Getting Arrested on the Thin Green Line
This past May global history was made as protesters staged the largest civil disobedience protest against fossil fuels and for clean energy that the world has ever seen. Tens of thousands of activists tied themselves to railroad tracks at oil refineries, paddled flotillas of kayaks to block oil tankers, and forced the shutdown of coal plants. Thousands of people risked arrest to demand action to address escalating climate change.
The collective action, called Break Free 2016, included civil disobedience actions on six continents. It started in Wales when several hundred people shut down the UK's largest open-cast coal mine for a day. Hours later, 10,000 people from all over the Philippines gathered in Batangas City demanding an end to coal mining and consumption. In Australia, thousands of people forced the closure of the world's largest coal port by using kayaks and small boats to block sea access and taking over the rail line bringing coal to the port by land – sixty were arrested. Other actions took place in South Africa, Germany, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey.
The theme of the action was Just Transition, playing on both the need to shift away from fossil fuels in a manner that is fair to all people and the urgency to just do it already.
The Pacific Northwest Break Free action was designed to block oil from flowing to the Shell and Tesoro oil refineries at March Point in Anacortes Washington. Well over a thousand activists and concerned citizens rallied from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Alaska and Canada. I was one of a handful of journalists who covered the protests.
March Point consists of five refineries that collectively produce about 40% of all the gas and diesel consumed in the Northwest. The unprocessed crude arrives at the refineries via ocean-going oil tanker, and increasingly by rail in miles’ long oil trains travelling across the west from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota and the oil sands in Canada.
As I previously reported, studies show an incredible 5,000 percent increase in oil train traffic in North America since 2008. Shell is proposing to build a new rail offloading facility on March Point that will increase oil train traffic travelling along the Columbia River and through Western Washington by an additional six massive trains per week.
The heart of the protest was established at Deception Pass State Park, where activists camped and organized. I camped alongside them to capture the behind the scenes activities.
An organizing “hub” was set up in a large clearing encircled by lush coastal old growth Douglas Fir forest. A general information desk was set up under a small canopy tent. Another tent provided legal information to protesters who were willing to risk arrest. The hub was where organizers announced updates and plans to large groups of activists and where busses and carpools were filled with protesters going to various activities. A short walk from the hub organizers set up a community kitchen facility to provide breakfast and sack lunches to the activists.
The first morning of the action the crowd was informed that the night before 150 protesters had quickly climbed onto the oil train tracks leading into March Point, set up tents, mattresses and tripod structures and settled in determined to stay until law enforcement forced them off. I accompanied some of the support activists out to the blockade site to speak with activists on the tracks.
It was a colorful affair with dozens of bright tents, people in bright clothes and rippling banners and flags flying messages of “End Fossil Fuels”, “Keep it in the Ground” and “Climate Justice”. Some protesters were lying alone in the middle of the tracks. Others were seated in small groups visiting. Still others were gathered around a table covered with food, coffee and water. Their ages ranged from teenagers to ninety-something year old “Raging Grannies”.
When I asked why she had made the decision to do civil disobedience and risk arrest, Gail Cordell of Wenatchee Washington said, “You have to do something. It’s not enough to just talk anymore.”
One of the event organizers, Maralena, had a fiery, fierce demeanor that was at odds with her words as she explained what it felt like to be part of the protest, “It feels sweet”, she said as tears welled in her eyes. “I think we live in a time in which community is an increasingly scarce resource. People carry a memory of community and it’s so beautiful and we come here and in just twelve hours have self-organized into a community. It gives me hope that if we take space we can fill it with something beautiful.”
Marti Dimock, from nearby Bellingham Washington explained why she had come. “It feels like such an emergency to me – we have to step up intensity. Becoming a new grandparent has made me more ferocious.”
As I walked the tracks and spoke with protesters many people driving by on the nearby highway honked in support and shouted encouragement. A few shouted insults.
As the blockade protesters settled into life on the tracks, hundreds of protesters in small boats and kayaks -- kayaktivists as they like to be called -- prepared to paddle in protest, blocking tankers from getting in or out of the refinery.
The first full day of protest was titled Indigenous Peoples day and was organized and led by tribal members, particularly of the Swinomish and Lummi tribes. The refineries at March Point are located on land that for centuries the Swinomish had used for clamming, crabbing and fishing. As part of the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 March Point was originally included in the Swinomish reservation. However, in 1872 a Washington state territorial judge reduced the size of the reservation, a ruling the tribe still considers to be illegal. The first refineries were built on the site in the late 1950s. The surrounding waters are now too polluted by refinery-related toxins for the shellfish to be edible.
As activists maintained their occupation of the railway, tribal leaders led a march of over a thousand people down the three-mile road past the refineries to the very tip of March Point. Dozens of state police in full riot gear and on bikes lined the route. Shell and Tesoro workers watched from behind razor wire fences high up on the refinery grounds. As the protesters walked they carried brightly colored signs painted with anti-fossil fuel and pro-climate action slogans. They chanted, “We are the Thin Green Line!” referring to the name the post fossil fuel movement has given the Pacific Northwest activists who are resisting letting the region become one of the leading fossil fuel exporters in North America. Even on the long straight stretch of the road, it was impossible to see both the front and rear of the long line of marchers. As the march gained momentum the chant changed to “We are the Thick Green Line!”
