Soul Force: Tar Sands Protest Echoes King’s Civil Rights March

Andy Burt being arrested at Keystone XL tar sands pipeline protest in DC August 21.

By Aylie Baker, Andy Burt, and Fran Ludwig

The ride to Anacostia Precinct is a short one, not more than ten minutes.

Thirteen women rode in the police wagon. No one had been arrested before — and yet — with our hands cuffed behind our backs and our bodies slick with sweat in the 90-degree heat, we were not afraid. There were only smiles on our faces.

Sirens blared as we left the White House gates and drove southeast over the Anacostia River. To get to Anacostia precinct  — it turns out — you have to follow signs toward Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Though he died before the first Earth Day, King would have been proud to see the scores of protestors lining up in front of the White House last week. He would have recognized something in the faces of the clergy, doctors, seniors and college students. Their call for equality and justice echoed that of the people who joined him on the streets of Montgomery.

Sunday we gathered for the Tar Sands Action — a 2-week protest that may be the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement. We were protesting the construction of a massive oil pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

In simple terms, the Keystone XL Pipeline is a 1,700 mile fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet. NASA climatologist James Hansen has stated that if we fully exploit the tar sands, it’s “essentially game over” for the climate. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could rise far beyond 550 parts per million (ppm). Currently we’re near 395 ppm. Modern human civilization developed during a narrow range around 280 ppm.

The proposed pipeline runs through tribal lands, national water sources, and fertile farmland. Getting at the tar sands means cutting down a tract of Boreal forest the size the United Kingdom, which, like Brazil’s rainforest, helps to cancel out CO2 emissions that cause global warming.

And it’s marginalized people that King fought for who are most affected by climate change.

After our release, I spoke with Andy Burt, 66, of Edgecombe, Maine about riding to Anacostia.

“Climbing in the paddy wagon, I felt in some small way like Rosa Parks refusing to take the back seat on that bus in Montgomery,” she said.

“When they put those cuffs on me, initially I felt like they had taken my power. But sitting in the police van with all those women, I suddenly felt liberated. I’d always pictured a police van as claustrophobic, terrifying even. But it wasn’t that at all.”

For Andy — for all of us it seemed — solidarity came the moment we put our bodies on the line. Liberation came when we stepped to the edge.

“I thought about MLK and this one night early on that he received several death threats. He couldn’t sleep so he went into the kitchen and made coffee. He sat there, head in his hands, filled with doubt. But then he had this incredible moment! The Holy Spirit came to him and said: ‘You are not alone.’ Suddenly he felt more connected to those fighting with him than ever before.”

That night came in 1956, just weeks after King helped spearhead the Montgomery bus boycotts and hundreds of people began walking to work. Later he would write, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’”

Standing in front of the White House Sunday morning, we were employing what King called “soul force” —using the creative civil disobedience he so passionately espoused.

And we had reason to stand up. This year Texas is in a drought worse than the Dust Bowl. The Mississippi is experiencing unprecedented flooding. April was the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history. 2010, the hottest year on record. And in 2010 global oil consumption hit an all time high.

As Bill McKibben, writer and activist, said last Saturday: “Exxon mobile made more money last quarter than any company in the history of money. We have to find a different currency to work in — our bodies and our creativity and our spirit.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this weekend, as a new memorial dedicated to King is being unveiled just blocks from the protests, we call on President Obama to make an important decision: Reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Afterall, it was Obama who announced his candidacy on the anniversary of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, Obama who is so often compared to the preacher with his rhetoric of equality and change.

It was Obama who said his presidency would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

We can rally Obama to live up to those words, stand up for justice and take that step to the edge. It is only by living what we believe that change begins to occur.

Aylie Baker is from Yarmouth, Maine. She lives in Cornwall, Vermont where she works at the Vermont Folklife Center. She is a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism.  Andy Burt, from Edgecomb, Maine is a consultant on climate change and renewable energy to several Maine organizations, including Maine Council of Churches. She helps lead the Green Sneakers, a grassroots campaign to educate people about climate change and weatherization.  Fran Ludwig is from Lexington, Massachusetts. She is a recently retired K-5 Science Coordinator for the Lexington Public Schools, where on the first Earth Day in 1970 she led high school students to close the school’s incinerator.

9 Responses to Soul Force: Tar Sands Protest Echoes King’s Civil Rights March

  1. Sasparilla says:

    These courageous citizens are truly walking the walk and making a statement regardless of what the administration does.

    Hopefully their actions will cause the President to not approve the Keystone XL extension of the Keystone 1 tar sands pipeline that President Obama approved in 2009 (and is currently routing tar based oil to midwest, Illinois refineries at a rate of almost 10% of US petroleum imports). It should also be mentioned that Canada is currently planning tar sands pipelines to the west coast of Canada to link the tar sands with China.

    Regardless of that, we should do what we can to stop any expansion of the existing tar sands pipelines and these folks are leading the way, its great to see – wish I could be there.

  2. Grant Woodwell says:

    I think this article needs a correction to the following text: “Currently we’re near 395 ppm. Life as we know it evolved at 350 ppm.” It’s not clear what time period is referred to by the phrase “life as we know it” but if we restrict ourselves to humans and go back about 100,000 or more years CO2 was probably at 250 ppm or less based on glacial data.

    [JR: Good catch.]

  3. Jeffrey Davis says:

    As the old Civil Rights slogan said, “If not now, when?”

  4. Peter Mizla says:

    We have a new movement

    it will grow.

  5. Lollipop says:

    Yep. The movement will grow. I’m planning to post a letter to my friends and family on Facebook explaining why I’m participating and I hope it encourages others to begin joining in the movement. One person at time, one day at a time is the only way to fight this battle.

  6. Erica says:

    I second the feeling of liberation experienced after being arrested. The fact that we were in cuffs in the back of a paddy wagon was so inconsequential when compared to the strength and brightness of the collective spirit we felt.

  7. Jeronimo Maradiaga says:

    And it’s marginalized people that King fought for who are most affected by climate change.<—IMPORTANT POINT! Thanks for this, homies!

  8. Bruce says:

    Erica, I agree. We sat in the back of the police van sweating, telling war stories and singing. I’ve never felt so connected to so many people.