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Dispatch from the Front Lines: Resisting Keystone XL and Tar Sands

Dispatch from the Front Lines

BPFer Stephanie Thomas tells us what it’s like to get arrested for the first time in Houston while resisting the Keystone XL Pipeline

On September 16th, I was arrested while participating in a peaceful demonstration against TransCanada Corporation. This was an event planned by Credo Action for their Pledge of Resistance: the goal of the action was to send a message to President Obama, the State Department, and to the people at TransCanada that the American people do not support the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, nor do they support the extraction of tar sands as a source of energy. Somewhere around 60 people (maybe 100 – I’ve heard varying reports) gathered at Market Square in Downtown Houston and marched to the front steps of the office where TransCanada leases space. Thirteen of us took to the steps in front of the building. A row of people stood in the back and unraveled a sign that stated: “TransCanada: In Business to Deliver Catastrophic Climate Change.” I sat on the ground, front and center, with a sign that said “Another scientist against the pipeline.” As soon as we found our places, we started chanting. Each of us would say our name and say that we were another (scientist, grandmother, Baptist, etc.) against the pipeline. Then in unison we chanted: “Stop the tar sands, stop the pipeline!”

I made the decision to be arrested a couple months ago after attending a Local Action Lead Training through Credo Action. Before the sit-in, I felt confident in my decision. My edge was visibility. I was afraid of my face showing up on TV or in the newspapers. Having worked in oil and gas, I was afraid of my colleagues seeing me take a strong stand against their livelihood. I was afraid of the gossip that might ensue. About two days before the sit-in, an organizer of the event asked me if I would be willing to be a media spokesperson. This gave me an opportunity to sit with that fear directly.

The evening before the sit-in I spent a lot of time sitting in meditation and in front of my desk, thinking about what I would say. I figured that it would be easier to overcome my fear and reluctance to speak by having a few strong bullet points that came from the heart in the event that I would need to speak. I tossed and turned that night, then woke up, sat on my cushion, and prepared myself for the protest.

Knowing that I might be arrested, I had made preparations for my pets in advance. My dog was with a friend and my cats would be watched over by a neighbor. While the group gathered for the protest, my fears started to subside. I prepared myself to be arrested, but I didn’t know if I would be taken into custody. I spoke to media and I didn’t know who would see me. I didn’t know if this sit-in would have a long-lasting impact or if it would be just a futile exercise resulting in incarceration and heavy fines. As I tapped into that sense of not-knowing, I felt a calm come over me: I was letting go of my attachment to the results, which came from relaxing into the moment.

As I sat there holding my sign and chanting, I felt like I was part of something big. My fears came up as I glanced around to see all of the cameras pointing at us protesters. Police officers surrounded us. I heard a noise, looked above, and saw a helicopter flying overhead. Across the street, I saw the supporters with their signs clapping and cheering for us. The police gave us one warning, then two more. And then one-by-one, they started to arrest us.

I had no fear about being arrested. The extraction of tar sands is devastating: it destroys the boreal forest and pollutes the land and water. It destroys the health of the small communities near the extraction sites where cancer rates are significantly higher than average. High concentrations of toxic mercury, arsenic, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons are found among the local wildlife and within the waters. Not to mention that tar sand “crude” is not the same as standard crude and there are difficulties in cleaning it up following spills. Tar sand oil will contribute significantly to atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the concentration of black carbon in the atmosphere, and to global warming. Getting arrested provided me with the opportunity to bring attention to a great environmental calamity. Perhaps my arrest helped some people wake up just a little more to the issue—I don’t know. But through my arrest, I joined my sisters and brothers in Alberta, in East Texas, those in the heart of the Great Plains in solidarity. This action was a way to bear witness to the suffering caused by excessive greed and concomitant destruction.

My arrest also provided me with an opportunity to bear witness to the prison system. I was held in custody for about 24 hours. During that time, I encountered 3 facilities. First, we were taken in to the Central Houston City Jail where we filled out paperwork. The women were then separated from the men and taken to Houston’s women’s facility in Southeast Houston. Again, more paperwork. A nurse interviewed us to evaluate our health needs. We were photographed and fingerprinted. Afterward, all 11 of us were sent to a cell. We caught the tail end of an unappetizing lunch and then we waited. There were no clocks so it was difficult to gauge the time. The atmosphere was relatively convivial: we protesters played games like “Two Truths and a Lie” and got to know each other a little better. Some of the other inmates joined our game and conversation. We were all given a blanket and could find a cot if we wanted to snooze a bit.

At about 10 PM, 4 protesters and 1 other cellmate were selected for transfer to the county jail and moved to a holding cell. Harris County Jail has a reputation of being one of the worst prisons in the nation. The other woman had been there before and she kindly provided guidance to us on what to expect upon our arrival at County. We were handcuffed again and loaded into a van for transport to downtown. Upon our arrival at County, the 5 of us sat in a mixed gender waiting area. We sat and heard a scuffle. We heard a cop shouting at a male arrestee and we turned just in time to see the officer shoving him against the wall. For the first time since my arrest, I felt terrified.

