Playing Games and Picking Our Cages
February 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
Last Friday, three women from Michigan were found guilty of felony “Resisting and Obstructing” of a police officer. They were all charged while participating in an action against the expansion of a tar sand pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge. In 2010 this pipeline, named Line 6B, burst. The resulting spill was the largest on-land oil spill in US history, with much of the bitumen pouring into the Kalamzaoo River. Tar sands bitumen being heavier than water, unlike conventional oil, this syn-crude sank to the bottom of the river making for a complex cleaning effort which residents claim is not satisfactory even now, almost four years later. When Barbara Carter, Lisa Leggio, and Vicci Hamlin – the MI-CATS Three – locked themselves to machinery at a Line 6B work site, they were fighting for their communities, their families, and for all of us.
Usually when an activist risks arrest by utilizing a blockade tactic such a s a lock down or an aerial device such as a monopod, their primary goal is the halting of whichever activity they are impeding. The arrest isn’t the point, but the unfortunate side effect. Not all lockdowns even end in arrest. If the police called to the scene are incapable of dismantling the device the activist uses, or like in the case of another Michigander fighting Enbridge, Felix, if the police have no idea how to fetch a blockader from an elevated position, they negotiate terms. When arrests are made, the charges can vary widely. In a young campaign, the first actions are often considered a minor nuisance, and simple trespass charges are filed, which can usually result in a sentence of time served after the defendant does their original day or so in jail. As a campaign progresses however, and as the corporation targeted becomes more and more frustrated with constant work shut downs, the charges activists face become more extreme, despite the actions often being nearly identical with those previously carried out. These enhanced criminal charges result in higher bail amounts levied, and more potential jail time for the participants. Obviously, the intent is to frighten people away from the campaign or to at least push them into less risky and less effective tactics.
In the case of the MI-CATS three, these women took no plea deals and instead faced the felony charges head on, likely believing not only in the necessity and ethical nature of their actions, but in the ability of their defense attorneys to demonstrate this to a Jury. Instead, after roughly ten hours of deliberation, the jury found in favor of the prosecution, and these three women now face upwards of two years in jail.
On the final day of the trial, I sat anxiously waiting for the verdict to be posted online by members of MI-CATS who were in attendance. I was crushed to read of their convictions. Everyone should be, because this guilty verdict is another shove in the chest against those who are willing to fight for the health of the planet, and it is a warning to even non-actvists that dissent will not be tolerated. This guilty verdict is more confirmation that the priority of the state apparatus is commerce, not the needs of the natural world or even the needs of human beings as a species. People have become redundant to capitalism, and people who even temporarily disrupt the machinations of the controllers of capital, even in a non-destructive way, will be dealt with summarily.
In Oklahoma City on December 13th of last year, four people were arrested for staging a protest at the Devon Tower, home to oil and gas companies involved in hydraulic fracturing and tar sands mining. Members of Cross Timbers Earth First! and Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, two of these activists locked themselves into a revolving door, while the other two had entered the building’s public atrium and then proceeded to unfurl a banner from the balcony. The red banner adorned in gold paint and glitter read, “The Odds are Never in Our Favor,” and in the center contained the image of a Mockingjay holding a monkey wrench in its mouth. The image and the phrase invoked the “Hunger Games” series as well as Earth First! iconography.
Stefan Warner and Moriah Stephenson were the two people who dropped the banner, and neither of them intended to be arrested that day. Both of them left the atrium of the Devon Tower when asked, and when Warner saw a janitor begin to sweep up glitter that had fallen from the banner, he apologized. Stephenson had homework to attend to that afternoon, so when she and Warner were both arrested and charged with “Criminal Trespass,” “Disorderly Conduct,” and “Terrorism Hoax,” it must have been quite an unwelcome shock. The “Terrorism Hoax” charge was justified by police with the claim that the glitter which fell from the banner was a “mysterious powder.” The maximum sentence for being found guilty is ten years in prison.
