NoKXL Pledge of Resistance, an organization opposed to the planned Keystone XL pipeline, held a civil disobedience training session in Madison, Wisconsin on Sunday to help prepare activists to directly resist the pipeline's construction should the project receive final approval.
The State Department is completing its assessment of the TransCanada project, and is expected to issue a National Interest Determination (NID) recommending the project's approval before the end of the year. If that happens, NoKXL Pledge of Resistance, a coalition led by CREDO, Rainforest Action Network and the Other 98%, says over 75,000 activists have pledged to take action and risk arrest to voice their opposition to the pipeline.
"It's something that's really unprecedented in terms of the scope," explained Kaja Rebane, a graduate student in environmental studies. "In terms of action leads, which is what I am -- people who have been trained to spearhead efforts in the local community -- that training happened in more than 25 cities across the country."
Scott Parkin of Rainforest Action Network said over 400 action leaders have been trained to lead similar sessions, and if the NID recommends the pipeline's approval, he said they're mobilized for nonviolent protest with 120 actions "on the books" nationwide. Activists will conduct peaceful civil disobedience at State Department offices, federal buildings, and other strategic targets.
"This is taking a stand and saying we don't want the Keystone XL permitted and built," Rebane said. "It's part of a broader strategy to take a sand on tar sands and our climate more generally and say, listen, the people don't want this. The action itself, if it comes to pass, will be because the State Department has recommended approval, and that will be our way of putting pressure on President Obama not to approve it -- and also giving him some ability to point to the people and say, I shouldn't approve it. Without that, it would be very difficult for him politically to go against what the State Department says."
"Many of the people we trained were supporters of Obama and many were even part of his campaign -- staff, volunteers, etc." Parkins added. "They want to see him take a stand on this."
The training day included an overview of the history of civil disobedience and the context of the issues surrounding the Keystone XL; activists then planned and rehearsed their action, role-playing de-escalation techniques, media and police interactions, and chants, giving each other feedback and discussing strategies. The training also covered legal rights and recourse, step-by-step guidance for those willing to be arrested and an emphasis on keeping interactions nonviolent and effective.
"We're discussing the strategies of what it's going to be like, if and when we face arrest," one 20-year-old University of Wisconsin student told The Progressive during a break at the event. "It's kind of exciting. I think I'm the youngest person here." Asked why he had chosen to participate and risk arrest, he replied: "Because I don't want America to become a third-world nation, and I sense that if we give in to these 'Drill, Baby, Drill' mentalities we're really just shooting ourselves in the foot."
Carlene Bechen, a teacher, said she attended the training with her children, grandchildren and students in mind. "I'm here because it's really important to me to be able to say to them that they're going to have a planet that's going to be sustainable; that they'll have a rich, full life like mine," she explained. "I'm here to do what I can to make that happen." Bechen added that her takeaways from the training included "the idea that we need to be articulate about our reasons, consistent, peaceful, cooperative, so that we don't become the issue, but our cause is lifted up so that more people know about it."
Terry Wiggins, another training attendee, said she took part in the 2011 Keystone opposition action in Washington, DC, in which 1,253 people were peacefully arrested at the White House over the course of two weeks, which they believe helped convince Obama to reject the Keystone XL permit. "I was arrested there and decided that was a worthwhile action, and it ended up having an effect that I certainly didn't expect," she said. "I didn't expect we'd still be talking about the Keystone pipeline two years later."
The southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, extending from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast, is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Plans for the northern leg are still under discussion. While supporters of the pipeline say it will create jobs and help shift our country's oil sources from Venezuela and the Middle East to Canada, its opponents say the oil it carries would likely be exported, resulting in little gain for the U.S.
Those concerned with climate change also note that acquiring and processing bitumen -- tar sands oil considered some of the lowest-quality in the world -- generates more greenhouse gasses than extraction of conventional oil. Worse, environmental activists say the pipeline's environmental and human health impact in the event of a leak could be disastrous. "The threat to the Ogallala Aquifer [one of the world's largest underground sources of fresh water] on its own is potentially enough [of a concern]," Rebane said.
"We want to take safe, well-planned, nonviolent civil disobedience," Rebane said. "We're very focused on that." She added that the skills covered in training are applicable to other contexts as well. "Certainly in other parts of the tar sands and climate struggles, my hope is that people take what they're learning and take it further. There's been discussion of this already. But if people want to take [this training] further and apply it to other struggles that they care about, then absolutely."
Parkin said the training has allowed the Pledge of Resistance movement to build its network, strengthening resources for future climate change battles. "We've been encouraging action leaders to reach out to activist organizations, churches, and other groups," he says. "Keystone is a critical battle in the struggle of climate change, but there will be more."
To learn more about the safety concerns surrounding the pipeline, brought to light by TransCanada whistleblower Evan Vokes, read Julie Dermansky's piece in the October issue of The Progressive.
Photo: Flickr user tarsandsaction, creative commons licensed.