Proposed Tar Sands Pipeline Sparks Civil Disobedience

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As the memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. opens on the Mall this week, environmentalists stage a 1960's style sit-in

Yesterday morning, under the warm August sun, a crowd gathered in front of the White House. Volunteers handed out water bottles while women wearing sunhats that read "Granny for a Livable Future" rested in the shade. Someone with a clipboard stood on a bench and said, "Everyone getting arrested today check in with me."

The group was preparing to protest the Keystone XL plan -- a proposed pipeline that would carry imported oil 1,700 miles south from the Alberta tar sands in Canada all the way to Texas refineries. The $7 billion proposal, which would double U.S. imports of Canadian crude oil, has met with fervent opposition in Washington, where green groups have found allies in the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Four days into the two-week civil disobedience demonstration, 212 Americans have been arrested for sitting in front of the White House. Another 1,800 have promised to come over the next 10 days.

Despite the fact that Obama isn't even in the White House -- he's on vacation -- the demonstrators have been wildly successful in provoking public attention: the Tar Sands Action has been Google's number one trend for the past four days, and has garnered celebrity support from actors Mark Ruffalo and Sophia Bush, along with Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

Back at the White House, environmental activist Bill McKibben spoke to the gathering, saying, "The hardest part of being in jail the last three days was that they took away my wedding ring. It was the first time it had been off in 23 years. But as soon as they let us out, I called my wife, and she reminded me a more important symbol of our wedding was our child -- and that's why I do this."
 
Anne Elizabeth Barnes, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair, said later, "I heard Bill speak in June, and he's a self-professed hermit. So when he said it was time for him to step out, I said if it's time for him, it's time for me." She smiled, and added, "You know, I was part of the Vietnam War protests, I came down here and was tear-gassed. There was a forty year hiatus where I didn't do anything, and now I'm here again." Barnes seemed to be representative of those quietly lining up to cross the street from Lafayette Park: there were men in suits, women in dresses, older people, people who had kids, and grandkids -- not the typical participants of environmental protests, or for that matter, the historically youthful demographic of Obama's support.

Although President Obama campaigned on an environmentally friendly platform, many have been disappointed with his record on green issues as president--including the hundred or so people gathered at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. According to Bill McKibben, the tar sands plan has become "the single clear test of the president's willingness to fight for the environment." The President can directly control the outcome of the Keystone XL plan, without needing to finesse congressional approval. Following the State Department's release of a final environmental review this month, Obama will have to sign a certificate of national interest before the pipeline can be built.

Yet at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, those who were now settling onto the sidewalk in front of the fence, nursing older knees and creaking joints, were not solely critical of the president. Many of them even pointedly wore Obama 2008 campaign pins on their lapels. As Bill McKibben explained in a Washington Post op-ed before his arrest, "We're not, exactly, protesting. We're trying to remind ourselves and the president how good it felt to be full of hope."

The sit-in format of these protests invariably calls to mind the civil rights demonstrations of 1965, a comparison Tar Sands Action facilitators are quick to point out in their training meetings. All participants are being asked to go to St. Steven and the Incarnation Episcopal Church for a four-hour session before they plan to get arrested. The evening I attended, legal and practical advice -- wear sunscreen, be polite, call the hot-line number to reach Tar Sands lawyers in case anything goes wrong -- was interspersed with hand shaking and dinner. The group was quiet, with little of the jargon one would expect. I learned the youngest person who had been arrested so far was 17, and the oldest was 71. Everyone gathered around a man who had brought tar balls from Alberta in a hard-sided instrument case. You could smell the tar from across the church.

The dedication for the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial just a few blocks up the Mall is scheduled for August 28, the second Saturday of the Tar Sands civil disobedience demonstration. In fact, there is speculation in the Tar Sands group that the first round of arrestees were held in jail abnormally long­ -- over 48 hours -- in the hopes of preventing protests during the memorial dedication. "I think they thought it would be the same 70 of us every day," said one of those arrested, "and if they held us we wouldn't come back."

Far from being deterred, many of the Tar Sands demonstrators welcome the overlap with the dedication weekend, likening their current protest to the sit-ins of the 1960s. It took Dr. King and other civil rights activists years to achieve passage of civil rights legislation; it does not appear that those seeking to protest the Tar Sands proposal will be quickly silenced by a few nights in jail. The stakes are considered too high by too many.

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Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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