Jailhouse Rock: Activists Score Victory Over Police in Tar Sands Pipeline Fight — The Inside Scoop

by Mike Tidwell, who was arrested and released last weekend as part of the tar sands protest

If you want to know just how determined activists are to stop the proposed tar sands oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, listen to this:

Last Saturday morning, August 20th, more than 50 activists were arrested in front of the White House. They were handcuffed, stuffed into blistering-hot paddy wagons, and informed that they would spend two nights in a crowded, harsh DC jail. The U.S. Park Police – who have jurisdiction outside the White House — openly informed organizers of the police strategy: We’re going to go very, very hard on the first wave of protestors to discourage others from joining your planned 15-day action.

That action, organized by, aims to get 50-plus people arrested at the White House each day, peacefully, day after day, till September 3rd. The goal is to pressure Obama to reject the 1700-mile tars sands pipeline, which is fully within the President’s power.

So did the police plan work? Hell no. Saturday night — as Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, and others were still packed 15-to-a-tiny-cell and eating baloney sandwiches – 45 new recruits were being trained at a local D.C. church to repeat the civil disobedience the very next morning. The second wave of volunteers, who came from all over America, fully understood that the police had gone hard core on the first group instead of offering the usual minor citation and fine for White House protesting. On Sunday morning August 21st at 11, right on schedule, the “Fantastic 45” sat down outside the White House fence. They too were handcuffed and led away to paddy wagons.

But that’s when the police gave up. They threw in the towel on the “hard way” approach. The Fantastic 45 were released by 3 pm Sunday and allowed to pay a $100 fine at the Park police station. No jail time.

Here’s what sources say happened:

The D.C. Metropolitan Police, tasked with actually housing arrestees turned over by the U.S. Park Police, said something like this to the Park cops on Saturday night: “What?!? What?!? You sent us 50-plus men and women environmentalists to be jailed on a Saturday night and there might be 50 more tomorrow and the next day and the next? We refuse!”

The DC police reportedly complained about this to the District Attorney’s office for D.C., which in turn told the Park Police late Saturday or early Sunday to stop it. The system can’t handle the number of arrestees who appear to be utterly determined to come to Obama’s House over the next two weeks nonstop. “Stop jailing all these people,” the message reportedly went from the D.A.’s office to the Park Police.

And so the jailing stopped Sunday.

Then, right on schedule Monday morning, another group of 52 protestors sat down at 11 at the White House and were handcuffed, fined, and released by 2 pm. Sixty more got arrested and fined Tuesday and another 56 Wednesday. That makes for a total of well over 250. The goal by September 3rd is to have close to 1,000 arrested over this disastrous and insane $7 billion tar sands pipeline proposal.

Who can name another environmental protest of this type and scale in U.S. history? Day after day. Wave after wave. It’s the first of its kind. That’s how big the tar sands issue is. And that’s why those arrested so far have all exited police custody with a similar message to supporters across the country: “We welcome your sympathy for what we’ve experienced here. But mostly we welcome your company. Please join us. Come to DC and be part of this history!” (

Again, special credit has to go to the “Fantastic 45” who got arrested Sunday despite the unusual threat of overnight jail time from the Park Police. (The vast majority of nonviolent civil disobedience protestors at the White House never spend a night in jail). The police strategy was completely dependent on the Sunday group giving up after the first Saturday jailings, thus causing the 15-day protest to crumble before it really got started. That threat – of a night or two on a metal bed with bologna and water and sleep deprivation crudely enforced by jail guards – is not a casual threat for protestors aged 18 to nearly 80.  But the Fantastic 45 vanquished the strategy.

Yet the biggest thanks of all goes to the “First 52”.  That’s the number of first-wave climate activists arrested Saturday morning – including McKibben, Speth, and former Army officer Dan Choi – who spent over 50 hours in custody. Even while refusing to incarcerate any more activists from Sunday morning forward, the police kept the First 52 until 3 pm MONDAY afternoon. More than two full days. And those people suffered. More will be written about this in the coming weeks, but it’s important to know that the hardships included enforced thirst, hunger, dangerous heat and poor ventilation in paddy wagons, and – for the women – a punishing concrete jail cell with cold temperatures. The arrestees finally staggered out of a DC courthouse Monday afternoon, squinting at the sun through red and fatigue-swollen eyes, many trembling from hunger.

