A major two-week action involving daily sit-ins at the White House against the granting of a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline began Saturday. Just over seventy people were arrested. The action continues today, as over thirty plan to engage in civil disobedience at the White House again.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, Gus Speth, Lt. Dan Choi, Jane Hamsher and many other fine activists came together at 10:30 am on Saturday morning. They all participated in a rally in Lafayette Park. Following the rally, a carefully orchestrated civil disobedience action took place with more than seventy people lining up in front of the White House.
Two banners were held. One said “Climate Change is Not in Our Interest” and the other said “We Sit-In Against the XL Pipeline.” One long row of people stood along the fence. Two short rows sat on the ground in front of the long row.
It didn’t take long for the police to give the obligatory three warnings to protesters and signal that those still along the fence were under arrest. One by one they were put into police vehicles and taken to the Anacostia Station in DC to be processed. The activists were charged with “failure to obey a lawful order.”
In jail, the activists expected to be processed and out of jail quickly. Tar Sands Action asserts in “multiple phone calls and in person meeting” US Park Police told protest organizers protest participants would be able to pay a $100 fine and be released the same day. But, the US Park Police went back on what they said and made a calculated decision to hold the activists for 48 hours. The Park Police told Tar Sands Action organizers jail time was given to deter future participants from engaging in civil disobedience.
Tar Sands Action reacted in a press statement, “While the escalated response from the police came as a surprise for organizers behind the protest, they assured the police that the night in jail was not a deterrent for future participants. At a church in Columbia Heights this evening, over 50 more participants from across the country prepared to take part in Sunday morning’s sit-in.”
Not to take away from the activists who have a much more robust history of environmental activism, but it’s worth noting that Dan Choi is once again facing arbitrary punishment for protesting in front of the White House. Choi currently faces federal charges for participating in previous protest actions at the White House. Choi has only been arrested three times but is facing “federal charges.” Numerous people have protest many, many times and have not faced any “federal charges” at all.
An FDL action post put together by Jane Hamsher provides a nice portrait of what typically happens to those who engage in civil disobedience at the White House:
- July 27 2011: Luis Guitierrez and ten others arrested for protesting mass undocumented immigrant deportations. “Gutierrez [paid] his $100 fine and was released by the police.”
- July 11: 4 people were arrested after 100 people delivered 51 cardboard coffins to the White House to protest the Columbia Free Trade Agreement.
- June 25: 12 DC residents arrested for demonstrating on behalf of DC voting rights, bringing the total to 73 since April.
- April 19: 41 protesters including DC Mayor Vincent Gray arrested for demonstrating for DC voting rights. All were charged with unlawful assembly and given a $50 fine.
- March 19 – Daniel Ellsberg is one of 113 people arrested in front of the White House for protesting the abuse of Bradley Manning by Quantico brig commander.
- January 18 2011: Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney was arrested for protesting human rights abuses of the Chinese government
- December 17 2010 – 135 arrested for protesting the war.
- June 1 2010: Actress Q’orianka Kilcher, who starred as Pocahontas in the 2005 film “The New World,” was arrested for chaining herself to the White House fence to protest the President’s meeting between Alan Garzia Perez. Hazmat teams were called in after her mother poured a black substance over her to simulate oil, which turned out to be paint. She was charged with disorderly conduct and her mother was charged with destruction of government property. They were arraigned in D.C. Superior Court, released and “ordered to stay away from the White House.”
- September 2010: James Hansen and 100 others arrested for protesting mountaintop removal.
- May 2010 – Luis Guiterrez arrested for protesting to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
- March 20 2010: Cindy Sheehan arrested in front of White House.
- October 5 2009: Cindy Sheehan and 60 others arrested for protesting against the war in Afghanistan.
- November 9 2006: Cindy Sheehan arrested after leading 50 protesters to the White House gates to deliver anti-war petitions.
- October 26 2005: Cindy Sheehan and 28 others arrested in a sit-in at the White House.
