Since the start of Saturday’s Tar Sands Action in Washington DC, 275 people have been arrested in front of the White House—with nearly 2,000 more expected to follow—as part of an effort to pressure the president into rejecting a 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. Already, there are signs that it’s succeeding. The New York Times has published an editorial opposing the pipeline, and the nation’s largest environmental organizations—which rarely endorse protest action—are calling on President Obama to block it, saying, “There is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone XL pipeline, and those of the protesters being arrested daily outside the White House.”
While this by no means guarantees a favorable decision—given that the oil industry usually gets its way—the odds are improving, as many more people across the nation, and not just along the route of the pipeline, know about the issue. However, this mounting pressure on Obama, completely absent a week ago, isn’t due to just the sheer number of arrests, or the fact that it’s now the largest civil disobedience protest in the history of the climate movement. Impressive as that may sound, we should all know by now, given the ongoing wars and myriad other injustices, that the size of a protest is not always the determining factor.
Having been a part of the first group to be arrested—an honor that quickly became a test of will and inner strength—I learned that power lies in the personal sacrifice that often accompanies risk. Everyone who took part in the training session the night before the launch of the action understood what it meant to be risking arrest—at least on a very factual level. It meant that we would be handcuffed, processed, charged, and released, likely all within a few hours. Tremendous efforts were made to ease the fears of those who were risking arrest for the first time, which was the majority of participants. We were told that the long tradition of civil disobedience in DC ensured a relatively smooth experience. Even so, we practiced getting arrested by role-playing in small groups.
While this certainly eased tensions, it also rubbed some people the wrong way. The point, after all, was not to normalize civil disobedience by making it seem routine, but to draw upon the power of its abnormality and selflessness. Having been arrested once before during a civil disobedience protest, which resulted in a rather unexpected and difficult night in jail, I knew that risking arrest really did carry a risk—one of discomfort, anxiety, and even fear. Rather than brush those feelings away, the organizers might have presented them as hurdles on the way to empowerment.
When my group found out that we would not be released within a few hours, but rather after two nights in jail, many started to wonder if the action would collapse. That certainly was what the police hoped by making an example of us. But at the same time as we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of those who would be risking arrest the next day, wondering whether our situation would scare them away, we found ourselves getting fired up. We realized that, if it were us, we wouldn’t be intimidated into silence or let the efforts of those who came before us go to waste.
Still, there was no way of knowing if the others would truly feel that way. So Bill McKibben, who gracefully took on the role of an imprisoned leader, sent a message of pointed inspiration with his one phone call: “We don’t need sympathy, we need company.” And then we waited.
We passed the time with jokes, intense conversation, singing, made-up games, recitations of famous quotes, and even a prophetic lecture on the promise of a no-growth/sustaining economy from James Gustave (Gus) Speth—the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry, among other incredible accomplishments. But the unforgiving conditions of jail were ever-present. Ultimately, one needs some sign of hope. We got that when word filtered in that the next group of protesters, 50 in total, were undeterred by our plight and showed up to get arrested.
With their bluff called, the police had no choice but to quickly release the second day’s protesters. We had already crowded their jail and there simply wasn’t enough room for more. Nevertheless, they saw to it that we, the first group, stayed in jail as along as possible, which ended up being about 52 hours. Strangely, our charges, which amounted to a simple traffic fine, seem to have been dropped perhaps even a day before our release, which we were granted with some sort of “time served” reprieve.
Such legal discrepancies and frustrations were of small consequence, though. Everyone agreed the sacrifice was worth it if it meant jump-starting a potentially powerful campaign—one that needs only the president’s acquiescence to prevent what NASA scientist James Hansen called “game over for the planet.”
Still, that sort of realization remains distant and uncertain. With only 10 days before the planned end of the action, organizers and participants will have to work hard to ensure that their efforts do not become normalized in the wake of this initial victory. The media may soon get bored with arrests that are a matter of routine. It will take some experimenting and ingenuity to keep attention on the protesters and pressure on Obama. Most of all, though, it will take real risk and real sacrifice. Without those, we can’t expect to force the kind of change that’s needed.
As Martin Luther King, whose national memorial ever-so-poignantly had its first public viewing on the day of our release, once said about nonviolent direct action, “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
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