The Rest of the Story: Tar Sands Action at the White House 

by Steve Clemens. August 30, 2011  Mennonista

When I first signed up to come to Washington and return to the White House, I thought to myself: wasn’t it just a year and a half ago that I told Christine that I’m getting too old to spend another night in jail? My experience protesting President Obama’s continuation of the Afghan and Iraq Wars had left me physically very sore (but spiritually content) after 28 hours in the four different DC jails we occupied after our “die in” at the White House the day before the 2010 State of the Union address.

This time it was an email from my friend, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia that got the juices flowing again. He sent me a letter signed by Bill McKibben, Jim Hansen, Naomi Klein, and Wendell Berry (among others) asking us to come to DC at the end of August to nonviolently pressure President Obama to declare that allowing the Trans-Canada project to build the Keystone XL pipeline linking the Alberta Tar Sands oil fields to Houston, TX refineries and Gulf Coast shipping would not be in “the national interest”. Since the proposed 1,700 mile pipeline would cross the international border, Obama can unilaterally declare it is or isn’t in our national interest without Congressional interference. Come to Washington, the letter said, and risk arrest in a two-week civil disobedience campaign. The letter especially encouraged we older folk who have made a very large carbon footprint over our lives to share some of the burden of risking arrest to change our policies.

I first tried to see if several of my friends from the Community of St. Martin might be interested and willing to travel with me and join the action. Unfortunately Jack, Dave, and Peter, although very interested and supportive, couldn’t go. Neither could Scott, my friend with a new baby – I’m sure Tara would be uneasy with him getting busted as school is about to begin and he has primary care for the new family member! It’s not the easiest thing to approach people asking them if they want to go to jail with you.   

Although the organizers were telling us as well signed up that they were trying to negotiate a “fine and forfeit” arrangement with the DC authorities (as is often the case with group arrests for nonviolent protest at the White House), I knew from past experience that one needs to be prepared: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”. I read Dr. Jim Hansen’s statement that if this pipeline is built, it will be like a carbon bomb being set off and it is essentially “game over” for our attempts to avoid (or at least mitigate) some of the nasty results from human-induced climate change. Here was (another) cause worth risking arrest over.

I was anxious to join the group early on in the two week planned action because I knew many of the participants had never been arrested before and felt it would to helpful to lend them some of my experience. However, before committing to the day I would risk arrest, my friend Rose Berger, an editor and writer at Sojourners, told me that they would like to plan for one of the days to be an inter-faith action day and encourage religious leaders and faith-based activists to join together for worship before arrest. That’s my style: acting with others with similar values and beliefs is always an empowering experience for me ever since my first arrest more than 36 years ago at this same seat of imperial power. The cause then was Vietnam; last January, our latest imperial wars; now, our war on the environment and the planet’s climate. I jumped at Rose’s invitation and signed up on-line for August 29th, not knowing a hurricane would try to intervene.

As I was about to fly to DC (yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy of taking an airplane to protest our dependence on fossil fuels – I’m working on that), I was aware of the monster Hurricane Irene was headed straight up the East Coast and the airlines informed me that I might want to reschedule my trip so I wouldn’t arrive the same day as the projection for Irene. So I flew into DC on Friday and joined the daily gathering at the White House Saturday morning as the dark storm clouds began to roll in. The Tar Sands Action coordinators had discussions with the police about the emergency conditions anticipated if the hurricane came nearby and already decided to call off any civil disobedience for Sunday in order to free up the law enforcement personnel for the hurricane.

Friday evening, those planning to risk arrest discussed the same issue and made the same choice for Saturday’s action –so we just had a public presence, sang some songs, listened to some inspiring words from Bill McKibben and then posted for group photos as the rain and wind gusts started. Many of those who had originally planned to risk arrest on Saturday or Sunday tried to rearrange their schedules in order to take action with our Monday group. On Sunday afternoon, the folk planning on participating as the inter-faith religious group met to outline the plans for a worship gathering in Lafayette Park prior to the arrival of the rest of the Tar Sands activists. Rabbis (and other Jews), Buddhists, and Christians of all stripes were there– from a large Unitarian contingent to mainline and evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and at least one Anabaptist. Others represented Native American spirituality as well as other traditions. Since some folk arrived after introductions, it’s hard to include all the perspectives represented.

