On Saturday, August 20th at 11:30am I, along with 65 other people, were arrested for “failure to obey a lawful order.” I was hand cuffed with my hands behind my back, stuffed into the back of a police wagon with 16 other men, where we remained for over an hour and a half in 90+ degree heat, many of us in suits and ties, sweating profusely as the wagon temperature steadily rose. We were driven to the Washington, DC processing center in Anacostia where we were eventually taken out of the wagons and lined up against the wall, still in handcuffs. To combat the heat and prevent dehydration we were provided fluids by tilting our heads back as water was poured into our mouths. The handcuffs were finally taken off after we were escorted into the building where our possessions were bagged – shoe laces, belts, wedding ring, watch – and our bodies thoroughly frisked. We were finger printed and our information was recorded – address, age, race, eye color. We were crammed, 13 to 14 people at a time, into 6×8 holding cells equipped with one metal bench welded to the wall and a small metal toilet/sink combo, where we held for several hours. I, along with 6 other arrestees who lived in the area, was released at around 7:00pm that same day, while the others who were from out of town, spent the next two nights in jail. This is the story of my first arrest. It was hot, crammed, enlightening and amazing all at the same time!
What put me in this position, some may ask. Why did I “refuse to obey a lawful order.” And why is this posted on my professional resume blog?
My motivations for this arrest are two fold and they’re born from my interests as both an activist and an educator – two identities that I don’t think should necessarily be separate from one another. Making the decision to participate in an act of civil disobedience and to risk arrest is one I thought would have been easier, especially considering I did not have any fears about facing any kind of severe repression like many activists around the world do who break laws. But despite all that, breaking the law is not something we are necessarily taught as being the right thing to do.
This act of civil disobedience was the first in a wave of actions that ended in 1,200 people getting arrested over the course of two weeks. The two-week civil disobedience campaign was organized by Tar Sands Action and involved thousands of people sitting in front of the White House fence at Lafayette Park in a specific designated area where demonstrations of that nature are not allowed. The White House was chosen as the location for this demonstration because the President, and the President alone, has the power to either approve or deny the construction of a pipeline that would carry oil from the one of the most exploitative and unjust (both socially and environmentally) forms of energy extraction in Canada to oil refineries in Texas. As the intro video highlights, the climate movement is facing a moment where more drastic actions are required in order for the issue of climate change to garner the attention and it warrants.
What Are the Tar Sands and Why Are They Important?
The tar sand fields in northern Alberta, Canada are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet, second only to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The energy company TransCanada is seeking a permit from the White House to build a 1,700 mile pipeline from the oil sands to Texas where the oil can be refined and shipped out to the global market. This pipeline, known as the Keystone XL pipeline, would become a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet and further feed America and the industrial world’s addiction to oil. But that’s not even the worst of it…
The tar sands are not like the oil fields we envision in Saudi Arabia or Texas, where long pumps are dug deep into the earth, pulling up black sludge from hundreds of feet underground. With tar sands, the oil is not underground, but rather mixed in with sands near the surface. This means that in order to get the oil, energy companies need to clear cut entire forests so they can scrape up the sand. This not only destroys carbon reducing forests and the natural habitats they comprise, it also displaces the indigenous peoples that have lived there for generations and rely on that land for their livelihoods.
Secondly, separating the oil from the sand is a highly energy intensive process that requires an enormous amount of carbon and toxic chemicals. In fact, it requires 4x as much carbon to extract crude oil from the tar sands as it does to pump it up from the ground. Because of this additional carbon output, gasoline made from this oil would make driving a Toyota Prius (50+ mpg) equivalent to driving a Hummer (12mpg).
Third, the toxic chemicals used to process the sands and separate out the oil, are flushed out into the water ways throughout northern Canada and are, literally, killing indigenous communities as cancer rates and other diseases are on the rise due to water contamination.
Fourth, the Keystone XL pipeline would run through several states in the US farm belt and the Ogollala aquifer, the largest source of freshwater in North America. Imagine if that pipeline – filled with chemical laden crude oil – were to leak at any point and the devastating effect it would have on farms that grow our food and aquifers that provide us with clean drinking water. And you don’t even really need to imagine this disaster because these kinds of spills and leaks have already occurred. In fact, TransCanada’s newest pipeline, which they claimed as being the most safe and advanced of its kind, sprung 13 leaks in just one year.
