On August 4, a dam holding back mining wastewater burst open in Likely, B.C., gushing roughly 6,604,301,309 gallons of toxic waste into the nearby lakes—a spill 78 percent larger than initial estimates. Only a month after the incident, Imperial Metals, the corporation responsible, declared the water safe to drink again.
“One of my friends caught a salmon alive and kicking there last week,” Sundance Chief Rueben George from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation said to a packed Seattle crowd at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center on Sunday. “But when my friend picked it up, the fish’s skin slid off in his hands.”
Salmon have long been spiritual symbols of the Pacific Northwest—aquatic residents of the Salish Sea that have given life to Coast Salish people for 14,000 years and white settlers for 150. That the skin of the Northwest’s spirit animal is melting off is just one of many reasons organizers say they are forming the brand-new Nawt-sa-maat Alliance, a group that has vowed to defeat oil and coal corporations bent on turning the Pacific Northwest into a fossil-fuel corridor.
Nawt-sa-maat, a Coast Salish word that means “One house, one heart, one prayer,” is an unprecedented trans-border coalition of Coast Salish indigenous nations, environmentalists, interfaith groups, and youth activists that met for the first time this past weekend in Discovery Park. The Alliance’s goal? “To protect the sacredness of the Salish Sea.”
“The tribes are the original environmentalists,” Annette Klapstein, a member of the Seattle Raging Grannies and a new member of the Nawt-sa-maat Alliance, said at the initial meeting on Sunday. Klapstein was one of three protesters who sat on train tracks in Anacortes to block the controversial “exploding” oil trains in July. It was her first direct action after years of fruitless writings to the Seattle City Council and visits to Olympia to persuade politicians to do something about the influx of dangerous rail cars.
“It was always very iffy for tribes to work with environmental organizations because these organizations were arrogant,” Klapstein said. “They would tell tribes what to do, which didn’t go over very well. This new alliance, based on respect and understanding, is so important because these different groups’ goals are much the same, and we are so much more powerful together.”
Chief George (right) with civic leader and alliance co-founder Jon Ramer (left). Photo by Kelton Sears
Chief George, one of the three main founders of the Nawt-sa-maat, presided over the initial meeting and made it clear that one of its biggest enemies was the massive energy company Kinder Morgan. “We stand as one, and together we will protect and restore the sacredness of the Salish Sea,” he said. “Together, we are stronger than those who wish to use our home and waters as a mere highway for dirty oil and coal. Together, we will stop them. Kinder Morgan will not win this battle.”
Formed by Richard Kinder, an ex-Enron employee, the oil mega-corporation is proposing a massive $5.4 billion oil pipeline connecting the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific through Burnaby, B.C., tripling current capacity and creating the potential for enormous spills in the North Salish that would directly affect us in Washington. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been pushing the project despite massive backlash from British Columbian activists and the indigenous Tsleil-Waututh, who are now taking the project to court for failing to consult with the First Nations tribe on the federal review.
“You know, I’d like to thank Stephen Harper,” said Nawt-sa-maat co-founder Chief Phil Lane Jr. of the Yankton Dakota and Chickasaw First Nations, “because in his complete unawareness, he’s awakened a sleeping spiritual giant.”
The mood at the meeting was intensely spiritual at times. Four local religious leaders, a United Methodist, a Buddhist, a Sufi, and an Interspirit, came together to bless the gathering in their respective traditions, ending with an indigenous cedar-bough blessing that the crowd happily lined up to receive. Many of the religious groups present vowed to convert their houses of worship to solar energy in an act of good faith.
Being a member of the Nawt-sa-maat effectively means a couple of things. Members are expected to join in a “4 Days of Action” campaign, starting on Sept. 19, that ranges from a salmon homecoming celebration to a climate-change rally at the Canadian border and ends with an international treaty signing that will effectively ratify the new trans-border Nawt-sa-maat Alliance. Members are then expected to join in future actions and work to build the nascent network, which will soon expand its scope to tackle the proposed coal-extraction sites at Cherry Point, sacred land to the people of the Lummi Nation near Bellingham.
“I just want to make this very clear,” Chief George said as he doled out salmon to the Nawt-sa-maat near the meeting’s end, “this Alliance isn’t just for one group. It’s for everyone. The Salish Sea is for everyone, not just corporations. We will win this fight.”
Around 6 am this morning, Abby Brockway—an activist, mother, and small-business owner—and a few others set up a tripod on northbound train tracks in Everett and have been blocking a BNSF train carrying Tesoro oil ever since.
“The view up here is beautiful,” she said by phone a few minutes ago. “I saw an eagle.” Police officers arrived on the scene about an hour or so after the tripod went up and have been trying to coax her down (she says they’re claiming that if she descends voluntarily, they’ll go easy on the charges and fines*). Firefighters with long ladders have approached to try and yank her down, but Brockway has a “blackbear” lockdown device that she uses to chain herself to the tripod in between phone calls.
“Lots of big truckers are honking in support, because we’re also here in support of labor unions,” Brockway said after I asked her about a caterwauling noise in the background. “BNSF wants to increase profits by decreasing train conductors and reducing inspections—its business is increasing, so I don’t know why they’d want to cut costs, but they do.” (BNSF has been pushing to reduce train crews down to a single person, which is not only bad for labor, but a potential safety problem—especially when we’re talking about fossil fuels moving through populous areas.)
First, they want to highlight the rapid growth of shipping oil by train—growth that also has been putting farmers in a pinch by delaying shipments of apples, grain, and even coal.
