just a 213-acre mine in the East Tavaputs Plateau that’s at stake — it’s hundreds of thousands of acres that the Bureau of Land Management could lease out for tar sands and oil shale mining, many of which are located within 50 miles of our beloved national parks such as Arches, Escalante and Canyonlands. Just as Texans’ land is being stolen by a corporation, our public lands are about to be pillaged by companies that care nothing about the public interest, and all we’ll get in return are rivers full of carcinogens.

Those of us in Utah working with Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Peaceful Uprising, Before It Starts and other groups, don’t want to simply copy what activists in Texas are doing. Resistance must remain creative or it will never be effective. And what works in one region may not work in another for numerous reasons, such as differences in the physical environment and distinct subcultures.

The creative spirit of the blockade activists re-energized us, and that energy will help us devise our own solutions. But, perhaps even more importantly, the blockade activists showed us that we’re not alone. Many of our comrades in Texas expressed that fighting against U.S. Oil Sands seems like nothing compared to fighting TransCanada. They’re eager to join us, and more of our friends hope to go to Texas over the winter. Together we’re defending a region, not just our backyards, and if we learn from and build upon what other movements have done, we’ll be positioned for success.

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