Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We Shall Overcome

"Sir, step forward please."

A buff mustachioed officer of the DC Park Police motioned me to come closer. I'll never forget his next four words, "You are under arrest." He then told me to turn around and snapped thick plastic bands around my wrists.

I was the third-to-last of 59 participants in civil disobedience earlier today to be arrested at the White House. We were taking nonviolent direct action in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the US Gulf Coast. Aside from the danger this pipeline would pose to sources of drinking water, rural and indigenous peoples, and wildlife, if this carbon were to enter the atmosphere it would be game over for climate. Estimates place the tar sands contribution to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at 600 parts per million (ppm), so this pipeline is kind of a big deal. For reference, 350 ppm is the concentration at which human life on Earth developed. We're currently somewhere between 385 and 395 ppm CO2, and steadily climbing.

After each of us was pulled from the rest of group lined up along the sidewalk, we were led into a small tent and then loaded into a paddy wagon to be transported to the Anacostia branch of the Park Police for further processing. I was loaded into the last truck along with Jerome from New Jersey and Bishop from Virginia. To say we were cramped would be an understatement. Imagine bouncing around in the back of a mobile toaster. Then imagine having your hands behind your back, and you'll get a sense of our experience. I was first on the transport so I had a view out of the front of the vehicle through the metal mesh between myself and the driver. As we wove through the streets of DC behind our motorcycle escort past the White House, through the Mall beside the Washington Monument, and across the Anacostia River, I wondered what the tourists were thinking. What's all this ruckus? Who are these criminals being transported across town? I could see them turning their heads along the sidewalks as they heard the whine of the sirens coming down the street. I chuckled to myself. If only they knew that behind the windowless walls of the truck sat a recent college graduate, an environmental engineer, and a lawyer who'd all been demonstrating at the White House only moments before. We're doing this for you, I thought, and we're doing this for each other.

Processing once we arrived at the jailhouse was relatively painless. One by one they snapped off our plastic cuffs and led us to a long table staffed with officers who had us fill out paperwork for our release. Because of the low severity of our crime - we were charged with failure to obey a lawful order (aka get off the sidewalk) - and the benevolence of the Park Police, we were granted a "post and forfeit" release. Under these terms we could pay a $100 fine instead of staying overnight in jail and arranging a date in court. Thankfully we were instructed to have cash on us beforehand, and we were all out of police custody by 2:00 or so. Not so bad considering arrests had started around 11:30. I also want to make a point of saying that the DC Park Police were courteous and professional throughout the process, and I hope they spend my $100 wisely.

One of the most remarkable things for me about this action was the ability of a group of complete strangers to come together and rally around a common vision. It was even more astonishing to me that part of that goal was arrest. Action organizers affectionately used the phrase "risking arrest" when describing the action we were to take but after three previous days of arrested participants we had a good idea of what we were in for. The vast majority of us, like myself, were first-time participants in a demonstration of this kind and had never been arrested before. This could have made for a nervous bunch, but after spending several hours at a civil disobedience training session last night we were comfortable enough to put our trust in one another and take this leap of faith together. Leading up to the action I was anxious about entering into a scenario where I wasn't in control of my personal well-being (wait, you mean we're actually going to be arrested, like arrested arrested?), but as soon as I showed up at the White House this morning I knew that I would be in good hands - those of the wonderful, courageous, and passionate people who had come from all over the country to stand beside me. I realized too that sometimes you must relinquish that control in order to take control of something you care about.

One of the most memorable moments from today was when my buddy (we each had action buddies who were our go-to's for support throughout the day) Lawrence MacDonald and others led us in a variation of We Shall Overcome, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The lyrics drew nicely on the essence of what we were trying to accomplish.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand someday;
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We'll walk hand in hand someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

We shall heal the earth, we shall heal the earth,
We shall heal the earth someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall heal the earth someday.

If today showed me anything, it's that this day is coming and we can get there even quicker if we work together to oppose injustice and bring positive change to the world.

Final note: Infinite thanks to the Tar Sands Action organizing team. Your help in preparing us for what we could expect throughout the day and your presence before, during, and after the action were invaluable to this experience. It honestly wouldn't have been possible, and won't continue to be possible this next week and a half, without your tireless work. I'm exhausted after participating in a single day, I can't imagine the resolve it must take to be out there day after day training a new group and seeing them safely through the arrest process. I think I speak for all of those who participated with me today when I say you are the real heroes of this action. Thank you!

1 comment:

  1. Huge thanks from Boston for all your brave work!!