Vermont environmental author and activist Bill McKibben went to Washington, D.C., in hopes of getting attention by getting arrested. This weekend he got that and more: a surprise two-night stay in jail.
McKibben and 64 other protesters kicked off a two-week sit-in at White House on Saturday to oppose a $7 billion, 1,700-mile oil pipeline planned to cross the nation’s Great Plains.
U.S. Park Police had warned demonstrators that each would be arrested and quickly released with a $100 fine for trespassing. But after authorities learned that more than 2,000 people from all 50 states plan to join the protest sometime between now until Sept. 3, they jailed McKibben and his peers until a court hearing Monday — all in hopes of deterring future participants.
The police action, however, didn’t appear to stop pipeline opponents. McKibben used his one phone call from jail to tell fellow protest organizers that despite heat in the nation’s capital, all arrested were in good spirits and urged their peers to continue on.
“This was a powerful day,” McKibben said in a written statement. “It’s not the easiest thing on earth for law-abiding folk to come risk arrest. It’s hot out here today, especially when you’re wearing a suit and tie. But it’s nowhere near as hot as it’s going to get if we lose this fight.”
The Obama administration is debating whether to approve the pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Supporters say it will expand the nation’s energy supply, while opponents counter it will raise emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are warming the planet and warping precipitation and wind patterns.
McKibben and colleagues are fearful the Obama administration will permit the pipeline just as it recently opened much of Alaska to oil drilling and approved coal mining on federal land in Wyoming. Lacking money for advertising or lobbying, they’re inviting supporters to join them in Washington in hopes of luring the attention of the press, public and president.
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“This pipeline has emerged as the single clear test of the president’s willingness to fight for the environment,” McKibben said in a weekend statement. “We’ve already succeeded in nationalizing this fight in a way no one thought was possible. It’s not just a group of people along the pipeline route who are opposing this project anymore. People from all 50 states will be joining us over the coming two weeks.”
After a Saturday rally at Lafayette Square Park, McKibben and supporters moved to a sit-in on the sidewalk in front of the White House. There they unfurled two large banners that read “Climate Change is Not in Our National Interest: Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline” and “We Sit In Against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama Will You Stand Up to Big Oil?”
Police, issuing warnings to clear the area, first arrested a young woman from Wasilla, Alaska — hometown of Republican politician Sarah Palin — and then McKibben and colleagues on charges of failure to obey a lawful order.
Authorities transported the group — which included Vermont Law School professor and former White House official Gus Speth and gay rights activist Lt. Dan Choi — to a booking station before transferring all but about a dozen D.C. residents to the city’s Central Cell Block.
The protesters are scheduled to appear in court Monday, at which time their lawyers expect them to be processed and released — perhaps after each paying $100 or more on the initial charge of failure to obey a lawful order and up to $500 more on an additional charge of blocking passage.
Before the sit-in, police had said participants would be arrested and face only a $100 fine before being released the same day. But authorities since have expressed concern that the protest would divert their attention from events leading up to the Aug. 28 dedication of the capital’s new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.
Protest coordinators at TarSandsAction.org responded in a statement: “As the dedication of the MLK Jr. memorial approaches, the sit-in outside the White House is a reminder that the great American tradition of civil disobedience is not just history. The participants are coming not with deep pockets or a partisan agenda, but with the simple idea that their voices should be heard. They will not be intimidated or deterred.”