Patricia Warwick, in red, being handcuffed. Images credit Tar Sands Action
Canadian activist Patricia Warwick fights climate change at Climate Action Now and went to Washington for the Keystone XL protest. She tells TreeHugger about her experience in this TreeHugger exclusive.
Back in June, when I heard about the protest being planned for Washington D.C. to convince President Obama not to approve the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, I jumped at the chance to take a stand.
For the last two years I've been concerned about this proposed pipeline that would transport bitumen from the tar sands (or should I say bad lands?) in northern Alberta to Texas.
James Hansen, NASA's chief climatologist has stated that if this pipeline gets built, it's game over for the climate. Not only does extracting bitumen from the tar sands consume - and pollute - huge volumes of water from the Athabasca river, it also
uses huge volumes of natural gas in the process.
As well, tar sands crude is much more toxic than regular crude. And First Nations peoples downstream from the tar sands use the river as a source of drinking water and for hunting and fishing.
To compound these evils, the pipeline would pass over several major rivers and the Ogallala aquifer - a major source of potable water in the Midwestern US. It has been predicted that up to 91 spills might be expected over the next 50 years.
Knowing all this, I felt I had to do what I could to stop the proposed pipeline.
The Protest Begins
The protest started on August 20 and would continue for 15 days ending on September 3. Each day a different group of volunteers would sit-in on the sidewalk in front of the White House gates.
I was told to expect to be arrested. I've never been arrested before, although I have participated in marches and rallies. I am a Canadian so I was concerned that US immigration might deny me entry in the future if I was arrested in the US. But I was prepared to take that risk in order to increase public awareness of the dangers of this pipeline, and in particular, the Canadian government's unconscionable support of the tar sands.
Organizers advised me and my fellow protesters that after we were arrested we could "post and forfeit" $100 and then, probably, be released in a few hours. No one was sure if this would apply to Canadians.
It was possible that Canadians might have to go to court - which does not operate on weekends. Therefore, if I got arrested on Sunday, I might have to spend at least one night in jail.
The organizers started to get worried that the police were playing hardball after they arrested and then detained the majority of the first wave of protesters (including organizer, Bill McKibben) on Saturday, August 20 until the courts opened on Monday.
￼I arrived on Saturday and attended a training session that evening. The training session raised a number of concerns. No one was really sure what effect an arrest would have on a Canadian. They really scared me when they told me that if I needed to take medicine while in custody the police might take me to a hospital ER to have the medicine administered at about $1300 a pop! I have a medical condition that requires me to take a pill morning and evening so that would have been very costly.
On Sunday morning, we met in a park opposite the White House at 10 am. The organizers assessed the situation. Were there more barriers etc? Would they need to adapt the strategy that we had been trained for? Nothing had changed so things would proceed as planned.
After a pep talk we formed two lines and marched solemnly across Pennsylvania Avenue to the fence in front of the White House where we formed a single line. The rest of the group sat in front. I chose to stand in the back and hold a banner.
We stood solemnly in formation while the swat team took photos and police moved barriers into place around us. A Park Police lieutenant took a megaphone and read from a script the first of three warnings. We were not permitted to stand within a certain area of the sidewalk and if we did we would be arrested. After the third warning they started to arrest the women one at a time.
When it was my turn I stepped forward and put my hands behind my back to let the office put the plastic (ziploc) handcuffs on. They took me to a tent where a female office removed my passport from my money belt and gave it to me to carry in my handcuffed hands. They took my mug shot and transferred me to a paddy wagon. I had to sit in a cage in the heat with sweat dripping until the van was full.
They drove us in a motorcade, with sirens wailing, to Anacostia station.
At Anacostia they removed my handcuffs and frisked me. They took my my money belt but allowed me to keep the cash I had been advised to bring with me. I went into another cage where more officers filled out forms in triplicate. I handed over $100 and much to my surprise was released several minutes later.
The whole process was so quick compared to what happened on Saturday that the organizers were not there to greet us and help us to get back to the city. I walked along a bike path in Anacostia park for about twenty minutes to the nearest subway station.
When I took my metropass out of the money belt it was too soggy - from my sweat - that I could not use it in the automated turnstile and several of the ticket dispensers rejected my soggy $5 bill. Fortunately one was able to read and I got a ticket. I was then able to take the metro to my hotel and collapse on the bed.
On the next day, along with other volunteers, I witnessed the arrests of the next group of protesters and then walked to the DC Courthouse to welcome the Saturday volunteers when they were released that afternoon.
These courageous volunteers were treated badly when they were detained. The men had to sleep on metal benches in suffocating heat. The women were forced to sleep on a concrete floor in frigid conditions and without blankets or pillows.
One woman told me that she and others used the plastic wrap that their cheese and baloney sandwiches came in to cover their arms and other exposed body parts in order to keep a bit warmer.
Over 1500 people have volunteered to risk arrest and at the time of writing, 220 have been arrested. I pray that President Obama is listening and is prepared to live up to his campaign promises to protect the climate.
More on the Keystone XL protest
Bill McKibben Talks Tar Sands Pipeline on Olbermann, Democracy Now! (Videos)
Tars Sands Pipeline Protest Rocks White House (PHOTOS)
Bill McKibben Versus The Terrifying Tar Sands (Podcast)