Second, they want to draw attention to how much money Tesoro devotes to campaign contributions (in our state, Democrat Suzan DelBene and Republicans Doc Hastings, Rick Larsen, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers have fed at that trough) and question whether that money has led to dithering about better regulation of fossil-fuel train shipments. “Governor Inslee is just one of those Democrats who knows what to do, but loves to just keep studying,” Brockway said from her perch. “He needs to take a bolder move for our security.”
Third, they want to highlight BNSF’s attempts to cut down on labor costs by reducing the number of workers on any given train.
Delaney Piper, a spokesperson for Rising Tide, said most of the law-enforcement response has been from the Everett police, but that at least one FBI agent has shown up, as well as an officer covered in police gear but who is wearing no identification and refuses to answer questions.
Piper added that police kicked all of the supporting demonstrators—who, she said, have ranged between 20 and 40 over the course of the day—out of the rail yard, claiming that they had all already been arrested and might be arraigned because the police had taken photos of them trespassing. (That’s a new one—I’ve never heard of arrest-via-photograph before.)
Brockway said she has provisions and plans to stay on top of the tripod for “as long as possible.”
“I’m petitioning our government,” she said. “I’ve tried standing in the streets, writing politicians on climate policy, going to hearings, I’ve never missed an election, I go to lots of marches and rallies, I’ve helped form alliances with tribal people in Washington State and also with railroad labor—they want jobs and we’re not against jobs. But I want jobs that are sustainable and that make sense for this region instead of this carbon bubble, which is the most destructive thing. And when it’s gone, those towns will be ghost towns.”
A recent Tweet from Rising Tide:
* A quick reminder to everyone: Police saying they’ll “go easy” on you in a courtroom is not a binding agreement. Moreover, police don’t actually control what happens in a courtroom—lawyers and judges do. If you’d like to read an extended account of FBI agents and Seattle police officers making promises they can’t keep about court proceedings during an interrogation, see this story. But always, always remember that any given law-enforcement official doesn’t actually have control over what a judge or prosecutor will think or do.
Indian activists in Illinois are planning to file a lawsuit against the Cleveland Major League Baseball team.
Activists have been protesting the team’s Chief Wahoo mascot for decades. They hope the lawsuit leads to the elimination of the racist symbol.
“We’re going to be asking for $9 billion and we’re basing it on a hundred years of disparity, racism, exploitation and profiteering,” Robert Roche, the director of the American Indian Education Center and one of the plaintiffs in the forthcoming suit, told ABC News.
Roche, who can be seen in the photo above on the opening day of the team’s season, said the lawsuit will be filed by the end of July.
On February 27, Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement activists joined in a four-directions walk to commemorate Liberation Day, an event to mark the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. As they do each year, four groups gather to the north, south, east and west and then walk eight miles until converging on top of Wounded Knee, where they honor the fallen warriors and the tribe’s rich history of resistance.
“It is an acknowledgement of the resiliency of who we are as a people,” explains Andrew Iron Shell, an organizer and activist of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. “It gives permission and courage for our up-and-coming generations to face the challenges of their time.”
The history of the occupation began with a massacre more than 100 years ago. On a cold day in December 1890, the United States army killed 300 Lakota men, women and children in a massive shoot out after a member of the First Nations refused to give up his arms. It marked the first bloodshed on Wounded Knee – although there had been many massacres of First Nations people by the colonialists before it. The event was also considered the end of the Indian Wars.
Eighty-threeyears later, on Feb. 27, 1973, about 200 Lakota members took siege of the town of Wounded Knee. Reclaiming a location that was written in the history books as a place of defeat, the Lakota stood their ground. They were there in protest of a failed attempt at impeaching the tribal president at the time, Richard Wilson, who was known to be corrupt and abusive. Initially a protest against the tribal government, the occupation took a turn when U.S. police forces arrived. The protestors switched the occupation’s focus to the United States’ frequent violation of treaties.
The armed warriors maintained control over the town for 71 days while the FBI encircled them. At the final standoff, two warriors were killed, about 12 people were wounded and over 400 were arrested. The Oglala were able to harness national attention through their occupation, using the spotlight to question the United States’ treatment of First Nations people.
As history passed, later generations rarely heard about the occupation of Wounded Knee — or about first nation people at all. This skewed national memory should be unsurprising: When you have a society and a nation built upon the subjugation of people of color, you can expect nothing more than the constant erasing of certain histories.
I recently visited Prisoner of War Camp 344, also known as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It wasn’t my first time in the sovereign Oglala Sioux Nation, but it was my first time joining in the ceremonies celebrating the 41st annual Liberation Day to remember the 1890 reoccupation of Wounded Knee.
The vibrant American Indian Movement flags waving in the harsh South Dakota winter wind reminded me of the old black and white photos I used to see in my history books. The Lakota would not disappear without a fight, regardless of what the United States’ intentions were. Children walked alongside elders who had taken part in the occupation, showing clearly the group’s intergenerational wisdom. These are children who are stripped of learning their people’s history in schools, but instead learn it through stories and dances. They are children who live in a sovereign nation that contains two of the poorest counties in the United States and who recognize the threats their families face every day.
One of these threats come from the so-called town of White Clay, Neb., where visitors can witness the way violence against the First Nations people has changed — but not disappeared — over the generations. Consisting of only 12 people and four liquor stores, White Clay was once part of a 50-square-mile buffer that prevented alcohol from entering the reservation. In 1904, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that removed 49 of those square miles. Since then, the town’s economy has been driven by the $4 million in alcohol sales to the people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There is no legal place to drink in or around White Clay: Alcohol containers can’t be opened on the property of the distributor, it’s prohibited to drink in the street, and the reservation is dry territory. Yet, somehow, the town of 12 people manages to keep four liquor stores open. Barely two miles from the reservation’s epicenter, and less than 200 feet from the dry reservation line, the town perpetrates a type of violence that is, on the reservation, known as liquid genocide.
