Drawing a Line in the (Tar) Sand
The Tar Sands Blockade had started organizing long before the ruling came down in the Crawford case. One of the early organizers was Ron Seifert, a 31-year-old computer network installer and group fitness trainer originally from Wisconsin. For three months in late 2011, he and others joined longtime Denver-based environmentalist Tom Weis, who had organized a bicycle trip along the proposed pipeline route from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast. The motivation for the ride, Seifert said, “was to plant seeds of resistance along the pipeline route and water it where those seeds already existed.”
When the group’s website was launched in June, one of the items posted was a weekend direct-action training camp in July. Attendees — including Kim Feil, the Arlington gas drilling activist — were taught elements of nonviolent protest, ranging from how to interact with police to how to lock themselves to machinery. For some there was also an introduction to tree climbing for aerial blockades — the tree stands.
“There were lots of little but important things as well,” said Feil. “We were taught to hide our thumbs in our palms when we locked hands because police go for the thumbs. And we were taught to go limp when arrested so that we couldn’t be seen as assaulting any officers. I thought it was a great camp.”
In mid-August, the Tar Sands Blockade went public with it first action. Several members entered Keystone XL staging locations in Oklahoma and Texas and unfurled banners announcing their presence.
“We were trying to alert people — through media coverage of the banner drop — to the fact that the construction on the pipeline had started,” said Seifert. “Very few people knew that trees were being cut and pipe was being delivered because there was no public notice by TransCanada.”
According to Seifert, it was only after that initial action that TransCanada admitted it had begun site work on the pipeline. The banner also alerted TransCanada of the Tar Sands Blockade’s existence and its aims.
After the Crawford ruling, the blockaders decided to up the ante. On Aug. 28, several activists showed up at a work yard in Livingston, Texas, where pipe slated for the Keystone was being loaded onto flatbeds. Four of the activists locked themselves onto the axles beneath a truck. One was Tammie Carson, an Arlington grandmother who’d never been an activist before.
“I had no idea what the Keystone Pipeline was … but after investigating and realizing the potential of environmental damage the tar sands could do, well, I needed to get involved,” she said. “Somehow I found the Tar Sands Blockade website and saw they were having a weekend training session, and I went. And about a month later I got a call saying there was going to be a direct action and would I like to participate. I said yes.”
The truck to which Carson and the others locked themselves was at the entrance for the lot. Since it took police several hours to cut the protesters free, the action closed down that lot for a full day. It also resulted in Carson and the three others being arrested and charged with criminal trespass. Their arraignment is slated for late October; none expects to receive more than a fine.
Was the arrest worth it?
“Absolutely,” she said. “I am still involved. I’ve been to rallies against the pipeline in Denton and Houston. And I’ll keep doing whatever I have to do — with thoughtful, nonviolent action — to bring awareness to more people about this. I won’t be done until they park their equipment and go home.”
Another blockader who came to the cause unexpectedly was Benjamin Franklin, a small-business owner from Houston.
“My whole life I’ve benefited from gas and oil — not because I worked it, but because friends and family did,” he said. “But tar sands are different. Not only are they very poisonous, but the entire process for the Keystone pipeline has been an abuse of power— taking land before court cases have been settled, for instance.”
Franklin got involved while in Arizona with his church. He met some people involved with tar sands protests in Utah who told him they’d heard about a Texas group that would be doing direct action.
“So I kept an ear out for that, and when I saw there was going to be a direct-action teach-in in Houston, I went to the meeting,” Franklin said. He was impressed and subsequently attended the two-day camp that Carson had attended. When he was later asked if he’d like to be part of a direct action, he didn’t hesitate.
“On Sept. 25, I was on some of the contested property outside of Winnsboro. I’d never trespassed before. I was with a woman named Shannon Rain Beebe — she goes by Rain — and we’d never met before. Our plan was to lock ourselves to a tree-cutting machine, but they were through clear-cutting in the area that day, so we went after a backhoe.”
Franklin and Rain approached a backhoe and signaled to the operator to stop. When he did, they attached themselves, through locked steel sleeves, to a part of the machine. “The operator tried to shove Rain off the backhoe when we first tried to attach, but she didn’t fall off, and as soon as we were attached, he calmed down.”
Two hours later four Wood County police officers arrived and immediately tried to cut the sleeve. When they discovered it was steel and not plastic, they called in someone who could cut steel.
