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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Free Write: Washington D.C. Sit-In vs. Keystone XL

On August 12th, I found myself doing something that I never thought I would do. I was in Washington D.C., six hours from home, sitting beneath the beating sun outside of the State Department building, and risking arrest with about sixty other people.
            “One! We are the people! Two! You can’t ignore us! Three! We will not let you build this pipeline!” My voice was growing ragged, but I persisted.
            I was holding a sign that said “Another person who grew up playing outside against the pipeline,” and everyone else risking arrest with me was holding these signs, each personalized to suit their reasons for protesting.
            In front of us was a crowd of about 100 people supporting us, and a swarm of media with their cameras and notepads, running about like a colony of ants. At one point, I looked into the crowd and saw a boy about my age holding up a sign that said “Thank You Climate Heroes.” I almost cried. I typically would consider Bill McKibben or Rachel Carson climate heroes, but today, some thought I was a climate hero.
            Just a couple days before the protest, I was scrambling to get everything together and be on my way. My parents were struggling to swallow the fact that their soon-to-be-college-student was running off to D.C. all by herself, staying at a stranger’s house, and that there was a possibility she would be arrested. And if she was arrested, they couldn’t come get her. They would simply have to leave her there in jail, because that’s how peaceful protesting works.
            But because they’re good parents, and always have been, they supported me. Mom helped me get in touch with a lawyer for a free consultation, and Dad sent me off with a full tank of gas, and I was on my way.
            At the time I left the house (four in the morning) I still hadn’t decided whether I was going to risk arrest or be a part of the support rally. I wanted to risk arrest- there was no doubt. I wanted to show President Obama and the State Department and the police and whoever the hell else cared that if the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved, I will not sit by idly and swallow it. I will not allow it, and neither will the approximate 75,000 other people who signed the Pledge of Resistance.
            As I drove away into the darkness before dawn, a slogan I had seen before crept back into my mind: “Respect existence, or expect resistance.” That slogan was stuck in my head all day, and I even said it out loud a couple of times on my car ride. 
Wind turbines early in the morning in PA on my drive to DC. 

            There was only one thing holding me back from risking arrest- the cost of fines. I was going to college soon, and I didn’t have money to throw around. Most of the money I did have was from my graduation party, and that hadn’t been given to me so I could pay the cost of jail time- it had been given to me for college. I also didn’t feel comfortable asking my family for the money. This is my cause, and my decision, and therefore it’s my responsibility to face the consequences. Although my family supports my environmental activism and agrees that we as humans need to change our ways, there’s a reason why I was going solo to Washington D.C. I’m the only one who has truly taken the cause to heart, and who is willing to risk arrest over it.
            My free consultation with a lawyer over the phone didn’t give me any direct answers. She said I might get fined, I might get let off the hook easy, but there was no way she could guarantee one or the other to me, or even give me a guess. Determining the exact cost of the fine was another gamble. I decided to choose my course of action after the mandatory legal briefing I would be attending when I got to D.C. with my host, Ron Meservey.
            I found Ron and his wife, RoseMarie, online on a Google Doc where protest attendees were asking for and giving rides and a place to stay. There were more people asking for a place to stay than not, and it wasn’t until the day before I left that I saw the Meservey’s offer. I called them immediately and left them a voicemail, and they got back to me a short while later and said I could stay with them, as long as I wouldn’t mind their four cats. I told them I was perfectly okay with them, and as it turns out, Ron and RoseMarie’s cats (Sparkles, Ebony, Bart, and Laylah) were one of the highlights of the trip.
            When I arrived at their home in Maryland, about a half an hour outside the city, Ron and RoseMarie welcomed me with open arms and heartfelt kindness. They are perhaps two of the most hospitable and sweet people I have ever met, and I kept thanking the universe over and over again for helping me find them. I couldn’t afford a hotel, and I really didn’t want to sleep in my car.
            Shortly after my arrival, Ron and I traveled into the city, using his Prius to get to the nearest subway station and then taking the subway the rest of the way in. From the station, we walked to a quaint café where the legal briefing and peaceful resistance training was being held in the basement. 
The training at the cafe

