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!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stop the Tar Sands: Stand Tall Generation Y

This post originally appeared last week in a Daily Kos blogathon featuring responses to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. If this were to be approved, the pipeline would bring tar sands oil from Canada to the US Gulf Coast and serve as the fuse to one of the largest carbon bombs on the planet. If we are to have any hope of mitigating the catastrophic consequences of climate change, this carbon must stay in the ground. Here's why I'm participating in civil disobedience against the Keystone XL this week.

I've always balked a little at the notion that we should take action on climate change for the sake of our children, and for our children's children. This idea rubs me the wrong way because it creates a temporal disconnect with the immediacy of these issues, reinforcing the misconception that climate change is something that isn't happening while giving those suspicious of doing good for the environment another reason not to care. That, and of course it's not true. We need to take action on climate to save ourselves too.

Whenever I hear someone reference future generations in relation to climate change I can't help but think, "They're talking about me. These adults are talking about me." See, I was born in the late nineteen eighties which means that if US life expectancy is anywhere near accurate I will still be alive well after 2050. To put it simply, if I don't take action on climate then I'm not only jeopardizing my branch of the family tree but my own existence entirely. I don't have the luxury of playing wait and see. None of us do. Of course I'm an adult too now and as we charge further into the 21st Century an idea that may be a vestige of environmental messages of old becomes less and less relevant as more climate-passionate young people join the cause and conversation.

Climate must be a priority now. Our current greenhouse gas trajectory exceeds even the worst-case fossil fuel intensive projections made in 2007 for emissions over the next 100 years. The following video depicts a message Bill McKibben articulated beautifully in a Washington Post op-ed in May: Connect the dots. The destructive consequences of a changing climate are happening all around us.

When I first heard about the two weeks of civil disobedience in Washington I thought this is an incredible and unique opportunity. Through our participation we can show the one man responsible for approving or rejecting the pipeline, President Barack Obama, that we mean business. The groundswell of support for this action and the satellite protests that have cropped up across the country for those who cannot make it to DC prove that we've grown tired of our leaders' inability to make significant progress on climate change. Oftentimes when I think about direct actions I can take to have a positive impact on the environment my mind wanders to behavior changes in my personal life. But participating in civil disobedience is a whole different animal, and for me a no-brainer. Let's get this country's attention and convince the Commander in Chief to stop one of the most destructive projects in discussion today.

I recently came across a passage of a speech Obama gave back in 2006. He said:
"The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much we're contributing to the warming of the earth's atmosphere and how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe."
Without a doubt President Obama has diverged from this message. Sure, he may not think he has enough remaining political capital to craft meaningful climate legislation, especially when current members of Congress advocate abolishing the EPA and recently rejected a measure that would have admitted the climate is changing and human activities are the cause. In the midst of such an obstructionist political setting it's up to us to show him he's not alone. Further action simply cannot wait. He needs to understand that approving the Keystone XL pipeline would be a direct affront to those who elected him.

Therefore this post is a call to all members of Generation Y to come out in strength and stand tall outside the White House starting this weekend. The votes of the 18- to 25-year-old demographic were essential to Obama's victory in 2008 and we need to hold him accountable. We’ve inherited quite the complex global problem and it’s up to us to solve it, or perish. We ARE the future generation we’ve heard so much about. The clock is ticking.

I remember in the very first announcement on Grist about the plans for the civil disobedience there was a portion which read: "We don’t want college-age kids to be the only cannon fodder in this fight.... Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere (and whose careers won’t be as damaged by an arrest record) to step up too." Fellow Gen-Yers, will we get arrested? It's entirely possible. We're not supposed to stand still in the location where we'll be gathering outside the White House. But this space offers President Obama such a prime view of us we simply can't pass it up. Should we let the threat of tainting our personal records deter us from showing our support for this cause? Never. Would we want to work somewhere that couldn't understand and accept the type of thoughtful and principled action we'll be engaging in? I don't think so. I will be outside the White House a week from today, on Tuesday August 23rd, and I hope you will join me.