Ever seen a human oil spill? It’s not a lot like the real thing, except in the ways that it is: black, silent and ominously stationary – because these bodies, like crude, aren’t going anywhere.
That was the impression made by hundreds of black-clad activists, young and old, who fell prostrate to the pavement Sunday outside the Hilton Hotel in Burlington, Vermont, to oppose a range of mega-energy plans being discussed behind closed doors at the 36th Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers.
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Reacting to proposals including pumping Canadian tar sands through a pipeline across New England to the Atlantic coast, energy giant Hydro Quebec’s Northern Pass, which would demolish 180 miles of New Hampshire forest and install 1,100 electrical towers transporting dirty energy to busy centers like Boston and New York, and Quebec’s 25-year, $80 billion mammoth mining and energy project known as Plan Nord, citizens gathering from across the Northeast sent a clear, unmistakable message to governors on both sides of the border: No.
No to emissions above. No to contamination below. As one chant echoed through the downtown streets of Burlington: “The water! The water! The water’s on fire! We don’t need no fracking – let the corporations burn!”
The 500-person turnout and smartly choreographed “human oil spill” made Vermont the latest staging ground in what is quickly developing as a green summer of activism and resistance across America. Also over the weekend, thousands marched in Washington, DC to oppose the toxic impacts of fracking. On Saturday, activists shut down a mountaintop coal removal site in Lincoln County, West Virginia, drawing increased attention to the human and environmental costs of corporate strip mining in Appalachia.
And that is just the tip of things. Protesters in Texas have initiated a tar sands blockade, vowing to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline through their state. Other blockades are getting underway at ports along the West Coast to prevent further construction of coal-shipping facilities. And in August, activists nationwide will descend on Helena, Montana, to engage in an unprecedented coal export action aimed at protesting and blocking coal shipments west to the Pacific and Asian markets from the Powder River Basin, which holds 40 percent of America’s coal supply.
So, where might the Occupy movement and its allies be shifting energy right now? Perhaps to the environment, where it seems to belong. Leading climate author and activist Bill McKibben, whose latest article headlines the current issue of Rolling Stone, wore a bright blue “Stop Keystone XL” T-shirt as he addressed the crowd in Burlington: “We’re really at one of those hinge moments of human history,” he said. “By the summer of 2012, there is nothing abstract about climate change – about what it means to raise the temperature of the planet.”
“These guys will have no idea what they’ve bitten off if they try to do this [pipeline] across New England,” McKibben warned, noting that 25 protests happened last week across North America to mark the two-year anniversary of the tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “If Nebraskans aren’t going to sit still and watch a pipeline put across their land, then the people of New England sure as hell aren’t going to, either. We are going to stop this thing in its tracks and we’re going to have to take on the heart of the fossil fuel industry itself.”
And yet, as opposition to corporate energy projects gains steam nationally, so do surveillance and other invasive federal activities surrounding those who protest against those projects. In the lead-up to the demonstration against the governors’ conference in Burlington, FBI agents showed up at an activist’s home to question him about his involvement – a type of harassment and intimidation we’re now seeing coast to coast, from the FBI swat teams that raided activists’ apartments in Seattle, Olympia and Portland, Oregon, in July, to the false and damaging accusation tying an Occupy protester to a 2004 murder in New York City.
At Sunday’s protest, violence broke out in the afternoon between protesters and the police when buses carrying several hundred dignitaries from the conference were momentarily blocked by activists, causing police to fire sting balls and pepper spray at close range, injuring at least a half dozen people.
If government were to consider seriously the outrage taking hold across the country right now – to actually listen to people demanding an end to the corporate pillaging of resources at the cost of human health, communities and environment – it might respond legislatively rather than militarily.
But the people are not waiting – for either response. A group with perhaps the largest presence in Burlington on Sunday, the Vermont Workers’ Center, launched a grassroots movement last year called Put People First, dedicated to improving health, education, housing, environment and jobs throughout the state. Its initial victory: last year Vermont became the first state to adopt universal health care. And earlier this year, a People’s Budget passed in the statehouse. Now, the group is preparing to host a People’s Convention for Human Rights to take place September 1-2 in Burlington with the goal of producing a new human rights declaration.
“It’s not experts; it’s not corporations; it’s not money: it’s human needs and human rights,” said member Anja Rudiger. “Occupy created wonderful momentum for demonstrating that the moment is ripe. As we build power, then we’ll make demands on people in power.”
Indeed, the causes celebrated at Sunday’s convergence were diverse – as they are at most environmental protests. For Peter Martin, 74, a retired airline pilot for Delta: “We want the governors to understand that thousands and thousands and thousands of people are against [the Northern Pass]. In New Hampshire town meetings over the last two years, more than 30 towns voted unanimously against this project,” he said, because “we don’t feel like having our economy, the health of our people and the beauty of our environment destroyed for someone else’s profit.”
Chris Williams of Vernon, Vermont, came to demand the shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant; 25-year-old Rob Korobkin of Portland, Maine, said a tar sands pipeline exiting the coast of Maine would imperil drinking water for one of seven residents in the state; Antoine, a student from Montreal, showed up because “the same people who make tuition fees explode in Quebec are the ones here promoting Plan Nord.” Innu First Nations people railed against Hydro Quebec’s construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Romaine River that they say will have catastrophic impacts on their way of life and the nature around them.
“We need to come together in the storm, to stand together as social movements. It doesn’t matter what the politicians are in there doing,” said Jonathan Leavitt of the Vermont Workers’ Union and Occupy Burlington, “it matters what the unanswered demands are out here – and how effectively we organize to realize those demands.”
He called it “a moment of reckoning for the mainstream white environmental movement of the United States, [which] can decide to be an electoral machine for the Democratic Party or it can decide to win. And today we’re deciding to win.”
Under the hot afternoon sun, hundreds wearing black gathered in Burlington’s Battery Park as preparations for the human oil spill got underway. A large circle formed. People held hands and began to walk, forming separate lines and singing as concentric circles expanded to fill the park lawn: “There is power in our voices; there is power in the land. Saying yes to the Earth, we say no to tar sands.” In silence then, they walked from the park: a calm procession, it almost seemed funereal as the black flowing robes and sea of shirts spilled in unformed lines down the street, and figures drifted with eerie calm to the place outside the Hilton where they lay down on the hot pavement and stayed there for many minutes in silence, their bodies covering the ground as window curtains in the hotel rooms parted and guests looked down in awe.
A voice began to sing “This Land is Your Land,” others joined and soon hundreds were clapping and singing. The street resembled a new kind of civil rights performance – an action such as we rarely see, empowered as an oil spill that has broken silence – if only the officials in their air-conditioned hall could hear it.
Co-published with Occupy.com.