            The legal briefing was much more helpful than my phone consultation for two main reasons. The first was that there was a lawyer there, and he actually drew up a diagram of all the possible things that could happen to us. Our most likely outcomes were a few hours and jail paired with a fine, or a few hours in jail paired with some cops who didn’t want to do paperwork and would let us off without a fine. There were two possible charges we would receive for conducting a sit-in at the State Department: obstructing an entrance ($30) or resisting an officer’s orders ($100). This information on its own was already more than what the consultation had given me, but he also proceeded to tell us the less-likely things that could happen to us: overnight jail time, court, community service, etc.
            The second reason why the legal briefing was helpful made me cry. One of the event coordinators passed around a hat, asking for donations to pay for the fines of people who were like me and couldn’t afford it. After the hat had gone around, she asked the people who needed “the fruits of the hat” to come over. There were three of us, me and two young men in their twenties. As she counted out the money in front of us, I started to cry because I realized how much people had donated. When she finished she said there was more than enough to cover the three of us, and she saw me crying and gave me a hug. As if Ron and RoseMarie opening their home to me wasn’t enough, a group of complete strangers connected only by their desire to protect the environment raised over $300 in a matter of about ten minutes. It was overwhelming.
            At the conclusion of the legal briefing we started nonviolence training. We made our signs, the ones that say “Another _______ Against the Pipeline,” we paired up with someone new and introduced ourselves by talking about why we came, and then we practiced various confrontation scenarios. These included being approached by an angry employee who wanted to go through the entrance we would be blocking, a pro-pipeline onlooker who wanted to heckle us, and what to do when a cop came to arrest us. We were told who to call on if we needed help, and we were introduced to the media liaisons and trained to send reporters to them if they approached us.
            Then, in the midst of the training, something else amazing happened. I was approached by one of the media liaisons and asked to be a media spokesperson because they liked the sign I had made. Being a media spokesperson meant that I would be interviewed and recorded by the coordinating organizations, the footage of which might potentially be used in a future video promoting the protest efforts. It also meant that the next day, the liaisons would be directing reporters to me for interviews.
            So, after the training concluded, I stayed a few minutes longer for my recorded interview while Ron waited patiently outside. During the interview, they asked me why I came to Washington D.C. to risk arrest. In response, I told them the story of where and how I grew up: in the beautiful Finger Lakes region, playing outside everyday. My exposure to the outdoors led me to appreciate nature, and when I was old enough to understand that the natural world was in danger, I knew I had to protect it.   
            Ron and I went home, tired but happy, and had a lovely dinner with RoseMarie. I lay awake in bed for a long time that night, even though we had to get up early, thinking “holy crap, tomorrow is about to happen.” There were moments when I couldn’t believe I was here in the nation’s capital. Just a couple of days ago, I had been in the Adirondacks, vacationing and relaxing with my boyfriend and his family.
            And tomorrow, Ron and I might get a taste for what a jail cell feels like. 
Ron and I with our signs in the park
"Another Survivor of Superstorm Sandy Against the Pipeline"
RoseMarie holding a banner.
            In the morning, the three of us returned to D.C. and gathered in a park around the corner from the State Department with the rest of the protesters. There were police on motorcycles waiting on the side of the road beside the park. A journalist interviewed me for the first time that day in the park- his name is Dustin Volz, and he writes for the National Journal. After a lot of waiting and preparing for the march and organizing, it was finally time to go. When we lined up outside the State Department, I had to be on the end of the line so the media could reach me easily. In the process of preparing for that in the park, I somehow managed to get myself at the front of the march with two other women, and subsequently, had about a million pictures taken of me. The three of us were very symbolic- there was me, an eighteen year old, then a middle aged woman, perhaps in her thirties or early forties, and then an older woman.
            Three different generations, three different backgrounds and upbringings, and here we were, standing together and fighting for the same cause. A cause that will (and is) effect(ing) every single human being and animal on the planet. The media ate us up. 
The support rally

            The cops on the motorcycles were actually there to help us; they kept us safe from cars as we overtook a lane of traffic for the march and made our way to the State Department. It was only nine in the morning, but the sun was already hot.
            As we rounded the corner of the building and marched to the entrance, it became apparent that we weren’t going to be arrested that day, although the place was crawling with police, much more than I had expected. They had set up temporary fences in front of the entrance so that we couldn’t obstruct it with our bodies (apparently they’d rather have a fence do it).
 Heavy police presence

