Tar sands blockaders: an insider’s story

| 29th November 2012
People and Planet

A separate group of protesters hold a banner in front of the White House.

What’s it like to stop the talking and put your life on the line for what you believe in? Activist and reporter, Eric Moll, has joined the Tar Sands Blockaders who have been protesting over the laying of TransCanada’s XL Keystone pipeline in Texas since April. Here he reveals just how brutal the authorities are with the ‘hippies’ protesting over the corporation’s damage to the environment
The completion of the XL Keystone pipeline would be game over for the climate say James Hansen, NASA

The rising Texas sun reveals the features of the machine to which I’ve locked myself, a massive saw-bladed tree-clearing rig which might have been designed by H.R. Giger. It’s called a Feller-Buncher, after its dual functions of killing trees and stacking them in neat piles.

My partner and I are attached with a device called a lockbox, but it’s actually more of a tube. We each have one arm inside. We can voluntarily unlock ourselves but can’t be removed unless the box is cut apart.

A few dozen feet away, two more blockaders are locked to a different machine. Behind us, TransCanada’s easement cuts a long, barren swath through the forest. If we weren’t here, the tree clearing would be continuing; a deep trench would be dug, and then sections of the Keystone pipeline would be lowered into the ground.

We don’t want that to happen.

Some members of the Tar Sands Blockade (TSB) are upset about how TransCanada bullied locals into giving up their land or stole it outright through a domain process which favors corporate power. My partner on the other side of the lockbox, a native of Michigan, is worried about accidents like the one that poisoned his hometown’s Kalamazoo River following the largest inland oil spill in North American history.

The completion of the XL Keystone pipeline would be game over for the climate say James Hansen, NASA

For my part, I’m concerned that tar sands oil has a significantly higher carbon footprint than regular crude oil, and that NASA’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, says the completion of the pipeline would be “game over for the climate.”

Six miles away, another TSB team is stopping work at a different site. The police arrive at that site first, so for a while we have the easement to ourselves.

When police do finally show up, most of the people who aren’t locked down move to the road to avoid trespassing charges. The individual who does refuse to leave is promptly arrested. Now it’s just us, the police and a TransCanada official who appears to be the person giving orders to the police.

TransCanada denies responsibility for how police deal with blockaders, but the company actually hires off-duty cops for private security shifts and works closely with local police.

The sun is getting hot. I take off my coat and hold it up for shade. The TransCanada employee sets up a camera and films the scene as the police warn us to unlock or face the consequences. He turns the camera off as one of the cops pepper sprays both of us in the face.

I don’t react quickly enough and so take a hit of pepper straight to the eyeballs. The pain is like hot Velcro being dragged across my cornea. I won’t be able to open my eyes for nearly three hours.

I am now struggling to breathe through a caustic mixture of tears, snot, and police-grade mace, but I can’t stop gagging and burping. I fight off a vomit-reflex. My partner grasps one of my fingers inside the lockbox, and I squeeze back.

One of the older sheriffs wistfully remembers the good old days when police could use fire hoses, dogs and batons on ‘hippies’ like us. One of the officers jokes that at least we’re not chanting “Black Power” anymore.

Maybe an hour later, the TransCanada camera comes out for another polite warning. Then it’s turned off and we get sprayed again.

I’m starting to wonder about my limits. How long will I hold out if they keep spraying? And what if they follow through on the threat to use tazers? One hour? Five hours? It’s not a good feeling, knowing that my convictions might not withstand torture (or “pain-compliance,” as the police call it).

The police tell us that we’ve made the news and there’s no reason to continue. They seem to think that we’re simply staging a media stunt. We stay locked because every passing hour costs TransCanada money and slows construction of the pipeline. Blockaders on the road are shouting support. Someone plays soulful harmonica, which somehow works to make me feel better.

Eventually, the police cut our device apart. They pull us away, cuff us with plastic zip-ties and order us to walk. I go limp instead. The cops drag me by the arms, face down in the dirt. Blockaders on the road yell that prisoners are supposed to be dragged face up to avoid shoulder injury, but the cops ignore them.

