Civil disobedience for Mother Earth

What are you willing to sacrifice for the environment?  Your car?  Your clothes dryer?  What about your freedom?

I’ve been following Bill McKibben and for a few years.  Mr. McKibben is an unlikely activist – he says so himself.  Authoring his latest book, Eaarth, however, catapulted him into the spotlight of the environmental community.  A scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, Mr. McKibben has become the voice for climate change activism.  He co-founded and has helped organize several worldwide days of action.

Mr. McKibben has recently embraced the Tar Sands Action – a movement that has organized people around the country to protest the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline via a daily civil disobedience sit-in (or sit-out, as it were) in front of the White House.  Participants are warned that their participation will get them arrested, but that didn’t stopped thousands from signing up and being arrested.

When I heard about this action and the damage that would be caused by the pipeline, I deemed it a worth cause… one so worthy that I was willing to travel to Washington, DC from Florida to participate.  Was I nervous about being arrested?  You bet!

My day to participate was scheduled for August 30th, and since the protest started on the 20th, this allowed me to see what happened on the preceding days.  It looked like things were going as planned and nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I arrived in DC on August 29th on a flight into BWI.  From there, I took a shuttle to St. Stephen’s Church in the NW quadrant of the city where this night’s training would take place.  I arrived early and the church doors were wide open, so I entered quietly and took a seat in one of the back pews.  Very shortly a woman arrived who was also there for the training, and, as it turned out, she was from Vermont.  She had arrived on a bus with a group of 25 Vermonters who had left on Sunday morning.  I asked her if she could believe all the devastation that had happened in Vermont, and she got a quizzical look on her face.  “What do you mean?”  I couldn’t believe she didn’t know, and I told her a bit of what had happened.  She immediately called her boyfriend in Pittsford and ended up with tears rolling down her face as he told her of the father and son (whom they knew) who had been swept away in the flooding.  (The father’s body was later found but not the son.)

As I sat there, I thought, “This is why we’re here.  Hurricanes aren’t supposed to go to Vermont.  This shouldn’t be happening.”  Soon afterward, the rest of the Vermont delegation showed up, and we sat in a circle out on the lawn sharing stories of what we’d heard of the flooding.  Little did we know the true extent, which is now becoming clear.

Our training lasted 4 hours and included detailed information, from a legal briefing to mock arrests.  They served us a simple vegan dinner and did lots of energy-raising exercises.  Most of all, they made us feel safe.  They assured us that they would stay with us throughout the entire experience – from arrest to release.  We were given their legal assistance hotline and told to write it on our bodies in case we were relieved of everything on us.  (I actually wrote it twice, on my arm and on my leg, along with my niece’s phone number – who remembers phone numbers anymore???)

We were also told to find a same-sex “buddy” among those present.  This person could give us support along the way and we could be responsible for each other.  My buddy ended up being 83-year-old Celeste who came all the way from Portland, OR just to participate in this action.

The support staff seemed wonderful, and they were all very well-versed in getting arrested during this type of civil disobedience.  At the end of the night, I had a slight transportation snafu, and they were so kind and helpful.

Fortunately, I have a niece who lives in Virginia, so I was able to stay with her.  She also agreed to come into DC with me to be my support, which I really appreciated.  We were told to bring nothing more than what we absolutely needed – ID, $110 in cash (to post out of jail) and possibly water or snacks.

We were running a little late in the morning, so when I got off the Metro at the White House stop, I ran across Lafayette Park in hopes that I was not too late to join the action.  As luck would have it, folks were just getting into position, and I slipped in next to my “buddy” – we were actually some of the few people standing to hold up the banner.

Tar sands civil disobedience at White House

Once there, a woman next to me pointed out that Daryl Hannah had joined our sit-in that day!  What a blessing to have a celebrity among us to attract more attention to our cause. The police didn’t wait over a half hour to issue their first warning… our permit to assemble in this area had been revoked, and we were ordered to leave immediately.

I looked around for my niece and located her in the crowd of supporters.  She was taking photos and watching how things went.

About 5 minutes later, the police gave their second warning.  At this point, anyone who was sitting with us who did not want to get arrested got up and left to join the crowd of supporters.  They then gave their 3rd warning and indicated that everyone who was still there would be arrested.