The reason for this name becomes apparent when one examines the teenage suicide rate on the reservation, which is 150 percent higher than the U.S. national average for this age group. Many attribute this death rate to the sale of alcohol to minors, which White Clay store owners are known to do. The liquor stores also break the law by selling to intoxicated people, and by trading alcohol for pornography, sexual favors — including from minors — and welfare checks. The effects of free-flowing alcohol are devastating: On the reservation, 90 percent of all court cases are related to alcohol use.
Kate, a Tokala warrior, believes that alcoholism is part of a larger problem of the disappearance of indigenous culture. For her, the only way to live in the geographical region of Pine Ridge is the indigenous way. “We are the ones on the back roads, still chopping wood. We are living the way we used to live,” she said. “It’s not hardship; it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Kate and many others know that alcohol was introduced to her people as a means to steal from them. Living deeply connected to the history of their nation, they believe that if they shake free of the colonized mindset, alcohol wouldn’t even be an issue.
Threats to the land
In addition to trying to close down White Clay, the Oglala Lakota Nation is actively fighting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil each day from western Canada through South Dakota en route to Texas. At two points it would even intersect with a pipeline that serves as a main water source for the Sioux Nation, affecting all of the Pine Ridge reservation as well as the nearby Rosebud reservation.
Advocates for the pipeline argue the pipeline is the safest way to transport crude oil. TransCanada, the company in charge of the pipeline, predicted that the first Keystone pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Illinois, would spill once every seven years. During its first year in operation, it spilled 12 times. The Lakota, along with other First Nations, have vowed to use direct action to stop construction of the pipeline.
For a nation whose land and sovereignty has been threatened for hundreds of years by U.S. politics, the Keystone XL pipeline is part of a long history of threats to the Lakota Nation – and to the earth itself.
“They want to get rid of the Lakota, the protectors of the earth,” said Olowan Martinez, an organizer in the Lakota community. “But what they don’t know is when they get rid of the Lakota, the earth isn’t too far behind. Our people believe the Lakota is the earth.”
President Obama is scheduled to be make a final decision on the pipeline by the middle of 2014. While the Lakota are hoping he will not approve the project, they are also getting ready to stand up and fight. During the Liberation Day celebrations, the Lakota’s dances and stories relayed messages about sacred water and Mother Earth. The tribe has also united with other First Nations to organize a three-day direct action training called Moccasins on the Ground, which was designed to prepare people to act if the pipeline is approved.
“Dead or in prison before we allow the Keystone XL pipeline to pass,” the Lakota warriors, many mounted atop horses, repeated during the Liberation Day celebration. Their words carried the weight of 521 years, and counting, of lived resistance.
“55 percent of the reservation people, who are part of Arizona, voted for the Smoke-Free Arizona Initiative, but they said it doesn’t apply to them because they’re independent nations,” Fairbanks said. “So unfortunately they’ve already voted; they would like to have what we have in the rest of the state.”
Now, he’s trying to collect about 10,000 signatures to get an initiative on the 2014 Navajo ballot banning indoor smoking.
“Only Navajos who are registered voters can sign. It does include, though, Navajos who are off reservation,” Fairbanks said. “If you’re a Navajo registered voter and you’re working down here in Maricopa County or some other county, you can sign that initiative and you can vote.”
Fairbanks says the signature drive is set to begin in January.
One morning in mid-July, I drove north out of Houston at the crack of dawn, three hours up Highway 59 into the cleaner air and dense, piney woods of deep East Texas. It was Sunday, and I was on my way to church.
I’d been up that way before: my father was born and raised in northeast Texas—in fact, my whole family is from Texas—and I’m no stranger to Bible Belt Christianity. But I’d never been to a church like the one where I was headed that morning: the small, progressive Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, which meets in an unassuming building on the edge of town.
Austin Heights was formed as a breakaway congregation in the charged atmosphere of 1968, when its founders could no longer accept the dominant Southern Baptist line on issues of race and war, and it established a lasting fellowship with the leading African-American church in Nacogdoches, Zion Hill First Baptist. The first morning I was there, the Rev. Kyle Childress, Austin Heights’ pastor since 1989 (and the only white member of the local black ministers’ alliance), preached on the Old Testament prophet Amos, who, he noted, was among the favorites of Martin Luther King Jr. Childress began his sermon by reminding us that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the protests in Bull Connor’s Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and the March on Washington later that summer, and that one of King’s most-used lines (found, for example, in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech) was a verse from that morning’s Scripture reading in Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The prophet Amos, Childress told us, was called to be a fierce advocate—among the Bible’s fiercest—on behalf of justice for the poor and oppressed. “Amos’s strong preaching was hard then, and it’s hard today,” Childress said. Just as in Amos’s day, when the wealthy trampled on the poor while worshiping piously in the temples, so today our “programs of care for the poor and needy” are dismantled “with a religious zeal.” Meanwhile, “giant corporations get a free ride. They can diminish people, destroy the earth, pour out climate-changing carbon, all in the interest of short-term profit, and no one can do anything about it.” But Amos knew, Childress assured us, that God is the spring of justice—and that without God, “we are unable to keep up the struggle for justice and goodness and love over the long haul.”
“God calls us to justice, to be a people who embody justice,” said Childress, himself a longtime activist on issues of race, poverty and peace. And yet, as King and all those who fought for civil rights knew, “serving and battling for justice is a long-haul kind of calling.”