These people did this for us!! They did this to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. They did this to stop runaway global warming and to show Obama the scale of grassroots passion still alive in America for justice and sane solutions.

One of those people was eighteen-year-old Lukas Burdick of Ithaca, NY. Just out of high school, having just stepped out of leg irons during the final minutes in police custody in the nation’s capital, a nearly faint Burdick said, “The purpose of life is to help other people. If that’s the result of what I just endured, then I have absolutely zero regrets.”

Said Mary Nicol of Chicago, who with 14 other women went 17 hours without food at one point and slept in the concrete cell with no bed at all or chairs or sheets: “It was really rough, but not nearly as rough as life will be for all people everywhere on the planet if Obama doesn’t stop this pipeline and halt radical climate change.”

Who on the planet right now is giving more to this cause than these protestors in DC? Please come to Washington right now! Come get peacefully arrested yourself any day through September 3rd. Come honor these brave people and this great struggle. Learn more at We need you!

Mike Tidwell is a writer and activist based in Maryland. He was arrested and released last weekend as part of the tar sands protest. Contact him at

36 Responses to Jailhouse Rock: Activists Score Victory Over Police in Tar Sands Pipeline Fight — The Inside Scoop

  1. Joe Romm says:

    My first comment.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    Whatever happend to the right of the people to peacefully assemble?

  3. John Tucker says:

    I think a lot of the people that feel strongly about this are probably also those that cant afford/absolutely dont need to be arrested. Pity that is the only way that seems to get attention even in this day and age of obvious climate change.

    Congrats on the comment system improvements. Im sure its difficult to implement but why not use the best of both worlds.

  4. Michael Tucker says:

    I’m pretty sure they want to be arrested. You are much more likely to get media attention if the authorities become involved and it seems pretty clear they wanted to put a strain on the DC cops. Too bad the media is not taking the bait. I wonder if the Prez will.

  5. catman306 says:

    We’ve seen the Ben Kingsley movie about Mahatma Ghandhi, and there’s actual newsreel footage on Youtube.

    Excellent strategy! Congratulations! Great people with a great mission. Thank You!

  6. Lollipop says:

    I’m so glad they cut the jail time out. I’m planning on joining them one day and then having my husband join the next. That plan will break down childcare-wise if the relief parent is still in jail.

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    Lollipop, good for you and your husband! What would the police do in such a situation if someone in their mid-teens wanted to join their parents in the protest?

    And those of us on the West Coast with caregiving commitments applaud you!

  8. Richard Brenne says:

    Congratulations, Joe, and welcome to Climate Progress:-)!

  9. Shaheer says:

    Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

    Recent climate science suggests our future looks dire. Most relevant observed trends – in greenhouse-gas emissions, global and regional warming, sea-ice loss and sea-level rise – are in the upper range of projections. Despite a worldwide political consensus to limit global average temperature rise to less than 2 degrees celsius, the collective effect of current national measures will lead to average warming of up to 4 degrees by the end of this century. Climate change now threatens to disrupt the Earth’s systems in ways that are beyond all human experience

    Wish I could join them. We need a Canadian civil disobedience action.

  10. Penny Briggs says:

    My son was one of the first 52. I wish I could join him but being 91 years old i’m afraid iIwould be more of a hindrance than help. But, I can say thank you!

  11. Sasparilla says:

    My hat is off to the protesters.

    Obviously the “going very very hard” on demonstrators strategy had the blessing (if not origination) with the Obama administration – who doesn’t want this PR black eye during the election campaign as they decide whether to approve their 2nd tar sands pipeline to the US from Canada.

    It would seem the admin wants to approve the pipeline or they wouldn’t have treated these people (part of their voting block) this way – the 3rd term of George Bush continues to unfold (at least on this issue – tar sands).

  12. BlueRock says:

    Massive kudos to those who are stepping up. Hopefully it’s the start of a larger awakening and realisation of the seriousness and urgency of ACC.