Debra Parker, former vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribal Council, was one of the main organizers of the Indigenous Peoples day activities. Leading the march, projecting forcefully via microphone she rallied the marchers explaining that this was, “A healing march, healing the Earth and healing relationships.” Debra’s daughter, Kayah George, missed her high school prom to take part in the protests.
Later in a phone interview Debra explained, “This was an awakening of the indigenous peoples of this region. A spiritual awakening reminding us how important it is not only to practice our cultural beliefs but to stand up and fight for them and do so in such a way that gets noticed. Our speaking out is important. The world and the planet feel the vibration of our words. Our words are really our prayers and speaking up, especially among non-indigenous people has power.”
As the long line of marchers finally flowed onto the tip of March Point dominated by refinery infrastructure the odor of petrochemical processing made many grimace and some put scarves over their mouths and noses.
A flotilla of kayativists paddled across the bay to join the marchers. Finally, a group of Lummi leaders guided a traditional wooden long canoe to the site and ceremonially asked the Swinomish for permission to land, which was granted. All of this on land that had been home to the Swinomish for centuries and by treaty was still part of their reservation. Refinery representatives glared down from on a barricaded bridge high above and riot police stood alert in front of the bridge.
After speeches, welcoming ceremonies and traditional native dancing, protesters slowly began the long walk back from the refineries.
The following morning, just after 5am, police in riot gear rushed the rail tracks, demanded the protesters leave and began tearing down their camping gear. In the end 52 activists refused to leave and were arrested and taken away in chains. Sixty-year-old retired physical therapist, Shirlee Evans, from Redmond Oregon, was one of them.
In a phone interview several days later, Shirlee was still clearly emotional about the experience. She had been one of the protesters on the early morning watch and so was awake when the busloads of police arrived. She said it took her a long moment for her mind to grasp what was happening and start warning fellow protesters. She explained that she had never done anything even close to getting arrested and was not prepared for how shocking it would be to be put in handcuffs and shackles. At one point she found herself in tears.
When asked if she regretted her decision, she said no even though it had been emotionally very uncomfortable. “I did not cross the road to safety [to avoid arrest] because I felt that larger numbers of people being arrested would give us a stronger voice, a way to push the issue in public awareness.” She went on, “I’m not trying to shove my way of life down someone else’s throat I’m just saying that if we don’t get to 100% renewables we’re going to cook all the life forms on this planet and I still believe we can fix this!”
Shirlee made a point to note that even though the arrest was shocking, the police had been calm and decent and had given the protesters time to get up and get dressed.
As I was covering these events I was contacted via one of my social media posts by refinery worker, Kevin George. He was clearly angry. I told him I would love to talk with him and get his perspective on the protests and was glad that he agreed. Kevin explained that he had earned a college degree as a machinist and had been in the refinery business for twenty-five years, currently working maintenance, cleaning and repairing equipment, a position he called, “The heart and soul of refineries.”
Kevin said that when he found out the protesters were coming about three weeks prior to the event, “I had a hard time understanding why protesters go after refineries rather than Congress. All refineries do is process the oil. Oil companies have the oil fields and are regulated by higher ups than refineries are.” He went on to point out that, “The communities around here rely on these refineries. It’s their livelihood.”
Kevin is 52 and has a nineteen-year-old son. Later in our conversation I asked him if he was concerned about climate change. He said, “Yeah, a little bit. I have to worry about my son.” He said he was very worried about the methane issues associated with fracking. He also explained that his son had wanted to get into refinery work but Kevin told him not too because it was such a dangerous, tough industry. Because he’s not working at the refinery Kevin’s son has to drive much further to and from work. They bought him a hybrid car so that he doesn’t have to spend so much on gasoline.
Kevin noted that the day before the main protests began had been, “A tough day at the Tesoro refinery just getting everything ready for the protestors. We were told, ‘There will be 500 people willing to get arrested no matter what.’ I thought they’d get more from educating and meeting with people instead of just slamming it in our faces. It [the refinery workforce] is a big family, it has to be. It’s a dangerous pace to work and we work as a big family.”
Finally Kevin noted, “I know that one of these days this will come to an end and there will be different ways of transporting ourselves but this is what we have right now. I worry about the future and my son’s future. I’m a camper and hiker and I worry about it all the time. I want to see change. But at my age I also just can’t give up everything either.”
This mix of interests and emotions from all sides in these types of direct actions points to the many, many factors that will need to be considered in making a just transition beyond fossil fuel.
At last report, many of those who were arrested are planning to argue the necessity defense, making the legal claim that their unlawful actions were justified due to the severity of the problem they were confronting. As I have previously reported, the necessity defense is gaining traction in the beyond fossil fuel movement.
Raging Granny Rosy Betz-Zall speaks of necessity, “It is important for each of us to take a stand about what kind of world we’re leaving for our children. It was a joy for me to be out on the tracks with all the young people who are going to be so effective in this movement.”