by Nancy Romer
I spent 53 hours in Washington, D.C. lock-up after being arrested for participating in an nonviolent civil disobedience action at the White House on the morning of August 20th. Along with sixty-five other protesters, we sat in front of the White House protesting the climate-changing Keystone XL Pipeline that President Obama is deciding whether to allow. Unlike other decisions that must go through a contentious Congress, the decision to allow the building of this pipeline is President Obama’s alone. The Keystone XL Pipeline will bring an intensely carbon-producing oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada through the US and to the Gulf of Mexico, destroying much farmland, watersheds, indigenous land and adding dramatically to climate change. Read all about the issue, the demonstration and watch a video produced by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.
My Personal Experience: After we were arrested (at 11:30 am on Saturday), handcuffed, put into a paddy wagon, brought to the U.S. Park Service jail, processed and fingerprinted, we were put into a tiny cell with about twenty other women. Shortly thereafter six of the women, all from the D.C. area, were sent home; the rest of us were considered a “flee risk” and were detained, handcuffed again, and shipped in another paddy wagon to the D.C. women’s lock up a short trip away. There we fourteen protesters, all white women ranging in age from 19 to 65 from fourteen different states, were put into a cell with six women of color, one Latina and five Black women, who were being held on a range of domestic violence violations.
We twenty women stayed in that 15’ x 35” cell until 7 a.m. on Monday morning. The cell had no bedding or beds whatsoever, just a cement floor, a toilet, florescent lights permanently on, and bone-chilling air temperatures. We were mostly dressed in sun dresses and shorts from the hot-weather sit-in and slept on the floor shivering for the few minutes that exhaustion took over. Every twelve hours we were served processed cheese sandwiches on white bread plus water (and twice we got a miserable fruit punch), but the silver lining — or wrapper — was that the sandwiches were packed in Saran Wrap and we used that to wrap our bare arms and legs for insulation. On Sunday afternoon, some additional clothing was brought to us by loved ones and we shared the few warmer clothes we got across the twenty women. We were freezing the second night as well.
From the beginning we protesters used our collective organizing skills to keep up our spirits, exercise and have as much fun as possible. We did frequent yoga and pilates sessions, played lots of different games, told stories, and shared personal information, especially about how we got involved politically, how we fell in love, and lots of silly stuff as well. We kept busy, chose a representative to consult with our (volunteer) lawyer, and kept watch over each other, caring for those who were ill (one protester had a migraine requiring a trip to the hospital) or scared. The non-protesting women commented on how great the experience was and how afraid they had been of being locked up. One of the local DC women was shocked that none of us had met prior to the arrest because we worked so well together and shared so much in common. What she was observing was activist culture in action. It was a white version thereof, but I am quite sure that women of color activists would find all of this very familiar as well.
At 7 a.m. on Monday morning we were again handcuffed, put in a paddy wagon and driven to the D.C. criminal court house. We were shackled as soon as we got there and put into another holding cell with two or three other women. The noise from women in the other cells and the clanking of cell doors and keys was deafening and rattling. We worried that we’d be kept yet another day. Again the cold was intolerable, but this time we had metal benches to sit on, much warmer than cement. We exchanged info on our favorite environmental books and films and strategized about how to conduct ourselves in court and consult with legal counsel.
At 4:30 p.m. on Monday, we were released and told to go home, charges were dropped, leave. We all hugged and kissed, walked out of the lock up (shackles finally removed), saw the forty protestor men in lock-up and heard them cheer us as we left. We went into the building and were met by the support squad ready with food and drink for us to enjoy. Lots of cheers, lots of hugs, very little corporate media though lots of alternative media. (The New York Times had an editorial on Sunday, August 21st, opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline.)
We all felt it was worth it to step out and declare our opposition to policies that are killing our planet. We all felt that we contributed what we could to call out to our people and ask them to join us, to risk arrest, to give of themselves in any way they can to dial down the advancing climate change that threatens our lives and especially the lives of our children and grandchildren.
For a couple of days before the sit-in, Lew and I visited our 20-month old grandson, Elon, and our son and daughter-in-law who live just outside DC. Elon has a wonderful life and is being raised with an enormous amount of love and care. He is a happy boy, laughing and smiling his way through each day. What will the planet hold for him and all the other children? Seeing him before the sit-in helped to strengthen my resolve. I cannot stand by and watch our planet deteriorate without being part of a movement of resistance and, hopefully, change.
Mostly I work on food-democracy issues, including the unsustainability of our present food system. That system annually contributes 1/3 of all greenhouse gases — even more than personal transportation. The issue of the Tar Sands Keystone XL Pipeline and determination because I wanted to see the environmental movement become more militant, involve more people and stand up to the oil, gas and coal industry. We need a “Manhattan Project” to develop renewable energy, not another source of carbon-producing energy. We need to cut back our use of energy and make renewable energy sources locally produced and distributed. We need a population that is willing to stand up to the corporations and their puppets in government — in the Congress, the states, the cities, and the White House — to make them invest in renewable energy and slow the rate of climate change. (You can read more on the issue at www.tarsandsaction.org.)
Our planet cannot wait for us to summon up our courage. We have to do it now.
Nancy Romer is general coordinator of the Brooklyn Food Coalition.
(For more about the mass arrests of protestors of the Tar Sands Pipeline, click here.)