Four Portland women thought it would be worth it to get arrested protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that threatens 40 percent of the drinking water in the United States.
All it took was for one single email to convince four Portland women to travel to Washington D.C. with the sole purpose of getting arrested.
The email was sent by Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author who also heads the 350.org organization which helps inform people about the consequences of global warming. McKibbon sent out a call to arms for environmental activists to come to Washington D.C. in August and participate in two weeks of direct action to protest the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which would the extend the existing Keystone pipeline from Alberta to oil refineries throughout the midwest of the United State and the Gulf of Mexico. In response to McKibben's email, the four women- Barbara Ford, Anne Mavorr, Marilee Dea, and Pamela Leitch, who are all neighbors at the Columbia Ecovillage, a sustainable co-housing community in Portland's Cully neighborhood- decided over a pitcher of margaritas to take up McKibben's challenge. They decided that not only was the Keystone XL pipeline worth traveling across country to protest, they also realized that it would probably be a given they would also be arrested for participating in this protest. And for these friends and neighbors, using their bodies as currency to protest the Keystone XL pipeline was completely worth it.
Of course, they first needed to find their way from Portland to D.C. if they wanted to participate in the protest. Ideally, their cross-country trek would also have as small a carbon footprint as possible. The original plan was to rent a Prius and drive to D.C., but it was soon discovered that it would be cheaper- as well as having a smaller carbon footprint- to ride Amtrak instead. Riding the rails, as it turned out, would pose a number of challenges even before they arrived at the protest.
"There is another story that could be told about how the global weather change tried to stop us from going to the protest" exclaimed Merilee. "After we decided on riding the train to Washington, our train came in late to Chicago and we missed our connection. Severe weather in North Dakota from wildfires really slowed down our train. We ended up four hours late to Chicago, and missed our connection to D.C. And, of course, as this was when Hurricane Irene was hitting the east coast, there were going to be no further trains to Washington- we missed the last one! But we were in Chicago, and we were not going to be deterred, even if there were no trains or buses. After looking everywhere, we finally found a car to rent, jumped in and drove 13 straight hours to Washington, arriving at 2 in the morning."
Needless to say, plenty of jokes were made by their friends as they compared themselves to the quest of Ulysses. But besides running into transportation obstacles, the cross-country train trip provided a first hand look into the effects of climate change around the country. "It made it very clear, very real," said Marilee. "On the train we spoke with people who were hiring for fracking operations in Montana, as well as others who were fighting fracking leases on school grounds in Pennsylvania. Our train passed huge wildfires. We were going through the Midwest and looking out the window to see stumps of cornstalks, only as high as our thigh when they should be much, much higher. We would see areas that had been previously flooded, with the water line still visible up to the second floor. The Midwest didn't have any summer for months, affecting their growing season, and then was scorching while we traveled through it."
But they finally made it to the nation's capitol. And despite their late night/ early morning arrival, the four friends made their way to the protest site which was across the street from the White House. "The protest was inspiring," said Marilee. "We were able to talk with [NASA scientist and early global warming expert] Jim Hansen prior to the protest. He spoke at a rally before the protest to really make it clear how important it was that we were doing what we were doing. We then went out and sat and sang together. The police asked us to leave, saying that after the third time they asked us we would all be arrested."
There is a popular idea that if you are arrested at a protest by the Washington, D.C. police force, they will round you up, bind your arms, put you in a paddy-wagon and forget about you. As it turns out, that was exactly what happened to Merilee, Barbara, Anne, and Pam.
According to Barbara, "When the first group of protestors- before we arrived- were arrested, they were told that they would be arrested, put in the paddy-wagon, brought to the station and then released. But once the paddy-wagons arrived at the station, the rules changed. Sweaters were taken from women, and then they pumped up the air conditioning to make them uncomfortable. Police must have been instructed to make it as difficult for those who were arrested as possible to deter the next two weeks of protests. This was on a Friday, and when protestors were in front of a judge the next Monday, the judge was outraged. The judge said, "This shouldn't happen. I don't want to see this again." From that moment on, all interactions with the police were mostly civil. It was like we were engaging in 'civil disobedience lite.'"
"Well, let's not forget the frisking that the police would give to the women they arrested," Marilee reminded Barbara.
"Oh, yes. The women received a thorough frisking. It put the TSA to shame!"
According to Marilee, she and her neighbors were arrested in a group of 143 protestors, the largest number of Keystone protestors to be arrested by that point. (The numbers of protestors arrested would only increase as the Keystone protest continued.) But the group they arrested with included a large number of faith leaders. "Each day there was a different theme, and for the day we were there the theme was faith and religion," pointed out Merilee.
Anne continued by pointing out other groups that had attended the protests: "Youth activists. Mountaintop removal workers. Coal miners. They all came to protest the Keystone pipeline."