Calling activism “terrorism” is a disgusting mangling of language with so many shades of Kafka that it should make us all want to tear our hair out. It is also a cognitive transition that corporate and state entities have been consciously molding in the shadows.
In 2012, the Tar Sands Blockade campaign was launched, as Texans banded together with the help of friends from around the US to use direct action tactics to halt the construction of the southern leg of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. The most grandiose action Tar Sands Blockade engaged in was the creation and occupation of a tree village on David Daniel’s twenty acre property in Winnsboro, Texas. This blockade effort including multiple tree platforms suspended eighty feet in the air which were connected by a series of traverse lines. The northern edge of the property was defended with a one hundred and twenty foot pine-pole wall which spanned the width of the pipeline easement. The arrival of work crews and their machinery was met with resistance on the ground as packs of camouflage donning defenders played cat and mouse with bulldozers and feller-bunchers, and a stream of volunteers willing to endure pepper spray and tasers locked themselves to these machines.
Their campaign lasted months and spanned the length of the southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Houston. Up in Nebraska, the anti Keystone XL group BOLD filed an open records request in January of 2013 which uncovered a power point presentation that accompanied a briefing delivered by TransCanada employees to state police. This presentation detailed the entire Tar Sands Blockade campaign up to that point, and included a portion in which the corporation suggested to police and prosecutors potential charges that could be used against anti-pipeline activists. Notably, TransCanada was suggesting that law enforcement agencies look into state and federal terrorism charges.
Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance has regularly relied on the legal services of Douglas Parr when they have engaged in direct action tactics. Parr has found through open records requests that a GPTSR direct action training had been infiltrated by two Oklahoma police, and he further found that Oklahoma police had also been briefed by representatives from TransCanada. The “Terrorism Hoax” charges appear to be a result of the suggestions made to law enforcement by corporate representatives.
The anti Keystone XL campaign in Texas and Oklahoma resulted in numerous felony charges against activists who locked themselves to construction equipment or climbed trees in the path of the pipeline. Most of these charges were lowered to misdemeanors, but a handful of “conspiracy to commit organized crime” charges still await hearing against tree sitters. Many participants in this campaign also have been added to a “Known Gang Affiliate” list, and are finding this out when their names are run during simple traffic stops.
Giving a damn is becoming a risky proposition these days. In Colorado, Taylor Radig went undercover for the group Compassion Over Killing, and witnessed abuse to new born calves at a cattle ranch. When she securely left the job, she took footage of the abuse to the local Sheriff, who then arrested her for not “reporting the abuse in a timely manner,” essentially claiming that by not reporting the abuse immediately, that she was culpable for it.
Over in Illinois, animal rights activist Kevin Olliff has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “Possession of Burglary Tools.” The tools in question? Wire cutters. Kevin was pulled over with a friend, Tyler Lang, and arrested on the suspicion of having intent to free animals from a fur farm. Tyler has since been released on a plea deal.
If the corporations and their bought and paid for associates in government have their way, “Ag-Gag” laws will be passed in more an more states. These laws seek to make it a crime to film inside a slaughterhouse or at the site of a clear cut. Oregon’s state legislature has twice tried to criminalize “Interference with state forestland management.” The most recent attempt, HB 2595 would have made tree-sitting to blockade the logging of state forests a felony, had the bill not died in committee.
California is experiencing what could be it’s worst drought in centuries. Alaska is experiencing record high temperatures. Argentina and Australia, are experiencing record high temperatures. England is experiencing record wet conditions. Typhoon Haiyan leveled large regions in the Philippines in 2013, which was the warmest year on record – tied with 2003 – since record keeping began.
There are books and blogs and reports all keeping tabs on the accelerating pace at which human industrial activity is snuffing out life on Earth. I have listed in conversations and essays and articles the die offs and the creeping toxicity of water, air, and our blood. Well funded scientists, journalists, big name authors and even celebrities have rung alarm after alarm concerning the myriad ways in which industrial civilization is making the planet less and less inhabitable.
