I’ve known some of the sitters for years. We started off organizing small rallies and protests at the University of North Texas – the usual, a forum here, a documentary screening there. Now some of my best friends are sitting in trees to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Winnsboro, Texas.
I still remember the look on my friend Cindy Spoon’s face as we sat around a fire, contemplating how the Tar Sands Blockade might play out and trying to give each other the mutual strength we would need to move forward in this fight.
“We shouldn’t have to be doing this,” she said as the embers lit up her face that night.
I don’t think I’ve ever agreed more. My friends shouldn’t be up there right now. One should be playing music in a band; another should be backpacking across South America; another should be starting his life in Montana; still another should be making handmade goods for his home business.
They’re up there because they believe it’s up to us slow the literal tides of climate change, and they’re up there to defend homes and families in East Texas.
“There are a lot of things we can do that feel really good, or feel effective because it’s what we know, it’s what we’re comfortable with, and then there’s taking a good hard look at the situation that we’re really in, and really understanding just how bad things are,” one tree-sitter told Truthout before he went up to stay indefinitely. “It’s been a really difficult journey.”
The Keystone XL pipeline is set to deliver toxic tar sands bitumen from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast through Texas landowner David Daniel’s backyard – that is, if these climate justice activists don’t shut the pipeline down first with direct action.
Two Texas-born organizers, Shannon Bebe from Lake Dallas and Benjamin Franklin, a small-business owner from Houston, locked down to a backhoe working nearly 300 yards away from the tree village Tuesday to defend their friends in the trees. The blockaders alleged that they were subjected to pain compliance tactics from police under the active encouragement of TransCanada’s senior supervisors. They were arrested Tuesday and released early Wednesday morning.
The tree-sit continues for a third day despite an unprecedented escalation in police and industry violence toward peaceful blockaders. Some of the activists say TransCanada supervisors encouraged deputies with the Wood County Sherriff’s Department to use pain compliance tactics that included sustained chokeholds, violent arm-twisting, pepper spray, and multiple uses of Tasers, all while blockaders were in handcuffs.
“As someone who has a religious dedication to nonviolence, I have a duty to assist nonviolent tactics,” Franklin said before he was pepper sprayed and tased Tuesday.
“This is a path to change that works. I had a childhood spent in the piney woods of Texas, and they contain a beauty that haunts me, still. Driving up here and then walking amongst the trees and their sitters reminded me of the beauty I experienced in childhood. That in and of itself is reason to be here defending it,” he said.
A plainclothes police officer was among the most aggressive officers to implement pain compliance, according to blockaders who locked down. He put Franklin in a chokehold, cutting off his breathing, and bent him over backwards in an attempt to make him pass out. Franklin reports difficulty swallowing because of bruises sustained to his esophagus.
The most physically aggressive was the ranking officer, a lieutenant with the Wood County Sheriff’s Department under the observation of TransCanada employees. One of the law enforcement officials twisted and contorted the tube that Bebe and Franklin had locked their arms into, cutting off circulation to their hands and cutting abrasions into their hands and forearms.
Franklin and Bebe described pepper spray as the most painful part of their ordeal. Police sprayed into their lockdown tube and the chemicals burned their open wounds.
Fortunately, they were able to touch one another’s fingers inside the tube – a human touch and reassurance to make it through the ordeal. Franklin and Bebe say they were able to endure the pain knowing that they were in it together.
After the the officers stopped their escalated tactics, a senior TransCanada supervisor allegedly congratulated the Sheriff’s Department lieutenant for a “job well done.”
Despite TransCanada’s violence, the blockaders held strong for hours, and their bravery has inspired renewed perseverance by the nine people sitting in trees to continue their blockade indefinitely.
Bebe and Franklin’s action is the fourth lockdown in Texas after another five blockaders were arrested last week after locking down to construction equipment in Winnsboro, Texas, to defend the home of another Texas landowner, David Hightower, as well as his small muscadine vineyard.
The northern leg of the pipeline, running from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska, is still under review by the State Department after TransCanada agreed to reroute the project around Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region, but construction has already begun on the project’s southern leg after President Obama announced he would expedite the project during a speech in Cushing, Oklahoma in March.
Tar Sands Blockade first exposed that construction on the pipeline had begun in Texas back in August, when they dropped banners at TransCanada’s construction staging areas to inaugurate the launch of the blockade movement in response to the groundbreaking on the pipeline, which had gone forward in a virtual media blackout thanks to TransCanada’s concerted PR campaign. Now, many of the same organizers who dropped banners have escalated their tactics in the launch of the ongoing Texas tar sands tree-sit.
“Every other method of slowing [TransCanada] down, and trying to get them to cut back has not worked,” another tree-sitter and friend told me before he climbed a tree more than 80-feet tall. “All that they’re concerned about in some crazy, pathological way is making money and burning the energy that they know that makes them money, and the only way that we really know how to stop them is to resist them directly – stop them in their tracks.”
Blockaders are also occupying a 40-foot-tall wall made of timber scaffolding designed to delay Keystone XL construction equipment as another buffer before machines reach the trees that blockaders are currently occupying. Construction equipment continued to move closer, within feet of the wall, Wednesday.
“I’m a tremendously privileged person, a white male, so I have the privilege of being able to interact with the criminal injustice system and not be as discriminated against,” another sitter told Truthout in preparing to ascend for his stay in the trees. “That’s something I’ve taken into consideration. I’m trying to use my privilege in a way that is being an ally as best I can.”
Daniel, the landowner where the trees are being occupied, has been fighting TransCanada for more than four years to protect his family and the future of his four-year-old daughter.
“It might sound bleak, but there’s no stopping climate change, and everything that our society is predicated on now kind of necessitates some sort of continuation of this path for awhile,” another tree-sitter said. “There’s no viable option currently, for shifting this level of consumption over to quote-unquote ‘greener’ alternatives, but within that bleak reality there’s still an immense amount that individuals can do [to] preserve the habitats that might otherwise be destroyed.”
The sitters have food and water to last for weeks and are pledging not to come down until TransCanada’s toxic project is halted for good. They are preparing for many different possibilities of extraction, including pain compliance tactics. They continue to hold strong as they watch trees falling in front of them.
Candice Bernd is an organizer with the Tar Sands Blockade.