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Arrested! Voices from the Front Lines of the Tar Sands Protests

September 7, 2011—Three New Dream board members are among the more than 1,250 people who have been arrested in recent weeks in connection with protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, organized by the group Tar Sands Action. The proposed pipeline would send more than 800,000 barrels a day of mining oil to U.S. refineries and and further increase the development of the Alberta tar sands.

Watch our exclusive video and read powerful testimony from board members Betsy Taylor and Gus Speth about their arrests and what they learned from participating in what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in the United States in decades. Board member Liz-Barratt Brown also was arrested during the protests.

Testimony: Gus Speth

New Dream board member and Vermont Law School Professor Gus Speth was arrested on August 20, 2011 as part of the tar sands protests. He provided the following commentary following his arrest:

"The park police—they are definitely not the impression you have of nice guys prancing around on the pretty horses—decided to go hard with us to discourage others. They cuffed us hard so that my wrists were bruised and cut in one place. They kept us once for nine hours in a 6 x 9 room, 13 of us in my room, 15 in another. Then they transported us to the central cell block of the D.C. jail for two nights.

The jail served white bread twice a day with some pink stuff in the middle, said to be baloney. There was water and toilet paper if you could find a guard and ask. Sleeping accommodations were a steel slab with no bedding of any type. It was very hot and noisy, lights always on. Someone shouted (we could not see each other) that he had a good idea: make mattresses out of the sandwiches. They never told us anything about how or when it would end. They then transported us to the cells under the courthouse and applied leg irons, so we got to do the perp walk into big holding cells where we stayed most of the day with the leg irons on.

Finally we were released and the charges dropped. The potential charges, by the way, were failure to move on, a traffic offense normally meriting a $50 fine. The judge that released us was a traffic court judge. Generally we were treated for 2 1/2 days as if we had been arrested for a major crime: constantly searched, all possessions taken away, not all returned. Someone in D.C. has my nice sports coat. We had guys with serious back problems, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, etc.

All that said, it was a joyous experience, partly because the strategy backfired, partly because spirits remained high and it was a true pleasure to be thrown with such a great group of guys. (The gals, by the way, were separated but had the same treatment. Tough women.) But mainly because the cause was right. i kept thinking about my five grandchildren. Everyone would do it again. Being a professor, my jailmates asked me to give a lecture, so i did. Probably my best. Also, we saw 100 or so young black men moving through various stages of the so-called criminal justice system. Almost no whites. Compared with their situation, we had it easy. My admiration for [Bill] McKibben deepened; it knows no bounds.

The whole tar sands thing is insane. We have got to throw up every obstacle. I hope all this leads to a new era of direct action, protest, and nonviolent civil disobedience. We called for capping greenhouse gas concentrations in 1980 when i was at the Council on Environmental Quality, at no more than 50 percent above the pre-industrial level. Not exactly 350 [parts per million], but pretty good for 30-plus years ago. But nothing has been done. The system has failed us, everyone. So new tactics are called for."

Testimony: Betsy Taylor

New Dream co-founder and board co-chair Betsy Taylor was arrested on August 29, 2011 as part of the tar sands protests. She provided the following reflections on her experience:

"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...

Read Betsy Taylor's Full Commentary

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