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Tar Sands Resistance Escalates in Massachusetts

"Funeral for our Future" coffin positioned into place while clergy members speak out about the toxicity of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Photo: Chris Longenecker)

The national week of actions against the Keystone XL pipeline called for by the nonviolent direct action group Tar Sands Blockade is supposed to run from March 16-23. Activists in Massachusetts decided they wanted to turn up the heat a little early. On Monday, March 11, 2013, at about 10:30 AM, over 100 protesters stormed the Massachusetts offices of TransCanada, the company that stands to profit most from the pipeline’s construction. After two hours, 26 people were arrested for handcuffing their bodies together, blockading the entrance and refusing to leave until the pipeline project was abandoned. The action was billed as a Funeral for Our Future and included somber songs, construction paper flowers and a homemade coffin. This was the third protest as part of an escalating direct action campaign in Westborough, Massachusetts, targeting the TransCanada offices there.

Action, Preparation and Rehearsal

The energy was palpable on the evening before the action. The buzzing electricity of a convergence hours before a protest is simply intoxicating. About 100 activists were gathered, preparing to put their bodies on the line to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. I found a few friends, and we started chatting about what the next day’s events might look like. After scarcely ten minutes of conversation, a friend on the tactical team was summoned to a last-minute meeting of the folks committed to risking arrest. I followed, feeling lucky to have help navigating through the massage circles, prop construction tables and slumbering masses, towards the tense midnight consensus meetings I know all too well.

Inside the room were 25 or so people discussing their plans for the morning. Everyone had their own pair of handcuffs, which nearly all were fiddling with – getting accustomed to feeling the cold, binding metal against their wrists. The irony of locking their bodies together, using handcuffs as a tool of resistance, only to later be carted out of the offices in a similar set of jewelry, did not escape me.

Blockaders get in place and handcuff themselves together in the shadow of TransCanada's corporate emblem. (Photo: Chris Longenecker)Blockaders get in place and handcuff themselves together in the shadow of TransCanada’s corporate emblem. (Photo: Chris Longenecker)At their meeting, the “arrestables” were figuring out a number of loose ends. Since the support team was considered unarrestable and would leave when asked to by police, they would quickly lose their police liaison, a role designed to ensure conversations taking place between police and protesters have a single voice and message. A second police liaison was chosen from among the folks planning to handcuff themselves together, although it was decided this person would speak up only if absolutely necessary. This is not a group that was in any way eager to negotiate or converse with agents of the state.

They later debated whether to use wax or glue inside the locking mechanisms of the handcuffs to make extraction more difficult and prolong the length of time they would be able to obstruct the offices. While some supported it, many were concerned about their safety if something went wrong and they wanted to get up and leave the stationary mass of protesters. It was decided to leave the keyholes unmodified and keep keys on their persons. Members of the group agreed that they would regularly check in with each other, and use a “green”-“yellow”-“red” model to alert others to their moods and needs. A “red” mood would signify an immediate need to leave the protest and have their handcuffs unlocked – a word everyone was hoping to avoid uttering during the action.

Civil Disobedience: Putting Our Bodies on the Cogs of the Machine

The morning was hectic and the complex system of transportation to and from the TransCanada offices proved more difficult than envisioned. Protesters became visibly nervous that they were behind schedule and beginning to fear what might await them at the offices. Rumors began to circulate through the crowd that the police had been tipped off. People feared police would be waiting for them before they were able to go inside. A suspicious car seemed to be circling our convoy at the final rendezvous location and the driver sped off when a protester pointed in his direction. The assembled activists, already exhausted and stressed about the gravity of what they planned to do, feared the worst.