“When they couldn’t cut the pipe, they huddled for a minute and then told us we were under arrest and should release our hold on the pipe,” Franklin said. “We told them we were doing a peaceful protest and would not release.”
At that, said Franklin, the one officer not in uniform put him in a chokehold to try to get him to release. When that didn’t work, the officers shot pepper spray into the metal sleeve to hurt their hands enough to force Rain and Franklin to release. When that didn’t work, the officers announced that the pair was going to be tasered.
“They said I was going to be tasered for one second. They counted down from three, then jolted me in the thigh. It hurt. That was followed by a five-second burst in my upper left arm,” said Franklin. “I would have fallen except that they’d handcuffed me to the backhoe.”
When Franklin still would not release, the officers turned their attention to Rain and gave her a half-second burst, “and that’s when I released,” Franklin said. “I just couldn’t watch her get tasered. I could see how much it hurt her, and she said she had a heart condition. I just couldn’t let them do it.”
Both were arrested and taken to the Wood County jail, where they were charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.
A spokesman for the Wood County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the tasering or any other issue related to the arrests because, he said, the investigation is ongoing.
Franklin said he and Beebe have been warned that TransCanada is preparing a suit against them and others in the Tar Sands Blockade, though Franklin said he had not yet been served.
Others have been. Ramsey Sprague, a former manager at Fort Worth’s Spiral Diner and former co-chair and organizer of the Tarrant County Green Party, said that he’d recently been served with a SLAPP suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation — along with 24 others and three organizations. In the suit, TransCanada seeks an injunction against further interference and alleges that the company has been damaged financially. Sprague and Seifert serve as the group’s spokesmen.
“Basically, TransCanada has included [as defendants] the names of everyone who has been arrested in the nine direct actions in Texas so far,” Sprague said. “And it’s amazing that they’re getting away with it. The most we are guilty of is trespassing, while TransCanada is in the midst of a number of lawsuits challenging their right to even take any of this land by eminent domain.”
Franklin, like Tammie Carson, said he cannot afford to do a lot of direct actions that will result in additional arrests but that he will continue to work with the Blockade, possibly through rallies and fund-raisers.
“What people need to understand about these protests, about the Tar Sands Blockade, is that if people are willing to get arrested … well, we are showing that we’re the edge of a much larger group of people who are unhappy with what is happening with this pipeline,” Franklin said. “And that group will hopefully make judges think about eminent domain, make them re-examine their decisions rather than just giving carte blanche to the oil companies.”
He’s not alone in thinking that elected officials, including judges, have given too much power to the oil companies. “I think people who care about the planet are rightfully disgusted with the elected officials of this state,” said State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth. “And while I cannot endorse or condone this action, I can certainly understand these acts of desperation.”
Sharon Wilson, a representative of Earthworks’ Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project and an avid activist against urban drilling, agreed. “Our elected officials are not listening to us,” she said. “Peaceful resistance is one of the few things left to us now.”
Despite Patterson’s advice to the tree-sitters to leave Texas, many of those who have joined the campaign against Keystone live here. One is Eleanor Fairchild, a 72-year-old landowner in the pipeline’s path in Winnsboro. She was threatened with eminent domain and so allowed TransCanada to pass through her land. But she is not happy. (She’s one of many landowners along the pipeline route who are taking part in the campaign, including, in some cases, by allowing protesters access to their land.)
“They [TransCanada crews] are on my land right now,” she said in early October. “They’ve cut all the trees in a huge swath. It’s like a death in the family. I know there is nothing I can do, but I am against this.”
Fairchild was recently arrested with actress Daryl Hannah for trying to block equipment on her land. She said she is not against pipelines per se, but she is against tar sands coming through the United States, where it might poison the land while making money for a handful of people and not providing anything for those living here. “It is just so wrong,” she said.
David Hightower saw a slice of his land in Winnsboro disappear to the Keystone XL as well. He said that two years ago someone from TransCanada came by to ask about a pipeline easement. “Well, it was my mother’s land, so she made the decision to OK it, and they gave her a very modest check, and that was that.”
He thought the company would use an existing pipeline easement. Instead, when the tree cutters came through a couple of weeks ago, they cut through his front yard, eliminating the muscadine grapes he’d been cultivating for 12 years — grapes he used to make jelly and wine.