            Instead, we lined up along the wall in front of the entrance and hunkered down for our ninety-minute rally that we had planned in the event we weren’t arrested. Our supporters stood in the street and chanted along with us, and with the media recording our every word, we each went through and read our sign out loud.
            “My name is Jane, and I am another Vermonter and Mom against the pipeline.”
            Everyone: “President Obama, stop the pipeline!”
            “My name is Birdie, I’m a mother and I’m a new grandmother, and I am against the pipeline.”
            Everyone: “President Obama, stop the pipeline!”
            “My name is Margaret, and I am another ecologist and Christian against the pipeline.”
            Everyone: “President Obama, stop the pipeline!”
            Eventually, it came around to me. With all eyes on me, I boldly and proudly declared: “My name is Faith, and I am another person who grew up playing outside against the pipeline.”
            Everyone replied: “President Obama, stop the pipeline!”
            We went through everyone several more times, with lots of chanting in between.
            Finally, we disassembled our formation and marched away, all of us hoarse and thirsty and sweaty, but proud. I had been interviewed several more times during the rally by various news outlets, one of which was French. 
            As we made our way back around toward the park, we came across a side entrance to the building with only a few cops in front of it. People were using this entrance in place of the main entrance, which had been shut down for our rally. People who did not want to risk arrest were ushered to the back of the crowd, and those of us who did want to were urged up to the front, and we began to protest in front of this entrance.
            The cops who were there already looked at each other and started talking into walkie-talkies, and within minutes the side entrance was swarming with police. They formed a body barrier between us and the stairs up to the side entrance. I ventured the closest to them out of everyone, standing directly in front of the curb. We were only feet away from the cops, who looked forward unseeingly and held emotionless expressions, like the guard at Buckingham Palace. At one point, a rabbi who was risking arrest took the megaphone and gave a compelling speech directed at the cops, telling them about why were doing this and why it affected them, too. It was interesting to see how, just for a few fleeting moments, many of their stoic expressions broke, especially when the rabbi mentioned their families.
            We chanted here for a while, the intensity of the stand-off fueling our fire. But, no one was getting arrested today. Finally, when it felt as though we had exhausted this outlet, the event coordinators led us away back to the park. I wish I could hear how some of those policemen told the story to their families that night around the dinner table. 
The side entrance blockade

            Dustin Volz interviewed me again on the walk back, following up on the outcome of the rally. I told him I was disappointed that we were not arrested (although I’m sure my family wouldn’t be), but that we had accomplished what we came here for, which was to send a message:
            President Obama, we will not let you build this pipeline.

            On my way back home the following day, that boy and his sign kept coming back to me. “Thank You Climate Heroes.” I was a hero. Ron was a hero. All the grandmas and students and fathers and concerned citizens that were alongside us were heroes. Everyone at that rally was a hero. 
            At the rally, we sent a message, but we did not directly stop the pipeline. So, until the day Obama vetoes the pipeline, we heroes will be on call.

            To find pictures, articles, and tweets about the rally, go here.
            To read an article that includes quotes from me, go here. Thank you Dustin Volz!
            Inspired? Want to sign the Pledge of Resistance? Click here.
To read about my experience at an anti-fracking rally in Albany, NY, click here

            Thank you to Rose and Ron Meservey, who opened their home to a complete stranger and saved me from sleeping in my car. Also, for feeding me and transporting me and talking with me and just being generally awesome. Thank you to all of the people who came to the rally, both arrest-riskers and supporters; you are all my heroes. Thank you to The Other 98%, the Rainforest Action Network, and CREDO Mobile for training us, leading us, and making the event possible. Thank you to the media for making our voices heard and assuring me that yes, I really do want to be a journalist. Thank you Mom and Dad for supporting me even when what I’m doing scares the hell out of you. Thank you to everyone who has and will sign the Pledge of Resistance.    

Lastly, thank you President Obama- in advance- for rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline. 

Some of my favorite signs:


All pictures included in this post were taken either by me or RoseMarie Meservey. 

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