Reflections on Getting Arrested
After nearly three decades of working for climate solutions, I made the decision last week to defy police orders by refusing to move from my spot on the sidewalk in front of the White House. I had never been arrested before, though I’d been to many demonstrations and protests since the late 1970s.
My husband and I agreed to face arrest together on behalf of our children and all children around the world. We were arrested on my husband’s 65th birthday. We joined the ranks of more than 1,200 people who have been arrested at the White House in recent weeks to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, in the largest act of collective non-violent civil disobedience in years.
There have been mounting protests against the proposed pipeline, a colossal project that would carry vast amounts of fossil fuel from Alberta, Canada, through the American heartland to Texas. The recent civil disobedience was sparked by Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists. “Essentially: Game over” is what he said when referring to the pipeline. Game over for our future, our climate, and our children.
The Alberta tar sands—the 3rd largest oil field in the world—is poised to release a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere. The extraction, transportation, and burning of the tar sands oil ultimately produces up to three times the global warming emissions of traditional oil. This pipeline is the link from the Canadian tar sands to commercial markets around the world.
Although Hansen was the primary spark for the civil disobedience, this strange summer was another. It’s been a tough season for keeping calm. Within a one-week period, an earthquake shook my Maryland home, and a hurricane ripped down trees in my neighborhood, smashing cars and roofs. Washington, D.C., broke daily heat records three times. When the country’s leading climate scientist decides to get arrested to protest the lack of action on global warming, it’s time to join the fray. When earthquakes and hurricanes hit the east coast, it’s time to do something different.
The wire handcuffs cut into my wrists, but my arrest didn’t entail a big risk. Things had been pre-arranged with the police, and I was pretty sure that I would be released without spending a single night behind bars. It was a baby step, and the marks on my hands were a welcome sign that I really had upped my commitment. The paddy wagon was hot and crowded, yet the 15 women who squeezed into the van with me were calm and determined. We were not professional law-breakers. Few if any of us had done anything like this before.
We sang. We chanted. We shared stories. One woman came from Nebraska, where the pipeline threatens farmland and water sources. Another came from New Mexico because of deep concerns for her grandchildren. An 84-year-old walked with a cane. We rubbed our noses on each others' shoulders to wipe the sweat from our faces. We rapidly bonded in the crush of our softness and our power. Our voices shouted together, “Tar Sands, No” and “This is what democracy looks like.” We were taking a new, if modest, step together.
What unified us was a deep conviction that citizens must act in more courageous and visible ways. We must do it even if our actions don’t compute in conventional terms. Most people believe that President Obama will approve the pipeline. His recent decision to roll back the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations to limit ozone emissions from coal-fired power plants is not a good omen. But sometimes, we must act despite the odds against success.
The monarch butterflies that migrate every year from Mexico to Canada defy all odds as they arrive and chew on the milkweed I’ve planted in my suburban yard. The horseshoe crabs, native to the Delaware Bay and flourishing for some 315 million years, beat the odds against industrial fishing and a warming sea. The owl that dwells with tree frogs in the tulip poplar canopy above my house, just 15 minutes from Capitol Hill, ignores the odds.
These are not times for calculating probabilities. These are times for staying very close to the Earth and to our loved ones. This is a time to hold fast to all of those connections that sustain us in our depths. From this place, we can access new hope, instead of despair, courage instead of cynicism. From this embrace, we are no longer limited by what is considered politically possible or by the odds of success. And this is where transformational change begins.
It helps me to know that one of the transformational giants of the last century shared this perspective. Albert Einstein wrote, “A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and our attention for only the people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature.”
Betsy Taylor is a co-founder and co-chair of the Center for a New American Dream. On August 29, 2011, she was arrested in front of the White House as part of the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, organized by the group Tar Sands Action.