- September 26 2005: 370 people including Cindy Sheehan were arrested for protesting against the war in Iraq. They were “charged with demonstrating without a permit, a misdemeanor that carries a $50 fine and — like a traffic ticket — can be paid by mail or challenged later in court” said Park Police spokesman Sgt. Scott Fear.
This list of recent protests at the White House and the way law enforcement and courts have handled them shows the US Park Police are interested in preventing the Tar Sands Action from building momentum. They are willing to teach participants a lesson in a society where people who are responsible for oil spills rarely, if ever, face punishment for their negligent acts.
Ironically, US Park Police are arbitrarily enforcing provisions of the law because the planned daily sit-ins that are to take place from now until September 2 will conflict with the dedication of a new memorial for Martin Luther King Jr, who was a great believer in the power of civil disobedience to bring about social change and justice. After being arrested for taking nonviolent direct action against segregation by Birmingham’s city government and downtown retailers, King wound up in jail and wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Two lines seem applicable to the bold action being taken by concerned citizens over the next weeks: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The possible construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is a prime example of something that would be a huge injustice that would threaten justice everywhere. The TransCanada pipeline will wind its way from Alberta to Texas through Nebraska and ruin the livelihoods of farmers while at the same time polluting the Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. It would put the Missouri, Yellowstone, Cheyenne and Niobrara Rivers at risk of spills.
TransCanada CEO Hal Kvisle and others can claim the project will “meet or exceed world-class safety and environmental standards.” They can say it will be the “safest pipeline in the US.” But, there is no reason to believe any corporate executive from TransCanada that makes this claim. The company has been responsible for at least twelve oil spills. One spill in North Dakota from their “state-of-the-art” Keystone pipeline resulted in a “six-story geyser” that gushed at least 21,000 gallons of oil into the environment.
Energy companies and their think tanks are selling the government and citizens of the United States a bill of goods. American Petroleum Institute’s Energy Citizens claim the pipeline will bring the US energy security. They claim it will bring the country national security because the US will be relying on Canada instead of other nations. They claim it will bring economic growth bringing up to $600 million to the US economy each year. They claim Canada is environmentally conscious so their energy companies would never develop a pipeline that would destroy the environment. And, most importantly, they assert over 300,000 US jobs could be created between 2011 and 2015 if the Keystone XL pipeline was given the go ahead today.
The participants in the Tar Sands Action understand on some level that working within the system has failed. As climate activist hero Tim DeChristopher, who is now in jail for making fake bids to block the selling of Utah land for oil and gas drilling, explained in an interview at Netroots Nation 2011 those who “those who write the rules are those who profit from the status quo.” He concluded if people want to move away from a “fossil fuel economy that always leads to a concentration of wealth,” we have to overthrow the current power structure.
What we are talking about is overthrowing our current power structure and that will take some sacrifice on our part. It will take us escalating the tension and the situation so the country has to come down on one side or another. And, really that’s how it’s been with most social movements that have been advocating for significant change. They’ve had to make major sacrifices. They’ve had to escalate the tension and the situation to the point that it couldn’t be avoided. We’re no different from those and we should be willing to make the sacrifices that so many activists in the past have done.
Who knows if the US Park Police are getting cues from anyone within the White House to do whatever they can to stop the daily sit-ins. Those inspired by Tim DeChristopher and the activists—who are taking action and following in his footsteps and the footsteps of many fine US citizens in our nation’s history—should not let the threat of trumped up charges scare them. Bill McKibben told fellow organizers after his arrest, “The only thing we need in here is more company. We don’t need your sympathy, we need your company.”
Understand, the more people who participate in the action, the harder it will be for the action to be successfully suppressed. The more people who seek to expose the corruption of power—which is seriously considering this project that would cut through the heart of the United States—the more likely citizens are to force the Obama Administration into a position where approving the Keystone XL pipeline is unconscionable.