Yet here we are. The few who answer the call to rise up and defend our home are branded as criminals at best, and terrorists at worst. So I am at a loss. To be sure, I am not naive, and I understand that the way activism, even the so called “radical” direct action activism of participants in wealthier nations is essentially a game. In countries where the state is less compelled to pretend to give a flip about their citizenry, defenders of the land don’t sit on tripods and climb into half built pipelines. In Nigera, the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta fights to defend their land from foreign petroleum companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil. The Niger River Delta has been recklessly poisoned by the foreign corporations who are stealing the wealth of that land and leaving toxicity in their wake. In 2006 M.E.N.D. had this message for the oil companies in their country:
“It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets. Leave our land while you can or die in it…. Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil.”
In Brazil, the Munduruku people just last week dressed for war, and went to the site of an illegal gold mine in their territory. They told the miners to leave and to never come back, and then seized their equipment. The Brazilian government itself is attempting to build a dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon, which would negatively affect the lives of thousands of indigenous people who depend on the river for their livelihoods. Representatives from these tribes have said:
“If the Government decides to go ahead with the construction of Belo Monte, we Indians of the Xingu will commence a war.”
The stakes are high in the fight to defend the living world from the death machine of perpetual economic growth. There is no pretense about this in countries around the world where the violence of capitalist production is less of an academic theory, and more of a day to day reality. Across Latin America, anti-mining and anti-dam organizers are threatened and killed. Mariano Abarca Robiero was an anti-mining organizer in Chiapas, Mexico. He was shot to death in 2009, days after he filed charges against Blackfire employees who threatened to shoot him if he did not stop organizing resistance to the Canadian firm’s barium mine. In 2013, a Mexican anti-dam organizer was stoned to death before the opening of a gathering of people affected by dams. Noe Vazquez Ortiz‘s murder is suspected by some to have been orchestrated by the state. Gustavo Castro, member of Otros Mundos Chiapas (Friends of the Earth México) told Real World Radio that when told of the upcoming event, state authorities said they could not guarantee the safety of participants. In his words:
“The government is criminalizing any mobilization against mining, dams and other megaprojects”.
George Black for OnEarth researched the increasing amount of killings of environmental activists globally. He writes:
“A report last June by [a] group called Global Witness…summarizes some of the known facts. The report says that 106 environmental activists were killed in 2011, the highest number ever recorded, up from 96 the previous year; 711 deaths have been documented in the last decade, in 34 different countries. Many of these were targeted assassinations; others occurred in the violent suppression of protests.”
Black goes on to parse the data, and to explain the numbers of killed environmental activists are surely much higher than the report states for the basic reason that many countries where rapacious resource extraction occurs have little or no human rights reporting, if it is not outright banned. Black continues:
“In the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, a distinguished Ugandan magistrate named Margaret Sekaggya, suggests one reason why. In Mexico, she told the UN Human Rights Council last December, a journalist was killed after reporting critically on the activities of mining companies. In Central America, a number of environmental reporters were beaten, intimidated, and threatened, and one was murdered. In Iran, a reporter was charged with espionage. In Nigeria, a documentary maker covering land and environmental disputes was arbitrarily detained without access to a lawyer. And the perpetrators of abuse have literally gotten away with murder: even in Brazil, with its sophisticated monitoring system, fewer than 10 percent of cases involving the killing of activists ever make it to court, and barely 1 percent have led to a conviction.”
It is rare for an environmental activist to be killed in the US or Canada or Europe or Australia (Non-White activists face a much higher risk, to be sure.) In these “developed” nations, we play games where we place our lives and limbs in a precarious position until we are fetched or tortured into submission with pain compliance. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. There are forests that stand today because people took to living in their canopies. There are acres of land that have not been drilled for hydrocarbons because auctions have been disrupted and equipment blockaded. It would seem however, that corporate and state entities are interested in pushing the ratio of environmentalist victories to losses in their favor, and that the use of Draconian penalization up to and including Orwellian anti-terror statutes is their weapon of choice.
We have our games and they have theirs.