After the hour for inter-faith planning, more than 100 others jammed the room at the local Methodist church for the pre-arrest nonviolence training and legal team briefings. Our trainers were three energetic young people from the Ruckus Society and another woman activist. They were engaging and helpful, especially to the many for whom this would be their first arrest. At least ½ to 2/3s of the potential arrestees were planning on taking this step for the first time – some of whom appeared to be in their 60s and 70s! As in any new and potentially threatening experience, there were multitudes of questions and the lawyers and trainers did a great job of fielding them. We were asked to pose for individual photos so the Tar Sands Action team could later post “pins” on an online map to show where we all came from to be part of this action. A caravan from California arrived shortly before we began so I’m sure our group represented close to half the States and we also welcomed the couple in their 60s who had come from Alberta because they had witnessed the reality of the destructiveness of the tar sands “development” first-hand.

By 9 PM I was tired and hungry (even though they served us a modest vegan supper as we selected “arrest buddies” during the training. Since we were likely to be arrested and transported by perceived gender, we were asked to select a same-gender partner to look out for one another during the action component the following day. Since Dr. David Hilfiker and I had spent several weeks together in Baghdad as part of the Iraq Peace Team just prior to the start of the present war, we agreed to be arrest partners. (His wife was also risking arrest, both of them had never been arrested – even though David and I were threated with up to 12 years in federal prison for traveling to Iraq during the economic sanctions but fortunately were never prosecuted.)

Our trainers were explicitly clear: we were to carry as little as possible on our persons when we went up to the White House fence to risk arrest. Carry a photo ID, $100 in cash to pay the “fine and forfeit” charge if we were offered it (and we were strongly encouraged to do so to facilitate others later in the week being able to receive the same “offer” rather than going to jail overnight and face a Judge the following day), $5-10 additional cash to purchase a bus or Metro ticket once you were released, and a disposable bottle of water. Anything else could be confiscated by the police or would certainly delay the processing time – and with such large numbers, it would already take a long time without making it much longer.

We were told to remove wedding rings, watches, other jewelry including piercings, and one of the trainers recommended wearing adult diapers just in case you weren’t permitted access to a bathroom for hours on end. Put your ID and money in a zip-lock bag and put it in your pocket or bra. The Buddhist religious leader helpfully pointed out she didn’t wear one but maybe she had a pocket in the robes she wore the next day. Trainers recommended women not wear skirts as the pat-downs upon arrest were often quite aggressive. (And they were – especially for the women as we watched them as we waited for our own arrests the next morning.)

At the end of the training, Rose Berger rose to address all of us. She explained how she and several others had wanted to encourage religious faith leaders from many traditions to be part of this action and that Monday the 29thhad been designated for that day. But she told the group of us that she was very cognizant of the fact that many of us had (and have) been deeply wounded by both religious traditions and proponents. Religion has often divided us and has marginalized others. She asked us if instead we could see our presence tomorrow as a group of religious folk trying to act on the best within our traditions – a striving for compassion, justice, and inclusion, especially for the marginalized. And then she welcomed any of the group who wanted to be included in the “religious contingent” of the activities the next day. As someone who often shuns the moniker “religious” and often cringes at what is often labeled “Christian” in our culture and world, I was relieved to hear my friend’s confession and welcome.

Arriving back at my son’s apartment about 10 PM, I needed some time to decompress and then headed off to bed. I awoke, restless, as is often the case prior to an anticipated arrest, about 3 AM and since I was alone in the apartment, I put some music on my iPod and the shuffle feature must have figured out just what I needed – the song that came on was a South African freedom song that I first learned in 1983 when I was arrested for praying in the US Capitol Rotunda during a Sojourners-led Peace Pentecost witness. The words are “We shall not give up the fight, we have only started, we have only started (repeats). Never ever put to flight we are bound to win, we are bound to win (repeats) Together we’ll have victory, hand holding hand, hand holding hand (repeats).” Warm memories of singing in the DC jail with 400 others that night, followed by about 50 of us who chose to spend a week in the DC Jail rather than pay the $50 fine. We sang those South African movement songs all week to one another. It was a time of spiritual enlivening for which I remain grateful 30 years later.

I arrived at the park early the following morning, ready to put my prayers for climate justice and environmental protection into action – what Abraham Heschel used to say was “putting legs on our prayers”. We gathered in a circle as we were led in some Jewish prayers and songs, a brief Buddhist meditation, some reflections from several Christian pastors, priests, and lay leaders, a young Muslim man who described the inspiration and encouragement he had received from the Quran to join us and then a Rabbi blew his Shofar, a ram’s horn “trumpet” as a fellow Rabbi interpreted the tradition.