“Then the protestors came and asked if they could have a protest in my yard, and I was on the news for that. And when it went out that my grape vines had all been killed, the company came and gave me compensation for the damage. And I accepted their blood money.”
Hightower, who retired to his mother’s place to be a gentleman farmer in 1999 after serving 20 years in the Air Force, said he thought the people from the Tar Sands Blockade “were absolutely delightful.” He does not feel the same way about the Keystone XL.
“It’s not good for America, not good for anyone. They only took a little piece of this land but chose to take it right in the front yard. And I’m just one person [among many] from Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. I’m pretty sure it’s impacting everyone along that line the way it is impacting me.”
Dobson, TransCanada’s spokesman, sees it all very differently.
“We think the Tar Sands Blockade is unfortunate. Many of those people are from out of state, and they are illegally trespassing on private property in order to protest our product,” he said. “And it’s doubly unfortunate that they’re taking these actions in an attempt to prevent hard-working Americans from getting to their jobs. If these protesters had their way, thousands of Americans would be thrown out of work.”
Hogwash, said Hightower. “I talked to the folks who are working on this project, and they’re all people who were already working on other pipeline projects. Not one of them has told me he was out of work before this job. So I don’t believe they’d be thrown out of work if this pipeline were stopped. They’d just go back to work on other pipelines.”
At the heart of the Tar Sands Blockade’s current direct action are the tree-sitters. They are at enormous physical risk — a fall from the catwalk could be fatal. A fall from the higher perches of the Tree Village almost certainly would be. Moreover, TransCanada’s tree-cutters have dug deep into the earth just a few yards away, which could destabilize the trees where the protesters are hunkered down. Thus far, nearly three weeks into their arboreal protest, neither those considerations nor hunger or discomfort have brought them down.
One tree-sitter, who identified himself only by the initials JG, said in a recent phone interview that he and others worked for several weeks to build the tree stands before the TransCanada crews arrived. The sounds of logging equipment made it hard to hear his words.
“Building the Wall was a unique challenge,” he said. “Trying to find a way to block the relatively narrow path of the pipeline, which is only about 120 feet wide, was difficult, and that’s why this thing is 100 feet from end to end.”
He said funding for the tree stands and for the rest of the Tar Sands Blockade was coming in small donations to the website. “We’ve had a few people donate $1,000, but most of it comes in much smaller [amounts] than that.” Both tree stands had good supplies of food and water initially, but JG said resupply is becoming more difficult because of the local police hired as guards by TransCanada. He mentioned having climbed down to attend a barbecue at David Hightower’s — and having a bit of Hightower’s muscadine wine — as a real treat.
Then his tone changed. “Look, there are helicopters overhead and tree-cutters not 10 feet from where we are, and I don’t want to talk about who taught us to build this or how we get our food. I understand there is probably curiosity about us, but that’s not important.”
What is important, he said, is that “there are people in Alberta, Canada, being poisoned by these tar sands. People are dying of cancer, the rivers are being poisoned, and then there is this pipeline that’s going to take this poison across the U.S., across vital aquifers, and risk the health of more people so that the corporation can make more profit.
“We are here to try to protect our homes, friends, and neighbors,” he said. “We’re doing our best to be crafty and wily and to use every skill we know to take care of each other in this local community.”
He said he’s prepared to stay until the pipeline project has become a national issue and people from many locales have been inspired to work against it.
Seifert was asked about how his group might define a victory.
“We talk about victory in a couple of ways,” he said. “A decisive victory that stops this pipeline is only possible if we have massive mobilization of so many people that the physical pipeline cannot go forward. Or if there is enough political will engendered to cause class-action lawsuits that can get injunctions against the pipeline.”
Both of those possibilities face pretty slim chances in Texas, he admitted. But he also said it would be a victory if the Blockade and other activists can contribute to stopping the northern section of the pipeline.
“For more than 100 years, big oil has had its way with people,” he said. “People feel powerless … . And there are a handful of powerless people right now sitting in treetops on platforms made of wood and rope, and the industry has no answer for them. They don’t know what to do. So maybe this can be a wake-up call to let people know that they can fight back.”
It is exactly that spirit that has TransCanada’s Dodson worried. “We’re concerned about the blockade,” he said. “No question about it. How do you think they’re doing? Do you think the protests will keep growing?”