One of the Jailed ‘Tar Sands 52’ Tells His Story

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 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.

19 Responses to One of the Jailed ‘Tar Sands 52’ Tells His Story

  1. Mossy says:

    Some of us “Romm-n Legions” are putting ourselves on the line Wednesday. Would love to have you join us, Joe.

  2. Leif says:

    Two Palms Up to you and all the others…

    Leif Knutsen
    Pacific Northwest

  3. Jeffrey Davis says:

    “the manifest failure of our political system”

    I prefer to think of it as “Death Before Discomfort.”

    And it’s not simply the political system. People know. Even ordinary dumbos like me whose last brush with science was a crib sheet to get through high school chemistry. We know.

    Whatever it is that AGW has in store: we’re going to catch the full brunt of it.

  4. Roger says:

    Water’s rising, limbs are falling,
    To the White House; duty’s calling,

    Time to join the tar sands action,
    Time to get some satisfaction,

    Time to save us all from hell,
    Time to kill the Keystone ‘L,

  5. Roger says:

    A shout out to all loyal Romm-N-Legions:

    The White House. Wednesday. Be there!

    (West Coast members: Attend in spirit.)

  6. Roger says:

    Hey Obama, lead the nation,
    Give US climate edu-cation.

    You could easily cut this stress,
    Give a “State of the Climate” address.

  7. mark Freed says:

    thanks to all of you.

  8. Roger says:

    Stuck at home with Irene’s wind and rain,
    I took the time to write to Obama again:
    (Cut and pasted into

    August 28, 2011

    Dear President Obama,

    I hope you enjoyed your vacation on the Vineyard, in our lovely state of Mass.

    Hurricane Irene reminds us of nature’s power, and the power to be unleashed by manmade global warming.

    You must know, from Dr. Chu and Dr.Holdren, that we need to cut CO2 emission rates by a lot, and soon, in order to stave off the worst impacts of global warming.

    At the same time, the transition to using clean energy, along with renewing our infrastructure, must represent one of the largest job-creating opportunities in US history.

    I switched parties, and worked hard to get you elected in ’08, because of your promise to deal with global warming. Remember?

    With most of the GOP candidates abandoning science (the field that made America great), this is your chance to stand tall.

    Please give a prime-time, “State of the Climate” address from the Oval Office, with Chu, Holdren, your military commanders, and others at your side. You could lay out the problem, the opportunity, and the plan in an hour or so. You are a great explainer.

    Giving such a “State of the Climate” address now could change the entire course of human history. Will we switch from dwindling fossil fuels, save a livable climate, and carry on for generations to come? Or will we burn every last BTU, and regret it for ever more?

    I’m not trying to be funny, but you can’t eat money. We need a climate that will support human, animal, and plant life.

    In addition to announcing a “State of the Climate” address, please stand up for your kids and mine, against the climate-killing Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to Texas.

    If we allow the tar sands of Canada to be fully developed, it will be “Game Over” for a livable climate.

    So, please say “Yes” to energy transition and infrastructure jobs, “Yes” to a “State of the Climate” address, and “No” to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

    I’m bringing this message to DC Wednesday.

    Sincerely yours,
    Roger Shamel
    Bedford, MA 01730

  9. pete best says:

    Your stance is to be admired but your optimism at that time and your commitment to the objectivity of the system is unfortunately naive of how it works. Its not unbiased now is it – it protects certain interests and when you re not asked ot vote (5 years) your promises give way to reality that a president faces in the two party vested interst dynamics.

    It looks like you need another president who will try harder but will it happen, nah. What you gotta do it go from the ground up via economic reality. People are only interested in renewnle energ if its as cheap and reliable as fossil fuels

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Roger! Thanks for the quotable lyrics, and I hope someone pulls out a guitar to set up some chords.
    Your considerate, even empathetic, letter to Obama reminds me of how Lincoln had to be nudged again and again to face the core conflict of the Civil War and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
    I like the way you are pushing Obama towards a State of the Climate address, though I’d go further to a Climate Proclamation.
    PS The spell checker tried to turn “Civil War” into “Civil Warm!”

  11. Z S says:

    I’ll proudly be there on September 3rd.

  12. Roger says:

    Thanks, Joan. A Climate Proclamation!

  13. Bruce says:

    It is the depredations of GLOBAL WARMING that we Must IMPROVE! And for the Constitutional POSTERITY of our children and grandchildren, In DEED (as you have done). Instead of solar-electric roof arrays and electric cars, arrayed against US instead are electric tasers of the Obamanible Police State, recently offshored to Martha’s Vineyard. No help, the Barackateer feigned being Public Servant #1; but morphed into the Deadly Butler, instead! Don’t let him profit from his crimes and extortion. DESELECT in 2012! WAHRHEIT Macht Frei!!

  14. Confused about something…the headline says TarSands ’52, and I believe Peter was part of the Tar Sands 65.

    [JR: Only 52 were held overnight. Locals were released.]

  15. To be there Wednesday. Here’s to you Peter and all the other heroes who stood by. If our leaders fail, you will not bear the shame of it.

  16. Chris Winter says:

    Time for more bumper stickers?

    “Stabilize climate, not oil profits.”

  17. Drew says:

    What did you expect? They deployed the SWAT team because there were so many of you. No one here feels sorry for you because of what you went through. You broke the law, so they had to ‘frisk’ you for contraband just like every other criminal they have ever arrested. Just because you were standing there holding a sign doesn’t mean you get any special privileges.

    Also, I just want to say for the record, not all conservatives love to burn oil. I literally ride my bike to class everyday, it totals to 30+ miles a week. If everyone who complains about ‘oil this’ and ‘oil that’ would actually do something about it themselves by riding a bike or carpooling, then maybe you could make a bigger difference than whatever it is you hope to gain from standing in front of the White House and getting arrested.

    [JR: Uhh, they knew who they were dealing with — peaceful protestors — so SWAT was overkill. Special weapons and tactics? Seriously. Second, I applaud individual effort. I telecommute. But I’m afraid that even individual effort by tens of millions of Americans would not avert catastrophic global warming. That requires national action.]

  18. Drew says:

    I guess what I am trying to say is, national action will ultimately affect tens of millions. Also, purchasing less gasoline at a mass scale will force oil companies to halt projects such as drilling in Texas. Supply and demand. So if everyone does their own part then we do not have to get the government involved. God knows we don’t need any more government mandates on what people can and cannot do.
    Also, I take it from your comment on SWAT that you’ve never seen a protest escalate. I am not saying that the people protesting would have become violent but other people watching have to be taken into account in situations like this. So give them a break.