An Opening Skirmish in Texas – September 19, 2012

Hi Everybody!

Here is an account of my recent experience in Texas.

Sitters are already in the trees on David Daniel’s land, and the siege has begun. Two others have locked down today to machinery near the tree village.  Preparations were moving at a rapid pace when I was there, and we are likely to see a prolonged confrontation.

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An Opening Skirmish

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Franklin County, Texas

We arrived at the scene just before six.  The air was cool and clear, the sky dark and bright with morning stars.  A low grassy hill rose from the highway, strewn with sticks and shredded bark, heavily carved with dozer tracks.  A dozen pieces of land clearing equipment were parked at the top – dozers, chippers, a feller-buncher, and log skidders.  We walked among them, aiming small flashlights on potential lock-down points and whispering in soft voices what we knew of their uses.  There was time to decide which equipment would be most essential for the day’s work, and time to compose ourselves, but there was tension in the air as we thought of workers and police arriving on the site.  I walked a short distance from the machinery and stood for a moment looking up at the Orion constellation poised high over the highway, at Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and at Venus, brighter yet, hovering nearby.  I thought briefly of my new friends along the pipeline in Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and far off Alberta, of the workers at this site, now rising from their sleep, of the friendly TransCanada Vice President I had interviewed over the phone last month, and of the smallness of the Earth under my feet.  We were just north of Winnsboro.

A lock down point was found for Gary on the buncher, a huge engine that grabs trees by the trunk and slices them off at the base.  Doug and R.C. found a spot at the log skidder and locked together across the track on one side.  As the stars faded into the day we noticed in the dim light that many of the trees in the area were already down.  The buncher might not be needed that day.  So Gary moved to the chipper.  Ramsey was running around snapping photos.  All of those avoiding arrest removed themselves from the site.  Now, it was time to wait.  I stood in the middle of the equipment yard, where the workers would park their trucks.  It was my role to talk to workers, and later police, about what was going on – to explain to them that the protestors were safe where they were, that we were doing no damage, and that we were not protesting them.  We were protesting the pipeline they were building.  I was to keep the temperature down and do all I could to keep things safe.  I was risking arrest in the performance of my role, but planned to leave the area when warned.  We waited.  I walked back and forth between the chipper and the skidder checking on the three lockdowns, making small talk to ease the tension.

Pickup trucks began arriving on the far side of the road, their engines running, as daylight filtered through the stars.  I stood on the hill where people could see me.  A TransCanada truck drove up drove several yards past me a ways and stopped.  Nobody got out.  I moved up to between the truck and where Gary was locked down, and we talked quietly for a few minutes.  A man in a white TransCanada hardhat emerged from the truck and I greeted him.  The back of his jacket said Dig Inspector.

He returned the greeting and said, “Unless you have permission from the landowner, I am asking you to leave.” 

I said, “Thank you; I know,” and did not move. 

“Nothing here is worth anyone getting hurt,” he added.

“I agree,” I stated.  “We are sorry to inconvenience you.  We are not protesting against you personally.  But we are opposed to the project you are working on here.”

“I have called the sheriff,” he informed me.  “They are on their way.  Please be careful.”

“Thank you.”  I paused.  “It is a beautiful morning.”

“Yes, it is.”  He smiled and returned to his truck.

More men in pickup trucks were showing up on the other side of the highway but keeping their distance.  As sunlight poured in over the eastern tree line, the sheriff arrived.  I stood still as he walked up to me.  There was attitude in his pace.

“This is your warning, now leave!” he said, pointing down the hill.

“This protest is not against you or the workers here.”  I replied.

“Do you ever think about the emergency calls we should be making?” he said. 

“I am sorry to be inconveniencing your day.  I wish there were another way to do this.”  He ignored me and stormed off to where Gary was chained to the chipper.  For us this was an opening skirmish in the long struggle for habitability of the home planet; for him it was mischief.

I could stay where I was in the yard and get arrested, but I did not think that would be of great importance.  So I went over to Gary and then to Doug and R.C. to see if they were all right and to explain that I had to leave.  They were fine, so I walked back down the hill to where Ramsey was standing near the highway.  The sheriff indicated that that was not far enough away, so we crossed to the far side of the highway, where we could still see the other three, however distantly.  Other police, including two female officers, were walking about the yard, trying to figure out what to do.  A man came with a hacksaw.  The sheriff walked past us several times.  It was unclear what he meant by leave, but I needed to keep watch over the three lockdowns, and felt that his lack of reaction to us was tacit approval of our standing off the Keystone property, several feet from the pavement, but well within the public right-of-way.  Traffic moved freely along the highway.  Ramsey was taking pictures and texting on his cell phone.

We stood there for close to an hour, watching the police extractors trying to break through the lock boxes.  A cloth sheet was placed to cover the area where they were working on Gary, and a pickup truck was parked to block our view of Doug and R.C.  I was avoiding eye contact with the Sheriff. 

Then, from nowhere, he appeared in front of us and said. “I told you to leave.  You’re under arrest.”  He cuffed Ramsey and a deputy came at me from behind and cuffed my wrists.  “It was unclear to me where you wanted us to go,” I said to the sheriff.

“That’s pretty obvious he muttered,” and led us away. 