Childress—deeply influenced by the likes of Wendell Berry, the late Will D. Campbell and, of course, King—is not a Bible-thumper. He doesn’t shout. Heavyset and ruddy-faced, with a whitening, close-cropped beard, he speaks with a soft, flat West Texas accent. But his voice carries real power and conviction. I would have been impressed with his sermon even if I didn’t know that his words that Sunday morning held a heightened significance for his congregation—not just because of the civil rights history, but because this little East Texas church, which can count perhaps 100 souls in its pews on a typical Sunday, is involved in a new battle. I wasn’t there just to hear the preaching.
In the past year, the Austin Heights congregation has found itself in the thick of the intense fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, specifically the southern leg of it—running from Cushing, Oklahoma, through East Texas (within twenty miles of Nacogdoches) to Gulf Coast refineries in Port Arthur and Houston—which was fast-tracked by President Obama in March 2012 and is now nearing completion, according to TransCanada, the Canadian corporation building it.
I’d reached out to Childress, and following the morning service I was scheduled to meet and interview, there at the church, several members of Tar Sands Blockade, the diverse group of mostly young, radical climate and social-justice activists (many of them Occupy veterans) who one year earlier had mounted a high-stakes, headline-grabbing campaign of nonviolent direct action—including a dramatic, eighty-five-day aerial tree blockade and numerous lockdowns at construction sites—to stop or slow the pipeline’s construction in Texas. In the process, they’ve worked with everyone from local environmentalists raising the alarm on the dangers of tar sands leaks and spills (as seen in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Mayflower, Arkansas) to conservative landowners fighting TransCanada’s use (and, they will tell you, abuse) of eminent domain. Most of those who have engaged in and supported the direct action campaign—a true grassroots uprising—have been Texans, young and old, twentysomethings and grandparents.
Last fall, a number of the young blockaders, living at an encampment on private property just outside Nacogdoches, started coming to church at Austin Heights. And though they came from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds, and often had no religion at all, they formed a close bond with many members of the mostly white, middle-class congregation—who welcomed them into their homes like family—and had been working with the local grassroots anti-pipeline group Nacogdoches STOP (Stop Tar-Sands Oil Permanently), co-founded by members of Austin Heights.
Since the blockaders began showing up at his church, Childress told me as we drank coffee on his back porch the next morning, people have noticed a change in his preaching. “There’s an urgency that maybe I didn’t have before. They’re reminding us that climate change is not something we’re going to fiddle-faddle around with. I mean, you’ve got to step up now.”
But there’s more to it, Childress continued: “I’m preaching to young people who are putting their lives on the line. They didn’t come down here driving a Mercedes Benz, sitting around under a shade tree eating grapes. They hitchhiked. They rode buses. And they get arrested, they get pepper-sprayed, they get some stiff penalties thrown against them.” (In January, Tar Sands Blockade and allied groups settled a lawsuit brought by TransCanada seeking $5 million in damages for construction delays, forcing them to stay off the pipeline easement and any TransCanada property.)
Childress noted that some of the blockaders, especially the Occupy veterans, refer to the corporate capitalist system as “the Machine.” “And they’re exactly right, using that kind of language,” he said. “They’re going up against the Machine in a real, clearly defined way. Not subtle—really upfront. And I’m trying to help them realize what it’s going to take to sustain the struggle.”
When it exploded onto the scene last summer and fall, Tar Sands Blockade galvanized a climate movement that was ready for escalated direct action to stop the Keystone XL and build resistance to extreme fossil fuel extraction: everything from the exploitation of tar sands, to shale oil and gas fracking, to mountaintop-removal coal mining. As several climate organizers engaged at the national level have told me, the East Texas blockade showed the movement what it looks like to stand up and fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. Now, a full year since it launched, and with the southern leg of the pipeline all but in the ground, I wanted to find out how—and even if—Tar Sands Blockade would go forward.
In some ways, the challenges it faces reflect those facing the climate movement writ large. There’s a tension, which many in the movement feel, between the sheer urgency of climate action—the kind of urgency that leads one to blockade a pipeline—and the slower, more patient work required for organizing and movement building over the long haul. I wanted to know what it will take for Tar Sands Blockade to sustain its struggle—not only what it took to get into the fight, in such dramatic fashion, but what it takes to stay in the fight.
That first Sunday at Austin Heights, I talked for several hours with four blockaders who were still living at the camp outside town. All of them had been arrested while participating in various direct actions on the southern pipeline route. One of them, a young woman in her early 20s who asked not to be identified, was an Occupy veteran who’d engaged in a high-risk tree-sit on the pipeline easement and whose legal case was still unresolved. Another, a recent MIT grad named Murtaza Nek, whose family is Pakistani-American and whose Muslim faith is central to his climate-justice activism, told me he finds a lot of common ground with Childress and the Austin Heights congregation. He was arrested while serving as support for an action near Diboll, south of Nacogdoches.
A third blockader, 42-year-old Fitzgerald Scott, also an Occupy veteran (Tampa, DC, Denver), is a former Marine who was born in Trinidad, grew up in Newark and East Orange, New Jersey, and has a master’s in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The only African-American blockader I met, he’d recently been arrested, not once but twice, for locking down at Keystone construction sites in Oklahoma. He told me that he’d joined the blockade out of solidarity with other activists and with people in frontline communities fighting the industry, not out of any deep environmental commitment. “To me, the environmental movement was far removed from blacks,” he said.
