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The Summer of Solidarity: Direct Action Against Extraction

Candice Bernd discusses the political hardships and violent protests endured by the dedicated generation of climate activists.

A dedicated generation of environmental activists face political hardships and violence this summer.

I’ve heard that young Americans, mostly Generation X, are generally apathetic when it comes to climate change — but that’s not what I’m seeing.

Most of the young Americans I met during the weekend are willing to put their bodies on the line, risk arrest and spend hours and hours in weather upwards of 100 degrees in Texas to train in techniques that will mitigate the effects of global climate change.

If one thing is sure, this summer won’t be remembered as one where young environmentalists twiddled their thumbs while wild fires broke out across Colorado and record temperatures were set across the nation. Instead, this summer will go down as one of the hottest, not only in terms of temperature, but also in terms of resistance.

Climate justice organizers with Rising Tide North Texas (including myself), publicly launched the Tar Sands Blockade, a nonviolent direct action to stop the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas, with a little help from our friends at last month, and so far the response to our effort has been overwhelming.

We just wrapped up the Texas Keystone Convergence, a regional training effort that brought in roughly 70 climate justice activists primarily from southern states to learn how to use nonviolent direct action effectively.

“It’s about power,” said Scott Parkin, pointing to a list of direct action tactics trainees had popcorned out to him. “What does the existing political system basically tell us? That we are powerless. Who do we give our power to? Politicians, Obama, corporations, and so with direct action, the philosophy is that we’re actually building our own power and taking our own power back.”

Parkin organizes with Rising Tide North America and the Rainforest Action Network. He flew out from San Francisco to train attendees.

Next thing we knew we were in blockade formation: the standing line, the centipede, the star, the turtle, the spiral, the sitting twister.

“This just seems like the next step,” said attendee Amy Price with Occupy Houston. “You know, what do you do with the knowledge that you have?”

While all this was going on in East Texas July 28 and 29, thousands were gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Stop the Frack Attack rally. While organizers in D.C. were having a strategy discussion, we were having our strategy discussion, and when we heard that founder Bill McKibben gave us a shout out as thousands of fracktivists cheered in D.C., well, let’s just say we had a moment.

There’s something almost uncanny about what is happening across the nation this summer — a synchronicity of movements against fossil fuel extraction.

Simultaneously, the Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS) campaign kicked off in West Virginia Saturday to stop the largest mountaintop removal strip-mining site in Appalachia. More than 50 climate activists successfully shut down Patriot Coal’s Hobet strip-mine for more than three hours with a sit-in as part of their Mountain Mobilization direct action. Ten of those activists were locked to a mining truck and some were in trees.

Twenty activists were arrested on trespassing and obstruction charges Saturday, with a collective bail of $500,000. One of those activists is West Virginian Dustin Steele. Steele turned 21 Wednesday.

Steele was beaten by West Virginia police while held in custody. Some activists with RAMPS saw them get dragged from the mine site on their back. Many of the arrestees, including Steele, went limp as a tactic to continue delays at the strip-mine while police extracted them from the site.

“Last night when we found out that the bond option fell apart, I was in tears,” says Greg Catillo who is handling jail support for the Mountain Mobilization action. “It was like all of this work, and now the idea that folks are just going to do what they did with impunity while we sit and wait for our WePay account to slowly trickle up to the amount that we can then, you know, get Dustin out.”

Arrestees have only a surety bond option, meaning that, for each individual, a bond of $25,000 worth of West Virginia property must be put up. Ten of the arrestees have since been assigned new magistrate. RAMPS organizers say they still want to continue raising money in case they win a change in bail conditions in court.

“Frankly, we’re deeply surprised by this incident and by the response of the state police to this action. Prior to this weekend, we had never had any of our activists subject to police violence,” RAMPS organizer Mathew Louis-Rosenberg told Waging Nonviolence. “This is also the first time we’ve had a large, somewhat more public action since Governor [Earl Ray] Tomblin has taken office, and obviously the state police report directly to the governor. It doesn’t matter what individual state police officers think. If there was a chain of command coming down from on high to put the boot to the tree huggers, then that’s what was going to happen.”

Steele and their friends were arrested almost exactly a year after another climate activist from West Virginia, Tim DeChristopher, was sentenced to two years in prison for taking direct action to save 116 parcels of public land in Utah by falsely bidding in an oil-and-gas lease auction.

“At every turn, it seems like the West Virginia legal system has done everything within its power, and some things that are probably legitimately outside its power, to be honest, to kind of thwart the work that we’ve been doing,” Catillo told me.

A recent study shows that resulting water pollution from mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has harmed aquatic life in 22 percent of all the streams in the region. Many species living in these streams have completely vanished, qualifying the habitats as “impaired” under state criteria.

With actions lining up against fracking, mountaintop removal strip-mining and the expansion of the Canadian tar sands, it’s clear they are connected by more than solidarity. As coal plants continue to be shut down across the nation, coal strip-mined from places like Appalachia is becoming increasingly exported, and if another disastrous project is approved in the Northwest, that coal could be exported through Montana.

On Tuesday, July 31, our friends in Montana with the Coal Export Action kicked off a social media blast day to raise the consciousness on what they’re doing to stop Arch Coal from mining Montana’s Otter Creek.

The Coal Export Action will bring in hundreds and maybe thousands ready to commit civil disobedience this month at the Montana State Capitol to pressure the Montana State Land Board to reject a mining project that will turn the Northwest region into an export zone. Organizers are planning a multi-day sit-in in the run-up to the Land Board’s meeting on August 20.

In Vermont Sunday, July 29, climate activists organized a “human oil spill” to protest energy discussions being had at the 36th Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington. Those discussions include a plan to pipe tar sands oil across New England for export on the Atlantic coast.

But while environmental activists have been busy, so has the FBI. In the lead-up to the Burlington protest, FBI agents questioned one activist about his involvement. If the police crackdown in West Virginia is any indication, it’s that the struggle amping up this summer won’t be easy.

That’s why we need solidarity. That’s why we can’t do this alone. That’s why we need the power and spark of the Occupy movement behind us as we plunge ahead to create the sustainable future we want, because the 1 percenters in the dirty energy industry, with their unlimited lobbyists and subsidies, will do anything — steal land, intimidate landowners, spy on activists, trample ancient Native American burial grounds, and cut corners — to keep the status quo intact. The time for direct action is now.

How much more are we willing to take? Five percent of the mountaintops in Appalachia are missing, the Gulf of Mexico is an oil pit, and faucets spit fire across the nation. The costliest pipeline spill in the U.S. is still being cleaned up on Michigan’s Kalamazoo River after Enbridge’s 6B pipeline ruptured two years ago, spilling 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil.

We’re making sure Kalamazoo doesn’t happen in Texas.

I watched close friends, old and new alike, role-play a direct action scenario Sunday on land threatened by the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. What I witnessed Sunday makes me believe we have the power to win. I’m seeing landowners in Texas take the first steps to stand up to corporate bullies.

What I’m not seeing is an apathetic youth.

The Summer of Solidarity movement (#ClimateSOS) may very well put steam back into an Occupy movement that many have called waning. Let’s hope it does because without all of us together in solidarity the future of the planet looks bleak.