A Report from Tar Sands Blockade in Texas
In January 2012, I, like many other people, thought the Keystone XL pipeline controversy was over. We had won a hard-fought victory in suspending the proposed tar sands pipeline from crossing the border from Canada into the USA. It seemed a major win for the environmental movement.
But shortly after reveling in the victory, I read the words of President Barack Obama (the same man who claimed he wanted to lead America away from dependence on oil) said during a March speech in Cushing, OK. “And today, I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done,” the president said.
To my horror and disappointment, that is exactly what he did. Today TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, has already started construction on the southern leg of the pipeline that will potentially stretch from Montana all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
In this case, “cutting through the red tape” includes allowing eminent domain laws to be used to take land from families, farmers, and Indigenous people in order to push this extremely dangerous pipeline. If completed, the pipeline will be filled with highly corrosive and toxic tar sands oil that will be pumped through the heartland of America and then (some of it, at least) will be exported to other countries.
Some residents in Texas and other allies who have come from all over the country are trying to stop this from happening. Last week I visited the courageous landowners and blockaders in rural East Texas who are putting their bodies on the line to slow down and, hopefully, halt the pipeline construction.
I am honored and humbled to be able to share part of their story.
• • •
In April of last year, I went to Dallas, TX and met with one of the landowners, David Daniel and his family, who were facing imminent destruction of their land from TransCanada and standing against the taking of their land through eminent domain abuse. He shared with me his story — how he and his wife had travelled to many places looking for their perfect place to buy a piece of property where they would care for and steward their little piece of “Heaven on Earth” and raise their child to feel connected to living with the Earth and not just on it. They found exactly what they were looking for in East Texas. A property that had beautiful woods, huge, old trees, and spring-fed creeks curving and meandering through 22 acres. There was one, particularly large, very old tree right next to one of the creeks that had a magic to it, that both David and his wife both felt drawn to so powerfully. It was on that spot that they both knew they had found “their place.”
One day while walking around his land — two years after purchasing it and almost finishing building their dream home made from salvaged, re-purposed, and recycled items — David found survey ribbons and stakes marking off a 150-foot swath cutting through the middle of his property. TransCanada had entered his property without ever seeking or being granted permission and marked the area they were intending to take and claim as their own.
In our meeting that day, David told me that as he walked around and saw the surveying ribbons and stakes, one right next to one of his most favorite trees, he looked up into the tree, overwhelmed with how he was going to stand against such a huge, politically connected corporation, and he immediately remembered interviews he had seen of me and my tree-sit in Luna. He said in that moment, it gave him the inspiration and resolve he needed to stand against such seemingly overwhelming odds.
After meeting this soulful, soft-spoken man and his beautiful family and feeling his deep heart-breaking anguish, and at the same time, his fierce resolve to fight with everything he had to protect his land, his family, and his child’s future to live on a safe and healthy planet, I knew I would do whatever I could to help.
• • •
Fast-forward to this fall. I have been put “on-call” to be ready to go to East Texas at a moment’s notice to help bring attention and support to the protests there. Sadly, since I visited him last year, David Daniel had been so bullied and threatened by TransCanada with losing everything he worked so hard for that he has agreed to end his efforts to fight the company.
But at the same time incredible activists calling themselves Tar Sands Blockade have been building blockades and doing direct action lock-downs in efforts to slow-down TransCanada’s clearing of easements for the tar sands pipeline. Although their efforts are absolutely amazing, almost no one outside of social media sites and a very few progressive media sites have been sharing what is happening.
My manager, dear friend, and staunch ally in the work to protect this planet, Paul Bassis, has been involved in this issue since the beginning of the fight to stop the pipeline. My soul sister, amazing advocate, and actress, Daryl Hannah, has also been involved from that beginning, even getting arrested in the action in front of the White House in Washington DC, which played a huge part in elevating Keystone XL into the national dialogue and prompting President Obama to temporarily suspend it. Another fellow tree-sitter and amazing artist/activist, John Quigley, has come to Texas as well as incredible friend and ally, Janet MacGillivray Wallace who has also come along for legal support. Our collective goal was to help break through the media silence on this critical issue and provide legal and other support for both the blockaders and the landowners.