  13. Tiddlywinks says:

    Totally agree with Sasparilla, that W’s 3rd term is right on schedule with the Keystone Pipeline, following the Gusher in the Gulf, offshore drilling, drilling in ANWR, and eventually, drilling on the White House lawn. I’m totally behind all demonstrations to stop this monstrosity, and to pursue reason and science over the re-election politics of collusion with special interest groups. Why is every politician–and, especially, our own President–hell-bent on destroying the planet by colluding with fossil-fuel interests? Don’t they realize that when the Earth is destroyed, it’s destroyed for them, too? Do they have some secret escape to another planet planned of which we’re unaware, after they’ve destroyed this one? Every bird and animal has the brains not to foul its own nest and living space. Where are our true leaders, who listen and respond to scientific evidence that is life and earth-threatening? Where is the renewable energy and renewable fuel innovation that we need to susain the health and welfare of our planet, and that we deserve from competent planners and leaders? Think Nero fiddling while Rome burned was insane? What about incompetent leaders colluding with fossil fuel interests to destroy the Earth–how batshit insane is that?

  14. Kim Feil says:

    I have felt no remorse for being unemployed and giving up on that…instead I urge all the unemployed to take to the computers, to the streets, to the White House (if you can afford to)…and spend your days emailing, Facebooking and loggin hits on news stories on the perils of tar sands and the demand it creates for fracking natural gas. Please show up at your city council meetins and talk to your state and federal representatives about getting off of fossil fuels. We may do without a second income, but I see it as a necessary job to save the planet for my children and grandchildren.

  15. Astralis says:

    A lot of poor people are suffering because of energy prices. Texas wind farm transmission lines are 38 percent more than the initial cost it was proposed to build them. Each Texan will now be paying $270 more for electricity for decades, at least.

    Thanks, wind.

  16. From Peru says:

    Only one thing:

    For WHAT CRIME were these people arrested?

    Protesting against the government?!

    As far as I know, protesting against the government is a right, a fundamental right, at least in democratic countries.

    Isn’t the United States a democracy?

    Any country that puts people in jail for protesting peacefully should not be considered a democracy…

    …or I am missing something?

  17. Bobette says:

    Penny – I’m proud of you and thank you too for raising such a wonderful son. Thanks!

  18. einem says:

    Why haven’t we learned about this on the news media? Yes, they are beholden to the fossil fuel industry which advertises on TV etc.

  19. mimi bennett says:

    Hope to join you be Sept. 3 Let’s stay on this. Mimi

  20. Tiddlywinks says:


    Don’t blame the wind; probably unscrupulous contractors caused your price dilemma. And would you rather it remain as it is now, where each time you flip a light switch, 40% of the energy comes from burning COAL–the dirtiest of the fossil fuels? Wonder if people know that more than 500 mountains have been leveled in West Virginia to access it, and an evnironmental nightmare for those living anywhere near strip-mining and mountaintop removal mining operations. Or that the Mercury in fish comes from coal-fired power plants, along with other heavy metals and toxic pollutants now sequestered in our oceans. That the oceans now contain more CO2 than the atmosphere, raising the ocean temperature by 2 degrees and lowering the pH levels and making the oceans more acidic, and that ocean dwelling life is dying because of it? Did you also know that ALL coral reefs will be gone within the next 50 years because of sequestered CO2 in the oceans’ waters, and that losing coral reefs in the ocean is akin to losing tropical rain forests on land? The planet is in demise–dying, because of our own burning of fossil fuels, and not one politician will address the issue because they’re afraid of losing the money they receive from coal, oil, and gas interests to fund their re-election campaigns. And we all are complicit for electing them, time and time again, and allowing their inactivity to seal our doom. Stand up for our Mother Earth, speak out against such deviance, volunteer, run for office, do SOMETHING to help save the Earth. Or in our planet’s waning days, how will you respond to your children who ask you why YOU didn’t do something to help save the planet?

  21. Gnobuddy says:

    I fully understand both the insanity of the tar-sands exploitation and the proposed oil pipeline.

    And yet – the aim of this civil protest is to have 1000 people arrested, and each will pay a $100 fine? Doesn’t that mean that protesters have just donated $100,000 to the war-chests of the very people (the US and Canadian governments, in this case) who are supporting this particular bit of raping and pillaging of our environment?

    It’s not that I have a better solution to offer (I wish I did). It’s just that I see the madness on both sides of this particular action.


  22. Greg says:

    Thanks everyone for doing this – wish I could join you. You’re all heroes. Obama analysts – best tell the man the public wants this permit DENIED.

    Gnobuddy – that’s the point; the government thinks they can deter us by telling us we have to pay $100 to practice our constitutional right to gather peaceably. They now realize that’s not a deterrent, it’s just bad publicity. Hopefully more will be joining through the 3rd. What’s a hundred dollars for our rights and our planet’s health?