The fourth blockader was 22-year-old Matt Almonte. In December, he and another activist named Glen Collins locked themselves to each other and two 600-pound barrels filled with concrete inside part of the pipeline that was under construction—and came close to being gravely injured when police used machinery to pull the pipe sections apart by force. Though he was charged only with misdemeanors, his bail was set at $65,000, and he spent a month in jail.
For Matt, a veteran of Occupy Tampa who grew up working-class in urban New Jersey before his family moved to a “gated suburban thing” in south Florida, the lasting impact of Tar Sands Blockade “was to show ‘ordinary people’ that it’s absolutely vital to take direct action, and that even in a community like East Texas, people are rising against the fossil fuel industry.” He emphasized that trainings and actions are being networked out across the country, in South Dakota, Oklahoma, and elsewhere along the northern pipeline route and beyond—“places that don’t typically see a lot of environmental resistance.” Matt seemed impatient for more escalated direct action, the kind that was no longer happening along the southern Keystone XL route. Shortly after we talked, he and another member of Tar Sands Blockade decided to move on.
By the time I arrived in Nacogdoches, the blockaders’ numbers had dwindled—some who had come from out of state had returned home or drifted off to join other direct-action campaigns, against Keystone and extraction projects—and the group was at something of a crossroads. Indeed, they were wrestling not only with tactics and strategy but with the very nature of the campaign, now that there was essentially nothing left, in the near term, to blockade.
But a solid core of about twenty organizers, many of them young native Texans, had regrouped in Houston and were shifting into something more like community organizing, engaging with environmental justice efforts on the city’s hard-hit, largely Latino east side. As several told me, they wanted their campaign not only to carry on the fight against Keystone and tar sands but to build a base of grassroots resistance to the fossil fuel industry right there in Texas, especially in the frontline communities—most often communities of color—that are most affected by fossil fuel pollution. The kind of places, they point out, where the climate movement has established little, if any, foothold.
Back in Houston, I sat down with several members of Tar Sands Blockade, who talked with me openly about the campaign at this pivotal moment. Kim Huynh, 26, was born in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Indonesia and immigrated with her family to Florida, where she went to the University of Florida and studied political science and sociology. A year ago, she left a job with Friends of the Earth in Washington, DC, where she’d focused on Keystone and climate, and came to Texas to join the blockade. I asked Kim if she has any trouble reconciling the urgency of climate action, as seen in the pipeline fight, with the kind of long-term commitment required for movement-building.
“I certainly feel that tension,” she told me. “A lot of folks that I’ve worked with feel that tension very strongly, feel it in their bodies. It’s an anxiety.” At the same time, she said, she also feels “a commitment to the idea that we need systemic change, like actually hacking at the roots of what climate change is and what’s created climate change.” That kind of change is a long-term thing, she acknowledged. “It isn’t going to come just from stopping the pipeline. Stopping the pipeline is a good start.”
“The challenge and struggle for TSB,” Kim said, “is to figure out how we define escalation, as a campaign that started from this extremely escalated place.”
“Personally,” she said, “I draw a lot of inspiration and lessons from the black freedom movement, the civil rights movement, thinking about groups like SNCC and the way they defined escalation as going into the most deeply segregated areas in the South and doing voter registration.” That’s a whole other kind of escalation, Kim said, “doing the organizing in the areas where it’s possibly most important to do. Maybe that strategy is less like direct action as we know it—lockdowns—and more like community organizing. But that doesn’t mean it’s any de-escalation.”
“The communities that are most impacted by these industries,” she said, “the people who are living and breathing it every day—they need to be leading the fight.”
That idea—the disproportionate impact not only of climate change but of the fossil fuel industry on hard-pressed communities that can least afford it—is at the heart of what Tar Sands Blockade means by climate justice. They want a radical movement, one that grasps the problem whole, at the roots of the system, and fights alongside those who are already on the front lines—and always have been.
When I first met Ron Seifert, we were standing outside on a sweltering early evening at Hartman Park in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, just east of the 610 Loop along the Houston Ship Channel, across the street from a massive Valero refinery. Ron is a founding member of Tar Sands Blockade—and, at 32, also among the oldest, with the first early flecks of gray showing in his trim black beard. Having trained for years in long-distance endurance racing, his slender frame seems to conceal a reservoir of stamina. Ron grew up in Wisconsin and South Carolina and came to Texas in late 2011 from Montana, where he’d been exploring grad school in environmental science and law. He had joined the historic sit-ins at the White House in August 2011 and was one of the 1,253 people arrested protesting the Keystone XL. Later that fall, along with another activist named Tom Weis, Ron biked the full length of the pipeline route, from Montana to Texas. In the spring and summer of 2012, after Obama fast-tracked the southern leg, he helped launch Tar Sands Blockade, together with members of Rising Tide North Texas, on landowner David Daniel’s property near Winnsboro, in northeast Texas, site of the storied eighty-five-day tree blockade.
Rural and small-town East Texas is a world away from Manchester. Overwhelmingly Latino, the community is surrounded by oil refineries and other heavily polluting industrial facilities—a chemical plant, a tire plant, a car-crushing facility, a train yard and a sewage treatment plant—and sits at the intersection of two major expressways. The people who live there already breathe some of the country’s most toxic air, and they have the health statistics to prove it. Not just asthma and other respiratory problems—a recent investigation by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children living within two miles of the Ship Channel have a 56 percent higher risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia than those living only ten miles away. Yudith Nieto, a local environmental justice organizer who grew up in Manchester, told me of her family’s health struggles, including her own childhood asthma, which improved when she moved out of the neighborhood to attend art school.