The holding cell was a long concrete room with metal benches along each wall and a toilet at the far end.  There were no cushions, windows, televisions, or clocks, and no reading material.  All personal possessions were taken from us.  Ramsey and I were ushered into the room around 9:30 in the morning.  We sat there in prison stripes for an hour or two before the door opened and Gary and Doug walked in.  R.C. was kept in woman’s cell.  All three of them had all been extracted from the construction equipment one way or another but were safe and unhurt, except for a bruise on Gary’s forearm.  Around midday, white bread, emulsified peanut butter, and sweet tea were served.  We sat for hour after hour through the afternoon.  In the early evening we were called, one by one, to the front desk.  The clock in the hall read 7:30 when my name was called.  Normally, inmates are told of the charges against them within a few hours and then released with bail or under their own recognizance.  We would be held overnight. 

Doug, Ramsey, and Gary were in the overnight cell when I arrived with my mattress and blanket.  We greeted, cheered, and high-fived, congratulating each other for graduating from the holding cell.  Here, at least, we would have bunks and, for better or worse, a television.  We turned on the television and watched ourselves on a local news broadcast. 

We were in the cell that night, the following day, and the following night.  Nothing was given for us to do.  But I had good jail skills as it turned out: meditation, yoga, running in place, and pacing, interspersed with meals, naps, news programs and chats with my cell mates.  It wasn’t so bad.  We did not know we would be there the first night, or the second night, or that we would be held until late morning the third day, but I tried not to worry about being released.  Occasionally at the bottom of my mind I heard a queasy, rumbling voice say things like When will we get out? and  I’m going nuts in here.  I listened, but did not respond.  I knew we would get out; that there were people watching on the outside; and that ours is a society that believes in the rule of law.  I was glad to be in America and not some forgotten dungeon, or some backward society that dealt with troublemakers like me in summary fashion.  I was glad not to be in an American prison in Guantanimo Bay or Abu Graib, where people who believe in human rights do not extend them to non-American humans.

The cell was clean, fairly spacious, and bordering on comfortable.  Once we got past the peanut butter, the food was pretty good, too.  The jail personnel were helpful, polite, and humorous.  They became quite relaxed around us – I think we provided them comic relief from their more regular clientele.  An attendant was in the cell talking to us at one point when I noticed that he had left the door open.  They brought us tea in the middle of the afternoon one time, just to be nice.  The taxpayers of Franklin County would not have approved of any more amenable accommodations – we might have booked another night.   But the shower was cold, there was no soap (until we found some), and we had no way to brush our teeth.  We walked out in the same socks and underwear we walked in with. 

Ramsey found a broken pen and some scrap paper that we all used to write essays, poems, and letters to the editor.  We noticed that there was a checkerboard lightly scratched into the metal table in the center of the cell.  It had been painted over several times and was difficult to see, but remained visible where light from the ceiling glanced off at a wide angle.  We made up paper knights, pawns, kings and queens, and began a chess tournament that lasted throughout the stay. 

Early Friday morning we were paraded in front of a magistrate at the jail and charged with “obstructing a highway or passageway,” a Class B misdemeanor.  We were held without charges for just under the forty-eight hour limit, but then returned to our cell for several hours more, without any idea what was happening on the outside.  We were released late that morning. 

A half dozen or so Tar Sands Blockaders were waiting for us outside.  We all hooped and hollered, took pictures, and held banners in front of the jailhouse.  It was a gorgeous late summer morning, and I was elated to be free in the sunshine.

Franklin County was through with us, but TransCanada was not.  We were each handed a citation from the Sheriff’s office with our name listed as defendants.   There were fifty-two pages of descriptions, numbered paragraphs, photographs, exhibits, declarations and a chart of the equipment yard showing the Keystone right-of-way.  Ramsey and I are not listed as attached to machinery, but the document claims that we refused to leave the property, which is not true.  They do have a photo from the website of me holding a banner in front of the machinery, which confirms my presence on the property before I was asked to leave.  Somebody worked all day and all night and all the next day on this citation – and this is why, I realized, we were held for so long.  I am reasonably convinced that TransCanada prevailed on Franklin County to keep us locked up while the citation was being prepared.  The document itself was a restraining order to keep us from occupying the right-of-way again, but also included wording that indicated TransCanada was suing us for “actual damages… the loss of use of Keystone’s property, the loss of market value of Keystone’s property, the additional costs to Keystone as a result of construction delays, down time costs, lost profits, and/or the cost of restoration or repair of property.” They also want attorney’s fees.  

I am aware that this is serious, but I am not especially concerned about it.  I may or may not have to return to Texas; it may or may not cost me financially, but no matter what the legal entanglement, my conscience is clear.  I would do this again.

I believe this is an opening skirmish in a long struggle – a war perhaps – between those who believe that the environmental crisis is real and those who promote economic growth at any cost.  The Keystone XL is the focal point of a larger conflict of worldviews.  The upcoming battles will be fought not with fact and reason versus ignorance, but with grit and determination versus financial power.  I do not believe a negotiated settlement is possible. 

Trespassing, obstruction, jail, and cat and mouse with local authority are distasteful to me personally.  I do not enjoy this line of work.  I prefer the use of research, logic, and reasoned argument in approaching social and ecological issues.  I wish that politicians and business leaders were open to the evidence that continued fossil fuel combustion is incompatible with human life on Earth, and I wish that my mind were still open to the notion that material production and corporate profit is the primary goal of human society.  But they are not and I am not.  Each worldview is built of a separate rational structure and there is very little ground between them. 

If this is war, it is a peaceful war.  There will be no resort to violence or destruction of any kind.  There will be no enemies.  There will be no dehumanization of the opposition.  Civil disobedience will remain civil at all times: our bullets and bombs will be kindness and compassion.   Our anger will be polite and contained.  There will be no cities captured, no territories taken; hearts and minds will be the only prize. It will be hearts and minds that judge us, and themselves; it will be they who serve the sentence or walk in the sunlight.

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