"Each day focused on a new constituency, which provided for a new message," Barbara said. "There were new press opportunities daily. The labor unions came. Then the next day Al Gore came. Every day there was a new message, and it grew and grew. And then, after nine days, Nobel Prize winners joined together to take a full-page ad in the New York Times requesting that President Obama not approve the expansion of the Keystone pipeline."
"And the message will continue to get out with future actions planned for October 7th and another one on November 6th," Anne said.
"The October 7th action is to coincide with congressional hearings on this pipeline," informed Barbara. "The November action is called Hands Around the White House. And we will see if anyone is paying attention on this issue, particularly if they want to get re-elected."
So what is it about these tar sands that need to be protested to such an extent that it would inspire four Portland women to travel across the country to engage in protest and to get arrested? In a society heavily dependent on fossil fuels which includes mountaintop-removal coal mines, natural gas fracking operations, and the first new proposed nuclear plants in decades, what is so egregious about this tar sands pipeline?
"According to Jim Hansen, if this tar sands pipeline is approved, it is effectively 'game over' for putting back climate change," explains Merilee. "This tar sands is the dirtiest oil that's ever been. It is pretty much scraping the bottom of the earth's barrel. Its buried underneath an ancient forest, which is needed for carbon capture. This forest is nesting ground for 4 out of 10 migratory birds, and if this pipeline extension is approved than 160 million birds will die. The tar sands extraction process uses beautiful pristine water that is heavily polluted afterwards. Keep in mind, we're not talking oil here. This is tar, attached to sand. It takes four tons of forest removal to get one barrel of oil."
"The size of the forest to be removed by this operation is equal to the size of the state of Florida," Barbara said.
"Or equal to the size of the United Kingdom," continued Merrilee. "It is needed for carbon sequestration. And they are using enough water each day to provide drinking water for 2 million people. This toxic sludge comes up from the ground which is full of heavy metals, such as arsenic. This toxic sludge is put into uncovered ponds."
"And that does not even consider the pipeline," said Barbara. "Once they get this deposit oil, it needs to be refined. And currently they don't have a pipeline that goes to the refineries on the Gulf to prepare it for the international market. And that is the biggest lie of all, that operations such as these are needed for our country's energy independence. This oil won't necessarily go to the U.S., but more than likely will go to China or India. And this pipeline will end up going through the drinking water of eight states, right through the bread basket of the United States. TransCanada, the company that is overseeing this pipeline, claim that it will be safe, but TransCanada does not have a good safety record. They all ready have 12 pipeline links this past year! 800,000 gallons of oil leaked from TransCanada into the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone Rivers. That's an unacceptable level of pain and suffering. This is a $7 billion investment- what if this $7 billion was invested in sustainable energy?"
"All sorts of people are opposed to this pipeline, including the Nebrask cattleman's association," said Merilee. "As well as Nebraska's Republican Governor and the state's Republican party."
Looking for further insight into the environmental destruction that would be caused by this protested tar sands action I contacted Daniel Lerch, a Program Director of the Post Carbon Institute who operated out of an office in downtown Portland before recently leaving to take a mini-sabbatical in Guadalajara, Mexico. Lerch responded: "Producing oil out of the Alberta tar sands is a terrible idea -- not just for the climate but also from the perspectives of energy efficiency (low energy returned on energy invested), environmental health (decimates local ecosystems), social justice (destroys local communities), and economic resilience (further locks us into the petroleum-fueled economy). New infrastructure supporting the fossil fuel production and consumption is being proposed all the time, and that needs critical attention --and if warranted, opposition-- as well. But the Keystone pipeline is one of the few options available for greatly expanding the global market's access to those massive tar sands deposits -- so stopping that pipeline would be both practically and symbolically (i.e., politically) important. The political aspect of this issue has multiple layers, of course, the biggest of which seems to be communicating to President Obama that if he's serious about climate change, actions need to follow the words."
While it might be perplexing that such an extension of a tar sands pipeline would occur under the watch of a Democratic President committed to the expansion of green technology and investing in "green jobs," it was pointed out that the main lobbyist for the Keystone expansion was the former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. And besides, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised an "everything under the sun" approach towards energy, including wind and solar, "clean coal" and nuclear power. If Obama were to approve the Keystone pipeline extension, would the four neighbors feel a sense of betrayal- that they put their bodies on the line for no reason?
"For me, my sense is that this action was the beginning of a new justice movement," explains Barbara. "Like all new justice movement, it is a journey and it is a long one. But we simply don't have the time. We need to show up and make the President listen to us. And the reality is Obama doesn't need to negotiate with anyone. The oil companies are going to support the Republican Party anyway. We just want to make sure that any decision the President makes, he makes in the light of day with the knowledge that we are all watching him."