Following the worship time, many others joined a circle in the park facilitated by our training team. We checked in with the legal team to confirm who was going to risk arrest that day. Bill McKibben addressed the group and reflected about the destruction happening in his home state of Vermont from the hurricane and how the intensity of the storm was likely related to climate change. Dr. Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist and climatologist, also spoke to the crowd gathered but I had a hard time hearing him over the muted bullhorn and with such a large crowd. One thing I did hear him say was how he had tears (of joy) in his eyes the evening Obama won the election because he believed the campaign statements about addressing climate and environmental issues.

After last minute instructions, we lined up in two lines to process to the White House fence and sidewalk area known as the “postcard spot” because many tourists want their photos taken there with the White House neatly framed in the background. This is the same area the US Park Police has designated as a “no protest zone” and if one remains there for any period of time and choses not to leave when approached by a police officer, one will be arrested. In a way it fosters a less controversial method for nonviolent civil disobedience because one is “guaranteed” to be arrested if one doesn’t leave and allows activists of all stripes to risk arrest if they so choose.

We were told in the training that we would be given 3 verbal warnings by the police before we were arrested and that is how it played out.

Since there were more than 140 of us, the arrest process took quite a long time, close to two hours. I took some ibuprofen for my aching back and muscles after the first warning. I knew I’d be sore after standing in one place on the sidewalk for an extended period of time. Each of the women were individually handcuffed, banded with an arrest number, and aggressively patted-down. It took a long time so some members of the to-be-arrested group stated singing. Then some of the support people on the other side of the police barricades about 30 yards away also started singing.

As more and more women were arrested and escorted away, it gradually morphed into a men’s choir or glee club. I joined in and when some of the songs lagged, I tried to teach folk a couple of the South African songs including “We Shall Not Give Up the Fight” and “It Doesn’t Matter If You Should Jail Us (we are free and kept alive by hope)” I’m not a song leader so I sang them as much for my own benefit as well as the edification of others, knowing that we stand in a long tradition of witness and protest to governments and political leaders.

Indeed, as Rose Berger reminded us in our circle, this weekend was to be the dedication of the memorial built to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and Rose observed the irony of honoring someone who was frequently vilified by political leaders while alive only to be honored when he was safely in his grave. She said King’s spirit was better honored in a “living memorial” of people today committing civil disobedience, recognizing that climate change more drastically affects the poor, those for whom Martin gave his life.

As I awaited my own set of plastic flexi-cuffs (which don’t actually feel that “flexible” when one is cuffed with hands behind one’s back), I had the honor of having Dr. Hansen sitting at my feet. It was not the time or the place to have a conversation with him; I was just very grateful to have him join us. After the handcuffs and the pat-down, we were photographed with a police officer holding up our arrest number (mine was 119) and then placed into the police transport van, squeezed in 6 to a side on a narrow metal bench with very little between our knees and the aluminum dividing wall between us and the six on the other side.

Rabbi Fred from a congregation across the river in suburban Virginia was closest to the van’s front so I asked him to describe where we were headed as the van took off, headed for the police station in Anacostia in SE Washington. It was a great tour although we had to use our imaginations a lot since we further back could see very little. As we pulled up to the Park Police Headquarters building I was relieved that it had only taken about 15 minutes. Little did I know that we would wait locked in that little box for another hour and ten minutes before being let out. We used the time to get to know each other a little better.

Finally, we were let out, a couple at a time, and then asked to line up according to our arrest numbers. Once we go into the garage area of the building, our handcuffs were cut off and I felt great relief in my hands and shoulders. After another pat down, we were then processed and we confirmed that we were choosing to “pay the fine and forfeit”, paid the $100 and then waited on a ramp to be released. Dr. Hansen had been in the van ahead of us so we were released together and were greeted by a group of supporters and our training team. We were grateful for the cups of water and snacks we were offered. We checked in with the legal team and then walked the little more than 1-mile distance to the Metro station. I was exhausted when I got on the train and was glad to sit down and put my feet up after walking to my son’s apartment. I’m glad I did this and had a great group of dedicated folk to share in it.

(For updates, photos, and more details, ) Photo credits:, Josh Lopez and Milan Ilnyckyj.

By Published On: August 31st, 2011Comments Off on The Rest of the Story – Climate Change Arrest at the White House, by Steve Clemens

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