    Greg, Amherst, MA

  23. Gnobuddy says:

    Greg – my point isn’t that a hundred dollars is too high a price for an individual to pay in the hope that the planet may be liveable in the future. Of course it isn’t! In fact we’re all already paying far more money than that every year to pay for treatment of the illnesses we all incur because of the toxic pollution now filling our our environment.

    My point is that the $100,000 collected from protesters is going into the coffers of the people who continue to make the bad laws, ignore what the informed public wants, and spread death and sickness in the wake of their environmental policies. And you can bet your boots that money will be used to further suppress peaceful demonstrations, fund more misinformation, and so on.

    This is like an army on one side of a war (call them army A) choosing to hand over their bullets to the other side (army B), who will promptly use them to shoot back at army A.

    There must be a better way to protest, one that does not end up actually financially empowering the status quo to continue to suppress more enlightened thinking?


  24. Anne van der Bom says:

    Why do you say that when you know it is not true?

    $ 270 per texan per year for decades amounts to a total of at least 25,000,000 * 270 * 20 = $ 135 billion. Do you expect us to believe that a 38% overrun on these transmission lines amounts to more than $ 100 billion?

    Truth is that the total cost of the plan now stands at $7 billion. This $270 dollars that you are stating are the total costs, for infrastructure that lasts for decades.

    According to PUC: “Residential ratepayers can expect to see a $3 to $5 monthly charge on their bills, for a decade or so, to pay for the infrastructure.” So, that’s about $ 50 per household per year for 10 years. Not $270 per person per year for decades.

    May I ask you: why do you resort to such obvious untruths to defend your point-of-view? Isn’t the truth good enough?

  25. Anne van der Bom says:

    What you are missing is that it is not allowed to protest at that *particular spot* in front of the White House.

  26. dominique says:

    and yet the people in coal states, who are suffering the most from the filth, keep voting in the pols in coals’ pockets. So perhaps we should apply the same idea as paying countries not to burn their forests: give all the people whose jobs depend on coal assistance in relocating, training, and working in new energy sectors. of course, that would mean we need a president with a robust jobs program.

  27. dominique says:

    think of it this way: that money has just bought the kind of publicity it would take way more hundreds of thousands to buy, assuming this protest hits prime time. which it might, when Irene blows over.

  28. Joan Savage says:

    Civil disobedience, dignified and in all other respects cooperative, comes with commitment to revive more full participation in government. The protesters are “Loyal Opposition.”
    With a more active citizenry, and higher voter turnout, government representatives have to be more responsive to the public.

    What the protesters are doing is worth many times the cost of a $100,000 ad in a major newspaper.

  29. Joan Savage says:

    A measure of a person’s civic behavior that keeps coming to mind is found in the closing statement of the Declaration of Independence.

    “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

  30. Roger says:

    Who do you think accounts for a big chunk of the ad revenue? We are truly in the grip of the almighty dollar. This is not your father’s media–where lives were risked in order to tell the true story. Sad but true.

  31. Roger says:

    Gnobuddy, One interesting way to protest is suggested at this site:

    Imagine the leverage of 1000s of nice folks legally, intelligently, going the speed limit.

    Noon, local time, on December 3rd, the next Global Day of Climate Action, might be good.

  32. Prokaryotes says:

    Again i’m a bit OT, pardon but the other topic has 116 replies (about what to cover, and this has been covered already several times)…

    Summer’s almost over, and still no solar panels on White House roof

    By Lauren Biron / Medill News Service
    Sunday, August 28, 2011 – Added 8 minutes ago

    Why does it take so long for a few shingles to power the WH?

  33. CW says:

    Never understood why in the “land of the free” people are seemingly always arrested for peaceful protesting?

    Were/are the tea partiers arrested when they protest?

  34. Julie Garrett says:

    I remember one climate activist saying to the college kids at PowerShift: “You go home and tell your parents to get off their retired asses and finish what they started in the ’60s.” i.e. work on climate issues. This is right on!

  35. With a more active citizenry, and higher voter turnout, government representatives have to be more responsive to the public.

  36. Neal J. King says:

    Maybe we should just draft Huntsman as a Democrat? At least he stands up for the science of global warming – which seems to be more than Obama is willing to do!

    Honestly, I am getting so tired of Obama trying to play it so safe. The dragon is already awake, guy: Either go for the throat or go down in flames!