“They’re already under arrest, let us give them water!” yells someone from the road. The cops counter that they only offered us water if we unlocked voluntarily, which we did not. Another blockader yells “how does it feel to torture American citizens on behalf of a foreign corporation?”

The sheriff – the one who had lamented the modern prohibition against dogs and fire-hoses-  says, too quietly for the protesters on the road to hear, “this ain’t torture. We could peel the skin off your arms, now that’d be torture.”

We’re left for nearly an hour while the other two locked-down blockaders are pepper sprayed even more aggressively – point blank, straight into the eyes – until they unlock themselves. The police accidentally stand downwind and end up getting sprayed themselves, hacking and coughing. Finally, a van arrives and we’re taken to jail.

It isn’t until I’m released 30 hours later that I find out what happened at the other site where the protest had been planned as a sustained tree-sit for at least five to seven days.

Blockaders had arrived at that site before dawn and set up an elaborate system of three “suicide platforms” in the trees. The platforms were on private property adjacent to TransCanada’s easement, but their lifelines were tied to equipment on the easement. If just one of the ropes were cut, all three platforms and the blockaders on them would have fallen over 50 feet.

The owner of the land had originally given permission for the blockaders to be on the land but later and under pressure from TransCanada withdrew permission. By that point, a crowd of 120 locals and blockaders had gathered at the road to support the tree sitters.

Shortly after a group photo had been taken a truck with a cherry-picker arrived. Without any more prompting than someone yelling “stop that truck!”, the crowd rushed into the road. Julie, who was watching from one of the tree platforms, says “people ran in front of it, people sat down in front of it before it had even stopped moving, there were people on top of it. It was the most amazing sight that I’ve ever seen.”

According to Doug, one of the blockaders who had stopped the cherry-picker, “a policeman said ‘you get one warning!’ and then in almost the same motion, he had turned his back, grabbed the pepper spray, and moved from left to right in an arc, spraying the whole crowd.” The officer kept spraying until the can was empty, hitting, among others, a 75-year old woman and another woman in a wheelchair.

The cherry-picker truck managed to get past the crowd and drove onto the easement. “There was another line tied very low across the whole length of the easement,” says Julie, “if it had touched that line, there’s no way it would have held up, and it would have killed all of us. That was an extremely terrifying moment.”

Despite the obvious danger, the truck didn’t stop or even slow down, missing the lifeline byjust  six inches. The vehicle was then used to arrest and remove the tree sitters.

In total, 11 blockaders were arrested and charged with a total of 16 felonies and 11 misdemeanors. TSB covers bail. When we get out, a crowd of fellow blockaders is waiting with food, water and hugs.

The blockaders are disappointed that the tree-sit didn’t last longer, but everyone considers the action to have been a success. Several people who had joined them just for the activism, including myself, my lock-down partner, and Doug, decide to stay long- term. Our protest action is covered by CNN, the New York Times, and other international wire services such as United Press International. Over 40 solidarity actions are held in the U.S. and around the world.

This blockade has actually been active since April. Most of the blockaders live just outside the site in a semi-permanent camp. TSB operates entirely on consensus; there are no leaders. Participants have diverse backgrounds – the unifying traits are a no-compromise rejection of the pipeline and a commitment to peaceful direct action as a tactic. The organisation’s main expenses are bail and transportation, which are funded by grassroots donations.

None of the blockaders have any illusions about what they’re up against – all the police repression and political access that billions of dollars of fossil fuel money can buy – but they’re remarkably energetic and excited to be fighting the fight at one of the epicentres of the anti-extraction movement.

Despite being charged with two felonies, Julie has no regrets. “When I was up in the tree and all the chaos was going on - and it was pretty chaotic - I felt nothing but peaceful up there - and it’s because I knew that there’s nothing else that I’d rather be doing.”



If Eric's story has inspired you to action, you might want to participate this Saturday in a protest against fracking in the UK. For details visit:


Eric Moll is a freelance journalist and activist, specialising in environmental reporting

*image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

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