Everyone else arrived a couple days before me and was able to scout out the situation and see what our best possible strategy was for hopefully breaking through the wall of silence. I arrived to a group of sleep-deprived yet incredibly committed people. Yet all of the strategizing and planning took a u-turn when, on October 4, we heard TransCanada’s heavy equipment rumbling through Eleanor Fairchild’s land and smelled smoke from burning piles of trees.
Our group — including photographers, videographers, and supporters — quickly gathered together to rethink strategy. We received a clear message from Mrs. Fairchild: “Not on my land. Not on my watch. Not as long as I can do something.” The rest of us rallied around her resolve and after making sure everyone was as prepared as we could be, we took off towards the noise and smoke.
Mrs. Fairchild, Daryl Hannah, and John Quigley ran out in front of the huge earth moving excavators with their arms raised, yelling to be heard above the noise, telling the driver of the massive machinery to stop. The rest of us surrounded the site, documenting what was happening as well as letting TransCanada’s armed private security and workers know that there were observers, and they better behave legally and properly. (Earlier actions by peaceful blockaders had been met with pain compliance and torture techniques, including choke holds, pepper spray and tasers.)
Daryl Hannah was grabbed early on by a security man who then put a pain-hold compliance on her, twisting her wrist aggressively and bending it backward. Fairchild remained in front of the huge machine, in the midst of burning stacks of trees with her hands raised for an incredibly long time. I was in awe of her stamina and courage and her depth of conviction to peacefully defend her farm.
Eventually, the sheriff showed up with backup forces. The officers approached. Fairchild and tried negotiating with her, offering her the chance to just walk away and not be arrested, trying to convince her that those of us who were there to support her were not really her friends. (As if somehow TransCanada is her best buddy.) She told them that unless they let Daryl go free as well, then they would have to arrest both of them.
The sheriff and his men walked Fairchild and Daryl to their trucks to take them to jail while the rest of us on the support team finished taking photos and documentary footage and returned to the house to regroup and start getting the word out to the media as well as wait for a call from the jail, so we could work on the release of Daryl and Fairchild.
The judge let Eleanor Fairchild go on her personal recognizance, but he decided to make an example of Daryl Hannah and set a $4,500, cash-only bail for her release. It was around 10 p.m. by then and absolutely impossible for us to come up with $4,500 in cash. Eventually, at Daryl’s urging, the jail officers convinced the judge that his demands were unreasonable and that Daryl was clearly not a threat to society and should be allowed to have a bail bondsman post a bond for her release.
A few of us went to the bail bondsman to start the process of Daryl’s release, then right around midnight, crossed over to the jail house to meet Daryl. She did an incredible job answering questions for the regional media, who had been stationed there for up to seven hours, especially considering how much she had just been through and how exhausted she was. We then took her over to finish the bonding process (with the bondswoman), who was incredibly nice and very helpful in walking us through the process of what to expect over the coming days and weeks.
The next day we saw that the news was spreading like wildfire. Paul and John took Daryl and Eleanor off to the network affiliate television studios in Dallas to do live national media and respond to TransCanada’s statement on the confrontation. I went to visit the courageous blockaders still holding down the line in the trees and on the “wall” (a wall made of trees and platforms and rope lines.) I told them they were our inspiration, thanked them for their courage and sacrifice, and asked them what they needed in the terms of support. I told them that we were working hard to support getting their efforts out to the greater public and hopefully helping build the critical support necessary in stopping this injustice.
The TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline is a huge threat to people, the planet and our democracy. It has been railroaded through by Obama (whose campaign hired a former TransCanada lobbyist) and is supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose former 2008 campaign advisor, Paul Elliott, is now TransCanada’s lobbyist in Washington. Highly respected scientists have said that moving ahead with tar sands extraction is one of the single greatest threats to a stable climate. Native Americans face having their lands being stolen yet again for this pipeline. And families up and down the heartland of America face the devastation of all they worked so hard to create. More actions are taking place every single day with this campaign, and all of us need to pay attention however we can. Families’ lives, beautiful land, and our future are at stake.
What you can do:
1. Sign on to this open letter to both Obama and Romney.
2. Donate as well as stay up to date on the courageous efforts of the blockaders (so much is happening every single day!). Find other ways to support this critical movement.
© 2012 Earth Island Journal