Lastly, extracting oil from these sands and shipping it thousands of miles is putting the brilliant, innovative, and magnificent brain power of scientists and engineers to work for a form of energy production that cannot continue if we hope to keep this planet healthy and protected for future generations. It puts these minds to work in ways that increase our reliance on oil based energy. I ask, why can’t those same minds and the billions of dollars that are invested into their work go to advance the future of energy – wind, solar, and other renewables – forms of energy that and far less damaging to the environment and the climate?
For all these reasons, combined with what I felt was a well thought out strategy for building awareness and applying pressure on the President to make the right decision, I decided that if there was ever a time to risk arrest and commit an act of civil disobedience, now would be it.
Small Steps Toward Transformation
I like to think of my self as being environmentally aware, conscious, and caring. I practice a vegan diet and do my best not to consume any animal products. I try to buy produce that is organic and grown locally. I support candidates and politicians with environmentally progressive records. The vast majority of time I spend getting from point A to point B is on some form of public transportation or on my own two feet. When I do drive, its in a car that gets over 40 miles per gallon. I recycle, receive all the bills I can electronically, am quite frugal when it comes to purchasing new “stuff,” and I try and keep electric usage in my house to a minimum. But even with all that, when I calculate my carbon footprint, it would take 4.5 earths to sustain life if everyone on the planet lived the energy intensive lifestyle that I do. Is this disheartening? Sure, but its also motivation and information that keeps me committed to adapting my lifestyle and to live in accordance with my principles and beliefs, chief among them wanting to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem when it comes to addressing global climate change – an issue that brings into sharp reality the ways in which the planet is one giant, amazing, interdependent system.
Five years ago, I did not practice most of the lifestyle choices mentioned above. But becoming more aware of the small personal changes I could make and developing the discipline to sustain those changes, I began searching for the next step in my journey to be more environmentally conscious. One thing I have realized is that personal changes are important and can have a big impact, but its also important to try and change the larger systems that are at play. In this case, its challenging the decades of broken promises from presidents and decision-makers that the United States will ween its way off of oil and move to a more renewable, green energy economy. Construction of this pipeline and further development of the tar sands runs in DIRECT contradiction to those promises. I am tired of broken promises, but also recognize that, as Gus Speth says in the intro video, “power responds to a demand,” and its clear that the environmental movements demands have not been loud, strong, or bold enough. The hope is that incorporating civil disobedience into this campaign will bring that demand to the forefront. As Bill McKibben said, “we may not have the money, but we do have our bodies.”
You Can Learn More through Experience
I identify as an experiential educator, meaning I place high value on experiences and perspectives that each participant brings to the learning space and use that as a foundation off of which to explore various themes and topics. I also find myself being a more intentional, reflective, and consummate learner if I am able to actively experience the knowledge as opposed to just passively receiving it. My love and interest in experiential education was another motivation for participating in the Tar Sands Action.
The Tar Sands Action campaign asked that if you planned on risking arrest that you agree to attend a nonviolent direct action training the night before. This kind of training is something that through my work with and study of nonviolence I am aware of, but had not actually participated in. And every time I speak about these kinds of trainings in a historical context or reference them as they happen in other parts of the world, I have always felt like I’ve never really been able to grasp them to a point of being totally comfortable talking about them. Experiencing a training in nonviolent direct action and then actually participating in it makes me, I believe, better equipped to be an educator in this field.
I was able to experience the emotion of what its like to grapple with the possibility of spending time in jail and purposefully breaking a law. I was able to hear the reasons and motivations of others in the room for why they were participating in this action. I was able to see how the trainers elicited comments, suggestions, and ideas from the group in terms of how to respond to various circumstances. I was able to practice what it would be like to get arrested and then see whether or not that prepared me for the real thing. I was able to immediately feel connected to those around me knowing that the next day most of us would be risking arrest for the first time. I was able to experience what it was like to consciously break a law and the dynamic that created with law enforcement.
The training provided an overview of nonviolent direct action, why this campaign was calling for it, how the action would unfold, and the legal ramification for engaging in the act. It was an effective training and one that inspired and prepared me to put my beliefs into action.
