JR: Bill McKibben writes me that “since that first day, the police have become professional and humane. The next 340 people arrested have been handcuffed, driven to the police station in a paddy wagon, processed, fined $100, and released. So no one need fear they’ll go through what is described below. The number of people flooding into DC is growing very fast. Jim Hansen gets arrested Monday, Irene willing.”
by Peter Anderson
Washington’s burly SWAT team, with every imaginable crime fighting gizmo dripping from their 35 pound belts, are an odd deployment of force, when you think about it, to send in to arrest the likes of us.
On my right, as we stood in suits and ties, in front of the White House refusing to move on that hot sunny day in August, was Gus Speth. Gus, now in his seventies, had headed up the President’s Council on Environmental Quality under Carter, and from there ran the UN’s Development Agency and later Yale’s School of Forestry and the Environment. On my left was Rev. Jim Anthol, who is the equivalent to a bishop in the United Church of Christ.
Myself, and the 65 others who stood with them that first day, came in answer to Bill McKibben’s call a month earlier. With lobbying on Capitol Hill hitting a brick wall, Bill’s thrust was to open a new front in the form of civil disobedience against the proposed 1,700 mile Keystone pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the refineries at Port Arthur, Texas. A pipeline that would result in massive increases of carbon into the atmosphere, crippling any chance to stabilize the planet’s climate.
Except for a few, none of us had ever been arrested before, and until we saw the manifest failure of our political system to respond to the existential threat to Earth’s climate, we would never have even considered violating the law. For me – like for most of us – the precipitate that galvanized my newfound resolve in the face of a corporate chock hold on Congress was the simple, elemental, drive to protect my children: my three girls, now grown up, and my 14 year old boy who is still a child. Theirs is the generation that, in place of an inheritance, will be left to inhabit an overheated world that my cohort is callously leaving behind as, in a blissful state of denial, we party the night away. We may fancy ourselves “baby boomers,” but we act more like King Louis XV, the one credited for the bon mot, “Après moi, le déluge.”
And, at least initially, this opening gauntlet did not seem to risk too much because, in previous peaceful demonstrations in front of the White House, protesters had been booked and, upon paying a $100 fine, freed. Catch and release the police jocularly call it.
This time, though, someone several pay grades above the front-line park police decided to teach us a lesson by, over the next 52 hours, throwing us into the maw of the DC criminal justice system, which has finely honed the pernicious arts of how to degrade people.
In an emblematic act, the SWAT police first removed the Obama buttons that most of us wore. Then they stripped us of everything in our pockets, as well as our shoe laces and belts (apparently so we wouldn’t commit suicide in penance for loitering), and we were frisked, cuffed from behind and crammed into stifling paddy wagons. After a succession of other assorted discomforting conditions, we were locked up in the District’s Central Cellblock deep under Judiciary Center, two to a cell that was about 4½’ wide by 6½’ deep, and no more than that high, with steel mortuary tables in place of bunks to sleep on with neither mattresses nor pillows. For sustenance we were fed a baloney sandwich and glass of water twice a day, and given as many single sheets of toilet paper as one could coax from the guards. For 24 hours a day, in consideration, bright lights were kept on in order to suppress the ample population of cockroaches.
Now that I have your attention, please do not extend your condolences. This is the lot that anyone who elects civil disobedience has to be willing to accept. Any sympathy should be saved for the down and out in our Capitol who do not enter those barred doors out of choice, and are not able to jet home afterwards to a comfortable bed.
Instead, ask what palpable action that you personally can do to upend our corrupt political institutions. When it comes time for you to die, you do not want to confront the fact that you did nothing when you could to insure your child’s future … except, perhaps, having written an occasional letter to your representative or, in prior years, sent some checks to an attractive candidate with audacious promises.
And yes, to return to the President, who has the sole power to decide the fate of the pipeline, like you the reader, all of us at the White House protests have been astounded how our sincere efforts could have spun so badly out of control. We went to Washington to appeal to his better angels, inspired by candidate Obama’s famous promise, that, in his Administration, “the rise of the oceans will slow and the planet will begin to heal.” Most of us were among his most loyal volunteers who knocked on doors, manned the phone banks and wrote check after check so that he could be elected, only, for our efforts, to be thrown in the hoosegow.
In the poisonous atmosphere of Washington, the Administration seems to have become politically unhinged. On the heels of the debt ceiling – “don’t call my bluff Eric” – debacle, which alienated all his supporters, now the Administration is incarcerating some of its best friends. Who is Mr. Axlerod banking the President’s reelection on, payback from the likes of Morgan Stanley’s Jamie Dimon?
Barack Obama won election in 2008 by inspiring millions with his speeches. Ultimately, if he intends to be re-elected, he will have to enthuse his withering army of supporters with action. His predilection for small tentative forays has not cut the mustard, and his capitulation to doomsday threats have left them feeling castrated. There is no audacity in caution during compelling times.
Hopefully, if embarrassed by growing numbers in witness in front of his home, day after day after day, he will see that the use of his veto of this misguided pipeline is the only way to demonstrate he is not impotent and remains competent to lead for four more years. He will not likely get any other chance to do so before next November for this is the only one that Congress cannot obstruct.
Please, go now to www.tarsandsaction.org to sign up to put your body on the line, for your children. Once things become unglued, you will not be able to look them in the face again if you do not.
– by Peter Anderson, a member of the apres-moi-le-deluge generation in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a recycling consultant who specialiazes in documenting under-reported methane emissions from landfills and developing practical alternatives.