The Ship Channel and nearby refineries—along with the refineries near the poor and African-American communities of Port Arthur—are also a prime destination for the vast majority of tar sands crude that will flow from Alberta to the Texas Gulf via the Keystone XL if it’s approved, only increasing the toxic emissions in these fence-line neighborhoods.
I was there in Manchester that evening to tag along with members of Tar Sands Blockade as they canvassed the community door to door, conducting a health survey in collaboration with the local Houston group TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) and letting residents know about the upcoming Healthy Manchester Festival there at the park. Later, TEJAS co-founders Juan Parras, a longtime labor and environmental justice organizer, and his son Bryan talked with me about the challenges the climate movement faces in places like Manchester, or anyplace where immediate health, economic and social pressures are paramount. Broadly speaking, Bryan Parras told me, most efforts at climate action “tend to leave the same folks that are already in bad situations in bad situations. There’s no incentive for them to get involved.” (He expanded on this and other ideas in an interview posted on my blog at TheNation.com.)
Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, is widely acknowledged as the father of the environmental justice movement, thanks to his pioneering work on the disproportionate impacts of pollution in African-American communities, documented in his landmark 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. “We could stop every pipeline being built from Canada to Texas, we could stop every fracking operation, and still not deal with the justice question—what happens in these communities,” Bullard told me. “What we’re trying to drive home with our friends and colleagues in our larger environmental movement, our larger climate movement, is to talk about these communities that are at greatest risk, put a real face on this. Make it real.”
Tar Sands Blockade is listening to what those like Parras and Bullard are saying. “Disproportionate impact is very real,” Ron said. “And what the communities that are most disproportionately affected actually look like—we need to acknowledge the reality of that, and to understand that climate justice is tied in with racial justice, with environmental justice, with class struggle.”
Ron told me that Tar Sands Blockade wants to support and amplify the work of TEJAS and other environmental justice groups in Texas, not try to commandeer it. He and his Tar Sands Blockade colleagues are highly conscious of what might be called the “parachuter syndrome,” in which outside activist groups, however well intentioned, are perceived to be pursuing their own agendas. Given that apparent tension, I asked Ron if there’s not a disconnect of sorts between the kind of urgent climate action that Tar Sands Blockade has embodied (literally) in its direct action campaign and the slower, and in some ways more difficult, work of environmental justice organizing in these communities.
Maybe, he said. But, ultimately, “it doesn’t matter.”
“Pipelines and refineries and droughts—those are not different things,” Ron continued. “Thatisclimate change. The refineries are climate change. Keystone XL is climate change. Tar sands exploitation is climate change. It’s all the same thing. And we understand that these communities are bearing the brunt of this industry—which is one and the same as climate change. And it’s in their backyards.”
“We’re not there to tell them what the problem is and what to do about it,” Ron said. “It’s the same as organizing with landowners in East Texas. We’re not salespeople coming to these communities saying, ‘Time to rise up!’ People have cancer, leukemia. They have children in the neighborhood die. They understand this industry will kill you for profits.”
Over the course of multiple conversations, Ron told me that a core group of Tar Sands Blockade organizers are dedicating themselves to the kind of climate justice organizing that national environmental groups aren’t doing in Texas. From the start, Ron said, Tar Sands Blockade has shown a willingness to defy a status quo within the larger movement, in which only “winnable campaigns” are taken on—and funded. With the fight in East Texas, and by digging in now for the longer, even harder fight in Houston, “we’ve been able to say, ‘This is worth fighting no matter what, even if it looks like we can’t win.’”
“That type of real investment and commitment,” Ron said, “the idea that you have to go into where the problem is worst—like Mississippi during the civil rights era—you have to get in there and get a foothold. We hope we can empower local-led action and resistance. In Houston itself, there are literally millions of people who are being poisoned. We should be able to empower folks here to rise up and defend their own homes.”
“If the climate movement is ever going to win in a really robust way, it’s gotta come to Texas, the belly of the beast,” Ron told me. “Houston, and the Texas Gulf, is the lion’s den—the largest petrochemical complex on planet Earth. If the base isn’t there, if the communities there aren’t organized and informed, empowered to take action, the movement isn’t going to be successful when it needs to be.”
“The industry,” Ron said, “has shown every intention of escalating the climate crisis beyond certain tipping points, and people in these communities are affected by the industry right now, in desperate ways.” In a situation like this, he said, “we need to ask ourselves as organizers, ‘What does escalation look like? What could possibly be too escalated?’ Physically blockading infrastructure is a great place to start that conversation.” They may have failed to stop the construction of the southern pipeline, “but we can still build and cultivate a culture of resistance and action, capable of escalating to the point of shutting this stuff down in the future.”
I asked him what happens if Obama approves the Keystone XL and construction of the northern segment begins. Will Tar Sands Blockade still be committed to Texas? “I can guarantee you that if that segment is approved, and our friends and allies in Montana and South Dakota and Nebraska give us a call, there will be physical blockades in those areas as well, by local folks interested in that kind of resistance. But that doesn’t mean abandoning our base in Houston and East Texas. These are not mutually exclusive things.”
“There are two distinct lines of work that need to be done simultaneously,” he said. “One is to smash these systems that are oppressing us and destroying the world. The other is to build up the world that we want to see.”
“It’s a long-term commitment that we are making,” Ron said.