Weak Ties vs. Strong Ties
This experience bore out for me an opinion I have regarding the weak ties vs. strong ties argument Malcom Gladwell posited in his hotly debated New York Times Magazine piece, The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. In that article he argues that social media is good at fostering weak ties among people, which rarely lead to any type of substantial participation in a movement. Social movements, he says, require strong ties in order for people to participate and and take the kinds of risks needed in a struggle. Ergo, the impact social media has had on recent uprisings is overblown in his mind and cannot be credited for building movements.
My opinion is pretty much the exact opposite. I think that social media and the larger digital media landscape has provided us with new ways to interact with, share, and disseminate the information we consume. It has made the ability to produce our own media much more affordable and accessible. This in turn gives ordinary people the tools and capacity to challenge once dominant perspectives and narratives. And with all this combined it makes people think differently about the power of information – who has it? who edits it? who consumes it?
My experience with the Tar Sands Action is a testament to my understanding of how social media impacts movements. My motivation to participate in this campaign and risk arrest was born out of several social media experiences.
Back in June of this year I was attending and participating in ICNC’s Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict (FSI). Throughout the week I was tweeting some of the key take-aways and resources from each of the presentations. As I was tweeting I got a direct message from another twitter user who I had never met, but who is interested in a lot of same topics (nonviolence, environmentalism, etc.) He saw my tweets and noticed that I was currently engaged in a program looking at nonviolence and he wanted to bring my attention to the fact that Bill McKibben along with several other environmental organizations were in the process of setting up the Tar Sands Action civil disobedience campaign. He wanted to know if I was aware of the Tar Sands and this campaign. This twitter exchange was what first put the campaign on my radar screen.
A few weeks later I was up in Vermont attending a Peacebuilding Peacelearning Intensive and Bill McKibben was one of the plenary speakers. He was Skyped in from somewhere in Europe and his presentation focused on the Tar Sands Action and encouraged all of us to learn about it and to participate. This experience reinforced my interest in the issue, a reinforcement that remained constant as I connected with all the participants on Facebook after the intensive was over and started seeing a lot more posts on the issue.
A few weeks later two of my friends, Eric Stoner and Bryan Farrell, emailed me to let me know that they were coming down to DC to participate in the Tar Sands Action. Eric and Bryan are two guys that I learned about through their blog, Waging Nonviolence. So, I do have strong tie with them now, but it was born out of a “weak tie” that was made through their blog.
In summary, my interest and drive to participate in a movement in a way that involved a much higher risk that anything else I had ever done began with a Twitter exchange, was strengthened through a Skype presentation, and then solidified with the knowledge that I would share in this act of civil disobedience with two guys I met through a blog.
Conclusion + Beginning
This was an amazing experience because I shared it with 65 other people who were committed and had been trained to participate in what was the first of many sit-in demonstrations right in front of the White House. Two weeks and over 1,200 arrests later, this campaign marks that largest civil disobedience campaign for the environmental movement in a generation.
This was an amazing experience because I admire Bill McKibben’s writing, activism, teaching, and movement building around the climate change issue. One of my favorite books is Deep Economy. He is a professor at Middlebury College, my alma mater. And the nonviolence training the night before the action was actually the first time I had ever met him in person. Within 24 hours of meeting him we were sitting across from each other hand cuffed in a police wagon and sharing a 6×8 jail cell with 11 other men. It was cool to share that experience with him.
This was an amazing experience because I got to share it with my two friends, Eric and Bryan – bloggers, journalists, and activists who have brought stories and analysis of nonviolence to greater prominence through their blog, Waging Nonviolence. One memory that will remain with me forever is when I joined dozens of other campaign supporters at the DC courthouse to greet those who had been in jail for the entire weekend. It was great to be there to greet everyone, especially my friends Eric and Bryan.
This was an amazing experience because it occurred on the same weekend that the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was officially opened on the National Mall. Civil disobedience was one method of nonviolent action that Dr. King and others used effectively during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and it felt good to honor that rich tradition by continuing its practice. The Tar Sands Action campaign borrowed other tactics from the Civil Rights Movement as well, asking everyone dress in business attire so that we are taken seriously and not branded as the “radicals” in this fight.
Participating in this campaign and getting arrested for an act of civil disobedience marks the beginning of a new chapter in how I view my own environmentalism and my own commitment to nonviolence as a method of struggle for rights and justice.