CommunityFDL Action

Tar Sands Action: Are You Discouraged, or a Flaming Firebagger?

John Scarecrow Chandley

John "Scarecrow" Chandley

Yesterday I was arrested along with Dan Choi, Bill McKibben and John Chandley (Scarecrow).  I was released last night, but Dan, Bill and Scarecrow are all still in jail.  They have been told they will remain there until we all go to court on Monday at 2pm.

The Tar Sands organizers were negotiating with park police for days in advance of the 2 week sit-in. They had been told repeatedly that they could expect that protesters would be given $100 tickets and released, because that’s their standard operating procedure.  They repeated that to the organizers shortly before the sit-in started yesterday.  And that is what normally happens — Dan Ellsberg was released after paying what amounts to a parking ticket after the last two White House protests he participated in, an anti-war protest in December 2010 and the other on behalf of Bradley Manning in March of this year.

But after we arrived at the Park Police station, we were immediately told that we would be held until Monday when the courts open, so we would be in jail for two nights.  The same park police claimed that this was their standard operating procedure (it’s not).

All 65 of us were crammed into four 6 x 8 holding cells (we measured) with a toilet at the end.  I was held with other women who took part in the demonstration.  There were more men than women, so some of the men were held in the sally port because of the overcrowding.  But that meant there were about 14 women in my room, with a few rotating out periodically for booking, making phone calls, etc.

The park police took all our jackets and sweaters away, which left a bunch of women in spaghetti straps.  They said they were worried we’d hang ourselves if they let us keep them. Then they cranked up the air conditioning so everyone was really cold.

We asked for something warm so they brought us 3 yellow styrofoam sheets. They said that was all they had. So we ripped them in two and rotated them with two women sharing them at a time, but when someone had to pee, we all turned our backs and used the sheets as sort of a wall so they’d have some privacy.

One woman had to poop and she just really did not want to do that in a 6 x 8 cell with 13 other women in the room. She asked the guard if he’d let her do it in the restroom down the hall. He wouldn’t.  So we asked if she could go join some of the men who were being held in the sally port where there was a porta potty, or if we could be taken there while she used the one in the cell, but he refused. We all said we didn’t care if she did what she needed to do, but she was so uncomfortable she just couldn’t.

The guards were actually very nice to us and we appreciated that. But they had their orders, and their orders were to lie to us and humiliate us. We all made the best of it.

After we had been there for about six hours, they stopped processing us.  They told us their computer system was down, and they couldn’t process anybody else.  Then they started taking the local people out one by one and telling us that we would be released within a half hour because of the computer system malfunction, but we were ultimately put back in the cells and continued to wait.

The story, of course, was bullshit.  One of the local women they released, Angela, had already been processed.  So a computer system malfunction, real or imagined, had nothing to do with it.

When I was waiting to get my property returned to me, I quickly stepped over to the small window to the holding cell where Dan and Scarecrow were being held.  I waved at Scarecrow, who  gave me the thumb’s up.  Dan started making faces in the window.  We had been able to hear Dan’s laughter all afternoon coming from the men’s cell.  He worked hard to keep everyone in good spirits.

They also opened up Bill McKibben’s cell for a moment while I was standing there.  He hollered “Jane, make sure everyone writes about this!”

A few minutes later Dan was brought out of his cell, and I got to give him a big hug before they pulled him away.

“Any comment?” I said.

“Don’t take no shit!” said Dan as they hauled him off to the DC jail, where they are all still being held.

When I got outside, the 350 organizers said that only about 10-15 of those who were arrested were being released, so approximately 50-55 are in jail until Monday.  They said that the Park Police told them that they were keeping the others as a “lesson” that would “discourage” anyone who wanted to take part in the daily sit-ins over the course of the next two weeks.  But the system isn’t set up to handle a two-week wave of demonstrators, so they believe they had to figure out a reason to let some people go.  The reason that was chosen assured that Bill McKibben would remain in jail, and the organizing would be disrupted.

I had an amazing time yesterday getting to share the experience of standing up to corporate dominance of our political system, and the insatiable desire of oil companies to rape our environment at all costs, with people I care about tremendously.  I also got to know a fabulous group of women, who are inspirational for their principled commitment to stopping the construction of the pipeline.  Most of them came from far away to take part in this action, many from Canada, and this arrest may mean they won’t be allowed in the country again.

The night before the sit-in we went to St. Stephens Church for a training with Bill and others from 350.   I don’t remember who it was, but one of the organizers mentioned that standing up to the oil companies right now — and to corporate America in general — is to us what standing up to King George was to the colonists.

That stuck with me.  I am happy that we were able to protest in front of the White House and that whatever happened as a consequence, it was probably going to be a matter of inconvenience more than anything else.  I’m not sure how much longer that will be true.  The growing economic despair of many Americans will only get worse with the austerity measures being pushed on us, and there are signs that both the surveillance state and the police state are preparing to respond with force.  It is unquestionable that this White House has only accelerated the rapidly advancing criminalization of free speech.

When Barack Obama was elected, he said that the earth would now begin to heal.  Yet last week, he and Michelle took separate jets only a few hours apart to Martha’s Vineyard.  There may well have been a good reason for that.  But it just goes to show that even on a symbolic front, there has been no commitment to end our dependence on oil.

The decision to allow  the construction of the pipeline rests with the President alone.  He cannot blame Congressional gridlock or partisan intransigence.  The pressure on him to allow its construction is no doubt fierce — the oil companies will claim that it will create jobs and balance our trade deficit.  Yet whatever money goes back into the economy in the form of jobs will once again be extracted from the wallets of taxpayers, because that’s what the oil companies are good at orchestrating.  And any reduction in the trade deficit will be achieved at the cost of cracking open the largest known deposit of carbon on earth, second only to Saudi Arabia.

Far from ending our dependence on oil, the President will be doubling down on it by allowing the construction of this pipeline.

This is not a right-left fight.  And it’s also bigger than just a climate change fight.  If we want to throw off the corporate overlords who push our elected officials around like pieces on a chess board, the time is now — while we still have some freedom to resist.

Yesterday, when we were sitting in front of the White House waiting to be handcuffed and taken to jail, Dan Choi said we were all “flaming firebaggers.” And together with John Chandley and Bill McKibben, he is spending tonight in jail again so that the government can send a message to you on behalf of the oil companies.  They don’t want any more flaming firebaggers in Washington for the next two weeks who will overburden the DC jail system by throwing their bodies upon the gears,  to quote Mario Savio.  They hope that you will think about what is happening to John and Dan and Bill and be discouraged from fighting back.

There were 45 more people today who refused to be discouraged.  They watched what happened and were willing to get arrested anyway, in the hope of “lighting a fire” under the world.

So the question is: are you discouraged, or are you a flaming firebagger?

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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