* * *
Before I left Nacogdoches, the blockaders gave me directions to their camp outside town. I arrived mid-morning, and the four I’d interviewed at the church were the only ones there. Murtaza showed me around. There was the small, ramshackle house that was used as a makeshift HQ and the communal outdoor kitchen under a blue plastic tarp, which had served fifty or more at one time. There was the outhouse that one of the Austin Heights members had built for them. As we walked a footpath into the woods in back, I saw the few remaining tents and an ingeniously rigged (if less than private) shower. Some climbing tackle still hung from a large tree. Nearby was a big pile of buckets and containers once used for hauling water. Murtaza thought the camp now had a vaguely post-apocalyptic look to it—or perhaps, I thought, like a guerrilla encampment after the battle shifts to new ground.
After my tour, I sat down with Fitzgerald at the picnic table by the kitchen, next to a campfire he was tending. I asked him if the “blockade,” as such, was over.
“It’s hard to define ‘over,’” he replied. “When I got here, blockading was as direct action as direct action can get. That part of TSB in Texas, I think, is done.”
What about building a deeper resistance that can go forward?
“TSB didn’t come here to create a resistance,” he said. “That resistance already existed. We partnered in that resistance, and we’re still partnering in it.”
Had Tar Sands Blockade strengthened that resistance? “Without a doubt,” he answered. “As far as resistance is concerned, we are far from done.”
Since we spoke, Fitzgerald has moved to the Beaumont–Port Arthur area, engaging in environmental justice work with the African-American communities there. But he told me that he and the others want to remain engaged with Nacogdoches. He feels close to the Austin Heights community, and he’s been reaching out to the Zion Hill congregation. “I’m trying to get the African-American community more involved,” he said, “because that’s just where I come from.”
The next weekend in Nacogdoches, I sat down again with Kyle Childress, this time in his office at the church. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on the wall. I told him, only half joking, that it was a little intimidating to sit there under Dr. King’s gaze.
“There’s a line in the old King James,” Childress told me, “that says the prayers of a faithful person ‘availeth much.’ One person, one small community, acting in faithfulness, can bring healing, hope, change.”
“Some of these blockaders,” he said, “were risking their lives up there in a tree trying to block that pipeline. And TransCanada has billions of dollars and says, ‘We’ll just go around you. You slowed us down for a day.’ Well, if that’s all there is, by sheer mathematics they win. But I think the prayers of a faithful person availeth much—and those blockaders are acting in fidelity to the goodness, the rightness, of God’s earth. That keeps me going. That’s my hope. And if I didn’t have hope, well, I’d probably just cash it in and go do something else for a living. I mean, you know, I’m not going to be pastor of a church without any hope.”
By Renee Lewis, 12 October, 2013. Source: Al Jazeera
Activists from around the globe participated in a global ‘March Against Monsanto’ Saturday, calling for the permanent boycott of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This was the second global, anti-Monsanto protest — the first took place on May 25 with over 2 million participants, organizers said.
Photos appear to show hundreds of marchers taking to the streets in cities around the world including Vienna, London, Chennai and Sydney. Rallies have kicked off in U.S. cities as well including Los Angeles and Denver.
Critics of Monsanto, a multi-national biotech corporation, say its seeds destroy the soil and are designed to make constant repurchase necessary because the seeds last only one generation. The seeds must also be used with a variety of the company’s other products like fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides, which have been linked to mass bee deaths.
Monsanto, which touts itself as a “sustainable agriculture company” and is worth over $55 billion, says it produces high-yield conventional and biotech seeds that enable more nutritious and durable crops and “safe and effective crop protection solutions.” The U.S. government also says Monsanto’s products are safe.
March Against Monsanto (MAM), however, says GMOs are not properly monitored to ensure public safety and that no long-term, independent studies were carried out on GMOs before they were introduced for human consumption.
“In the U.S., the revolving door between Monsanto employees, government positions and regulatory authorities has led to key Monsanto figures occupying positions of power at the FDA and EPA. Monsanto has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to obstruct all labeling attempts; they also suppress any research containing results not in their favor,” MAM said in a press release.
GMOs have been banned to varying degrees in Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Madeira, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, France, Switzerland and Costa Rica.
GMOs are labeled in 62 countries, but not the U.S. despite several attempts. Last fall, Californian voters narrowly rejected an initiative to label GMOs, and a similar initiative is on the Nov. 5 Washington state ballot.
Prominent environmentalist Vandana Shiva has been outspoken against Monsanto, particularly in light of the corporation’s link to hundreds of thousands of Indian farmer suicides.
More than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India after Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds largely failed. Many farmers left in desperate poverty decided to drink Monsanto pesticide, ending their lives.
“The creation of seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress,” Shiva wrote.
Josh Castro, organizer for the Quito, Ecuador march said in a press release that he hopes to stop the “destructive practices of multinational corporations like Monsanto.”
“Biotechnology is not the solution to world hunger … Monsanto’s harmful practices are causing soil infertility, mono-cropping, loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction and contributing to beehive collapse.
This has been a busy summer for climate activists — with actions against the fossil fuel industry taking place on a near daily basis around the country. But busy is not the word they are using. They prefer to describe their efforts this summer as fearless. And why not? They are, after all, facing off against the largest, most profitable industry in the history of the world.
Nevertheless, this fearless action is not without strategy. In fact, the term Fearless Summer is being used to unite climate campaigns across the country that are working to stop fossil fuel extraction and protect communities on the frontlines. By coordinating collective action under the same banner, the aim is to speak as one voice against the fossil fuel industry.
To better understand how Fearless Summer came to be and what it’s accomplishing, I spoke with one of its coordinators, Mathew Louis-Rosenberg, who works in southern West Virginia fighting strip-mining — both with the community organization Coal River Mountain Watch and the direct action campaign Radical Action for Mountains and Peoples Survival.
How did the idea for the Fearless Summer come about?