Photo Credit: Ben Powless

Not surprisingly, the police arrested Ms. Hannah first in hopes that the paparazzi would leave.  They then took our banners away from us.  Then, as expected, they arrested the females first, one by one.  Celeste was arrested right before me, and I prayed that they were be gentle with her.

When it was your turn, the police would grab a pair of zip cuffs off the stack they had placed over one of the police car antennas.  They would ask you to turn around, which we each did without question.  The point of the civil disobedience was to be just that… civil.  We wanted to draw attention to our cause for good reasons – not to be labeled troublemakers.

Getting arrested in front of the White House. Photo Credit: Ben Powless

The police were very respectful – I’m sure they do this all the time.  Once cuffed and “labeled” with a number, we went over to a female officer who frisked us.  They took my Obama pin – probably because it was pointy.  They also took my ID but left my money in my pocket.  I was number 28.  Once inside the on-site processing tent, an officer (most likely the arresting officer) had his picture taken with me.  That was kind of awkward.  I felt like I was at the prom!  I’d like to get my hands on that photo… for posterity!

Then  they asked us if we wanted to Post & Forfeit.  Basically what that means is that we pay $100 to avoid going to jail and without being convicted of anything.  Therefore nothing goes on our permanent record.  If you didn’t do that, you’d have to stick around and go to court.  Celeste was two people in front of me, and when asked whether she wanted to go to jail or Post & Forfeit, she got confused.  I stepped up to her and said, “You have your $100, right, Celeste?”  At that point, she said “Yes” and the officers knew that’s what she wanted.  So, I was glad to be able to help my buddy.

We were then led to and loaded into the meat wagon.  Since it looked like a big van, I expected it to be open inside, but it was not.  There was a thick dividing wall in the middle, which made each half look very small.  I was thankfully the last person loaded in because I probably would’ve felt very claustrophobic to be in the middle or at the very back.  Once they shut the doors, it was sweltering in there.  No fresh air at all.  And, to boot, I had worn a long sleeve zipped overshirt because I had a bruise on my arm and didn’t want to look trashy.

The night before, someone had given us a tip to grab onto the seat belts in the van (since our hands were behind us and we couldn’t put them on).  This was great advice because the 15 minute ride to the station was a little bumpy, and that kept you from bouncing around inside the van.

They opened the door almost immediately upon arrival at the station, but we had to sit there for 15 minutes or so in the van.  I appreciated the slight breeze that came in through the open door.  About 2 minutes later, a member of the legal team came walking up the sidewalk.  Wow, they’re good!

Finally we were able to get out, and the breeze felt SO good.  We were taken into what amounted to an annex of the Anacostia police station.  There were two rooms, divided by a mesh chain wall.  We were asked to get in line according to our number, which we did.  We were frisked again by a female officer, who then removed our cuffs.  It was so nice to take off my long sleeved shirt at that point.

We then had to stand in two lines.  One to be issued our citation for failure to obey a lawful order.  The next to pay the ticket.  Then we were let out of the building.  On my way out, I asked the officer what had happened to my Obama pin… it was an ’08 election pin… you can’t exactly get them anymore.  He asked what my number was, and he ended up finding it, which was very cool.  The support team was waiting just outside the door to direct us to a gathering on the other end of the parking lot.

There I found a group of folks, along with snacks and water.  The legal team asked us to fill out some paperwork so they could keep track of who gets arrested when.  Delightfully, I met a girl who had also been arrested who is finishing up the same degree I’m pursuing at Vermont Law School!  What a great coincidence!  She gave me her contact information, and I’m hoping she can lend some guidance throughout my course.

At this point, I needed to find my niece, who was not there yet.  I borrowed someone’s phone and was thankful for my niece’s number on my arm!  As it turned out, she got a bit lost, through no fault of her own.  I had to wait about 30 minutes (in excellent company), but eventually we met up at the Metro station.  We went back into DC as I really wanted to go to the Capitol City Brewery, one of my favorite spots in town.  We got some food, and I had a beer, and it seemed like a successful day!  We headed back to Virginia on the Metro.

To see more photos, visit the Flickr page for Tar Sands Action.

1 Comment

  • Blue Sprout Studio – Rutland Vermont environmental research, web design & consulting » A great day for a protest

    […] United States – although those in attendance are against that also.  (You may recall that I was arrested in front of the White House two days after Irene decimated our little state.)  We’re protesting the flow reversal being […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *