Yesterday, I was arrested and charged with Civil Contempt for failing to respect an injunction forbidding protesters from coming within 5 meters of the property where Kinder Morgan is trying to bring a pipeline for tar-sands bitumen to the Pacific. Herewith a few words on why this kind of action might work and how to go about doing it. Well, and I guess I should tack on a note about why the pipeline is a stupid idea and should be stopped, but I suspect most readers here are already on-board with that.
But before any of that, my strongest thanks to our gracious hosts, the good people of the Coast Salish, whose unceded territory we were on. They were friendly, inspirational, supportive, eloquent, and politically savvy. If we win this, it’ll be their victory as much as anyone’s.
No Courage Here · A lot of the social-media buzz is fulsome about the “Courage” of the protesters. Gimme a break; if this was a “brush with the law”, it was a soft-bristled make-up brush. Now bear in mind that I am speaking from a position of maximum privilege as a grey-bearded clean-cut well-off white guy. But the legal and financial consequences seem likely to be trivial, and there seems to be an awesome support organization in place for those a little less privileged than me.
Seriously, the praise is embarrassing. I took public transit to within five minutes’ walk of the gathering place, marched for about fifteen minutes to the front gates, sat in the sun for a few hours singing songs, and was eventually courteously escorted away by affable police officers to a nice processing area under the trees where, in order to get released that day, we had to sign a document promising not to do it again. The only mildly scary bit was when the cop made a little speech claiming that getting arrested could damage your ability to travel, get a job, volunteer, and so on. Which in this particular scenario is almost certainly not true.
Then we walked back down the hill and took the train home. What could have gone wrong, but didn’t, in decreasing order of likelihood:
It could have been a horrible freezing rainy sort of Pacific Northwest March day.
There could have been cops with attitude problems who worked hard at making the experience unpleasant.
There could have been people doing Black-bloc shit with the aim of making real violence happen.
Some Kinder Morgan jerk might have decided to wade in and make trouble.
Why it might work · The project has been officially approved by the Government of Canada. Kinder Morgan has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors to finance it. Depending on how you slice your sampling, somewhere around 50% of Canadians (or British Columbians) support the project. How can a few people getting arrested in Burnaby slow down this juggernaut?
Well, there are politics and there are economics. First, the Feds’ approval was unenthusiastic not to say agonized; it happened after the petro-heads moved the Overton Window by proposing this other batshit-crazy project called Northern Gateway and created a situation where it seemed like if you shut that down, you had to give something back, and that’s what Kinder Morgan is. But I’m pretty sure the local Liberal MPs around here are tossing and turning sweatily in their beds at night. And if you surveyed Liberal voters, I bet you’d find a huge anti-Kinder-Morgan majority. Thus, I expect that the Feds are prepared to expend exactly zero serious political capital to backstop this project.
More politics: The government of BC, which the pipeline traverses and where the tar-sands tar will leak when it leaks, is dead-set against the project. So is the government of Burnaby, where the pipeline terminates and accidents are most likely, as in totally going to happen. So is the government of Vancouver, which depends existentially on its harbor, where the tanker spill will happen when the tanker spill inevitably happens. And maybe most important, so are a large number of First-nations organizations, who are litigating furiously at multiple points along the route.
Which is to say, you’re not just one of a few rag-tag environmentalists up against the whole world. You have a lot of allies.
The important thing to remember is: Decisions that matter come down to politics and economics. If you want to stop this stupid pipeline, the thing to do is to make it politically painful for its backers and economically painful for its investors. Then go back and do it again and again and again.
Delay is the planet’s friend. The economics of tar-sands oil get lousier every month oil remains in global surplus, and every month that the disastrous effects of global warming become more evident, and every month renewable and battery technologies get a little better and cheaper. Which is to say, we don’t really need to stop this pipeline, we just need to slow it down and make its awfulness visible, then go back and do it again and again, and eventually the other side will, uh, run out of gas.
There are a lot of ways this could happen, but I’d like to highlight one of them. Suppose a few thousand people decided to do what I did, each requiring police intervention to write up all those Civil Contempt charges. Then suppose the City of Burnaby decided their taxpayers just couldn’t afford it and slammed the brakes on police overtime. Yesterday they had like 30 officers there, and it took them hours to arrest us and write us up. Suppose there were 300 protesters and five cops? Writer’s cramp alone might be enough to bring it to a grinding halt.
You think I’m joking? I’m not.
The people who are organizing this, first of all, are not recommending that you go out and violate injunctions. But since there are a lot of people like me who are so mad at the process that they are just gonna go take bold action anyhow, they’re providing training, advice, and legal support. The training is excellent and super-practical. If you’re trying to block access to something, is it better to stand up or sit down? If you’re being arrested, what should you say, and be careful not to say? If someone on your side is being crazy and escalating things, what can you do? And so on. So if you’re going to do this, please take the training.
Now, how do you get there? One good way is to drive (it’s at Burnaby 200 soccer field); there’s plenty of parking up there. You might get trolls sneering at you for driving to protest an oil pipeline, but screw ’em; obviously we’re heading for an electric-car future but we’re not there yet, and one of the key points is that even today’s oil-dependent world doesn’t actually need the tar-sands product.
But public transit is a good option too; that’s how I went yesterday. Take the Skytrain to Production Way, then go stand at the #3 bus stop and take the 136 line to a stop named “WB Forest Grove Dr NS Meridian Pl”. It only runs every half-hour, but no protest has ever started on time.
Take something to sit on. I had a folding pad that I use for uncomfortable seats at ball games, and it may have saved my life. If, like me, you are a not-terribly-flexible person with a skinny bony butt, an extended sit-in can be seriously uncomfortable. But not with the right pad.
Dress with care. I had multiple layers and was glad of it; the morning was chilly, and then it got baking hot up against the south-facing Kinder Morgan gate under the direct sun. Also, I wore my Saskatchewan Rough Riders baseball cap, to inject a little Prairie culture and hey, it was St. Paddy’s, for the wearing o’ the green. And mostly to keep the sun from my eyes.
Should you take your phone? In the training course, they warned us that police have been known to confiscate phones, make sincere efforts to crack into them, and find excuses to not return them. So I didn’t take mine, which I ended up regretting — because I couldn’t take pictures and tweet away. And the arresting officer didn’t show the slightest interest in what I was carrying. Having said that, it was the first time in many years that I’ve been on a multi-hour outing without my mobile. I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but it did add an edge and some flavor to the day.
Why · There’s an excellent chance we’re heading for global climate-change catastrophe. If it isn’t obvious why digging up highly carbon-loaded fuel and making it cheaper and easier to get it into the energy economy is an egregiously stupid idea, I’m not sure that there’s much I can say that will help you.
But there are three other specific arguments in this case. First, this project is being rammed through against the wishes of a high proportion of the Native peoples whose land this is; their economies and spiritualities depend on the earth, and not the version that’s soaked in this nasty black toxic shit. Second, the place where it’s coming from, the Tar Sands project in Northern Alberta, is utterly appalling, wreaking havoc on the landscape and the water and the people. Third, a couple of dozen tanker-loads of bitumen a month running through Vancouver harbour, which has strong tidal currents, three bridges crossing it, and a couple of million people living around it, is really not very smart. The Globe and Mail has a fabulous multimedia article on the subject.
Please · If you’re in Vancouver, and care about this stuff, you can make a difference and it isn’t difficult or dangerous. Please consider coming along.
You don’t have to get arrested. Help is needed with cheerleading, supporting, and financial donations. But putting yourself on the line between Kinder Morgan and the planet you live on, it’s a thing that leaves you feeling good.