Fearless Summer grew out of a discussion at the first Extreme Energy Extraction Summit held last February in upstate New York. The summit brought together an incredibly diverse group of 70 activists from across the country fighting against coal, gas, oil, tar sands, uranium and industrial biomass to create a more unified movement against energy extraction. We created shared languages, fostered relationships across the diverse spectrum of groups working on the issues and provided space for dialogue that allows innovative collaborations to form. Fearless Summer was one such collaboration.
Who are the principle organizers and groups involved? And how do you coordinate between one another?
Fearless Summer is an open-ended organizing framework and a call-to-action. So it’s difficult to say who the “principle organizers” are. There has been a core group of folks helping to coordinate and create infrastructure that includes organizers across a wide spectrum of groups, such as Radical Action for Mountains and Peoples Survival, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, Peaceful Uprising, Food and Water Watch, Green Memes, Tar Sands Blockade, the student divestment movement and others. Coordination work has primarily been done through a listserv and open, weekly conference calls. There is no formal organizing or decision-making structure.
How does this build on last year’s Summer of Solidarity initiative and the actions that have happened since? Do you see it as an escalation?
Fearless Summer was explicitly conceived of as a next step beyond last year’s Summer of Solidarity. I think the intention and scale of Fearless Summer is the escalation. Summer of Solidarity arose out of the organizers of several large actions — the Mountain Mobilization, Coal Export Action, Tar Sands Blockade and Stop the Frack Attack — recognizing that we were all planning big things in a similar timeframe and by working together, primarily through social media, we could amplify each other’s messages rather than compete for attention. The hashtag #ClimateSOS took off and had a life of its own, but coordination never went beyond that core group. Fearless Summer was explicitly launched as an open framework intended to draw in as many groups and actions as possible and came with a clear statement of purpose. This time we engaged a much much wider spectrum of groups and actions under clear principles of unity and escalation. Fearless Summer has gone beyond social media coordination to really create some national dialogue between grassroots groups on presenting a united front on energy issues.
How does Fearless Summer compliment or differ from the many other summer initiatives going on, such as 350.org’s Summer Heat and indigenous peoples’ Sovereignty Summer? Did you coordinate with those organizers?
We see these efforts as highly complementary. We are probably most similar to Sovereignty Summer in how we are organized. Many current indigenous sovereignty struggles are deeply connected to struggles against energy industry attacks on native lands and we have been promoting many such struggles through Fearless Summer. We have also been talking extensively with 350.org organizers about the connections with Summer Heat, which is obviously different due to the central coordination through 350.org and a much more focused timeframe. Fearless Summer is an open framework for action through the summer, so any other similar organizing efforts strengthen the goals of Fearless Summer regardless of how coordinated they are with us.
How many actions have taken place under the Fearless Summer banner so far?
It’s really difficult to say. The trouble with an unstaffed, unfunded, open collaboration is that it’s hard to keep up with where people are taking things. Our kickoff week of action in June had at least 28 actions in six days and there have been dozens more outside of that. At least 50-60.
What actions are coming up?
To be honest, I don’t know. There’s still a lot going on. We’re hosting an action camp in West Virginia and I’ve heard whispers of big plans in other parts of the country, but at this point people are just taking the framework and running with it as we intended.
What are the plans for the fall and beyond?
Those conversations are happening right now. I think people want to see coordination move to the next level of acting together nationally on some common targets more and there’s also a lot of talk about connecting more with other social justice issues and talking about root causes. The second Extreme Energy Extraction Summit is coming up September 6-10 and a lot of discussion will happen there.
Are you feeling optimistic about the larger climate justice movement at the moment?
I am feeling optimistic about the movement. We see more and more communities getting active. It’s getting harder and harder for the energy industry to find anywhere to operate without resistance. And it’s having an impact. The president’s speech and climate plan, despite its deep flaws, speak to the impact we are having. Four years ago, Obama was telling student leaders that he couldn’t do anything without a large scale public pressure movement. We have that now. I think we have a long way to go still. A lot of work still needs to be done to engage a wider base, connect with other struggles around justice and root causes of climate change, and articulate a policy platform that solves the climate crisis in a just and honest way. On the action front, we are still a long way from where the nuclear freeze movement was — with thousands occupying power plants and test sites — doing jail solidarity and really creating a concrete problem for the industry beyond public relations.
If momentum continues to build in the next year, where do you see it coming from? And what might the work of activists look like next summer?
I’m not sure what the big catalyst could be. So far the growth of the movement has mostly been in a proliferation of local campaigns. I think it’s going to take a lot of national dialogue to knit those into collective action for collective wins. My hope is that by next year we will be seeing mass direct action that truly challenges the ability of legal systems to respond and corporations to operate. We need more people acting like their children’s lives are on the line. Because they are.
In a direct action following the Canyon Country Action Camp, hundreds of activists have swarmed two mining sites in Utah tar sands. Activists are currently locked down to machines, stopping work.
Canyon Country Rising Tide have joined with the Lakota, Dine, and Idle No More in condemning the tar sands in Utah as a defiling of the precious Green River ecosystem, and an assault on fresh air and clean water in the US. The tar sands and oil shale mining proposed in Utah and neighboring states would traverse more than one thousand square miles.
The first blockade went up two hours ago, and is still holding. Contracted Cardwell, Inc. contractors attempted to hit peaceful protestors with their trucks, but the activists were able to lock down, and unfurl a banner that reads, “If you build it they will come.”
Private security personnel and three police cars have shown up on the scene, but no arrests have been made yet.
The second blockade went up approximately one hour later, and is still holding.