Saturday, August 27, 2011


Overcoming the Tar Sands

On Tuesday, August 23, I committed civil disobedience at the White House gates, part of a group of 60. We were cohorts for the fourth day of a two-week action trying to convince the President that granting permission to build a pipeline from Montana to the Texas refineries for crude oil gathered by extraordinarily polluting means in Alberta is not “in the national interest.”

Like the actions the two previous days, we were treated with respect and processed quickly. In my case, it was less than two and a half hours from arrest to release. This was not the case for the first group, which included several of our leaders, including Bill McKibben , Gus Speth, and Mike Tidwell. They spent three days in jail, arraigned and then left to wait for a court date to be set after the weekend. The authorities indicated this was meant to discourage others. It has not, for volunteers for cd continue to sign up daily, with over 2500 promising to attend the rallies, a significant number of whom will refuse to obey the dispersal order. To date, that number is 322.

The rally and action were well organized. We heard from McKibben, then the Montana Grandmothers, fresh from the Exxon Yellowstone spill, reminding us that their state was the US entry point for the pipeline, running under two major rivers there. Lastly, we listened to a quiet, dignified Native woman from the Athabasca Tarsands, Linda. When she took the mike, her speech was so soft that the large circle of us listening crowded closer, more intimate. This was her tone as well when we stood in defiance of the police order to disperse. She knelt in front of me, holding the shoulders of one of the women she had befriended and I heard her speak a prayer in her native language. Her presence was key, reminding us that the Athabasca River had been turned into both fire hydrant, source for billions of gallons of water to steam-cleanse the tar, and sewer for the toxic wastes. This homeland for the Athabasca Nation is being totally destroyed by the operation as the natives either look on helplessly, or become tarsands miners and waitresses or worse. Remember, an areas the size of Florida is being stripped for the bitumenous “tar.”

From the beginning, we were told that our tone and dress was to be dignified. But the first few days' arrest procedures were prolonged, and the group silence oppressive. So our group learned chants and a song, tarsands words set to “If It Hadn't Been for Love,” which we sang as call and response with our supporters, about a hundred folks on the other side of the police barricade. I was a chant leader and enjoyed it. Another chant leader, a young man arrested early because of his energetic leadership, continued to lead chants from the paddywagon, conveniently parked near the support line.

I confess that I am not a political animal by temperament, but a thinker. So, as has been the case with all the protest rallies in which I have taken part, some of the chant language made me uncomfortable, In this instance, the particulary troubling line was “give the people what we need” - the rhyme for “stop the pipeline, stop the greed...” The problem is that most people don't know what we need in terms of energy, and the movement has not clearly articulated an alternative that the policy wonks, as opposed to fellow enviros, buy. When Al Gore, whom I greatly admire, says that we can build an equivalent energy economy with solar in ten years, he is basing his claim on a fringe, not the core of alternative energy analysts.

Frankly, when we followed the suggestion to sing, “We Shall Overcome” - adding the verse, “We shall heal the earth” - I was moved in a way that WASP cheerleading “tarsands – NO!, pipeline – NO!” - repeated ad nauseum, did not. Afterwards, I suggested to one of the organizers that we adopt this moving hymn as part of our daily ritual, especially since our action coincided with events surrounding the dedication of the ML King Memorial. She firmly disagreed, saying that the song's sentiments were actually an insult to the natives in Athabasca. They will not overcome, for their land has been totally taken over for this rape on an unprecedented scale. She repeated what she has said twice the night before at our training, “This is serious, so we must be serious.”

I disagreed with her. I have been writing and speaking about climate change for almost a decade, and the feedback I get, especially from the churches where I have been asked to preach, is that my message is too despairing. People need hope, for as long as there is even cause for a mere ounce. My own take is to affirm “honest hope” (CITE Dumonoski).

Indeed, the “we” in the song is not the Athabasca Indians, at least not in this terrestrial sphere. But those standing and sitting in at the White House are not stand-ins for these native people. We acknowledge the anguish of their unutterable loss, but it is we, students, retirees, and mostly middle-class US citizens, who are committing to overcoming. Overcoming the greed of the oilmen, the hubris of politicians (like Obama) who feel they are indispensable to the (mostly partisan and global corporate ) good they push for, and our own addiction to petroluem is what I commit myself to, not to overcome what has already happened to the Athabascans and their land. Even if this terrible outcome cannot be reversed, if we stop the pipeline to the Gulf -- as the sovereign native nations have to the west of the mines by several separate litigations – then we will leave the project managers and their filthly tar landlocked, their own hopes for profit defeated. Overcome.

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