There is a case that seems to demonstrate an exception to the rule. In late August of 2012, someone snuck into a site where hydraulic fracturing was being practiced in the Loyalsock State Forest in Pennsylvania, and proceeded to not only block the access road with felled timber, but then used the drilling company’s own heavy moving equipment to trash the whole site. Brubacher Energy Services estimated the cost of the total damage to be $120,000. Work was halted for three months.
Who was the perpetrator of this glorious act of eco-defense? Tanner Long, a twenty-one year old plead guilty to the act and was sentenced to six months in a local county pre-release center. Never once was the word sabotage used. Never once was the word eco-terrorist thrown about. Long, in fact, never revealed a motivation for his act. The only clue available to the public to explain his action is that according to a local newspaper, Long had been working for natural gas companies in the area. The Judge who presided over the case told Long to “grow up.”
How is it that hanging a banner is terrorism, or locking yourself to a bulldozer is a felony, but using the bulldozer to roll other equipment on its side is vandalism? It would seem that in the eyes of the corporate state, intention is everything. If you act with love in your heart to defend the living world, you are an eco-terrorist who must be put away for years and a message must be sent to anyone who might possibly contemplate following in your footsteps. If you’re bored and angry at your boss, by all means, utterly demolish a work site and we’ll slap you on the wrist.
Not that I am complaining about Tanner Long’s jail sentence, I hope he is still bored and angry upon his release.
Truly, the fight to defend the ecology of the planet is the fight to save dignified human existence. It is the fight against a caged existence where we live too afraid to stand up for what is so clearly right because those who profit from wrong are so quick to move us from an existential to a physical prison. A cursory glance at local and national news allows us to see the future which will come if we do not fight; the state will grow more repressive, the climatic swings will bring more disaster, and the poor will suffer greater hunger and disease while a handful of wealthy elites will control all of the world’s resources. Speech and dissent will be far more dangerous, and the possibility of resistance will dwindle to zero as the full spectrum dominance of the national security apparatus will be complete. The web of life will continue it’s cascading collapse, and it will be a century, maybe decades until the planet is an unrecognizable wasteland not fit to support most currently living organisms, including human beings.
As it stands, self described “liberals” claim an ideological patent on environmental activism, yet they shackle it to passive tactics which hand our friends and comrades and what little wealth we have right over to the state. Unarguably, there is not just one working methodology of resistance, and there are many in radical circles who condone everything from simple awareness campaigns to outright sabotage, but there is a lack of solidarity amongst those who profess to want to defend the living planet, and when it comes time to take direct and radical action, those who engage in such tactics are abandoned by moderates. The truth is there are many “leftists” who still prioritize the needs of the economy over the needs of the ecology, and there are “leftists” who prioritize a certain ideological purity over the needs of the ecology. Both creates divisions which result in comrades left without the support they need to truly be effective in the fight to preserve life on Earth. It’s hard enough to fight the massive resources and advantages of the state and capital without being cast as expendable by supposed allies.
Of course, by making felonies and terrorism cases out of simple acts of civil disobedience, the state knows they are pushing activists towards more radical tactics. If everything from hanging a glittery banner to setting fire to a well site is terrorism, then why not just choose the latter? With sabotage, the set back to industry is greater and the odds of escaping with one’s freedom are too. Do corporate and state entities want an all out war on environmental activists? They must know that increasing the criminal penalties of common protest tactics will not extinguish passions, let alone alleviate the destruction wrought by industry, and thus that they will only be pushing environmental action further underground. Do they really believe they can win a war of attrition against clandestine saboteurs when they must defend thousand mile pipelines, a multi-thousand mile electric grid, and countless pieces of machinery left alone and unguarded on logging sites and oil and gas easements scattered across this rural continent? Perhaps to them it’s not so much about winning as it is about retroactively justifying their spying and the militarization of local police forces. Maybe if they can paint enough college students and grandparents as home grown eco-Al-Qaeda, they can shift away from themselves public blame for declining infrastructure, declining net energy returns, declining standards of living, and declining empire.
Or maybe they would rather just skip the games and shoot us. Honestly, who would stop them?