Arriving at the parking lot of the TransCanada offices, the spirits of the group instantly lifted. Police were nowhere to be seen and their tactical team was in place, guiding the cars in. After a few minutes, the protesters gained access to the facility and ran up the back stair toward their target. All their planning and rehearsing had paid off. They assembled in two lines, blocking the door to the offices and lining the hallways. A coffin bearing the slogan “Our Future” was brought in through the crowd and placed at TransCanada’s door. Exuberant songs of resistance, chanting and rhythmic stomping bellowed throughout the halls of the normally drab building.

Nearly an hour into the protest, police began to confront the protesters. They informed the group that anyone who didn’t vacate the premises would be arrested. Most left at that point, leaving the last 26 to their chosen fate. The remaining blockaders crossed arms, held hands and snapped their handcuffs into place. Sitting down in a large mass completed their act of civil disobedience.

Some of the first arrestees being brought out, still singing, chanting and feeling empowered. (Photo: Chris Longenecker) Some of the first arrestees being brought out, still singing, chanting and feeling empowered. (Photo: Chris Longenecker) The protesters who had left the blockade now gathered outside. They were singing and chanting in solidarity with their comrades inside, making sure they were loud enough that their friends chained together could hear their cries. Cheers erupted from the lively crowd every time an arrestee was brought out of the building. Eventually, the police seemed to grow weary of this and tried to get the remaining arrestees out through the back entrance. The protesters, nearly 100 strong, simply ran around back to greet their friends and thank them for their act of bravery and sacrifice.

In the end, over 100 people entered the Westborough offices of TransCanada, 26 were arrested for blockading the entrance, and business as usual in the facility was disrupted for about two hours.

When called for comment about the protest, TransCanada provided a boilerplate response emphasizing its investment in renewable energy and what it claims is the inevitability of oil consumption. “The Keystone XL pipeline offers Americans a choice of receiving that oil from a friendly nation in Canada or the U.S. continuing to import higher-priced foreign oil from nations that do not share American values,” read part of the lengthy statement.

The Birth of a Horizontal Direct Action Movement

Observing this action, one could almost feel mainstream-nonprofit-style lobbying fading away, finding itself replaced by a vibrant, grassroots environmental movement operating horizontally using consensus principles and practices. Every meeting included the theater-esque, finger-wiggling hand gestures made ubiquitous by the 2011 park occupations in Spain and the United States and long used in other movements as a silent way to measure the level of consensus in a group. Indeed, these activists were clearly more influenced by the direct-action-oriented Occupy Wall Street movement than by the lobbying of groups like United States PIRG.

The action’s core organizers included campus activists trained by Students for a Just and Stable Future alongside members of and Sierra Club, all working together in solidarity with the Tar Sands Blockade. No one group has dared try to smack its logo over what is quickly proving to be a formidable and expanding direct-action campaign in the heart of Massachusetts.

The first action, in October 2012, was a banner drop and protest outside the very same TransCanada office. Activists were feeling empowered and decided to enter the building itself, further disrupting the branch. The protesters left when staff started to pressure them and did not risk arrest. Two months later, on January 7, 2013, they came back to occupy those same offices. Eight protesters super-glued their hands to each other, sat down in the lobby and wrapped an enormous chain around their waists. It took local police three hours to extract them from the offices. This time, armed with four times as many arrestables and a support team of nearly 100 more activists, the campaign was able to escalate its actions against TransCanada and keep the pressure on to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from ever becoming a reality.

Much inspiration can, and must, be drawn from this nascent campaign in Massachusetts as the environmental resistance movement looks forward to the upcoming national Tar Sands Blockade week of actions March 16-23 and beyond. Using tools derived from the occupied plazas and parks of 2011, these Massachusetts activists are beginning to organize horizontally and build a truly inclusive grassroots movement. Their commitment to escalating direct action, rather than lobbying the government for change, shows a dedication that will only further blossom if cultivated. If Massachusetts turns out to be part of a larger trend, and if members of the environmental movement continue to demand results with their bodies rather than via the failed strategy of lobbying the government, they may just stop this pipeline. And we should all be wishing them great success. The future of all life on this planet may very well depend on it.

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