Drawing A Line In The Tar Sands

tipping point  (tɪpɪŋ point) — n  the crisis stage in a process, when a significant change takes place

This last week, I went to Washington D.C. and joined the Tar Sands Action which was the biggest environmental mass action in a generation.  Over a thousand were arrested calling on Obama to deny the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline which would cut down the middle of America’s heartland from Alberta to oil refineries on the Texas coast. The pipeline will carry billions of gallons of oil extracted from Indigenous land in northern Alberta.

The Tar Sands Action is a “tipping point” for the climate movement that I’ve been calling a “Camp Casey” moment. If you remember Camp Casey in 2005 was when anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who’d lost a son in Iraq, began an encampment at Bush’s ranch in Crawford,TX. It was a “tipping point” in the war. It cracked Bush’s popular support for the war and led to political routes in 2006 and 2008, and the sacking of War Sect. Donald Rumsfeld.  And it helped trigger a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq (at least for now.)

The sit-ins at the White House seem to have caused a major shift for the climate movement.My arrest day (August 29th, the 6th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, no less) included going to jail with climatologist James Hansen, a large interfaith contingent (Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist), leadership from non-profits like Greenpeace and 350.org and lots of ordinary folks from many generations and many walks of life.

Through the two weeks of action, we saw youth, Appalachians, Indigenous leaders from all over North America,  former Obama staffers and volunteers, anti-fracking activists, labor activists, Midwestern and Texan landowners and environmental radicals sit in on the White House sidewalk. Furthermore, it’s been organized by my close family of friends and comrades whom I always have a vested interest in seeing succeed.

Needless to say, it was a powerful two weeks.

In these situations, my mind often goes to the transformational power of direct action.  And to be really honest, I was initially was very skeptical about this action. But the tar sands action brought in many newcomers to the civil disobedience tactics (at least 2/3rds by the organizing group’s count.)

The arrest action itself was a short and sweet process, and not the harrowing experience I’ve gone through in harder actions. It didn’t entail climbing a dragline on a mine site or locking oneself to the gates of Exxonmobil, but it was still quite powerful for the first time participants and mainstream environmentalists caught in a crisis of faith about Obama and climate change.

Some personal anecdotes on the power of this action:

  • On Monday, I was arrested with some Canadian grandparents (from Alberta, no less) as they took the grandmother away, her husband yelled “your grandchildren are proud of you today Mary!
  • Lots of staffers from the mainstream orgs like the 350.org, Energy Action and NRDC risked arrest. And to be honest, with some exceptions, traditional purveyors of breaking the law for the cause like Earth First!, RAN and Greenpeace did not play a central organizing role which I take as a good thing. Getting arrested is not always the goal, but this was been an important experience for those folks and their organizations.
  • And Keystone pipeline actions also spread organically all over the world. There were pickets and protests as far away as Cairo and Durban, South Africa. Activists followed Obama to Martha’s Vineyard and a Obama for America event in Minnesota. On September 26th, another sit-in is planned for the Canadian capital in Ottawa. The media exploded with news around this and social media continues to be even bigger. After over a year of organizing, our friends with Rising Tide chapters have been taking direct actions against Exxon’s tar sands megaloads in Idaho and Montana.

People from all over the continent have begun to not only experience direct action in this action, but also a level of direct democracy. It’s not Seattle in 1999 or the IMF/World Bank protests in 2000 with affinity groups and spokes councils determining the course of the action or which intersections are to be held. But instead, its people voicing their outrage at this pipeline and Obama’s unwillingness to act for the good guys (us) on the climate issue. It’s beyond the ballot box or waiting for politicians to do something.

To me, people stepping out of their comfort zones and not doing what the police tell them until arrest is a radicalizing moment. People stepping out of the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber two party political system, organizing their dissent and taking care of each other while doing it is a revolutionary act.

Those radicalizing and revolutionary moments are why I do this work.

All of this comes after a long spring and summer of fierce actions from the Dept. of the Interior in Washington D.C. to coal plants in Chicago to Tim DeChristopher’s trials and tribulations in Salt Lake City to the tar sands loving Montana governor’s office to tree sits on Coal River Mountain.

A wise friend of mine once said he prefers Democratic administrations in power not because he thinks the Democrats will do the right thing, but because it causes an upsurge in more radical organizing in the U.S.

Well, dear friend, here we go. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

4 Responses to “Drawing A Line In The Tar Sands”


  1. 1 Joellen Gilchrist Sep 7th, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    I don’t understand these sentences: “And to be honest, with some exceptions, traditional purveyors of breaking the law for a cause like Earth First!, RAN and Greenpeace did not play a central role which I take as a good thing. Getting arrested is not always the goal, but this was been an important experience for those folks and their organizations.”

    Did EF, RAN, and Greenpeace members get arrested or not? Sounds like not. Then who are “those folks and their organizations” that got arrested and had that “important experience”? Please clarify.

  2. 2 karester Sep 8th, 2011 at 5:29 am

    I think he means “staffers from the mainstream orgs like the 350.org, Energy Action and NRDC” along with other “newcomers” to civil disobedient actions, were the driving force. It is good, in that, it was not the usual suspects. More everyday people joined in… a real slice of American Pie, not just those of us who hang out on the fringe.

  3. 3 Scott Sep 8th, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    hi Joellen– Just to clarify, traditionally orgs like EF!, GP and RAN have been central organizers of mass actions for environmental causes. Examples include Redwood Summer, Clayoquot Sound, the Headwaters Campaign, the Capitol Climate Action, etc. etc. BUT the tar sands action was anchored by folks from more mainstream environmental groups.

  4. 4 Jdpauletto Sep 17th, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Its been great to see the amazing actions all across the country!

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About


Scott Parkin is a Senior Campaigner with Rainforest Action Network and organizes with Rising Tide North America. He has worked on a variety of campaigns around climate change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mountaintop removal, labor issues and anti-corporate globalization. Originally from Texas, he now lives in San Francisco.

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