At the Tar Sands Protest

When the two week sit-in at the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from “tar sands” in Canada across the plains to Texas, came to an end on Saturday, some 1,252 people had been arrested.

The press paid attention mostly when celebrities got arrested, from Margot Kidder to Darryl Hannah. But there were big names in the environmental movement as well from Bill McKibben, the author who was arrested repeatedly and was something of a lightning rod at the protests, to author Naomi Klein, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen and “Gasland” director Josh Fox.

Also: My friends Bill Upholt and Mary Lee Morrison, two peacemakers from Hartford who had come up for the training to be arrested for the first time in their lives.

I came over to Lafayette Park the morning of their arrest to show support and catch up on what’s going on in what seems to be a grass roots movement that has understandably riled those whose lives and land would be intersected by the pipeline. It was a thoughtful, quite prayerful group who took heed of the suggestions to use plenty of sunscreen.

It should have been a good week for nonviolent direct action in the nation’s capital: The start of the protest coincided with the opening of the Martin Luther King memorial on the Washington Mall after decades of planning. That a monument would be erected to a citizen who came to Washington to call for change should have been an inspiration for the nation.

But Hurricane Irene canceled the opening ceremony of the monument and an even worse storm came Friday for environmentalists when the White House indicated it wouldn’t fight for a tougher clean air standards (lest it affect “jobs”; I always thought health trumps employment for those affected by ozone levels).

I’ve been a protest hanger-on most my life – ready to lift a sign if not surrender myself to cuffs for the cause. I always thought, especially in the planned nature of it all and the strange and formal ritual dance with police, the arrest part was largely an ineffectual manner of leading lambs to slaughter.

But watching the process this week I realized that such action is needed if only to make a momentary dent into the national consciousness and make more people aware of the issue. More than that, the manner in which it’s done – largely silently, thoughtfully and for many, prayerfully, there is a spiritual aspect to the sitting down defiance in that isn’t conveyed well in photographs of the arrested. For a moment, as they sit silently and hoist signs to proclaim their cause, to inform passerby, tourists, whatever news media and yes, possibly the White House. The willingness to be arrested shows it to be an issue important enough to put one’s body on the line.

For more information on the movement, go to www.tarsandaction.org.

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