We were quickly transferred to a female holding cell. We looked around and saw a few women we recognized from the City Jail and we waved hello. As we sat in the cold room (no blankets here) on a cold concrete bench, we noticed the other prisoners: some were clearly mentally ill and others clearly on drugs. There was a doorbell-like button that you could press to call an authority. One woman sat next to it and pressed the button. An officer came in to ask her what she needed. The woman responded that she thought she needed medical assistance, but the officer refused to provide that to her and walked away. The woman kept pressing the button, but the more that she sought assistance, the more the authorities ignored her.

At about 1:30 AM, we were called for processing and found that our bonds had posted. We would be released. But when? At 3 AM, we were offered a breakfast of bologna sandwiches and cookies. As a vegan, there was little that I wanted to eat. I subsisted in prison off the veggies from lunch and a couple of oranges passed out at dinner at the City Jail. And we hadn’t been fully prepared for the length of our stay. The four of us protesters were all a bit shocked by what we saw in the County Jail. I felt myself want to check out mentally. One of my fellow protesters began to get worried about our situation. We began discussing who inspired us: well-known activists climate activists like former NASA Director James Hansen and 350.org founder Bill McKibben and the Tar Sands Blockaders who actively resisted the construction of the southern extension of the pipeline. We thought about our friend Benjamin who was not only arrested, but also had been tased by authorities. Our spirits lifted a bit thinking about all of the amazing people who had gone before us.

Two of us protesters were called out and taken to a Release Tank. We waited, cold and tired. Around 8:30 AM, our names were called to be released. We went through out-processing, and at about 9:30 AM, I was finally free and about 15 minutes later, the other protester who had been held in the release tank came out of the building. We were met with a goody bag complete with fair-trade chocolate and fresh fruit – thank you Jail Support! It was amazing to have a group of people waiting for us. I looked around at the other people leaving who had no one greeting them, and felt a bit of sadness. The experience of being arrested gave me an opportunity to reflect deeply on privilege and the jail system.

Since I’ve been released, several people have asked me whether or not I think getting arrested will have any impact on stopping the pipeline. I don’t know. But what I do know is that this sit-in gave me an opportunity to work with my edges, to take a strong stand on the tar sands and the myriad associated issues of environment, health, racism, class, etc. The sit-in has provided me with a chance to learn practical skills like blog creation and fundraising. And I know that I stand strongly in solidarity with a whole movement that wants to see a different, healthier future for our people and our planet.

Photo credits:
Of the protest: Eric Kayne for the Houston Chronicle (via Fuel Fix)
Tar Sands before and after: Jiri Rezac, Courtesy of Greenpeace via Zoe Cormier
Alberta factory: aneeta mitha

About Stephanie Thomas: My background is in earth science and I spent my time in graduate school researching ancient climate and environments.  During graduate school, I was recruited by a major oil and gas company, where I worked for three years.  Since graduate school, I have become increasingly passionate about yoga, meditation, and Buddhism.  I fell in love with the work of Joanna Macy, which led me on a trip to Upaya Zen Center to attend one of her workshops.  And there, the love grew more and more.  I signed up to pursue environmental chaplaincy at Upaya.  I started my work with the Keystone XL Pipeline Resistance movement during the national week of action in March by offering a yoga class to activists.  I’ve continued that by teaching regular “Self-Care for Activists and Other Busy People” classes.  I currently dedicate my time to the issues of climate change and fossil fuel resistance.

Thank you to BPFer Stephanie Thomas for sharing her experience being arrested for the first time, during a protest of Keystone XL and Tar Sands extraction in Houston, Texas.

After reading her account, reflect on these questions and get talking in the comments!

  • As Stephanie notes, privilege and oppression have major impacts on our experience of going to jail. How do you imagine an arrest would go down for you, given the ways that people are treated differently in our jail and prison systems based on race, class, gender, disability, nationality, mental illness, age, religion, and other markers of difference?
  • What do you lean on for support and resilience when you meet an experience that feels edgy, uncomfortable, or difficult? What do you do during easier times so this support is available when you need it most?
  • Do you feel inspired to put your body on the line to resist corporate oil’s refusal to care for our planet and our lives? What do you feel called to do? What support or motivation do you need to turn your inspiration into action?

Want to see more BPFers risking arrest on behalf of the planet? Donate to our campaign and help us take study to action!

Comments (2)

  • Jeff

    Thanks for this honest and compelling story, Stephanie. What really shone through for me was your courage in going beyond the easy complacency of progressive beliefs to publicly and “illegally” challenging climate destruction. You deserve much respect, and hopefully, emulation by the rest of us.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you for your comment and your support, Jeff. While I recognize that not everyone can engage in these type of actions and risk arrest (for myriad reasons), certainly this movement is building. I’m seeing more and more people willing to step up to the challenge of civil disobedience and that brings me a lot of joy and hope.

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